A Century of the Scottish People: 1830-1950 
by T.C. Smout.
Collins, 318 pp., £15, May 1986, 9780002175241
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Living in Atholl: A Social History of the Estates 1685-1785 
by Leah Leneman.
Edinburgh, 244 pp., £15, April 1986, 0 85224 507 6
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Professor Smout has had the difficult task of providing a sequel to a book which now looks like a landmark in Scottish historiography. Published in 1969, his History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 combined economic, social and cultural history to provide a new overview of Scotland in transition which dissolved mythologies and liberated imagination. Its effects have been seen in many valuable monographs published since. As the Scottish landscape was once transformed by lairdly improvers, so Smout and his followers have created fertile fields where there were once intellectual bogs. Thus, while Dr Leneman’s Living in Atholl is not going to shake post-Smout conceptions – it is essentially a conscientious sifting of the Atholl Muniments in Blair Castle and shows signs of necessary deference towards the ducal line whose latest representative honours it with a foreword – it contributes new tinctures and shadows to our picture of 18th-century Scotland. The Atholl estates straddled Highlands and Lowlands. Dr Leneman, who makes enterprising use of Gaelic verse, quotes in translation a poem of 1781 which salutes the Duke’s lovely province:

You lie in the middle of Scotland,
Your air is pure, your water is fast flowing ...
Your straths are pleasant and productive,
Clad with grass and corn ...
Your people live in tranquillity and sufficiency ...

As she points out, this helps to confirm the judgment of an English traveller six decades earlier (Captain Burt): that Atholl and its people were exceptional in the general ‘gloomy’ Highland vista.

Though the gentry – including some of the ducal family – were Jacobite in Fifteen and Forty-Five, ordinary countrymen showed little enthusiasm for that cause and had to be bullied to fight for Prince Charlie. A recruiter complained that the men of Dunkeld were ‘quite degenerat from their Ancestors, and not one spark of Loyalty among them’. But Atholl Highlanders, who had eagerly welcomed the Hanoverian Campbells, supposedly their traditional foes, were rewarded by brutal oppression from Cumberland’s soldiers, acting on their general’s belief that all Gaels were Jacobites. Dr Leneman’s lengthy quotations from documents point to a complex situation, contradicting mythological simplifications, yet showing where the roots of such may be found.

Likewise, she confirms, so far as this area goes, the traditional view that lower-class Scots showed an unusual thirst for learning – as when the people of remote Glen Tilt petitioned the 3rd Duke in 1769 for a school convenient for their ‘bairns’, who would otherwise ‘be lost for want of education’ – but undermines the myth that Scottish education was egalitarian. Free and cheap instruction was deliberately limited in scope: ‘for the majority, all that was considered necessary was to be able to read English in order to understand the Scriptures,’ and there was little chance to go further, since charity schoolmasters were ‘expressly forbidden’ to teach Latin. On the other hand, the assumption that coalminers in Scotland, as serfs, must necessarily have been downtrodden, is called into question by evidence from the Dukes’ Lowland mine at Blairingone in Clackmannan, where colliers in 1740 earned wages eight or nine times as high as the average for agricultural workers. Dr Leneman’s study insinuates pretty effectively the view that the Atholl estates were successfully managed in a spirit of ‘enlightened paternalism’. Perhaps the jocundly pastoral, fresh-faced musicians and dancers in David Allan’s famous painting of a ‘Highland Wedding at Blair Atholl’, which is reproduced as her dust-jacket, are less idealised than one has supposed.

Whatever good there was in 18th-century ways of life in Scotland – and notwithstanding the brief Jacobite irruptions, it was on the whole a more peaceful land than England, and increasingly dedicated to Improvement – industrialisation wrought transformation. Smout covered the early stages of the process in his History of the Scottish People. Despite his realism about conditions in the new industries and the sad fate of the handloom weavers, despite his regret at the eclipse of Enlightened rational optimism as Evangelicalism secured a blighting grip on the blackening cities, and despite his conclusion that the tendency for decades before 1830 had been for the culture to become ‘more British and less specifically Scottish’, that book ended with a sense of upbeat. Smout had explored and attempted to explain an astonishing afflatus of intellectual discovery, creative talent and entrepreneurial drive – a ‘cultural golden age’ in one small country which had had, and went on having, world-wide consequences.

