Glen Fruin is said by historians to have been affected by The Clearances. Picture by Bill Heaney
By Ewen MacAskill
Once you have seen the machair you never forget it. It is Gaelic for the stunningly beautiful grassland found in the Hebrides and parts of the Highlands: fertile, a mass of wildflowers, fringed by remote sandy beaches. The first time I saw it, as a teenager on Harris, I wondered why my ancestors had chosen instead to live on the other side, on barren and rocky land, a hard place to grow anything. Within a matter of seconds, the answer dawned. They had lived on the machair but were forcibly moved in the 19th century, like many other casualties of the Highland Clearances.
The Clearances, the mass depopulation of the Highlands and Islands, still resonate today. They provide the backdrop whenever the Scottish parliament grapples with land reform or there is another community buy-out. This summer, the journalist and historian Max Hastings, writing in the Times, joined the discussion in a piece about his annual trip to the Highlands for shooting and fishing. Patronisingly, he wrote that the curse of Scotland is “its sense of victimhood, lovingly nurtured over the past century” and cited the Clearances as a prime example. He falls into the ranks of those who claim the scale and suffering has been exaggerated.
Scotland has until recently been ill served by historians. At school in the 1950s and 60s, we were taught more about the Tudors than our own history. A textbook at the time, a history of Scotland starting in 1702, ran to 335 pages, of which only one covered the Clearances. The writer John Prebble, English-born and brought up in Canada, broke this embarrassing near-silence with The Highland Clearances, published in 1963 and still the most popular Scottish history book ever written. Writing from a Marxist point of view, he portrayed the Clearances as the unnecessarily brutal expulsion of the population by greedy landowners and clan chiefs to make way for a more profitable source of income – sheep. Academics dismissed it as a blend of fact and fiction.
Revisionism was inevitable. It came in the shape of, among others, Michael Fry, a mischievous conservative and author of Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History, published in 2005. Fry, whose admirers include Hastings, portrayed the Clearances as a myth that falls apart once probed.
Thankfully into the debate comes Tom Devine, above right, Scotland’s best modern historian. Although viewed as tainted by some Scots for coming out in support of independence during the 2014 referendum, he makes history accessible, backed up with formidable original research and statistical evidence. In this book, he chronicles land ownership, the clan system and shifting attitudes towards Highlanders, from heroic soldiers to lazy aborigines. He is populist enough to find space for the romantic Jacobite TV fantasy Outlander, but this is a serious book, which includes a large section on dispossession in the Borders – intended to put what happened in the Highlands and Islands into perspective.
Clan chiefs in the Highlands were happy enough to have large populations at various points, especially during the Napoleonic wars. Devine demolishes the idea that Highlanders were by nature more martial than people in other parts of the UK. It was simple economics: the clan chiefs behaved as military entrepreneurs, providing recruits at a price. When the war ended and demand for soldiers fell, they looked for alternative sources of income. Sheep farming was one, and that meant clearing the land. Devine is fair minded, acknowledging landlords and chiefs who tried to devise ways to keep people, but they were in a small minority. “Coercion was employed widely and systematically,” he concludes.
The harshest of the expulsions came in the 1840s and 50s with the collapse, as in Ireland, of the staple crop, the potato crop. Families were evicted when they were at their most vulnerable. Devine finds space for the voices of those sent into exile, often ignored in the past because their accounts, mainly told through song and poetry, were in Gaelic. Coming from the Lowlands, Canada, the US and Australia, they record homesickness but also a rage and desire for revenge, against both landlords and sheep.
MacCaig wrote extensively about his love of the Highlands and believed the land should be masterless. That does not equate to victimhood. I do not feel any sense of victimhood either, having seen the consequences when people around the world cling to historical injustices. I just want to know about Scotland’s past, and am grateful to Devine for producing a balanced, detailed and extremely readable account of one of the saddest episodes in that history. He also makes it harder for conservatives who persist in the claim it was all a myth.
• The Scottish Clearances: a History of the Dispossessed 1600 to 1900, by TM Devine, is published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for £22 (RRP £25) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.