The Highland Clearances in the Long View of History

Gaeldom was one of the great civilizations of Europe and encompassed Ireland and much of Scotland during the early medieval period. Although confined to the western isles and Highlands within Scotland by the later medieval period, this was a culture that enjoyed many cultural and intellectual accomplishments, having its own native professional classes (doctors, lawyers, literati, musicians, etc) and its own indigenous features.

By the late medieval period, Gaeldom was targeted by an expansionist anglocentric empire which, like all other empires, created myths about its own self-importance and legitimacy to rule over other people and claim their land and resources: it uniquely held the keys of progress and enlightenment; it would bring wealth, prosperity and liberation; it was endowed by God with superior traits and rights for a mission to reform the apostate, the heathen and ignorant; etc.

As Gaelic culture was systematically destroyed, an imperial military machine sucked its energy and a masquerade of tartan pagentry was erected in its place. The British Empire intentionally privileged the English language and culture as the fundamental core of its identity and social ideals; those who conformed to its demands were rewarded, those who didn’t were marginalized. Gaels who acquiesced to these forces could cling to symbols and sentiment – tartan, Highland Games, etc – at ritual times and places, but they were bereft of any serious cultural or political import. The main pillars of its elite culture were destroyed, but fragments of the Gaelic past were inherited and cherished by a few: those resilient enough to resist assimilation, and those who inhabited the geographical and social margins.

The Highland Clearances are the physical and geographical manifestation of the culmination of centuries of conflict and confrontation with the anglophone world, the scattering of the remnants of a defeated rival. Conquest was furthered through the indoctrination carried out by institutions of church and state which, to a large degree, sought anglo-conformity. Whether they remained within Britain or moved out to colonies (or former colonies) of the British Empire, they were circumscribed by the same anglocentric institutions. The more they acquiesced to imperial dogmas, the more that they propagated the same injustices to others.

In this blog entry (the fourth and final in a series about the Clearances), I’ve thrown together a number of rough notes about how the Clearances and subsequent history of Gaels within the British Empire connect to a number of important themes in global history: race, empire, colonization, social justice, etc. I’ve written on aspects of these issues previously, but they deserve a full treatment in a large volume by an historian with thorough knowledge of the Gaelic sources … unfortunately, that full treatment will not happen on my blog and scholars with an adequate training in these areas of expertise are virtually non-existent … but some elements of this blog post may emerge in a more polished narrative for the Struileag project.

Man’s Inhumanity to Man

Unsurprisingly, people prefer a very simple view of history, one in which the past mirrors the present and the lines between good and evil are simply drawn: on one side are the baddies, the sole agents of aggression, warfare, exploitation and imperial expansion, namely, the “white Europeans”; on the other side are the innocent natives, the sole victims of imperial aggression, the only losers to European expansion, uniquely driven from their homelands and native cultures and languages.

By the early 20th century, this is, to a large degree, the picture we do in fact see, the result of centuries of concerted effort by several European empires to conquer and control territories and peoples. This simplified depiction of peoples and the asymmetries of power and justice cannot be projected back in time in such a straightforward way, however. There were many empires jostling for control over foreign territories in the early modern period, not all of them in western Europe, and wherever they attempted to expand, they required the collaboration (or at least acquiescence) of local native groups:

Local peoples proved to be the essential determinants of imperial success or failure. Far from being mere victims, these peoples found ways to profit from imperial maneuverings: they could find employment and profit as allies, or they might direct the interests and energies of imperial powers against their traditional enemies. Indeed, imperial “expansion” was very often illusory, and Europeans’ ability to project power actually depended entirely upon local cooperation. In turn, that cooperative process shaped and reshaped the warfare and diplomatic practices designed to define and establish sovereignty and control, whether local or European. (Lee 2011: 1)

This was the case until the early 19th century even in North America, when the sheer mass of European colonists and colonial activity tipped the balance of power. Before then, native peoples as often as not played a central role in the unfolding and exercise of power around them.

Although European empires never shaped the colonies in exactly the ways that they intended, their intrusion mattered a great deal. But mattering and dominating are not the same. Europeans dominated some places. In others, they had to operate on middle grounds. […] People on the ground had great cultural and political influence on the European experience in the Americas. Colonialism was seldom if ever imposed but built through interaction. In their homelands, some African and Native American peoples set the terms of trade and diplomacy with Europeans. Even slaves and truly subject Indians played a role in shaping the institutions of slavery and colonialism. When we recognize that colonizers often exaggerated their mastery over their “colonies,” it becomes clear that core regions were not safe and separate either. Native peoples had a steady and powerful influence over most parts of the Americas until at least the nineteenth century. (DuVal 2006: 246, 247)

Similar processes are easily seen in imperial expansion elsewhere, such as in India and China, where local élites were drawn in by the rewards of acting as intermediaries for European colonization and formed hybrid cultures which were locally rooted but assimilated many aspects of the culture of the dominant European power (see, for example, this project on “Chinese-Englishmen”).

This is not to deny the brutality and injustice that accompanied and resulted from European colonization and expansion in the Americas, or any other territories: it is merely to question common assumptions about who was in control, who was exploiting whom, and who was gaining what from whom, at different times and circumstances.

Numerous people have commented on the irony that Gaels dispossessed and dislocated from Scotland often ended up doing the same to other native peoples elsewhere (particularly in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand). This may seem ironic, until one considers the history of all other ethnic groups in colonial settings and imperial institutions.

If we are to condemn entire groups of people based on the actions of its members, I do not know of a single group of people who are innocent as a collective, including “people of color.” When offered an opportunity to “better themselves,” individuals generally choose to do so, regardless of the sacrifice or suffering it might cause to others. It is the exception for people to be motivated enough by ideological concerns or empathy (usually through belief in a higher power who will hold them accountable) not only to refuse the option, but to analyze the long-term consequences and critique injustices that others might experience.

