History, Gore Vidal believed, was too important to be left to historians. He was particularly exercised by American academic historians whom he invariably prefaced with the word ‘fucking’. In Vidal’s opinion they had ruined history and turned readers off it by making it indigestible. Like Sir Walter Scott, with whom he had more in common than one might think, he tried to recreate the past in a manner that would encourage anyone interested in it to find out more.
His aim was to stick as close to the facts as possible. His jousts with academic historians were many and bloody. Vidal did not suffer those he regarded as fools gladly and rejoiced in correcting their errors and highlighting howlers. History, as T.M. Devine often delights in asserting, may be the ‘queen of all disciplines’ but it is not a science, such as mathematics, whose practitioners were the first to claim that sobriquet. It is subjective and selective and as open to the winds of fashion as are writers of fiction. Moreover, the story of eras lost in the mists of time is elusive and dependant on the available sources. Meanwhile, most if not all the witnesses are dead and those who left a record must be treated with caution. The past is not so much a foreign country as a planet on which we have yet to set foot. Going there is an act of daring and fraught with potential hazard. Who among us can imagine what it was truly like to live at a time when the appliances and utilities of the modern age were non-existent?
In relative terms the Scottish Clearances happened not so long ago but they remain fraught with contention and controversy. As Devine acknowledges at the outset of what he has said is his ‘most ambitious and challenging project to date’, a key text is John Prebble’s bestseller, The Highland Clearances. In academe’s glittering towers, Prebble’s name has always been uttered with a mixture of contempt, anger and envy. When Scottish history was an afterthought in our schools – Devine himself preferred to study geography rather than history when told he had to make a choice between the two – Prebble, who was English born and spent six formative years in Canada – produced a series of badly-needed books about this disputatious nation’s unsteady growth. First came Culloden, which appeared in 1961. Two years later he produced The Highland Clearances and in 1966 Glencoe. Whatever else might be said about the ‘Fire and Sword’ trilogy, it has remained remarkably popular. The same cannot be said of the books of many of its detractors. As Devine reminded us in an article earlier this year in the Scotsman, it was the then Historiographer Royal, Gordon Donaldson, ‘who bitterly denounced Prebble’s work on the Highlands as “complete rubbish”.’ Well, were Prebble alive today he would be laughing all the way to the bank while Donaldson’s shade must rely on the dusty shelves of libraries to keep his flame alive.
Quite why publicly-remunerated his-torians were so antipathetical towards Prebble is perplexing. There is no doubt, however, that at least some of them felt that their patch had been invaded by someone apparently unqualified to inhabit it. While the study of Scottish history in our schools and universities was in the doldrums, it took an outsider to boldly go where others feared – or had no inclination or imagination – to tread. It is a terrible indictment of the academy that it took so long to emerge from its Rip van Winkle-like dwam. Indeed, one could argue that were it not for Prebble the present cadre of energetic and enlightened Scottish historians would not have existed. As Prebble was well aware, the subjects he chose to write about were emotive and ripe for commercial exploitation. In the case of The Highland Clearances, he told a black and white narrative in which there was little room for nuance. Its greatest popularity, Devine has suggested, was achieved during the late 1960s and 1970s, ‘when the country first began to experience the early stages of deindustrialisation and rising levels of unemployment as the postwar boom petered out and the old imperial connections which had sustained the great heavy industries faded into the past’. On top of which, there was Winnie Ewing’s famous by-election victory for the SNP in the Hamilton by-election in 1967 and the subsequent furore over independence. In short, The Highland Clearance was very much in tune with the zeitgeist. As Devine notes in the introduction to The Scottish Clearances: ‘Nationalism, clearances and victimhood soon became intimately linked by some polemicists, a tendency which has continued to the present day through the proliferation of social media. The contentions were that the historic tragedy of the Gaels had taken place during the Union and some-times also, against all the evidence, that English landowners and sheep farmers were mainly responsible for the draconian acts
History, like everything else, must be seen in context. Though gallons of ink has been spilled since Prebble’s pomp, the much-derided story he spun has barely changed in the public’s perception. This is surprising given the scale of change in general. The arrival of devolution in 1997, the first SNP government in charge at Holyrood in 2007, the independence referendum of 2014 and the decision in 2016 that Britain must leave the European Union next March, have impacted on many aspects of Scottish society, not the least of which is the growth of interest in its own past. For this T.D. Devine, who was knighted in 2014 ‘for services to the study of Scottish history’, must take huge credit. Like Prebble – if not quite on the same scale – his books The Scottish Nation, Scotland’s Empire, To the Ends of the Earth and Independence or Union have all been bestsellers. Like a journalist, he is a master synthesizer, expert in moulding the morass of new historiographic material into a digestible whole. He writes with admirable clarity, sticking closely to verifiable information – Vidal would have approved – and always with his eye on two markets, the one of his peers in universities, the other the reading public. Even Devine, however, has his blind spots. He has acknowledged, for example, in his early work on the tobacco barons, that he overlooked the impact of the slave trade and the involvement in it of Scots of every stripe. Now in his eighth decade he feels he has acquired the necessary knowledge to approach an equally contentious topic.
