David delves deep into dark Scottish history

Actor and comedian David Mitchell has always had a passion for the past. He studied history at Peterhouse, Cambridge and one of his earliest projects after graduating was a show about the First World War. This makes him a relatively well-placed subject for hit genealogy series, Who Do You Think You Are?, on which he appears tonight at 9pm on BBC One.

David already knew he had paternal Scottish ancestry, and that the Mitchells were wealthy sheep farmers. Part of his quest on tonight’s show is to discover whether they were involved in the notorious Highland Clearances: one of the darkest chapters in Scottish history.

During the Clearances, which took place in the nineteenth and late-eighteenth century, wealthy land owners cast tens of thousands of men, women and children from their homes, so they could use the land for more profitable large-scale sheep farming. Tenants who refused to leave saw their houses burnt to the ground and were removed by force, at the point of a musket or sword. They were pushed out towards the coast, where they lived in barren plots of land (or crofts), and were expected to sustain their communities by fishing. The result was widespread destitution and starvation, and ultimately the destruction of the Highland people and their culture.

Some of those affected sought a better life across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean. Details of their hopeful journeys towards strange new lands can be found in the earlier part of the official Passenger Lists. These late nineteenth-century migrants were the forebears of countless native citizens living in those countries today.

The Clearances, which occurred in several waves, are among the most contentious issues in Scottish history, and still divide opinion today. We’re eager to discover whether David Mitchell’s ancestors played a part, and we’ll be tuning in tonight to find out.

David’s Scottish ancestors

With the help of our sister-site ScotlandsPeople, we decided to do some pre-emptive research, and track down the Mitchells on the censuses.

David’s family owned the same farm, Ribigill in Tongue, Sutherland, for three generations. We found them living there on every available census (apart from in 1871, when they were living elsewhere). In 1901 the head of the household was William Mitchell, a widower living with four grown-up children and two servants:

If, like David, you have Scottish forebears, why not search for them online today?

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