Composer defends clearances historian

ONE of Scotland's most celebrated composers has reignited the row over the Highland Clearances by dedicating his latest work to a controversial author who claims the notorious episode is a myth.

Dr James MacMillan, composer-conductor of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, has ridden to the defence of Michael Fry, who has been widely attacked for claiming tales of mass eviction are exaggerated.

MacMillan said Fry was the victim of a "Scottish witch hunt" by the nation's left-leaning and nationalist politicians, who were following a "tyrannical intellectual agenda".

MacMillan said he was dedicating his short work, Nemo te condemnavit, to Fry as a gift to show "admiration and solidarity" following the criticism he had received from "second-rate" politicians over his book, Wild Scots.

Fry argues in the book that the mass eviction of Highlanders by ruthless landowners was largely a voluntary attempt to escape poverty and find a better life.

His argument has been widely condemned by the Scottish political establishment, who accuse him of "playing with words" and "ignoring his responsibility as a historian to honour those who had endured trauma and suffering".

But MacMillan told Scotland on Sunday he was "appalled and depressed" by the attacks on Fry.

Among those he singles out is former Labour minister Brian Wilson who compared Fry to David Irving, viewed by many as a Holocaust denier.

MacMillan claims Scotland was shamed by the motion of censure proposed by nationalist MSP Rob Gibson and signed by the - as he puts it - "terminally embarrassing Roseanna Cunningham".

He said: "It puts us up there with the Nazi Reichstag and Supreme Soviet Assembly as a parliament with an instinct for banning writers. What's next? A mass burning of books which do not receive the imprimatur of the Scotia Nostra?

"Fry's views represent a refreshing, revisionist challenge to the tired and hoary old myths so beloved of the complacent, self-obsessed Scottish Establishment.

"Fry deserves our encouragement and thirsty curiosity rather than an archetypally Scottish witch hunt with its attendant and predictable immaturity and hysteria."

He added: "The reaction to Fry's views has exposed a tyrannical intellectual agenda in Scotland which shames many of our academics. Fry has, worryingly, pointed to the effect that low academic standards are now having on Scottish Executive policy."

Scotland's academic community also receives the full force of MacMillan's anger. In particular, Professor Tom Devine is accused of attempting to ward off Fry by appealing to the "fear factor" in describing the Clearances as "potentially even more divisive than sectarianism".

MacMillan said: "The Establishment's anointed historian would then have the field left free to aggressively self-promote his rebarbative sociological and statistical jargon as the one true sanctioned mode of research. God save us from such barrenness of imagination."

MacMillan's comments have been condemned by their targets as inaccurate, "over the top", and intended to generate self-publicity.

Wilson, who stepped down as MP for Cunninghame North at the general election, said: "To call Michael Fry the David Irving of the Clearances is fair comment because it is about denial of... the historical truth.

"I am not interested in his [MacMillan's] opinion. He is entitled to his views, but his public comments usually go over the top whatever he is talking about."

Rob Gibson, MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said: "James MacMillan possibly knows little of the facts and he could consult a wide range of views before making such biased remarks. I am a historian by profession and trade and am interested in the issue. Clearly Dr MacMillan is not."

Cunningham, the MSP for Perth, said people should not court controversy unless they were prepared to "cope with the criticism when it comes".

She said: "That goes for both James MacMillan and Michael Fry. It is interesting, of course, that these outbursts from James MacMillan always seem to happen when he has a new piece of work he is trying to publicise."

But historian Allan Massie praised the composer, and said: "I admire MacMillan for standing up for Michael, and I agree with almost everything MacMillan says, but would dissent on his criticisms of Tom Devine. This seems to be absolutely over the top. One may say there is too much concentration over social and economic history, but I think Tom Devine's books on the Scottish nation and Empire are both very good books. But I quite agree this knee jerk reaction to someone who questions Scottish history is rather pathetic."

Fry is currently in Los Angeles and was unavailable for comment. Devine declined to respond.

Nemo te condemnavit, a short choral work, was commissioned by Yale University. Its title, meaning "Has no one condemned you?", is taken from a verse in the St John's gospel. The work will be performed in the US later this year.

MacMillan, who held the post of Affiliate Composer of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra between 1992 and 2002, is no stranger to provocative outbursts.

Five years ago the committed Roman Catholic lashed out at anti-Catholicism and intolerance in a speech at the Edinburgh Fringe entitled 'Scotland's Shame'.

He hit the headlines again last year after describing the Scottish Executive and Scottish Arts Council as "f***ing stupid" for their decision to axe almost half the full-time staff at Scottish Opera.

In the same interview he called for James Boyle to be sacked from his post as chairman of the Cultural Commission, claiming he had "buggered up" Radio 4 when he was the station's controller.

Recently he attacked Ken Loach, saying that his film Ae Fond Kiss was propaganda against Catholic schools.