A Century of the Scottish People, however, takes up the story again in a different, a sad spirit. One reason for Smout’s change of temper may be that, whereas in 1969 he could half-hint at a coming upsurge in favour of Home Rule, he now writes in the aftermath of the abortive referendum of 1979. He extols the belief, partly inherited from the Enlightenment, which he finds in Scottish radicalism down to the 1920s: that ‘by the exercise of political will, the people hold their own future in their own hands.’ In 1979, offered some measure of greater democratic control, two-thirds of Scots preferred to leave their future in the hands of Southerners. This, Smout seems to believe, was already prefigured by 1950, the terminus of his oddly inflated ‘century’. Scots then seemed mostly content to opt, under Westminster governance in a capitalist and inegalitarian order, for ‘the fruits of the collectivist State, of the rule of the expert, and of a policy of welfare determined from above and afar’. He admits that the material quality of life went on improving, down to the mid-1970s, but laments the loss of a ‘vibrant political culture’. So his instincts as a radical democrat are at odds with his role as compassionate historian of everyday life.

Further, he finds that ‘the perspectives of the social historian and the economic historian show our century in very contrasting lights.’ The latter sees a ‘triumphal progression’ from the success of textiles in the first phase of industrialisation through that of iron and coal in the second, followed by a surge in ‘steel, ships, jute, tweed and high farming’ which crashed dismally with the post-1920 depression. But the social historian notices that life in the heydays of success was commonly brutish and that the inter-war years show a marked improvement for ordinary people in terms of health and housing, real income and recreation. The grandchildren of the ‘vibrant’ Scots who worked for heroic industrial success under Beardmore, or strove for a new world order with Keir Hardie, have settled cannily, Smout’s overview implies, for bread and circuses, alias sliced loaf and East Enders. This he most controversially tends to attribute to what he sees as the malign effects of the Scottish education system – still complacently admired by many of those whom he deems to have been its victims.

The general ethos of Scottish education, he argues, was throughout his ‘century’ anti-egalitarian. It aimed ‘firstly at providing, as cheaply as possible, the bulk of the population with the bare minimum of education combined with adequate social discipline, and secondly, at giving a small number of children of all classes, but especially of the higher classes, a more respectable academic education, to qualify them for their role as a controlling élite.’ Following the Education Act of 1872, old burgh schools which had given some kind of general access to learning were either transformed, as in 13 cases, into ‘Higher Class Schools’, fee-paying at first, or made into essentially elementary board schools. Edinburgh’s professional middle class successfully captured for its own purposes the funds of the Merchant Company schools and of the Heriot Trust, which had originally been intended for the unprivileged. As a present-day resident, I can confirm that educational snobbery is uniquely widespread in Edinburgh.

For the mass of the population, education thus came to involve a syllabus restricted to the three R’s, thrashed home with the tawse, instilling what A.S. Neill called ‘a gigantic inferiority complex’. Smout sees this as the key ‘to some of the more depressing aspects of modern Scotland’, where there are ‘too many people who fear what is new, believe the difficult to be impossible, draw back from responsibility, and afford established authority and tradition an exaggerated respect.’

Well, followers of George Davie and his vision of the ‘democratic intellect’ in Scottish education might dispute Smout’s emphases while necessarily admitting many of his facts. Readers of certain recent Scottish fiction and poetry, on the other hand, will find the image of the crass and brutal dominie vividly present, as with Tom Leonard’s ‘Mr Johnstone’:

Jenkins, all too clearly it is time
for some ritual physical humiliation;
and if you cry, boy, you will prove
what I suspect – you are not a man.