It was not until the second half of the twentieth century, we lay readers learn, that an academic historian felt able to tackle the history of clearance. The exception to the rule was The Highland Economy 1750-1850 by Malcolm Gray, Devine’s dedicatee. It was another quarter of a century, however, before a comprehensive study materialized: Eric Richard’s A History of the Highland Clearances. But whatever impact these made in academia, they did little to alter the view of the Clearances as described Prebble. I certainly did not read either of these books but I did read, albeit in the 1970s, Ian Grimble’s The Trial of Patrick Sellar, published in 1962, and most of the novels of Neil Gunn, several of which had as their backdrop the Clearances. The story that emerged was one in which the lives of people – poor people, people without influence or a vote, people whose livelihoods were often determined by remote or absent or cruel landowners – were felt to be worth less than those of sheep. The sheep in question were Cheviots, hence the mention of them in John McGrath’s play, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil. It was the Cheviot breed that was imported into the north-west of Scotland in the eighteenth century and which led to the displacement of much of the population. But as Devine demonstrates, the evictions did not happen suddenly nor were they often provoked by outsiders. On the contrary the absentee landlords were invariably clan chiefs who, in order to afford luxury lifestyles in Edinburgh and London imposed ever-increasing rents on their miserable kinsfolk. ‘One laird, Archibald Campbell of Knockbuy in Argyll, for instance’, writes Devine, ‘raised his rental fourfold between 1728 and the 1780s…’ Throughout the eighteenth century, leases were offered to the highest bidder. Increasingly, there was little place for sentiment or clan loyalty. The portrait that emerges of the Highlands is not one of cohesion and cooperation, of a top-down community in which the poor were looked after by their wealthy leaders, but of change and circumstance and commercial imperatives impacting on those least able to cope with the consequences. Far from demonizing landowners and lairds, however, Devine is careful to weigh up the constraints facing them. Having said that, the hardships with which they were confronted were on a different level to those eking an existence out of an unforgiving patch of land. ‘Most of the Highland gentry,’ writes Devine, ‘began to live outside the region from the later eighteenth century, and in their search for gentlemanly status among their peers in the south soon fell into what has been termed “the luxury trap”.’
Despicable as such behaviour was, it was also ever thus. But as the decades slipped by the nature of clearance changed. Where, formerly, people had moved because of economic necessity, the policy changed in the nineteenth century to one where expulsion was forced upon them. This was the aspect on which John Prebble dwelt. One revelatory and horrifying aspect of the process was the role of the Church, which apparently managed to make the victims feel they were guilty. ‘This,’ notes Devine, ‘was the reaction…of the people of Glencalvie in Strathconan who were obliged to seek refuge in the church at Croick in 1845 after being evicted from their lands. They scrawled a message on the windowsill of the kirk where they sought shelter that their plight was a dreadful punishment for sin. Also, the mighty who had inflicted pain would not go unpunished. But retribution belonged to God, not man; in one sermon the Rev. John Sinclair, minister of Bruan in Caithness, made the point explicitly: “It is true that we often see the wicked enjoy much comfort and worldly ease, and the Godly chastened every morning; but this is a dreadful rest to the former and a blessed chastisement to the latter.” The doctrines of Calvinism therefore gave spiritual certainty during the transition from clanship to clearance as the evangelicals concentrated the minds and the emotions of the people on a highly personal struggle for grace and election. The miseries of this life were not simply to be endured but were in themselves a necessary agony for those who wished to attain eternal salvation in the next.’
Such interventions, argues Devine, may help explain why Highlanders’ resistance to the Clearances was relatively feeble. Nor, it seems, could they expect much help from elsewhere. While their Bards bemoaned the plight of a persecuted people, the press, for example, in the guise of the Scotsman in 1851, advocated the removal in mass of ‘a diseased and damaged part of our population’, adding: ‘It is a relief to the rest of the population to be rid of this part’. Two public officials, Sir John Trevelyan and Sir John McNeil, played significant parts in promoting this brutal policy. It would have been good to have been told a little more about these individuals who, in contrast to Patrick Sellar, the Countess of Sutherland’s hated factor, have by and large escaped public opprobrium. It was Trevelyan, for instance, who wanted to remove charity and relief from indigent highlanders, thirty to fourty thousand of whom he sought to ‘emigrate’ because they would never go ‘while they are supported at other people’s expense’.