Just because a person experiences oppression or prejudice on account of his/her ethnic, religious, racial, gender or sexual identity does not make him/her an ally for other oppressed people. Until the late 19th century, there was hardly a major battle between Europeans and First Nations that did not include Native American scouts or soldiers fighting against their traditional rivals (for a variety of reasons, as explained above). Some Native Americans owned African slaves, as did some people of African descent. Some freed slaves formed regiments (“Buffalo Soldiers”) that fought against Native Americans in the Indian Wars. Many Native Americans are very proud of their service in the United States military forces, forces whose actions in foreign lands some see as equally questionable as those imposed upon the native peoples in North America in earlier generations. Eastern Europeans and Jews who had experienced oppression at home fought hard to earn the dividends of whiteness after they migrated to North America and became part of another oppressive system. Racialized minorities in North America are often socially conservative and have not been effective allies in the campaign for LGBTQ rights. And so it goes…

I have argued elsewhere (Newton 2011) that some Highlanders saw their own experience of transformation from (supposed) savage to civilized as a model which others should follow, including First Nations (or “American Indians”). This conceit was not exclusive to people of European descent in North America, however. The Cherokee had assimilated many features of the European settler societies they encountered, and when they began to migrate west (in a process very similar to the Highland Clearances), this had serious and negative repercussions on the native nations in their new territory (such as the Quapaws and Osages), heightening rivalries and conflicts for territory and power. They even appealed to American officials to bolster their claim to new territories:

Cherokee chiefs adopted the rhetorical dichotomy of “savagery” and “civilization” and portrayed the Cherokee people as a civilized people in an uncivilized place, thereby laying claim to the Arkansas Valley as their native ground. They claimed that their farming techniques and social organization were similar to those of whites and thus justified a higher position for themselves in American society relative to other Indians. (DuVal 2006: 217)

This is what people do: they make use of whatever means is available to empower themselves. Given such realities of human nature, Gaels look pretty typical. But there were exceptions and counter-currents. I have often chosen to find and celebrate those stories in past publications to advance knowledge of those who did actually express and act on their empathy for the oppressed, critique the brutal killing machine that masqueraded as the pinnacle of human superiority, and resist its hegemonic hold. These are stories well worth remembering and understanding, even if they are only part of a bigger picture, particularly because they help to explain why the Gaelic language and culture still exist, despite centuries of neglect and persecution.

Given the blood on the hands of every ethnic group and the inability to predict how participation in processes of domination play out in the future (including undermining one’s own social group), I think it is much more productive to examine domination and exploitation as ideologies, institutions and processes that can be adopted and applied by any group, rather than being the unique creation and hallmark of any particular group or “race.”

Race is a social construct: the “white race” and “red race,” etc., are all inventions of the 18th century which only have as much reality as people invest in them. But clearly, there were those who could profit by investing in the conceit of the superiority of the “white race” and did so (and still do). But the alignment of physical features (such as skin color) with power and privilege are accidents of history, not manifestations of actual superiority or inherent ruthlessness.

Race, Privilege and Victimhood

The élite culture of Western European empires has celebrated its supremacy on the world stage as the triumph of rationality, reason, civilization, superior values and way of living. It defines “modernity” as the world and order it has created in the last few centuries, and alternative ways of thinking and living as being less than adequate. Yet that self-representation hides much of the savagry and brutality that accompanied the making of the “modern world” by these superpowers. The most eloquent synthesis of this school of thought that I’ve happened upon so far is the volume The Darker Side of Western Modernity by Walter Mignolo, who explains the hidden, dark underbelly of the alchemy of “Western Modernity”:

“Modernity” is a complex narrative whose point of origination was Europe; a narrative that builds Western civilization by celebrating its achievements while hiding at the same time its darker side, “coloniality.” Coloniality, in other words, is constitutive of modernity – there is no modernity without coloniality. […] Hidden behind the rhetoric of modernity, economic practices dispensed with human lives, and knowledge justified racism and the inferiority of human lives that were naturally considered dispensable. […] the emergence of a structure of control and management of authority, economy, subjectivity, gender and sexual norms and relations that were driven by Western (Atlantic) Europeans (Iberian Peninsula, Holland, France and England) both in their internal conflicts and in their exploitation of labor and expropriation of land. […] Western civilization emerged not just as another civilization in the planetary concert, but as the civilization destined to lead and save the world from the Devil, from barbarism and primitivism, from underdevelopment, from despotism, and to turn unhappiness to happiness for all and forever. (Mignolo 2011: 2-3, 6, 7, 28)

His thesis of the relationship between modernity and coloniality is beyond doubt, but the generalization (usually echoed in his text) of a uniform and hegemonic “West” or “Europe” is flawed from a Celtic perspective. Colonizing cultures are themselves typically colonized through ideologies of élite control, and his characterization of the development of modernity as defined by the modern imperial powers and imposed on colonial subjects (pages 17-19 of his volume) are exactly those that characterize the subjugation of Celtic societies from the 12th century onwards.

In fact, Mignolo’s framework provides a useful lens through which to read a highly popular book (which I utterly abhor), How the Scots Invented the Modern World, by Arthur Herman. This populist view of the Scottish “Enlightment” is a celebration of the triumph of Western modernity in exactly the terms outlined by Mignolo:

[Scottish mentality] is a self-consciously modern view, so deeply rooted in the assumptions and institutions that govern our lives today that we often miss its significance, not to mention its origin. From this point of view, a large part of the world turns out to be “Scottish” without realizing it. […] The story of how this small, underpopulated and culturally backward nation rose to become the driving wheel of modern progress is not only largely unknown, it may even be inspiring. […] The great insight of the Scottish Enlightenment was to insist that human beings need to free themselves from myths and see the world as it really is. (Herman 2001: vii, viii, 361)

Herman goes on to weave a narrative in which “modernity” (as defined by English-speaking Anglo-Americans) is invented when Scotland turns its back on its (supposedly) savage past and kindles the flame of Enlightenment and civilization. Who are the barbarous bogeymen lurking in the dark corners of the story, who must be held at bay and converted to refinement and sophistication in order for human development to progress? The wild and ferocious Highlanders, of course. Not only are there copious errors in his text relating to Gaeldom, but he takes at face value all sorts of prejudices and biases from Lowland and English sources from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If he were to write the same kind of text about the history of Native – European encounters in the same time period, he would be denounced as the feeble and flimsy scholar that he is, at least concerning Scotland. But since myth and fantasy prevail where Highlanders are concerned, practically anything can pass as “fact.”