But comparison with other educational systems is needed to prove Smout’s case. And is contemporary Scotland, relatively, so servile and depressing? Its teachers have long been engaged in industrial action which has commanded wide public support, and which they seem to have conducted with greater élan and skill than their English counterparts, against a Conservative government for which, currently, only some 15 to 25 per cent of Scots are prepared to vote, and of which the middle-class supporters seem increasingly demoralised. Much fresh creativity is to be seen in literature and other arts. Smout is perhaps out of touch with the manifold local sources of liveliness. The stultification which his book purports to explain is not now so dominant as he suggests, and may not have been so even in 1950.

Had Smout explored in this new book the same range of materials with which he coped so well in his History of the Scottish People, he might have avoided the tone of humane gloom against which I reacted on first reading his Century and which made me, as I now find, underestimate it greatly. In the History, he discussed literary culture with great verve, and responded zestfully to Scottish achievements in architecture. In this sequel, he has narrowed his aim to the exploration of a ‘complex world of deprivation and social division’, and has decided to minimise treatment of ‘artistic or intellectual endeavour’. It is true that many who strove in these fields expatriated themselves, but this had also happened in the 18th century, and Orchardson, RLS and the later Haldanes did not spring from nowhere. Still less, so to speak, did Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Such large mainly home-based figures as Rennie Mackintosh, MacDiarmid, Joan Eardley, still inspirational today, are not admitted into Smout’s pages to tease us or to cheer us up. More seriously, Smout neglects, not indeed all popular culture – his pages on football are insightful if joyless – but some of its most important forms.

It is sad that he does not respond to the continuing vitality of folk music in Scotland, an object of surprised envy in some other parts of Europe. It is amazing that he can write a book with such a title without referring once to the D.C. Thomson press or to Harry Lauder. Inspired by Tom Nairn, Murray Grigor and Colin Macarthur, much interesting acerbic comment has latterly been passed on the semiotic nexus of Kailyardism, Brigadoon-ery, Sunday Post-ness and Tartanry where tourists and also many Scots have perceived regional or national identity. The sound of the pipes is not heard in Smout’s pages, nor is the swish of the kilt descried – and this is because he also leaves out of his survey the very significant position of the Army in Scottish life. I don’t claim that deconstruction of ‘Loch Lomond’ or Barthesian analysis of the Beano and the Broons would have lifted his spirits, still less that Scottish militarism is other than a distasteful subject. But perhaps the vigour, however perverted, of popular culture might help to explain how Scots have survived the dire conditions to which Smout draws attention.

I am being ungrateful. Within the scope which he has chosen, Smout’s book is excellent. He writes with due shock about the ‘dark exterior’ of life in industrialised Scotland. ‘What was the point of all those triumphs of the great Victorian age of industry if so many people were unspeakably oppressed by its operation?’ The ‘triumph’ of the shipbuilders and the juteocracy depended on low wages. Along with these went peculiarly bad housing conditions, which middle-class persons who profited from them contrived to attribute to the fecklessness of the poor themselves.

In 1861, 34 per cent of all Scottish houses had only one room and two-thirds of the entire population lived in one or two-room houses. ‘The “but-and-ben” and the “single end” were, in fact, the normal environment in which to bring up a family.’ Fifty years later, half the population were still so housed, compared to 7 per cent in England and Wales. Even in 1951, 15.5 per cent of Scots still lived more than two to the room, when the figure for England was 2.1 per cent. Smout attributes this disparity to the absence of a Poor Law in 19th-century Scotland, which led people to favour the cheapest possible housing rather than face disaster when unemployed, and to the feuing system, under which sellers of building land demanded the highest possible annual duties as well as big down-payments, so encouraging builders to maximise returns as fast as possible by rushing up small tenement homes.

From the Addison Act of 1919 which conceded subsidies to local authority housing, matters should have improved vastly. But, in fact, this and subsequent legislation contributed to the dismal aspect of urban Scotland. ‘Our hearts sank at the grimness of the towns,’ said Simone de Beauvoir when she and Sartre toured Scotland after the Second World War. Working-class people were decanted from centres which were ‘at least compact’ to ‘segregated and ill-served housing estates’. The tendency towards social apartheid was, typically, taken furthest in Edinburgh, but even in Glasgow, under Labour control from 1933, council officials ‘perpetuated the ancient distinctions between the respectable and the unrespectable poor’. The ‘unrespectable’ were given ‘Re-housing’ homes in a ghetto which became a by-word for sickness and violence, while the ‘respectable’ received ‘Ordinary’ accommodation.

