The Highland Clearances in the Long View of History

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Published by Michael Newton

Michael Newton was awarded a B.A. in Computer Science from the University of California (San Diego) in 1990 and a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh in 1998. He is a leading authority on the literature and cultural legacy of Scottish Highland immigrant communities in America. He has written several books and numerous articles on many aspects of Highland tradition and history, and has given lectures at venues such as the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, Slighe nan Gaidheal in Seattle, and the Toronto Scottish Gaelic Learners' Association. He has also been creating digital content since the early 1980s in the form of computer games (having been on the FTL Games team that produced Dungeon Master in 1987), hypermedia (creating the Celtic History Museum in HyperCard in 1991), and on-line digital collaboratories (creating Finding the Celtic in 2008).

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  1. Excellent .Thank you for writing it . Kanasatake Mohawk , University of Victoria proff Taaiaiake Alfred points out that there is lots of money for First Nations people, who he calls ” Fort Indians” ( Patrick Brazeau comes to mind ) , but if you want to be a “traditional Indian” , you will have to fight everyday of your life . Another point Alfred makes is that in has only been since WWII that white intrusion has restricted First Nation’s ability to live as the chose, off the land , in many parts of Canada . There is a tendency among even sympathetic “settlers” to assume that colonization is long in the past ,as opposed to the daily experience of First Nations peoples .

  2. Thank you so much for this de/re-construction of Gaelic peoples within a more global context. Though I must admit to a bit of unease about the lauding of “civilization” as a marker of distinction. I personally support small-scale communities working in concert with each other rather than trying to snuff each other out in a battle for supremacy.

    1. Just a personal anecdote. I was studying social sciences at a large Canadian university in 2007-2010. I vividly recall being in a tutorial of other social science majors and being asked to introduce myself to the group in the
      “name one interesting thing about yourself” vein of responses. I told the group that I was studying Scottish Gaelic in my spare time. This admission prompted one of my fellow students to chuckle. You’ve highlighted beautifully here why it was possible for him to do so.

  3. Excellent article with a lot of provocative thinking. Good to see traditional narratives of colonialism being challenged. As always, whether in Ireland or Scotland, the individual stories were far more complex than simply one of native versus settler. In the case of my own family, the Ó Sionnaigh, in the late 1600s and early 1700s one branch of my people made their peace with the British and profited from it by becoming members of the Ascendancy and the “Irish” component of the Anglo-Irish overclass. In the 1800s under the name of “Fox” they formed the backbone of British rule in counties Offaly and Westmeath, serving as justices of the peace, sheriffs, etc. On the other hand those branches of the Ó Sionnaigh who rejected British rule in all its forms (the English language, Protestant religion, etc.) were reduced to serfdom, eventually scattering to the four winds.

    The divisive nature of colonialism needs to be seen in all its corrosive aspects.

  4. Reblogged this on An Sionnach Fionn and commented:
    The Virtual Gael has an excellent article examining the complex nature of colonialism, specifically as it effected the Scots though it has a far wider application. To recognise the divisive and corrosive nature of colonialism is to understand why its poisonous legacy is so long-lasting in any nation or amongst any people. It is also the first step in retaking what was lost, both for an individual and a culture.

  5. Tha mi air a bhi a’ leughadh an leabhar agaibh ‘Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World.’ ‘S toil leam glan e. Tha e còrdadh rium leughadh mu dhèidhinn na Gàidheil mar an “civilization” aca fhèin, ‘s chan e dìreach mar chultar iomallach a’ crìonadh. A thaobh an alt seo, chòrd e rium cuideachd, acg tha mi ag aontachadh leibh gum biodh e math an seòrsa eachdraidh seo fhaicinn ann an leabhar fhada le tuilleadh eisimplearan is buin. Tha mi faireachdainn gu bheil rannsachadh post-colonial agus cinnidheil(?) glè mhath (is gu math feumail) son deileagadh le eachdraidh ‘s le litreachas nan Gàidheal, ach mar a thuirt mi roimhe, cha toil leam nuair ‘ios daoine a’ cleachdadh an cànan sin son puingean poiliteach no retoraigeach a dhèanamh, o chionn ‘s gu bheil cur sìos air na tha cultaran eile a’ fulang ris san linn seo.