The old Gaelic world was certainly destroyed, however, and subsequent generations experienced nothing less than a world turned upside down (a “cosmological revolution” to quote John MacInnes), not of their own making. In the wake of a self-reliant and self-determining Gaelic community, Britishness and whiteness gave Gaels new identities with which to identify and a new means of social and economic empowerment in the process – in fact, the only means available to them, given the hegemonic hold of the British State. And being complicit with its aims empowered them, as it did when they became “white” in North America. It is little wonder that so many acquiesced to these norms, and kept only symbols and sentiments from their Highland heritage, colorful tokens and ornamental rituals that were bereft of any political threat or cultural depth.

On the other hand, as in other colonial contexts, we can also see nativist responses to imperial invasion and colonization: resistance, assertions of ethnic solidarity, endorsements of cultural hybridity, critiques of the civilizing mission, writing back to colonial discourse, and reclaiming inferiorized elements of identity (Stroh 2012). There is a continuous line of protest of colonial abuse in Gaelic sources from the 17th century to the present, and empathy with other native peoples is present in Gaelic sources from the mid-18th century onwards. Gaels could see a reflection of their own experience of conquest and oppression in the experience of other native peoples – but this is not to say that all Gaels chose the path of empathy. There were certainly Gaels who turned a deaf ear or blind eye to the suffering of others – to deny their humanity – because they hoped to profit, and often did. But there were also Gaels who extended their sympathy and aid to the downtrodden, and their own experience of injustice informed those actions.

Imagine if some scientist in the early 19th century invented a pill that was easily obtained and allowed the person who consumed it to become fully white in a matter of months. Would anyone have chosen to remain dark-skinned, given that that meant being pinned to the bottom of social and economic ladder? Probably not. Given the oppressive and brutal conditions forced on people because of their skin color, they did their best to “pass” for white when they could and many choose sexual partners who would endow their children with lighter skin. While the rhetoric of race claimed the top rank for Anglo-Saxons, the migration of large numbers of other Europeans with similar physical characteristics made such exclusivity hard to maintain in the Americas, given that they aspired to the upper echelons as well and could manipulate racial ideologies to do so (Jacobson 1998; Newton 2013).

The construction of “whiteness” generalized (particularly in the late 19th century) the racial superiority once claimed as the exclusive privilege of the English to others who would assimilate to their social, cultural and linguistic norms. In other words, while having the proper physical features helped to qualify an individual or group as an honorary Anglo-Saxon, the “racial dividends” of whiteness could not be fully accessed without conforming to other aspects of Anglo-American culture, particularly the English language itself. In most of the United States (including where I was born and raised), “Anglo” is used as a synonym for “white,” which is a strong indication of the identity (or acquired identity) of the original advocates of the ideology of racialized privilege. So, while it must be acknowledged that race and racial identity was (and largely remains) the primary pillar of privilege in North American society, it is not the only requirement for “succeeding” within the requirements set by the dominant group. How secure would a Gael be politically, legally, economically and socially if s/he spoke only Gaelic and lived only by Gaelic cultural norms? Not very. Racialized minorities can enjoy a set of privileges by speaking English that others may not.

Some people of Highland descent were absolutely falling over themselves to emphasize the racial affinity (or even equivalence) between Celts (or at least Scottish Gaels) and Anglo-Saxons, and to emphasize their mutual difference from the subject races. The fact that they needed to emphasize this distance is telling in itself, for Gaels were by no means considered unquestionably to be in the same racial category as “Anglo-Saxons” until well into the 20th century. This was as true in other parts of the British Empire as it was in the United States.

The current attempts by Gaelic speakers in Scotland and Nova Scotia to assert their language in the face of anglo-conformity and xenophobia demonstrates that there are unresolved (or at least poorly theorized) issues of race, racism, privilege and prejudice left to be examined and processed by those engaged in language revitalization and popular discourse in general. On the one hand, it is clear that there is widespread fear of and even abhorrence of the speaking of languages other than English, and that those who dare to do so publicly risk being vilified and scapegoated.

At the time that I write this, George Galloway, the loose-cannon Member of British Parliament who describes himself (on his Twitter feed) as “pro-equality,” best known for his defense of former dictator Saddam Hussein, has been tweeting insults (14 January 2014) about the use and validity of Gaelic in Scotland: “What is this Alba? More people speak Urdu in Scotland than Gaelic! What obscurantism is this? Listen Scotland this is what you’re in for: Brigadoon!” Attacks on Gaelic come from very strange quarters, not least those on the far left who are incapable of seeing how they propagate the same colonial prejudices they profess to oppose.

On the other hand, there are those who dispute that anti-Gaelic prejudice and hate speech should be called a form of racism, or that Gaels could possibly suffer the same sort or degree of racism experienced by racialized minorities (see, for example, the blog entry and discussion at thefailedgael). It is true that Gaeldom itself has a long history of defining Gaelic identity in terms of language and culture rather than “blood” (Newton 2009: 52-9), and that as people who can pass as “white” and be assumed to be de facto members of British society, Gaels need not suffer the same exclusion as people of color. If they are willing to step out of their Gaelicness and assume an anglophone identity, Gaels have the ability to claim and exercise privilege. Regardless, Gaels have only acquired unquestionable whiteness fairly recently and the continued denigration of Gaelic speakers clearly draws from the same poisoned well as racism (McEwan-Fujita 2011).

