Brian Wilson: Highland Clearances must not be erased from history

I was in Portree this week for the funeral of the artist Tommy Mackenzie, whose wonderful etchings of the Skye landscape adorn the walls of homes and offices around the world.
A ruined croft near Crossbost on the Isle of Lewis (Picture: Ian Rutherford)A ruined croft near Crossbost on the Isle of Lewis (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
A ruined croft near Crossbost on the Isle of Lewis (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

Tourists descend on Skye in huge numbers, drawn by its spectacular beauty and mystique. Maybe a few of them pause, as we all should when visiting new destinations, to learn a little of the human history that has shaped the place and its people.

Across the road from the church, I was pleased to see that two plaques remain at the entrance to Portree Hotel, one in English and the other Gaelic, as legacies of an event I put together a dozen years ago to recall the connection between Michael Davitt, the Irish land reformer, and Skye.

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In 1887, Davitt addressed a huge assembly of the poor and dispossessed from the hotel balcony, making such an impression he was invited to become their Parliamentary candidate. The plaques recall him as “a friend of the crofters’ cause” and celebrate “the shared history of the land struggle that gave people the right to remain in these places”.

That reminds us of how the land reform movement, once it gained a political voice, had strength and intensity which forced legislation, elected MPs and transcended divisions, including those of religion. The cruelties well-known to rural Ireland and the Highlands created common cause.

“To remain in these places” is an important phrase, for it is what the struggle was about. Without security of tenure, the exodus would have continued. Anyone who doubts that should check population statistics for areas which came within the remit of the Crofting Acts and the permanent wildernesses left outside.

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7 villages emptied by the Highland Clearances

For those who ask (not unreasonably) whether any of this matters today, one answer is that to an extraordinary extent, vast areas of Scotland still live with the demographics dictated by that period, with all the handicaps bequeathed. That recognition is critical to understanding the challenges faced by the periphery, right up to the present day.

You might expect Scottish historians, if not politicians, to be sensitive to that reasoning. But the Highlands have always created a problem for academic historians. They are used to relying on written sources – estate papers and the like – which, in the 19th century Highlands, told a very different story from the people’s experience.

Last week, three Scottish historians were assembled by Melvyn Bragg to discuss “The Highland Clearances” on Radio 4 – professors Sir Thomas Devine, Murray Pittock and Marjory Harper. Since there was not a shred of variation in their interpretations, they can be quoted collectively as The Three Professors.

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It is difficult to imagine such a BBC programme venturing anywhere else in the world without ensuring the indigenous voice was represented, rather than spoken about by an external elite. As has been indignantly pointed out by those with a very different perspective on Highland history, the voice of the Gael – whose language and culture were dispersed to the ends of the earth – was entirely missing.

Not only missing but they were also heavily patronised. Words like “mythology”, “exaggeration” and “romanticism” buzzed around the studio as The Three Professors, to their own entire satisfaction, achieved a consensus which added up to “not that big a deal, most of them went voluntarily, nobody really talked about it till the 1960s, get over it…”

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Their erudition was sprinkled with timeworn clichés, conspicuously unsupported by evidence. “Unlike Ireland, the landlord is not seen as an alien” … “the guilt of Presbyterianism” … “collective punishment, something that has been brought upon themselves by their own sinfulness” … “the landlords provided charity”.

For anyone with an ear for this debate, it was like a time-warp with the clock turned back 40-odd years, as if James Hunter’s landmark work, The Making of the Crofting Community, and all the research which flowed from it had never existed. Of course, The Three Professors are entitled to their opinion and their platform but it was scandalous that it went unchallenged.

The most inconvenient blockage to downplaying 19th century Highland history lies in the verbatim evidence given to the Napier Commission which, in the early 1880s, finally gave voice to the people’s story. That was circumvented by The Three Professors who contended that witnesses had been “tutored” to provide evidence which sustained “mythologisation” – a jaw-dropping denigration of the most complete first-hand account of the period.

It is true that Queen Victoria feared the crofters were being “duped into impossible demands by Irish agitators” while the Duke of Argyll believed “the minds of the people have been poisoned by Socialists”. However, if you do not normally rely on such sources for social commentary, it would be as well to apply the same scepticism to The Three Professors.

I return to the question of whether any of this matters In 2018? Well, if it matters enough for Melvyn Bragg to make the programme, then it matters enough to challenge the revisionism which emerged – not in order to dwell in the past but to respect and learn from it.

Of course, that should involve land reform in order to empower communities. But it goes far wider. The system of tenure which emerged from the Napier Commission only worked so long as it was tightly regulated. Today, crofting regulation is an empty shell. A whole new approach is required, to give people the opportunity to live, work and raise families in these places, if that is indeed the continuing intention.

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One of Sir Thomas’s rather odd objections to an emphasis on Highland history was that it led to little attention being paid to Lowland Clearances. Whose fault was that, I wonder? Anyway, here’s the opportunity for redress. The problems of peripherality are not unique to the Highlands and Islands so why not bring them all together?

We seem to have Ministers for everything else so why not a Minister for the Periphery, with powers over land use and breaking down the silos of bureaucracy in order to sustain healthy rural communities in the 21st century? What a great challenge, if only there was devolution.