by Owen Dudley Edwards

Cow Bhoys and Indians

October 15, 2009 | by Owen Dudley Edwards

ANAETHER history book, Colin? Aye, well, some of it’ll be true, and some of it’ll nae”. This is the first page, and the best in his book. (And in all fairness, it may well be the best first sentence any history book could have, and it is the best sentence in this review). The speaker was Professor Colin Calloway’s maternal grandmother, Jessie McLean of Perthshire (1888-1974). The book wasn’t this one (unless spiritualism has been invoked), since her grandson was born in 1953, and it probably wasn’t by him, since the first book for which he won some authorial credit appeared in 1979, and his first monograph,Crown And Calumet, a study of Amerindian relations, was published in 1987. But here as elsewhere the old lady merits quotation, and I wish he would write a book about her.

Although Calloway’s previous ten books have been on Amerindian history, he is understandably circumspect about intruding upon a culture whose history is one of perpetual white intrusions. Having taken up comparability and interactivity of Highland Scots and Amerindians he gallantly also acknowledges some intrusiveness in his grandmother’s domain, as the son of a Yorkshireman whose initial advent upon the old lady’s hospitality encountered her cultural misgivings: “An Englishman? I wonder what he’ll eat”.

At least it was ‘what’ rather than ‘whom’. Two centuries earlier, when the Highlander, like the Irish Catholics and the Amerindians, was the typification of savagery in the eyes of London civilisation, Highlanders must have had worse expectations of the butcher Cumberland’s fellow-English. Despite the terror of London when Prince Charlie’s Scottish army was wending its way southward in 1745, the Highlanders proved a much milder invading force than their ultimate conquerors. London, at whatever class-stage of civilisation, made little distinction between Highlander and Lowlander. Lord Chesterfield, then Irish viceroy, recommended starving them all. This doesn’t enter into Professor Calloway’s story, since he is anxious to stress the Highland-Lowland mutual antipathy.

Similarly, when the American colonists revolted, British cartoonists depicted them as Amerindians. The American rebels, on their side, saw their former beloved Eng-land taken over by the unscrupulous Scots, vaguely seen as Jacobites irrespective of their topography, language or creed. We cannot really see the force of civilisation’s repudiation of aborigines without confronting its terror that aboriginality was a permanent infection subverting the Lowlanders, English migrants, and Anglo-Irish alike.

Calloway is not the first scholar to find similar problems in image and identity between Highlanders and Amerindians, and much of value has already been done here. Mainstream Publishing has brought out works on the subject putting Calloway under heavy debt. Jenni Calder has done excellent pioneer work, opening up the Scots in North America with the same inspirational insights which her father, David Daiches, transformed Scottish literary criticism sixty years ago. And Northern America Amerindian history has swept into a fine crescendo within recent years. But if much of this has left the present work retelling twice- and thrice-told tales, it is still invaluable as a fine summation of what has been achieved, for the most part. And if Calloway still feels a decent necessity for circumspection in other people’s histories, his heart is in the right place, usually followed by his head. He can also claim that as a child of a Yorkshire-Perthshire union, he had a much better awareness of Canada than most US Americans reveal. Rightly, he keeps his story continental.

Where the book takes off into something closer to originality, is when we have worked our way through the standard wildernesses with their rival ethnicities, and sex is allowed to rear its ugly head. Examining a study of the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Idaho) in 1880-1900, Calloway finds that “Scottish setters” (this is not bestiality, merely Oxford printing) were 1.4 percent of the population but made 5.6 percent of marriage with Amerindians. This brings him to a startling, and probably accurate, conclusion: that Scots marital law and custom preferring civil contract and even lengthy unlicensed domicile, made Scots more ready to form transracial marriages. The Scots, as he notes, also included more than their fair share of bigamous alliances.

His thesis once again leaves him obliged to elide the Highland-Lowland distinction which usually means so much to him, but the overall effect is most important. Scots solved the racial conundrum better than most. Frank Tannenbaum’s old idea that Catholic regimes had more sensible race relations including intermarriage is unfashionable today, but in this context it would have to admit severer marital requirements in sacramental celebration than most Scots employed. Calloway is not fool enough to imagine that made decent husbands or sexual partners of Scots, automatically, and he is human enough to dislike several choice specimens, the great, and brutal, Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, for instance. Similarity of inheritance of an image of savagery might equip Highlanders for better understanding of Amerindians, but not necessarily for greater compassion.