Most societies can point to collective tragedies or traumas suffered at the hands of others in the past, and knowledge of these events can be used to justify perpetrating offenses to others, or to distract from drawing too close attention to such offenses. But each historical experience has to be evaluated on its own terms, in its own time. The exploitation of history for political purposes does not undo the damage experienced by those who were effected by the event or lessen the trauma and loss that they encountered. The Trail of Tears was horrific to those who suffered it despite the damage later done by the Cherokee to the Osages; race-based slavery in the United States was no less horrendous and inhumane for the participation of “Buffalo Soldiers” in the harrowing of Native American nations;  Mohawk soldiers fighting on behalf of the British Empire against the Mi’kmaw in the 18th century did not nullify the right of their descendants to decry their oppression in the 20th century; the Jewish Holocaust was no less real or monstrous for all of the injustice carried out by the state of Israel on the Palestinians; and the Clearances were heinous and criminal, despite whatever its victims may have done or enacted later, in other places. Indeed, it is a sad observation that the abused often carry the wounds of that abuse into their later life and re-enact them on themselves and others, and this is true of all communities.

One of the tragedies of the 1745 Jacobite Rising is that it expended the oppositional energy that might have been redirected to a larger revolutionary movement, such as in the United States and France in the late 18th century. One of the tragedies of the Highland Clearances is that it reinforced the power and privilege of the anglophone élite and denuded large swathes of the Highlands of its native Gaelic population, thus reinforcing their political and cultural impotence. Regardless of the privileges that may have accrued to individual Highlanders for their participation in imperial endeavours – and these could be significant – the Gaelic language was never given official status or an institutional means of development, Highland territories were never repopulated, and the Gaelic population was never enabled to have its culture and language treated as equal in its own land. In other words, Highland participation in empire only reinforced anglocentric hegemony and undermined native culture.

One of the most powerful essays on these issues is Iain Crichton Smith’s “Real People in a Real Place”. There are many passages that bear examination, but I will limit my excepts to this:

The problem of language is, one supposes, the most important one that faces the person who analyses his own experience in the islands, for it is in many ways central to an island experience. As I have already said, for the islander to lose his language utterly would be to lose, to a great extent, the meaning of his life, and to become a member of a sordid colony on the edge of an imperialist world. […] There is no question that a language holds a community together in its various manifestations, and that to have to learn a new language in order to be educated at all is a dangerous and potentially fatal attack on that community and those who form part of it. For the imperialist language is imperiously and contemptously degrading the native one. Because English is associated with so many of the important concerns of the real world, including education, and because English is the language spoken by “important” people such as doctors, many of them incomers, there rises a deep and subtle feeling that English must be superior to Gaelic, thus consigning the Gaelic speaker to the status of a peasant as the Anglo-Saxon was under the Franco-Normans.

The Gaelic speaker feels himself to be inferior and his language inferior. He begins to think, for instance, that English literature is more important than Gaelic, that as a cutting instrument for getting on in the “world” […] We are owed – such men are owed – not indifference but at least understanding and care. It is not right that a whole culture should have been treated in this way, that like the Red Indians and the aborigines so many of our people should have had to leave their homes to inherit the worst aspects of a so-called superior civilisation. (Smith 1986: 37, 49)

Assimilation, Language and Education

When I lived in Nova Scotia, I heard a Mi’kmaw elder say that it was unfair that his people had to leave their language and culture behind in order to “get ahead.” The same could be said for the Gaels and many other minoritized peoples. You can rationalize a lot of misdeeds by resorting to materialistic arguments but these are only persuasive if bank accounts mean everything and culture and language mean nothing. Given the long-term trajectory of human civilization and environmental well-being, I think that there is good reason to question that assumption.

One of the great insights of modern psychology is that the relationship with the self informs our relationships with others: the qualities or traits that we value, love, fear and loathe about ourselves are things that we seek, project or reject in others. This principle can be applied not only to individuals but to groups.

I have an acquaintance whose parents moved from Gaelic-speaking Nova Scotia to Boston (as many did) and left their Gaelic behind them when they moved. He himself wished to reclaim a knowledge of the language and culture, and earned a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from Harvard University – no mean feat. Hoping to celebrate his accomplishment with the remaining family member of his parents’ generation, he visited his aunt and told her of his recovery of something valuable that had been denied to himself and others. Her response? “Why did you want to go and bring that up again?” Gaelic was a stigma, something to abandon for shame and ignominy, something to hide in the past. Who would react in this manner who was not thoroughly colonized about his/her own culture? This, I think, helps explain the unspoken fear that many people in Nova Scotia and Scotland itself have about the language: the fear that renewing association with Gaelicness will undermine the “hard won racial dividend” that they have claimed in the social hierarchy by leaving their ancestral language and embracing the imperial one.

One of the most significant themes of the Highland diaspora – one that has been left almost completely unexplored and unwritten – is how Gaels who were convinced of the superiority of the English language and culture, who gained privilege and power in its power structures, who rejected their ancestral language and culture, felt that they needed to deny people of other language groups the same right “for their own good.” This was a common theme I heard among people of Gaelic ancestry in Nova Scotia from families that had stopped transmitting the language in the previous two or three generations. Their conformity to the expectations of anglophone Canadian (or British) culture meant that they expected others (Acadians, First Nations, etc.) should do so as well, and when they rose to positions of power and authority – whether as school-teacher or priest or civil servant or member of parliament – they often felt that others should make the same capitulation and sacrifice.

This attitude is explicit in the interview the Daily Telegraph (25 October 1901) conducted with Lieutenant-General Sir Hector MacDonald, when asked how he thought the British Empire would be able to defuse the threat of the Boers in South Africa:

There is the case of the Highlands of Scotland as a parallel. The almost impossible was done there. I look for the future to education. It is through the young idea that we must succeed in South Africa. English must be the language there. It may seem hard to kill, so to speak, a nation by making another language compulsory, but it is a sure way and the best way. Nothing but English should be taught, and then the children would think in English and act as English children. (Thanks to my friend Iain MacFhionghain of Skye for sending me this quote.)