    1. Tapadh leat, a laochain!

      Tha mi air tuilleadh a sgriobhadh mu na cuspairean seo ann an da leabhar eile: “We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States” (2001) agus “Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders” (2009). Ach chi thu moran a bharrachd anns na h-aistidhean a sgriobh mi, cuid mhath dhiubh a tha ri’m faicinn air

  6. Excellent observations, much appreciated, and of course this applies to the Welsh experience–both in Wales and the diaspora. Welsh-speakers’ attitudes to their own language in their native country paved the way for their rapid assimilation into “Anglo-Saxon” America. The Welsh also adopted colonialist attitudes to Native Americans, and I sense that even their progressive sympathy towards African Americans–driven by religious abolitionism–began to ebb as they embraced a fully Anglo-American identity. One figure who comes to mind is William Arthur Jones, born in Wales and raised in a Welsh-speaking home in Wisconsin–his mother refused to speak English. Jones served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs 1897-1905, and dedicated his tenure to rooting out corruption in the Indian agencies. Of course, it is hardly surprising that as a “Christian reformer” he also advocated policies to “Americanize” the Native Americans, cutting reservation rations to encourage their “independence” and even going so far as to order that their hair be cut short and they cease using traditional personal names. He is quoted as saying:

    “At one extreme there is a cold brutality which recognizes the dead Indian as the only good Indian, and at the other a sickly sentimentalism that crowns the Indian with a halo and looks up to him as a persecuted saint,” Jones told reporters. “Between the two,” Jones continued, “will be found the true friend of the Indian, who, looking upon him as he really is and recognizing his inevitable absorption by a stronger race, are endeavoring to fit him under new conditions for the struggle of life. With these I desire to be numbered.”

  7. A fine post that I just got around to reading. I have a few questions or qualms or expansions, and those will take up the bulk of this comment, but I want to not sound overly critical and be sure that I express my appreciation for this as fully as I can.

    I don’t mean to continue overmuch in the discussion we had of Burns and Gaeldom on Facebook, but to pivot off of that momentarily, I do have to honestly ask out of my own ignorance to what extent there existed, pre-17th century, a notion of Gaelic “nationalism,” for lack of a better term. By that I mean, did the Gaelic identity in and of itself hold any particular cultural cachet among Gaelic speakers vis a vis the English and Scots speaking worlds, or did that identity slowly emerge in opposition to the educational, religious, and land tenure infiltrations of Gaelic society? Based on my understanding, I would assume that identities ran far more along liege-lord lines, with the various clans, villages, burgs, and townships associated under the Lord of the Isles having only limited identity with, say, those of Easter Ross, and that the notion of Gaeldom as an ethnic identity didn’t emerge except in opposition to its removal (in keeping with other similar emergent movements, such as pan-Indian movements in North America). However, I’m only guessing here, and am very curious what your research has turned up on the matter.

    This comes to mind particularly because, as you already note, the anglicization was initially largely driven by a nobility created out of the families of clan chiefs which was then by law forced to attend English-based schools in the south. In addition to the ethnolinguistic effect this clearly had, it also had the political economy effect of alienating the new nobility, which had historically been more akin to first-among-equals in the clan system, and placing them in a position of the traditional feudal lords, in all senses of the term. Because it’s much more of my gig, I have to insist, since we’re talking about the Clearances, that there’s more going on here than anti-Gaelic animus. I think it’s largely undisputed that the Highland Clearances reached a level of extent, severity, and at times brutality that had been previously unheard of in the UK, but we do see at least the same themes of land appropriation by the nobility in northern England and in the lowlands before the Jacobite rebellions. (One of the realizations I’ve come to in my reading in the last couple of years is how crude was my prior understanding of the Clearances as a direct result of the “’45”.) To my geography-centric eye, Gaelic culture is a complicating and accelerating factor in the story (largely, for me, learned from Andy Wightman) of inexorable appropriation of control of land in Scotland, not the primary driver of it. But again, I’m focused on control of land in my readings, so I would think that…

    On a third point, you mention that the imposition of English via the education system in Scotland never received the denunciation Pearse gave it in Ireland. Again, my reading is far more limited than yours, but how would you respond to the conjecture that the education system in Scotland was at its heart more endemic than that in Ireland, owing to the predominance of the Presbyterian system and the emphasis on universal literacy? The standard answer is of course the far greater centrality of scripture in Presbyterian/Westminster Covenant Christiandom than in either Anglican/Canturbury Christiandom or in Roman Catholicism. I won’t deny for a minute that there were imperial anglicizing forces actively encouraging this (there is no scalpel sharp enough to carve this cleanly into theological, imperial, cultural, political, and economic sections), but at the very least, when Jenny Geddes threw her stool in St. Giles, it wasn’t only about language.

    Finally, I particularly appreciate your points on modernity, and wonder if you’ve read Bruno Letour’s critiques of modernism (particularly “We Have Never Been Modern”). They seem to be infecting all of my thinking on all sorts of matters these days.


    1. Michael, most of these questions are well covered in my book Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. I suggest that you consult that if you want to understand these issues more fully, as I cannot repeat the work here.