Smout is acute about ‘respectability’. The Lowland Scottish artisan or skilled worker (around 1900 over 70 per cent of employment in the Glasgow region was more or less skilled) was, but was not, radically-inclined. Samuel Smiles was a Scotsman, and self-help and thrift were in his native air, inspiring the growth of co-operative societies and a most significant Temperance Movement, which arguably played the same role in the origins and early days of the Labour Party as Non-conformity did in England. The appalling ‘whisky culture’ of urban Scotland was finally given its quietus, not by militant teetotallism, but by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s discovery in 1909 that the Government could make money by taxing spirits heavily. However, the movement enjoyed a last moment of glory in the 1922 General Election when a Prohibitionist, Edwin Scrymgeour, defeated Winston Churchill in Dundee. One tragic aspect of the inter-war period was the battering of traditions of respectable ‘independence’ by slump in the great industries and by mass unemployment. If the Scottish workforce was demoralised – and Smout has a clear case here – it was, more likely, by this crude economic factor rather than by tawsewielding schoolteachers.

But the language of class throve. Independent working men had found it strongly present in the usage of the Liberal Party, which dominated Scotland electorally for decades: but when Gladstone spoke of the war of ‘class against masses’, this was a rallying cry against aristocrats and rural landlords. With many signs of reluctance, from the 1880s through the First World War, more and more Scottish workers realised that their interests were not, as they had supposed, identical with those of their employers. The insecurity of skilled men in the first two decades of the present century underlay those famous displays of militancy on the wartime Clyde, then the precociously large Labour vote in the West in 1922 which firmly attached the adjective ‘Red’ to the river. Both were reactive rather than revolutionary. Smout deplores seemingly ingrained class feelings, believing that Sweden and Japan have shown how harmony can bring economic success. But they seem to have been the inevitable outcome of that disparity between ‘economic’ and ‘social’ history to which he is so sensitive: so long as the economy was buoyant, evil material conditions could be tholed. When it faltered, working-class mistrust was inevitable.

Meanwhile Kailyardism and Tartanry were pulling Scots’ sense of identity yearningly towards regions of clean air, to the ‘wee bit hill and glen’ invoked in our recent nationalist anthem, ‘Flower of Scotland’. Regarding what really went on in the country places, Smout is judicious and balanced. Reaction against Highland clearances, and then the later ‘Crofter’s War’ of the 1880s, dramatised a development of class feeling beside lovely lochs which preceded and influenced urban bitterness. Whatever pastoral unity had existed, as maybe once in Atholl, between lord and commoner was destroyed as the values of industrialism advanced into glens now overpopulated. Smout can sympathise with the special attachment of the Gaels to their ancestral lands. But he is alert to ironies. People imagine that the Highlands were drastically depopulated by the Clearances, which certainly occurred and which were in some cases without doubt brutal. But Argyll had a population of 66,000 in 1755, and 63,000 in 1951. Half-way between these figures, the seven Highland counties, well after certain classic episodes of clearance had occurred, reached the historic peak of their populations. Pressure on the land was intense, and the famine caused by potato blight in 1846 vividly demonstrated that it could not reliably support so many. Recognition of this, rather than cruel landlordism per se, seems to have been the decisive cause of heavy emigration. The hard-won Crofters’ Holding Act of 1886 made it virtually impossible to evict a Highlander from his land: yet population over the next half-century fell markedly faster than in the rural Lowlands, where, up to this point, it had declined at the same rate. Smout has risked odium by coolly exposing the truth, anathema to passionate mythologists, that the Gaelic Highlands was merely one region among many in Europe over which the normal processes of industrialisation acted nastily.