This strategy for cultural invasion is also reflected in the (supposedly) “more enlightened” approach to dealing with First Nations which rationalized the building of residential schools and the indoctrination of native children in them, as expressed neatly in a paper by Captain Richard H. Pratt in 1892:

It is a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage. He is born a blank, like all the rest of us. Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life. We, left in the surroundings of civilization, grow to possess a civilized language, life, and purpose. Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.

The same use of education as a tool of cultural colonization can be seen almost three centuries earlier in the law passed by the Scottish Privy Council in 1616 to erect schools in order to eradicate Gaelic and replace it with English, since it was “one of the chief and principle causes of the continuance of the barbarity and incivility amongst the inhabitants of the Isles and Highlands.”  Again, these themes strike resonant chords with anyone who understands the critique of modernity as inherently colonial, as Mignolo discusses. And yet, how many scholars of Scottish history have dared to denounce this official declaration as forcefully and eloquently as Pádraic Pearse condemned the Irish equivalent in his essay “The Murder Machine”?

The English have established the simulacrum of an education system. but its object is the precise contrary of the object of an education system. Education should foster; this education is meant to repress. Education should inspire; this education is meant to tame. Education should harden; this education is meant to enervate. The English are too wise a people to attempt to educate the Irish, in any worthy sense.

Today is a public holiday in the United States commemorating Martin Luther King whose efforts at the end of his life were directed against the “thingification” of human beings in oppressive and exploitative systems. It took me somewhat by surprise to see how King’s terminology and discourse was presaged by that of the Irish patriot a half a century earlier:

The system has aimed at the substitution for men and women of mere Things. It has not been an entire success. There are still a great many thousand men and women in Ireland. But a great many thousand of what, by way, of courtesy, we call men and women, are simply Things. Men and women, however depraved, have kindly human allegiances. But these Things have no allegiance. Like other Things, they are for sale.

Such critiques of English imperialism surely deserve greater recognition but the erasure of the Gaelic histories of both Ireland and Scotland has, in general, been quite effective in the English-speaking world, even in the modern United States. There are millions of North Americans with Gaelic ancestry – a significant number of whom do not qualify as “white” – and some of them have enjoyed great material success and social privilege as anglophones. Very few of them know anything about the history, language or culture of their Highland ancestors: they cannot recognize let alone understand the fundamental touchstones of Gaelic life.

It is easy to condemn North Americans for their misguided ideas about the Scottish Highlands and Highlanders, but it is far easier to find romance novels and Highland Games – products of the anglophone imagination – than it is to get access to facts and well-grounded research. North Americans schools never fail to teach students about the glorious history of English law, literature and art but fail to mention that the Gaels have just as long and illustrious an intellectual legacy in these fields, and in fact influenced the Germanic invaders develop them. This is one of the central paradoxes of the Scottish involvement in the British Empire: while celebrated for their role in creating key institutions, not least those of education, Scots did not include their languages and cultures (Gaelic or Lowland) in them, but rather advanced those of England. Thus, their role in the modern world was to erase their past from it, and the resulting void in academic space gets filled up with fantasy and imaginative projections.

Despite the effect of the Civil Rights movement to refocus academic efforts and ideals in North America to redress a long history of colonial injustices perpetrated on subjugated natives, scholars have almost entirely neglected the history of Celtic societies as the first “laboratory for empire.” The radical reaction to racism has resulted in a common double standard in which people are still sorted by racial category but one group gets automatic empathy and support, while the other are by default labelled “Western imperialists” and “settler colonists.”

As the foregoing summary illustrates, history is not so simple. White people should not be given a free pass to benefit from or be complicit in the exploitation or oppression of others simply because their Gaelic ancestors experienced it – but neither should people of any ethnic origin. The fact that exiled Gaels had many complex intersections with native and enslaved peoples – alliances of all sorts, including intermarriage – makes their histories intertwined at many junctions. The double standard means that too many scholars still commonly treat the Highland Clearances as though they are the inevitable outcome of impersonal economic forces outside of political control (see my previous blog post on this topic), while the same actions perpetrated on First Nations are denounced as unjustifiable wrongs and gratuitous abuses of unchecked power. While scholars champion the development of native issues and the legitimacy of their indigenous knowledge, Gaelic culture is still commonly portrayed as a backwater of superstition and impoverishment that the natives were best to leave behind (if it is discussed at all in academic texts).

With our age’s preoccupations with race and material wealth, it is perhaps not surprising that there has been so little effort to account for issues of language and culture in understanding and explicating the Gaelic experience, but this is the “dark matter” too often missing in scholarly equations which gives gravity and cohesive explanatory power to the entire narrative.

While scholars constantly question western modernity’s claim of inherent superiority on behalf of other native peoples, these delusions are taken as assumptions in most texts about the eclipse of Gaelic civilization. In How The Scots Invented the Modern World Arthur Herman makes his conservative bias clear when he claims that modernity has enabled people to “free themselves from myths and see the world as it really is.” In fact, many of the great intellectual achievements of the 20th century by scientists, social scientists and humanists are deconstructions of the claims of absolute authority and objectivity embedded in the myths of modernity: the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, postcolonialism, feminism, deep ecology, anthropology, Constructivism (as a branch of epistemology), structuralism and Post-structuralism (as branches of literary criticism) … all of these areas of study, and others, confirm the concept that  subjectivity is inherent to human thought, human perception and human societies, and that there is no way to “free ourselves” and “see the world as it truly is” in any absolute way (as Mignolo explores at length in his volume).

Thus, while the myths of modernity would have us believe that only science is “true knowledge,” and the beliefs and rituals of savages are merely irrationality and delusion, anthropology has helped to elucidate and validate the inherent value, integrity and sophistication of all human cultures, regardless of how “primitive” they supposedly were or are. These sciences did not develop quickly enough to provide aid and comfort for Celtic communities, however: significant portions of the population assimilated as quickly as they could to escape the stigmatization and marginalization of their culture.

This is not the whole story, of course: there were and are Gaels who, for no tangible material gain to themselves, resisted assimilation, critiqued colonialism, sided with other subjugated peoples, and cherished their mother tongue for as long as they could. Even now, there are people in both Scotland and the Highland diaspora who are attempting to reclaim and revitalize the Gaelic language and culture, and see this reconnection to their ancestors (biological or adopted) as a means of understanding and defending indigeneity.