Eventually, the people who clung on to their crofts could tolerate no longer the impositions placed on them and engaged in a series of rent strikes. But this was destined only to postpone the inevitable. The Industrial Revolution was infinitely more effective in clearing land than ever the likes of Patrick Sellar managed. As Glasgow’s population grew exponentially, the straths and glens fell silent and the smell of peat smoke became a memory. The truth is that there are many ways to make people leave a place where they are no longer wanted or needed. Law enforcement is one, economic hardship another, but equally effective is the grail of greater opportunity and prosperity. The lure of the city was magnetic.The seductiveness of a more comfortable life far from where you and your forebears were born and bred is undeniable and understandable.
Devine’s ‘dispossessed’ are a nationwide phenomenon. The tale of what befell the highlands and islands may have added to the romantic allure of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the failed rebellions of 1715 and ’45 but it also overshadowed what happened in the rest of the country. The Scottish Clearances is a belated and welcome attempt to redress the balance. Long before moves were made to ‘clear’ the Highlands, the Borders suffered its own serious depletion of population. As Devine acknowledges, two generations before the fabled Highland Clearances many tenants and cottars in the Borders were removed from their birthplace. Sheep were the ‘proximate’ cause. Flocks, many thousand strong, were given licence to roam long before it was awarded to ramblers. What initially inhibited their proliferation on an industrial scale were the reivers who plundered at will and the armies marching from the south to quell their noisy northern neighbours. With peace, however, came stability and the opportunity to reduce the population – so necessary in times of conflict – and replace them with animals, cattle as well as sheep, whose mutton and wool was needed to satisfy burgeoning demand in England. As early as 1700, long before it was a significant factor in the Highlands, sheep farming was synonymous with the Borders. Thus tenant farmers were edged out and replaced by a few shepherds who tended flocks which grazed over considerable acreage. The best chroniclers of this altered landscape were the local ministers who in the 1790s described for the Old Statistical Account (OSA) what was happening in their parishes. Their tone, says Devine, is elegiac, and reminiscent of Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, ‘The Deserted Village’, published in 1770, which drew on his experience of growing up in rural Ireland:
Even now the devastation is begun,
And half the business of destruction done;
Even now, methinks, as pondering here I stand,
I see the rural virtues leave the land.
Here’s what the minister for the parish of Tweedsmuir in Peebleshire had to say in the OSA: ‘The population of this parish has decreased considerably. About 70 years ago, the lands were occupied by 26 tenants, but the farms since that period have been gradually enlarged in extent, and of course diminished in number; even of the 15 to which they are now reduced, so many are engrossed in the hands of the same persons, and those often settled in other parishes, that there are now only 3 farmers at present resident in the whole parish.’
The similarity with what was to happen later in the Highlands is striking. Elsewhere in the Borders, in Galloway, for instance, armed groups of tenants and cottars fought back when families were evicted. There, the opposition of the ‘Levellers’ was to large-scale enclosing of cattle parks and the effect this had on the common grazing ground and arable lands of tenants. As ever, the Kirk and the press stood on the side of the landed élite. In the long march towards ‘progress’ this was merely another incidental protest that had little ultimate effect. At least one landlord, however, deserves mention for his humane approach. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Duke of Buccleuch was determined to avoid the dispossession of tenants. In this, remarks Devine, he was ‘unusually magnanimous… perhaps because his great wealth allowed him more scope to provide for them in a more benevolent fashion than was the case among more impecunious lairds’.
Be that as it may, the southern clearances have never had anything like the emotional heft of those in the Highlands and Islands. The reasons for this are complex. In comparison to Highlanders, dispossessed Borderers were often able to find alternative employment not so far from where they were originally situated, especially in the woollen mills of which, by the 1870s, there were some 250. Borderers did not need to emigrate to survive though the tribal nature of the region might suggest otherwise: even now a native of Hawick needs a good reason to go and work in Galashiels and vice versa. Devine’s book should be in every Scottish library, private as well as public. It shows that human history is one of flux in which there are always losers and winners, the former invariably being the poor and the latter the privileged. Those who are deemed to stand in the way of progress are its collateral damage, as expendable as the slaves who picked the cotton and cut sugar cane. It’s not personal, just business. In many respects the Scottish Clearances are no different from other such clearances around the globe. If you’re a Native American, an Aborigine or a member of an Amazonian tribe your tenancy is forever subject to review.
In the Borders, where my mother lived and where I now live, sheep still cling to the hillsides. But sheep are now under threat from those who can make more profit from forestry. What goes around comes around.