Highlanders flocking to the USA and the colonies of settlement commonly did well, as did Lowlanders. It is a vast pity that Smout says so little, even speculatively, about the effects of emigration on Scotland over his ‘century’. Exodus on a significant scale was a perpetual feature of Scottish life, Lowland as well as Highland. It peaked in the first two decades of the 20th century at about 50 per cent of the natural increase of the population. Scottish consciousness has been enormously affected by this factor. To oversimplify: Scots who have emigrated and done well have looked back with mingled guilt and nostalgia. They provided bases for the enormous commercial success of Kailyard novels and of Harry Lauder. They have responded avidly to sentimentalisations such as Brigadoon. The international fame of Caledonian kitsch, brought home by ancestor-hunting tourists, has impressed Scots still in Scotland and convinced them that it is their true heritage. Hence Tom Nairn’s ‘great tartan monster’, a creature we have to live with since we now possess no alternative national symbolism.

But the wonderful array of photographs which Smout has assembled provides many haunting depictions of tartan-free ordinariness. They are an important feature of an important book, one which is sure to become, like its predecessor, a source of reference for many further studies and both stimulus and corrective to the imaginations of all who read it.

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Vol. 9 No. 4 · 19 February 1987

SIR: Angus Calder (LRB, 22 January), in accepting T.C. Smout’s view of the Highland Clearances after 1830, joins the growing group who make light of the genocide committed in the Highlands and Islands by falling over backwards to debunk the various ‘myths’ and myths that have wound themselves round that event. I have not yet been able to read Smout’s new book, but for years I have chafed under the seemingly reasonable and judicious half-truths which he propagated in his account of the Clearances before 1830 in A History of the Scottish People. ‘The misery of the Hebrides is primarily the misery of the congested, not of the dispossessed.’ Are you not dispossessed if your rent is trebled and you have to bind yourself to an export agent who then sells you at a North American port? Twenty thousand Highlanders passed through this system in the 1760s and 1770s. Or if you are kidnapped by slave-traders and taken off to America for sale? Seven slave-ships were cruising off the Inner and Outer Hebrides for this purpose in 1774. Or if you are rounded up by police, bailiffs and press-gangs, truncheoned and handcuffed, dropped into ships and landed starving on the coast of Canada some months later? This was done on Barra and South Uist early in the 1850s: every crofter on Barra was evicted, 800 people were driven off that island, 1600 from South Uist. Roofs were burned, people clubbed and hounded down with horses. The lairds got rid of every family they could from Benbecula, North Uist, Tiree, Mull, western Harris, Raasay, many parts of Skye.

To say, as Smout does, that in any case the Highlands ‘had never been … a peasant Arcadia of rosy prosperity, plump girls and happy bakers’ is the merest distraction and a debating trick. You might as well soften your view of Stalin’s farm collectivisation by saying that the Donbas was congested and anyway the Cossacks had not been living in a Paradise of plump milkmaids and happy horse-dealers. To add insult to half-truth, Smout quotes various mandarin witnesses from England and the Lowlands (Pennant, John Sinclair) to suggest that the Highlanders were ‘torpid with idleness’ and preferred ‘temporary bondage in a strange land to starving for life in their native soil’. Of course much emigration was voluntary (if it is a choice to be given no grace to find the rent-money in a famine year because your landlord needs all the cash he can get to send his sons to Eton and buy a mansion in Edinburgh or Surrey). But to think you have said the last word about the sufferers by calling them ‘torpid wretches’ is only possible if you have never heard, or read, the work-songs and love-songs, the celebrations of fishing and rowing, the bitter laments for ill-usage or the playful comedies which the ‘torpid wretches’ made up and passed on, or if you have somehow managed to overlook the pitched battles that were fought with stones and kelping hooks by the women and men against their evictors on North Uist, Harris, Skye.