If you find these rambling ruminations less than satisfying because of the contradictions, inconsistencies and paradoxes in and between them, that is, at least in part, intentional. The only smooth and self-assured historical narrative is one that has removed the messy realities of human nature. The experience of Gaelic emigrants – whether voluntary or involuntary – embody convoluted and rich stories of all varieties that cannot be easily generalized.

What is clear, however, is the language and culture which made them what they were is highly endangered both in its last remaining North American immigrant community and in its own homeland. That is not an accident of history. To what degree Gaeldom will be able to recover from these last centuries of subjugation and dispossession cannot be predicted, but surely those in the Highland diaspora – and even those who embrace Gaelic culture despite a lack of ancestral connection – can make contributions to this revitalization, and so much the better, especially if it helps them become aware of, and engage with, the complexities and injustices of the legacies of empire and colonization.

Select Bibliography

Kathleen DuVal. The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Matthew Jacobson. Whiteness of a Different Color. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Wayne Lee. “Projecting Power in the Early Modern World,” in Empires and Indigenes: Intercultural Alliance, Imperial Expansion, and Warfare in the Early Modern World, ed. Wayne Lee, 1-18. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Emily McEwan-Fujita. “Language revitalization discourses as metaculture: Gaelic in Scotland from the 18th to 20th centuries.” Language & Communication

Walter Mignolo. The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Michael Newton. We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States. Saorsa Media, 2001.

Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.

— “Celtic Cousins or White Settlers? Scottish Highlanders and First Nations.” In Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 5 / Fiftth Scottish Gaelic Research Conference, edited by Kenneth Nilsen, 221-37. Sydney: University of Cape Breton Press, 2011.

— “How Scottish Highlanders Became White: The Introduction of Racialism to Gaelic Literature and Culture.” In Celts in the Americas, ed. Michael Newton. Sydney, Cape Breton: Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Iain Crichton Smith. “Real People in a Real Place” in Towards the Human, ed. Derick Thomson. Edinburgh: MacDonald Publishers, 1986.

Silke Stroh. Uneasy Subjects: Postcolonialism and Scottish Gaelic Poetry. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2011.

Highland Clearances – 3

The Evidence of Some pre-1800 Gaelic Poetry

In his introduction to a volume of Gaelic poetry on the topic of the Clearances, Donald Meek remarks (in his characteristically understated manner):

Yet, in spite of the potential value of this body of verse in illuminating the perceptions of those who experienced the nineteenth-century Clearances and the Land Agitation, it has been little used by modern historians. There seems to be some relunctance on the part of certain historians to allow the Gaelic evidence to speak for itself, even when part of that evidence is available in translation. (1995: 10)

Indeed, I have already commented that this silencing of those who actually experienced these injustices is a perpetuation of colonial mentalities on the part of “certain historians” and other vested interests.

Meek’s volume is an excellent selection of 44 poems on these events and offers very insightful analyses of literary genre, style and content. If there is a shortcoming to this volume, in my opinion, it is that most of the verse is relatively late: it begins c. 1800 and concentrates on the Land Agitation of the 1880s. There is, in fact, a great deal of Gaelic verse that was composed previous to 1800 in reaction to Clearances and in critique of the numerous attacks on Gaeldom in social, cultural, linguistic and economic terms.

My previous blog entry, examining a book written by Alexander Campbell, quoted his account of sheep-raising as it proliferated from the southern Highlands (around Callander, Cowal, and Loch Lomond-side) and moved north. Other accounts from native Gaelic seanchaidhs (such as that investigated in Cheape 1995) confirm a similar geographical pattern. It so happens that I have long had an interest in these areas and have collected a great deal of Gaelic literature from these areas, some of which I have edited and translated in previous publications.

I have many other Gaelic texts from the mainland (Argyllshire, Perthshire, and Inverness-shire) in which Gaels critique their subjugation by an anglocentric regime bent on driving them from their homes and ways of life. A few more rare and important pieces of this nature will be appearing in my forthcoming anthology of Canadian Gaelic literature, Seanchaidh na Coille, but for now, I would like to examine and comment on materials that I have previously published.

Before doing so, I must add that I use the term “Clearance” in a broad and inclusive way: whether people were moved 50 metres or 50 miles is somewhat immaterial, given that the imposed disruptions to their settlement patterns, cultural practices and economic relations had profound consequences for their ability to sustain themselves. Moving a community a short distance to the coastline and restricting their access to the resources and nutrients they needed was just as effective in marginalizing and dispossessing them as forcing them into ships bound for the colonies (Mathieson 2000).

The Lennox and Loch Lomond-side

Between about 1759 and 1764, Lowland shepherds began encroaching upon Gaelic terrain, displacing native families with their ability to profit from their sheep. That Gaels did initially resent and resist these incursions is confirmed by the entry for Luss in the Old Statistical Account for Scotland (1791):

The settlement of some graziers here, from the low country, contributed likewise to produce those happy effects [of mercantilism]. They were at first considered by the natives as aliens, and invaders of property, to which they had no natural right, being neither lineal descendants, nor collateral branches of the MacFarlane race. Such was their antipathy to their new neighbours, that they made several abortive attempts to extirpate them. This, however, gradually subsided, and they lived together afterwards in habits of friendship.

So, the minister (Rev. John Gillspie) implies that this happened a good while before he wrote this, and although he reassures us that the resentment between Gael and intruder had subsided, other sources suggest otherwise.

In any case, what does the Gaelic record suggest? The earliest commentary in Gaelic of which I know is an abstruse reprimand in verse castigating one of MacFarlane’s factors for his greed and selfishness (Newton 2010: 252). This verse is attributed to Rev. Alexander MacFarlane who died in 1763, which fits very well into the time frame noted above.

