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.