All this can be found in recent printed books (by John Prebble, W.H. Murray and James Hunter) and by going to the islands and talking to the great-grandchildren of those who did the fighting and the singing, and who still know their names, and where they were on a particular day in 1849, and exactly how the lairds’ agents and the police inflicted the injuries, arrests, intimidations and frauds. In the face of this record, it is unhistorical to say, as Angus Calder does, that ‘pressure on the land … rather than cruel landlordism per se’ was what depopulated the Highlands. Both were decisive. That ‘rather than’ is a verbal sleight which makes the cruelty begin to blur and vanish. Go to Harris and use your eyes. The western meadows from which so many families were cleared by force are beautifully drained grasslands on a basis of white shell-sand, fertile and easy to work. Almost nobody lives there. On the eastern side the land is desperately hard to work, ridges of bare rock with wet, peaty soil in between. There, for six generations, families have perched, eking out a living with subsidies and the sale of knitwear. When they then leave for the Lowlands, Canada or Australia, it is of course not ‘dispossession’ but ‘choice’. The actual cruelty happened long ago – so long ago that Angus Calder can comfort himself with the thought that the Highlanders who flocked abroad ‘commonly did well’. Again the judicious half-truth. Those who survived may have done all right in the end. But not the shrunken women with children on their backs who lived in caves, on shellfish, after eviction, or begged for bread in Ontario, or died of disease and exposure on the wharfs. These are facts, not myths.

David Craig
Carnforth, Lancashire

Vol. 9 No. 6 · 19 March 1987

SIR: I am not sure how old a horror has to be, in Angus Calder’s view (Letters, 5 March), before it is no longer worth rehearsing. Should we stop talking about the Holocaust in, say, 2050, the Soviet farm collectivisation in 2000, and the Somme any time now? But if the rehearsing is being done at all – as it is, after all, by Smout, Richards, and the other historians whom he favours – then it should be done in terms that do justice to the cruel upheavals that took place. These were not less because they also happened in the Philippines and Mexico, or for that matter Cuba and Ceylon. I used to cite this parallel when I gave talks, in Sri Lanka, to highland Ceylonese workers whose forebears had been cleared from their farmlands and cut off from their wells – then sentenced to fifty lashes and a year in prison when they barked and uprooted the coffee trees planted by the British colonists or smashed the boundary fences round the new estates.

That all this was ‘in no sense unique’ but world-wide – the eviction of the peasantry to make way for capitalist farming – has been familiar history to me for thirty years, the subject of some of my poems, and has made the Scottish experience seem no less brutal. That some Highlanders then evicted some original Australians adds to the tragedy, not lessens it.

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return,

as we also see when Israeli Jews strafe the camps of evicted Palestinians or Catholics blow up the descendants of Protestants planted on Irish land three hundred years ago.

I do not know if the present events in Ulster or the Middle East can be reduced to what Angus Calder classes, diminishingly, as ‘certain aspects and incidents of the process’. Whole islands were cleared in the Hebrides, and the 800 people cleared from the Barra Isles or the 1600 from South Uist cannot have ‘wanted to emigrate’ or they would not have had to be clubbed, fettered and pursued at the instigation of the landlord, John Gordon, and by a minister, Henry Beatson.

By all means let us ‘consider such events as world-wide tendencies and draw comparisons’. When I do, I am impressed by many hideous likenesses: e.g. the use of whips and chains by early Kandyan planters – to hold down the Tamils they had imported to replace the evicted Sinhalese. This ‘old horror’ has to be ‘rehearsed’ if we are to understand the extreme methods of the present Tamil freedom-fighters. A bland, Smout-like view of the landlords’ methods of ‘dispossession’ in Ceylon would be as serious a faltering of the historian’s function as it is in the case of the Scottish Highlands.

David Craig
Carnforth, Lancashire

Vol. 9 No. 8 · 23 April 1987

SIR: Why does David Craig imply (Letters, 19 March) that I am the kind of person who might condone the Holocaust because I have accepted some of the findings of a notably imaginative and compassionate economic historian about the Highland Clearances?