The most interesting social commentary from this area on this era, however, is manuscript 210 of the MacLagan collection, kept in Glasgow University Library. This manuscript contains four highly critical poems, three of which I published in Newton 2010, and the hand-writing appears to be that of the Rev. John Stewart (1743-1821). As there is no information about the origin of the texts, it is not certain whether he was the author of these pieces or merely the scribe for poems he captured locally (he was minister in Arrochar, Weem, and Luss). It is possible that the poems span a number of years and poets, but it is almost certain that the manuscript was completed well before the death of Rev. James MacLagan in 1805.

One of these poems is an address to Loch Lomond itself (Newton 2010: 250-3). The poet laments that everything in the area has changed for the worse: the wild animals associated with the hunt have fled, the young people have disappeared, local music has been silenced, and all of these worthy things have been replaced with “Lowland churls” and their dogs. The poet remarks incisively, “It is a strange ‘improvement’ for the land to be cleared of its people!” There is a clear awareness here of the irony that what for the landlord and anglophone is an ‘improvement’ is for the Gael a loss and tragedy. It does not condemn sheep but the landlord who replies greedily about all the money he is making. The poet predicts that the landlord’s selfishness and voracity will cause his own undoing in the end.

Another of these poems is essentially a lament for the downfall of the Highlands in the voice of a hunter (newton 2010: 246-9). It begins, “Gaeldom became a desert after the ’45 when our culture changed/declined and our weaponry abandoned.” He goes on to grieve that sheep have displaced its native animals and people, who must now fill the ranks of the British war machine to “keep control of the subject classes, preserve the existing order, keep the mob from misbehaving and to act as hammers against France.” This, I would argue, is a radical critique of Gaelic subjugation (most likely during the Napoleonic conflicts) that has never (to my knowledge) been used by any historian of Highland history.

A third poem is in the voice of a female exile (Newton 2010: 254-9). Although her new locale is not specified, it is almost certainly somewhere in North America, given an overseas voyage, the extremes of weather and alien, hostile wildlife. The poem decries the injustice that Gaels have been forcibly dispossessed and relocated, despite upholding their end of the social contract (“We have always paid our rents and services faithfully”). These changes have happened because the introduction of fallacies and luxuries which has broken the old ties of kinship and community.

The fourth and final poem from this manuscript is one with a very expansive view of Highland history and culture (Newton 2001: 43-7). Given that the style of the poem strongly suggests the proto-Romantic influences of Macpherson’s Ossian, it must have been composed after 1760. (The poem is also highly unusual for the period as it is in free-verse rather than a formal metre, begging the question as to whether it was a rough sketch to be polished later.) Appropriate enough for a poet and text with a broad panorama of Scottish history, it begins by addressing Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in Scotland (and all of Britain). The poet harkens back to the Gaelic Golden Age, recalling Maol-Choluim Ceannmhor (Malcolm Canmore), Somerled and the Lords of the Isles, and contrasts the world of those heroes with the desolate Highland landscape, broken only by an occasional hunter and his prey.

The poet asks, “Who has destroyed the Gaelic people? Who has silenced the harp and pipe? Where are herdsmen and warriors? And the folk who farmed the fields?” The answer demonstrates profound insight into the circumstances: “English ways have destroyed us; Every chieftain has pursued his own great opulence… It is unpleasant to many a warrior who carefully defended your ancestors…”

Perthshire Highlands

One of the great 18th-century Gaelic poets of Perthshire was a man named Duncan Lothian. He composed a poem in c. 1777 in which he denounces the inflation and economic ruination of the Highlands, urging his fellow Gaels to defeat the American revolutionaries so that they can retain a safe refuge to which they can escape the oppression to which they are subject (Newton 2001: 57-9). In common with other Gaelic literati, he compares the plight of the Gael to that of the Jews when enslaved in Egypt but his recollection of the Gaelic origin myth demonstrates the tenacity of the native literary tradition even in eastern Perthshire. Given that the Gaels are such valuable soldiers, his curse on the British imperial masters is that the Gaels will flee and leave the realm vulnerable and undefended from their enemies: “Non-Gaels are crying out that we have to be driven out and that speckle-headed sheep will turn us out of our birthright!”


In a previously published article (Newton 2011) have quoted some excerpts from longer poems (to appear in Newton 2014) composed by immigrants to Canada. I’ll briefly reiterate one excerpt from an Inverness-shire poet for the light it sheds on the perceptions of Gaels in this era.

Iain Liath MacDhomhnaill left Knoydart for Glengarry, Ontario, in 1786. He composed a lengthy poetic account of his migration and settlement which intimates the humiliation felt by many Gaels about the circumstances of their departure and the post-Culloden condition of Gaeldom: “What has increased my sorrow, after what I had seen of those precious élite [Gaelic] nobles who were always faithful, is that they are now completely extinct, with not one left there, while the land of our ancestors is occupied by Lowland shepherds.”

Western Isles

One of the most interesting and incisive poems from the Western Isles which comments on dispossession during this period was composed by the celebrated poet Iain mac Fhearchair (aka John MacCodrum) for MacDonald kinsfolk who were leaving for the Carolinas between 1769 and 1773 (Newton 2001: 88-93). Iain enjoins the emigrants to keep up their spirits (implying that emigration was actually an emotionally difficult choice) and reassures them that their decision to leave was the only logical choice, given the state to which they were being reduced by their former chieftains (“Because you must sail away and it is not your desire to do so … Because [the chieftains] will not allow you to live in the lands that are familiar to you it is better to leave willingly than to sink into slavery…”).

Iain goes on to contrast the old Gaelic order with the sorry lot that has taken their place in the present, who are willing to exchange their former kinsfolk for sheep. This, he tells us, is a betrayal of ancient trusts, and the sheep will not be able to defend the nobility when their enemies come to attack them (“the chieftains will be left alone with their shoulders unprotected … Our people have suddenly vanished and sheep have taken their place.”) One of the most insightful sections in the poem comments on the violation of the Gaelic concept of dùthchas, of rootedness to place and heritage derived from it: “[the chieftains] are of the opinion that you no longer belong to the soil … they have lost sight of every obligation and pledge that they had with the men who reclaimed their land from their enemies.” Iain’s song is a farewell not only to a group of emigrants, but to the old social contract and Gaelic cultural integrity.

