When is it excusable to dispossess and forcibly change the social structure, economy, language and culture of a people? Apparently when the victims are Gaels, but not when they are Africans, Native Americans, or virtually any other group, accordingly to mainstream historians. When it happens to other people it is “injustice,” “oppression,” or “genocide,” but when it happens to Gaels it is merely the inevitable calculus of economics – or so some historians would have us believe. How did Gaels interprets their experience at the time?
I recently acquired a copy of the newly released book Bearing the People Away: The Portable Highland Clearances Companion by June Skinner Sawyers (Cape Breton University Press, 2013), which raises these and other questions. It is an excellent compendium of all sorts of information about the Clearances when they happened, as well as about how they have been interpreted and memorialized in the generations since that time.
One of the major reasons why the Clearances evoke such divisive and explosive debates in Scotland is that the inequities and onflicts that allowed these brutal acts to happen – conflicts of cultural authority, of political power, and of legal recognition of land rights – have yet to be resolved. (If you have any doubt about that, read the on-going work by Andy Wightman and Alastair McIntosh, for example.) As Sawyers’ fine volume demonstrates, the Clearances have remained powerful symbols of injustice in the Gaelic psyche and have been continually evoked in songs, stories, articles and books.
Understanding the Clearances as the cultural tragedy it was for the Gaels requires acknowledging the following facts about these events (given in more detail in Newton 2009):
- The context of cultural conquest. The Clearances were one of a series of oppressive measures imposed on the Gaels in the larger context of cultural conquest. The anglophone world (including the Lowlands) already harboured fantasies of exterminating the Gaels by the time of Culloden, and this sense of threat and alienation did not abate easily. The anglophone world felt it their right and perogative to impose its values, culture and policies on the Gaels “for their own good,” and these impositions have contributed significantly to deculturation.
- Racism. Gaels were seen as being a distinct and inferior race to that of the Anglo-Saxon (and Lowlanders very consciously sided themselves with the English on racial equations). Social or agricultural problems were commonly attributed by anglophones to Gaels’ supposed racial inferiority.
- 4th-world nationhood. Gaels had no political self-determination that allowed them to mitigate hostile external forces or address issues internally. Whenever a people is governed by another group who are antithetical to their identity, culture and language, the results are likely to be inimical to their survival. The subject state of Gaels within the British polity – which actively demanded conformity to English norms – left them vulnerable to the factors listed previously, and Highland areas still suffer from the democratic deficit.
In some modern histories, difficulties with climate, agriculture, and social structures are pointed to as causing underlying insecurity or instability in Highland life, making large-scale changes inevitable, especially when populations grew in response to improved medicine. However, there are many societies that experience these difficulties but that does not mean that they are begging for foreign peoples to take them over and impose “improvements” on them “for their own good” (which was exactly the rationale of colonization in the Age of Empires).
Do chronic problems with famine in Somalia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Iceland mean that these societies need to be taken over by “more developed” countries and have their languages and cultures “fixed”? Or should they have the right and opportunity to address their own problems on their own terms according to their own agendas? The colonial overtones of many conventional interpretations of the Highland Clearances ought to be obvious.
Despite having examined many Gaelic texts remarking on this period, I have yet to find a single text that complains about inherent difficulties with Highland climate, agriculture, or social structures that made life untenable, or a single person who said, “Thanks! We really needed your help to solve our problems. We’re glad to be rid of our inferior language, culture and land.”
A crucial article of which few people seem aware (it was pointed out to me by my friend Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart) explains clearly the instrumental role of legal corporations in the Lowlands to impose change on Highland society, profit from it, and rationalize those changes with the language of modernity:
One of the themes which emerges from studies of the history of accounting and indigenous peoples is the conflict which results when accounting, with its association with capitalist values and the primacy of economic imperatives, is imposed on traditional cultures. Edinburgh accountants ventured to the Highlands and Islands imbued with a set of economic, social and moral values which clashed with those of the local population. In common with 19th century projects for the oppression of indigenous peoples it is likely that accountants were insulated from feelings of remorse by adhering to prevailing assumptions about the inferiority of Highlanders and Gaelic civilisation, and the superiority of their own ideologies. This was most clearly revealed in those instances where detailed evidence is available about accountants’ decision-making. […]
Accountants were therefore, not simply applying their craft in a neutral, value free manner. While their decision-making was founded on the cold logic of maximising estate revenue and rendering property more saleable, it was also conditioned by prevailing ideologies about the progress of the capitalist economy, ‘improvement’ and social morality. In exercising their professional judgement in ways which dispos- sessed the impoverished crofters and cottars of the Highlands and Islands, senior Edinburgh accountants advanced the commercialisation of the landed estate and entrenched landlordism. Accountants were effectively agents in the acculturation of Scottish Gaels. Their activities were in accord with the contemporary “Establishment” who “treated the Highlands like colonies to be exploited”. Edinburgh accountants extracted their reward for the performance of this role in the accumulation of economic and social capital which underpinned their claims to professional status. Their role as trustees cemented an association with the landed-legal milieu at a time when professional organisation was being contemplated. (Walker 2003: 844, 846)
Here we have a very insightful study that clearly links the dark, repressive side of modernity (as asserted by Western European empires) with the “development” of the Highlands, and which unmasks the colonial assumptions embedded in many accounts about Highland society.
If it is no longer acceptable to rationalize the dispossession and displacement of other native peoples on account of their supposed inferiority (“The natives of X can’t exploit the land properly and it is our Manifest Destiny as the superior race to supplant them”), why is this same underlying conceit so seldom questioned about the Gaels? What effect has the hegemonic conditioning of British education had on delaying questions of this sort?
I plan on writing another two or three blog entries to show some of the texts produced by Gaels before 1800 that demonstrates that they understood the Clearances to be the acts of cultural invasion and suppression that they were.
Michael Newton. Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.
Stephen Walker. “Agents of Dispossession and Acculturation. Edinburgh Accountants and the Highland Clearances.” Critical Perspectives on Accounting 14 (2003): 813–853.