Statistics of population do not support the widespread impression that the Highland counties lost people, in the period of the Clearances, faster than Lowland agricultural shires. They certainly lost far fewer, proportionately, than famine-stricken Ireland. Any reasonable account of emigration from the Highlands has to take account of a pressure of population which might have produced, but mercifully did not, a cataclysm like Ireland’s, as well as of self-interested and sometimes very cruel ‘clearance’ by landlords for sheep-farming or sporting purposes. It also has to allow for the undoubted fact that from the mid-18th century many Highlanders went overseas voluntarily. One motive was the opportunity to recreate, on the frontier, a way of life that was becoming impossible in Scotland. An upshot both piquant and poignant is that Gaelic, in the Canadian Maritimes, where it has been spoken for two centuries by whole communities, now faces a danger of slow extinction at the same time as Gaelic in Scotland and for similar reasons.

Prince Charlie’s saviour Flora Macdonald settled with husband and clansmen in North Carolina, which Highlanders had been colonising since the 1730s. These people fought for Hanoverian George III against the American ‘patriot’ revolutionaries. The fact represents the difficulty of moralising about history as Dr Craig wishes to do. At what point in the scale of viciousness one places the Clearances among the many assaults made by capitalism and imperialism on peasant ways of life is open to debate. Dr Craig implies that they were as sudden, comprehensive and ruthless as, say, British occupation of the White Highlands of Kenya. My own view is that they weren’t, though their aspect of cultural genocide makes them even more repulsive than the changes in the Southern English countryside which produced the miseries of the era of Captain Swing and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

Angus Calder

Vol. 9 No. 5 · 5 March 1987

SIR: I respect the feelings which animate David Craig’s objections (Letters, 19 February) to the countenance I give to T.C. Smout’s view of the Highland Clearances in his Century of the Scottish People. I have many friends, Gaels and Lowlanders, who share his outrage, and so do I, when I contemplate certain aspects and incidents of the process. In John Clare’s Northamptonshire the transformation of the countryside brought great misery to communities and individuals, but in Gaelic Scotland this was compounded by severe threat to a wholly distinctive culture. If the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland were not barbarians, they were certainly colonisers. When Sorley Maclean and other fine Gaelic poets of our day refer to the Clearances as an unforgivable wrong, they speak, so far as I am concerned, truth. I would not have time for any work of art which attempted to soften the picture.

But historians have a different job. They have to consider world-wide tendencies and draw comparisons. They have also to take note of differences within cultures, where all groups do not behave in the same way. I think Dr Craig should look again at Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution and Age of Capital. He could also turn to Eric Richards’s History of the Highland Clearances (1982), the work of an Australian who is bound to see them in wide geographical perspective. ‘The changes experienced in the Scottish Highland were in no sense unique,’ Richards writes. ‘The modern world economy is full of parallels.’ He finds such parallels in the Philippines and in Mexico. He also notes the irony that ‘some of the colonising sheep farmers in Australia were émigré Scottish Highlanders set adrift by the Clearances,’ who dispossessed Aborigines in turn. Jack Bumsted, a Canadian, showed in his The People’s Clearances that around 1800 there were Highlanders who wanted to emigrate and landlords anxious to prevent them.

The more extreme versions of the Clearances story imply that they were uniquely horrible and that no true Gael would have left of his own accord. I don’t think this distortion helps the present-day Highlands at all. The Gaelic language is now threatened with extinction by modernisation, Americanisation and, of course, Anglicisation. Action to sustain the tongue in which Sorley Maclean has written the magnificent verse which Seamus Heaney recently celebrated in the London Review is more to the point than rehearsing old horrors. As Convener of the Scottish Poetry Library, I do what I can to help.

Angus Calder

Vol. 9 No. 14 · 23 July 1987

SIR: Following the correspondence about the Highland Clearances in these columns in February and March, I am writing a book for Seeker and Warburg about the personal experience of the Clearances and the family memories of them that have passed down to this day in the Highlands and Islands. I would be grateful if anyone with relevant material, oral or written, could get in touch with me, including the correspondent from the Highland Study Centre in Canada who wrote me in the early spring.

David Craig
Hill House, Main Street,

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