I also have a long poem (210 lines) in my forthcoming Gaelic-Canadian anthology which was attributed to Iain in Nova Scotian oral tradition but was more likely composed by a contemporary of his in North Uist, perhaps responding to the same event. This, too, is a very insightful and incisive poem which bids farewell to a group of emigrants and lambastes the de-Gaelicized élite.

Uncertain Origin

One very insightful Gaelic poem on these issues was printed in an anonymous booklet printed in Edinburgh in 1777 (Newton 2001: 52-3). We can’t place or name the author, but it is likely that he was an educated Gael from the mainland Highlands living in the capital. The poet begins with the rhetorical questions we would expect in an age of affliction: “What has happened to Scotland? What has caused all of the social unrest and oppression? Why have prices skyrocketed and social relations broken down? Why has God forsaken us?” He symbolizes this state of adversity by means of the pathetic phallacy, a common literary convention in Gaelic literature. He likens the Gaels to the Jews enslaved in Egypt and seems to express Jacobite sympathies.

He further observes the greed and materialism that drives the agendas of the élite and opines that “This [king] George that we currently have has dispelled all comfort and joy as he lives his life in England … he has oppressed us with unjust decrees and our nobles go to his court in England; they will spend their wealth and will be miserable because of it as they come home.” The poet concludes by conveying his support of the American Revolution and urging his fellow Scots to emigrate to the colonies as the only escape from the ruination of their homeland.

General Observations

I can offer a number of observations of these early Clearance poems, having studied a couple dozen or so of them (and having had the benefit of the analysis offered in Meek 1995 and MacInnes 2006).

First, the response of the peasantry [not a term of derision but one that describes those with limited formal education and geographical mobility living in a sustenance-level economy] was typically quite different from those of the native intelligentsia (the vestiges of the Gaelic literary orders or those with some formal, usually church-based, education). The Gaelic intelligentsia were able to frame these tribulations within a larger historical and social framework, one which often represented Gaelic history as a series of conquests beginning with the downfall of the Lords of the Isles and culminating with the Battle of Culloden (a sense of decline reflected in Macpherson’s Ossian but quite accurately revealing Gaelic perceptions). While the changes may or may not be attributed to particular agents in verse, they are represented with a degree of abstract reasoning as the consequences of social and political impositions from the anglophone world.

The peasantry, on the other hand, tend to focus on their personal experiences framed within their local context and the individual actors who were involved in instigating these changes. Their poetic response might take the form of a satire of the agents involved in a particular event, an incitement to their neighbours to resist a hostile action, or a lament for the old order, but they lack a structural analysis of the casual factors, economic, political and cultural. They decry the violation of the traditional social contract (the peasantry offer their labour and military services to the chieftain in exchange for his protection and security of land-holding) and hope for the return of native Gaelic leaders upholding traditional values. They sometimes decry the perpetrators of change as Goill (Lowlanders, non-Gaels). Although some scholars have criticized these defamations as being illogical and disingenuous, we need to see these ethnic labels as indicators of cultural allegiance rather than actual ethnic origins (note the use of this and similar ethnonyms for Gaels raised in non-Gaelic communities).

However, all classes in the Highlands who responded to the Clearances in verse see them as a consequence of being conquered by an alien enemy (usually their old rivals, the Lowlanders, but occasionally generalized to luchd na Beurla, “anglophones”) due to the vulnerabilities opened up by the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Since their subjugation to these hostile, hegemonic forces, all aspects of their environment – cultural and natural – have been violated and overturned, and these changes were most unwelcome.

In the past, the close interdependence between the Gaelic aristocracy and the lower social classes in the Highlands had been a source not only of economic sustenance but of social capital and psychological reassurance. Being not only abandoned by their former leaders but also exposed and dominated by a people whom they had formerly considered inferior to themselves (the Lowlanders) left Highlanders feeling humiliated, angry, ashamed, and profoundly disoriented. Some Gaels continued to critique and resist their mistreatment, but without any political mechanisms to which they had recourse, emigration was one of few options open to them. Other Gaels buried the shame of the past and sought consolation and validation in other pursuits, particularly religion and the military.

There is a desperate need to collect, edit and analyze this corpus of Gaelic texts from historical and literary perspectives, as they do offer unique insight into the experiences and perspectives of those who lived through dramatic challenges for the Gaelic world. Doing so will help to restore the Gaelic voice to a highly contested era of Highland history and disprove the false assertion of some anglophone-only scholars that there are no sources to tap for writing a bottom-up history of the Clearances (see discussion in Hunter 2000: 10-24).

Select Bibliography

Hugh Cheape. “A Song on the Lowland Shepherds: Popular Reaction to the Highland Clearances.” Scottish Economic & Social History 15 (1995): 85-100.

James Hunter. The Making of the Crofting Community (new edition). Edinburgh: John Donald, 2000.

John MacInnes. Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006.

Robert Mathieson. Survival of the Unfittest: The Highland Clearances and the End of Isolation. Edinburgh: John Donald. 2000.

Donald Meek. Tuath is Tighearna: Tenants and Landlords. Edinburgh: The Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, 1995.

Michael Newton. We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States. Saorsa Media, 2001.

Michael Newton. Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid / From the Clyde to Callander; Gaelic Songs, Poetry, Tales and Traditions of the Lennox and Menteith (2nd ed.). Kilkerran, Scotland: The Grimsay Press, 2010.

Michael Newton. “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity and Culture in North America.” In The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Sex, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond, edited by Jodi A. Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan, and Heather Parker, 215-33. Guelph: Guelph Series in Scottish Scottish Studies, 2011.

Michael Newton. Seanchaidh na Coille: Litreachas Gàidhlig Chanada. Sydney, Cape Breton: Cape Breton University Press, 2014.

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.”

Highland Clearances – 1

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Selected Bibliography

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.