      In terms of identity, as I discuss an early Gaelic origin myth (the 7th-century core of Auraicept na n-Éces) names language rather than blood lineage as the the basis of Gaelic identity, and this is a recurring theme in Gaelic literature and history. That the Gaels had and used a stable origin myth and ethnonym for themselves over many centuries shows that there was a stable core of general identity that transcended “liege-lord lines” as you say. For example, during MacDonald-Campbell tension for supremacy in the Highlands (c.15-16th centuries), their poet-propagandists sought for them the honorific title “Ceannas na nGaoidheal” (the headship of the Gaels), demonstrating a clear sense of a Gaelic community for whom they strived as leaders.

      As far as the issue of “inexorable appropriation of control of land in Scotland” being distinct from ethnic conflict, they were part of the same ideology of domination and exploitation, as they are/were in other colonial settings. Was the “discovery” of race incidental and distinct from the imperial assertion of control over colonial subjects? Of course not! An important distinction of the appropriation of control of land in other parts of England and Scotland (as I have already discussed in another blog) is that the Gaels were asserted to be an inherently inferior race and hence less deserving of owning/possessing it. And, as I discuss in the book, this ideology of Gaelic ethnic inferiority has roots in the 12th century and was continuously developed.

      Finally, you mention the idea of “the predominance of the Presbyterian system and the emphasis on universal literacy.” Yes, given that literacy in the vernacular was a central tenet of Protestantism, why then were Gaels forced to learn ENGLISH literacy rather than Gaelic? This is another clear case of religious institutions being used as a wedge of cultural colonialism. For full disclosure, the Scottish Society of the Propagation for Christian Knowledge did for a time abandon their English-only policy, because children in the Highlands were making no progress (since they only heard English in schools), and allowed literacy in Gaelic as an intermediary step to fully acquiring English. However, support for Gaelic was fairly weak and abandoned when possible, given that Gaelic was a less than desirable goal for those with power. Kill the Gael, save the man.

  8. Tapadh leibh airson an t-artaigil seo! (I hope that’s right; I’m very much a beginner still with Gaelic.) I found this blog (including this article) a few months back and found it terribly interesting and informative, but just lurked around as opposed to commenting. However, I’ve been compelled to say something after picking up “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” and seeing what he had to say about the Gaels.

    I suppose I remembered this blogpost subconsciously, because something kept ringing a little warning bell in my mind every time I looked at that book, but I didn’t fully remember or else I would have sent it instantly back to the library where it came from (my brother checked it out). So I did open it and I did give it a quick look and hoo boy. I went almost blind with rage. It’s been a very long time since anything made me that angry – spent two whole hours ranting about it to my very long-suffering mother. I mean, I found the entire narrative of “modernity” and “progress” as the great civilizing forces that brought peace and prosperity to the globe nauseating in the extreme, but the way he spoke about the Gaels made me particularly furious. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s simply that I’ve grown deeply interested in Scottish culture and history in general and the Gaels in particular – but every word almost felt personally offensive to me.

    And what hurt the most was the language surrounding the Clearances. How he could write one moment of an old woman nearly burned alive in her own house, so terrified once she was pulled out that she could only say, “Ò Dhia, Dhia, teine, teine!” and then two paragraphs later state that it was “progress”, that “no one could have stopped it”, that it was a “necessity”. And with everything he’d said about the Gaels before that, about how they were apparently two inches from starvation at all times, and ridiculously proud, and brutal, and backwards, and lawless…well, quite honestly, his remarks on the atrocities of the Clearances feel as if he was saying, “Yes, well, it was all very sad, but in the end the country and the Gaels themselves were really much better off for it”.

    And after being sick with rage over that for half a day, I found myself in dire need of someone who was A: talking sense, B: knew what he was talking about, and C: had some actual respect for the Gaelic culture and some actual compassion for the Gaels as human beings. Who, in short, saw the Clearances as atrocities, as unnecessary, as damaging to the Gaels and to Scotland as a whole.

    So I came back to this blog, and to the articles about the Clearances, and when I saw you say you utterly abhorred that book and downcry it as a feeble and flimsy piece of scholarship it was like balm to my soul. Thank you for giving me the antidote to that bile I so desperately needed, but far more importantly, taing mhòr for doing some actual justice to the Gaels. Math sibh fhèin!

    1. Thank you! I did write a review at the time that it appeared, though if I had the time, I would write something much more systematically damning now with my newer set of skills:

      It always astonishes me to find so many people of Scottish Highland descent who say that they are proud of their ancestry and ancestral culture who love that book. It shows how thoroughly assimilated they have become as honorary Anglo-Saxons, and how little they actually understand and respect their ancestral tradition and the injustices suffered by other colonised peoples in the course of imperial ‘progress’!

      Suas leis a’ Ghàidhlig, sìos le luchd-fòirneirt!

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