Sir Tom Devine’s new book The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed argues that one of Scotland’s most potent historical motifs, the Highland Clearances, requires revision.

Devine is one of Scotland’s best historians of recent times. He’s most famous for The Scottish Nation published in 1998, an enormously detailed history of modern Scotland, written in limpid prose. And in 2017 he wrote a terse monograph on the Union and its future: “Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present”.

With a fine eye for detail, and with meticulously researched discussion of population movements and changes in agricultural technique, Devine argues that the Highland Clearances (a gloss term for the cumulative impact of mass emigration and radical change in land ownership north of the Highland line between 1750 and 1850) were in fact far more banal than previously thought, and that the same societal changes also affected the rural Lowlands (a gaping lacuna in the historical record).

In medieval times, the Highland clan system, with its charismatic feudal chiefs, was rooted in small-scale subsistence farming under the Runrig system, based on cattle trade with Ireland. Under a kith and kin obligation, military service was rewarded with equitable distribution of plots among tenants. But after the Irish famine of 1740-41, demand for cattle fell, and clans developed a common market with England based on premium commodities like sheep and kelp. They needed a more mobile labour force, and so resettled tenant farmers in ‘crofting’ townships by the sea.

Crofters dissatisfied with this new system mostly emigrated of their own accord. Devine notes wryly that Scotland has a long history of emigration: a Gdańsk suburb, Starý Skotský, dates from 1380, and 50,000 Scots settled in medieval Europe.

Latterly, the occasionally violent clearances met with resistance. The Battle of the Braes on Skye in 1882 pitted 50 Glaswegian policemen against crofters armed with stones. The Duke of Sutherland’s factor called Highlanders “brutes …shut out from any general stream of knowledge.”

This “morality tale” phase of the Clearances provided potent political inspiration. To Marx and Engels, “reckless” capitalist “terrorists” had destroyed the “liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient glens”. John McGrath’s radical drama The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black Black Oil (1973) compares Highlanders’ treatment to the exploitation of Native Americans. And John Prebble’s emotive (and somewhat misleading) The Highland Clearances (1963) is still the highest-selling Scottish history book – to which Devine’s new work provides a more measured scholarly counterweight.

But the crofters’ Lowland counterparts, the Cottars, and the equivalent of crofting townships (fermetouns) simply vanished from history. They survive only in Burns (“the toil-worn Cottar frae his labour goes”) and a few census returns. The increasingly porous English border made sheep-farming more profitable for landlords. Traditional Cottar skills like weaving were easily (and silently) absorbed into burgeoning towns like Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Hawick.

There was resistance too: in 1724 in Galloway, where radical Covenanting traditions had endured, Cottars mounted a year-long guerrilla war, breaking down the new sheep-dykes, but this remains little known outside historical circles.

So why do the Lowland Clearances have no equivalent status in the popular imagination? Devine notes that diaspora Scottishness remains overwhelmingly a Highland culture. Highland life sells: look at Braveheart, Rob Roy, Outlander, and the recent Outlaw King on Robert the Bruce. America has 70 Highland Games, 2,000 pipe bands and 160 clan societies, reflecting growing interest in Highland genealogy. For the average citizen of Scotsville USA, it’s less fun to find out your great-grandfather was a baker from Motherwell, rather than a Highland clansman.

It is to Devine’s great credit that he has gone some way to softening the mythology of the Clearances and restoring a forgotten people to the historical record, but where Devine fears to tread is telling.

I wonder whether a nationalist historian who voted Yes in 2014 might still feel reticent in exploring fully why the Lowland Cottars have received so little attention, for the mythology of the Highland Clearances is a near perfect fit for the constellation of bitter grievances that make up modern Scottish nationalism. For nationalists a compelling story of honest clansmen being deprived of their hard-won land by vicious Anglophile aristos chimes so well with the prevailing pro-independence sentiment, its anti-English posturing and its touristic tat and cod romanticising of Scotland’s medieval past.