Highland Clearances – 2

I have already stressed that much modern historical writing about the Clearances – the era when Gaels were forcibly dispossessed, relocated, and assimilated into the socio-economic norms of the anglophone world – is marred by the fact that so few who do this scholarship can read the many Gaelic sources that offer an insight into how Gaels perceived and reacted to the things that they experienced. Documents in English tend to reflect and reinforce the negative stereotypes and prejudices about the Gaels, and this can invisibly distort evidence and perceptions in favour of the anglophone establishment and against the Gaels.

Still, there are some interesting sources in English written by Gaels that have rarely if ever been used to examine these events. One of the more interesting of these is an extensive poem (roughly 150 pages long) entitled The Grampians Desolate by Alexander Campbell, published in 1804 (which can be read online at this link). This provides some important commentary on what was happening in the Highlands in the 18th century.

Campbell is a very interesting figure. He was a native Gaelic speaker born in 1764 on Loch Lùbnaig, the southern most edge of the Highlands when it was still predominantly Gaelic-speaking. He spent several years collecting Gaelic songs and melodies throughout the Highlands and Western Isles, published some of these songs in books (such as Albyn’s Anthology), and was an early collaborator with Walter Scott.

Moved by the unjust treatment of the Gael, Campbell was moved to publicize their plight to an anglophone audience. His book The Grampians Desolate was intended not just to raise awareness but to raise funds for displaced Highlanders who would be settled on reclaimed waste lands: “the foundation of a Fund for the aid of industrious Peasants, and Tradesmen.” (Note that Campbell uses the term “Grampians” in this work to denote the Highlands as a whole, and not a specific region of it as in current usage.)

Campbell’s poem (as forced and laboured as it sometimes is) and extensive endnotes are well worth reading, although his speculations on antiquarian matters are not always correct in terms of modern scholarship. Regardless, many of his comments on recent and contemporary matters are very incisive. However, this blog entry will deal with dispossession of the Gaels physically and geographically.

Economic production, social structure, cultural production, and human ecology were all tightly interwoven in the (so-called) “Highland clan system,” so it is very interesting to see how Campbell’s observations critique the impositions of the anglophone world on Gaeldom in a variety of ways. He notes the decline of Gaelic indigenous knowledge and cultural practices that accompanied these dramatic socio-economic rearrangements, as well as the impact upon the local flora and fauna. One of his first endnotes explains Highland class structure, traditional rights of landholding and sense of place:

The ancient usage, privilege, or right of the Gael, which, simply considered, amounts to neither more nor less than inheriting, as they were wont time immemorial, their Dùthchas, or hereditary possessions in the order already specified, according to their proximity to the Chief, of whom the chieftains, heads of families, or principal tacksmen, sub-tenants, viz. small farmers, crofters and cottars, held their lands and places of abode. … This then was the order of the subdivision of land, according to ancient usage, privilege, or right, of the several classes of the inhabitants of the Hebrides and Grampian mountains, till within these forty or five-and-forty years; when those rights were disregarded; and the dùthchas of the tacksman which had descended from father to son for many generations, as a species of patrimony, sacred as the heritage of the proprieter himself, was completely abolished. (168-9)

Campbell acknowledges that many Gaels have “chosen” to emigrate to North America and improved their lot greatly there, but that the “push” factors (the problems that drove them away from home) were a very significant element in that so-called “choice”:

It is a matter of infinite regret, that those representations respecting the easy purchase of lands in North America, have seduced many, (particularly those who felt the evils of rack-rent from year to year press on them with accumulated hardships), to leave their native country, in order to become proprietors in a corner of the United States, where taxes are next to nothing … (175)

As a native of the region, Campbell was very familiar with the southern Highlands and its recent history. He provides a short history of the  impact of sheep-keeping in the Highlands, tracing the socio-economic experiment from the southern tip and moving northward.  In 1759, he explains, trials in keeping lowland sheep on the southern extention of the Highlands near Callander in Menteith were profitable enough that they were soon extended further into the Highlands.

Soon after these attempts to introduce the alien, or black-faced Linton breed of sheep into the highlands, several shepherds from the hilly districts of south or Scottish border, took large tracts of country for sheep-walks; and among the first who ventured within the confines of the Grampian hills was one Lackwyne, who went to Cowal in Argylshire. Not long after this adventure, other two of the name of Murray, who came somewhere from the Border, settled in Glenfallach and Glendochart in Perthshire; and a short time thereafter, one Lindsay stocked a considerable stretch of country near Locheirin-head, in the same country. From these beginnings, then, we date the sheep-store system, which within the last twenty years has spread so rapidly in every direction; and which at present threatens to extirpate not only the native breeds of sheep and black cattle, but even the ancient race of the Gael, the “bold peasantry” of our mountains and western isles. (210)

His local perspective on events in the 18th century are quite valuable and accord with Gaelic sources upon which I’ll be remarking in a later blog entry.

It’s also very interesting to me that he is critical (to a degree, at least) of the impact of colonization on native peoples as the empire was expanding: while exchange (commercial and cultural) between peoples was a positive outcome of exploration, he seems to disapprove of colonial domination. (Note in this quote that the term “adventurers” was used of explorers actively seeking to colonize and exploit lands that don’t belong to them.)

The discovery of India and America forms one of those epochs in the history of mankind, which give a turn to the intellectual, but more especially to the active feelings of the soul. Any one the least conversant in ancient and modern history is fully aware that the predominant passions of adventurers are, inordinate ambition and an ungovernable degree of avarice; which certainly debase the mind, and stifle the generous emotions that exalt human nature, and distinguish the individual. (208)

Campbell is connecting the deleterious changes in the Highlands to those elsewhere, especially in the verses to which this endnote are attached.

In the next blog entry I will  point out some Gaelic sources predating 1800 that make similar comments about the impact of so-called “improvement.”

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