Calloway finds more dangerous ground for himself when he begins to assess the modern reinvention of Highlander and Amerindian. He is shrewd enough to return to his excellent practice of relying on his grandmother in direct dealing with tartan monsters of our time: he recalls her saying “something to the effect that one’s degree of Scottish ancestry was usually in inverse proportion to the amount of tartan one wore”. Damn right. I recall dinners of the Friendly Sons of St Patrick in Philadelphia where the Irish identity of the participants was in inverse proportion to the amount of green they sported. Alas, it also prompts the thought that Professor Cal-loway ought to have made more of the similarities and contrasts of the Irish Catholics and the Highlanders, given how similar their hostile images were. He is hardly at ease with linguistic basis of such a comparison anyway: he rightly saw the value to the historian of the poem ‘Island Funeral’ but overvalues the undoubted authenticity of its tone by calling its author “Gaelic poet Hugh MacDiarmid”. That MacDiarmid called himself a Gael (and Stalin another in the same line) is not the same thing as Gaelic authorship.

This confusion is hardly aided by sipping occasional drams of Trevor-Roper, who ought never to be sold without a prescription, and must certainly be kept out of reach of children. Its worst effect seems to have prompted Calloway in a yen for wild generalisations about subjects on which he is virginically ignorant. Just as Trevor-Roper laid down the law on Gaelic and German poems and diaries without knowledge of either language, Calloway denounces the novels of Sir Walter Scott with no sign of having read any: “Scott’s version of Scotland’s history and culture was one that never existed, but it caught on and became a national obsession…. Sir Walter Scott has much to answer for…. Sir Walter Scott does have much to answer for”. Unfortunately for Calloway, Sir Walter Scott has much with which to answer, such as he taught the world from Dumas to Gore Vidal how to write historical novels, that he founded social history, that he orchestrated massive enterprises for preserving documents of former ages, that he personally and influentially preserved endangered oral culture from disappearance. Compared with Scott’s services to history, Calloway’s work is featherweight and so is mine and so are almost all historical and fictional writings of our time. Even Trevor-Roper never took on quite such a Goliath. And no slingshot will get Calloway home safe. Scott will outlive us all.

Why such folly, after such a respectable performance? The problem may lie in the professor’s distaste for novel-reading. He has consulted a couple of essays by Scott in the Quarterly Review which enables him to speak of Scott’s novel Rob Roy, which he portrayed as “blending the wild virtues, the subtle policy, and unrestrained license of American Indian”. Ignoring confusion of title and character, Calloway evidently assumes that because Scott spoke of Rob Roy thus in a factual discussion for Quarterly, this is all we need to know of the fictional character in the novel. In fact the description might cover Scott’s Mrs Rob Roy whom we meet briefly, if unforgettably. It will not cover his Rob Roy, a highly complex individual whom we first encounter in English and Glasgow settings. Scott hardly knew enough about Amerindians to fill a title-role: if his Rob Roy is inspired by an exemplar, it is surely Homer’s Odysseus. And no bad idea in helping us to understand a figure working his way though hostile terrain by means of transient alliances.

Discussion of unread books forces dependence not only on others but on conclusions they make in the belief their readers share their knowledge. Calloway’s indictment of Scott’s novels as quoted above, follows a sentence for which Dr James Hunter’s On The Other Side Of Sorrow (1995) is cited. Hunter feels that Scott’s novels saw eighteenth-century Highland culture as inevitably doomed, and that Culloden, while tragic, was for the best. He argues this thesis with delicacy of touch, and coolness of judgement, and any dissent from him must be made with deep respect. This is because he holds Scott in respect. “Walter Scott”, wrote Hunter, “knew both the Highlands and Highlanders extremely well. He understood Highland history. His novels – not just Waverley and Rob Roy but others also – deal very plausibly with the workings of the clan-based society which is recreated in their pages”.

Calloway hurls himself from crag to crag with no study of the terrain of Scott’s novels, no listening to the caution of his own guides, and thus ends up in a Lammer-moor quicksand. For the future he will be well advised to add a new dimension to his comparative studies and approach terrain he does not know with awareness of what is known about it, rather than merely what is said about it, with the humility with which the Amerindian scouted his hunting-ground, and with his grandmother’s wisdom about excessive tartantry which in this context means that the loudest superlatives come from the scholar who knows least.


White People, Indians, and Highlanders: Tribal Peoples and Colonial Encounters in Scotland and America
Colin G Calloway
OUP, £18.99
pp392, ISBN 0195340124

From this Issue

Cow Bhoys and Indians

by Owen Dudley Edwards

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by Ian Bell

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by Theresa Munoz

Poe Pourri

by Brian Morton

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