THE AUTHOR of a controversial new book that promises to expose the Highland Clearances as a myth last night challenged his critics to a public debate to expose "lazy and emotional versions of Scottish history" that always blamed the landlords.
Michael Fry, author of Wild Scots, Four Hundred Years of Highland History, has angered politicians and historians by saying that claims of mass evictions from the Highlands in the 18th and 19th centuries were greatly exaggerated and ignored the desire of people to leave their poverty-stricken homeland to improve themselves.
Critics included the Labour MP Brian Wilson, who described Mr Fry as a buffoon the "David Irving of the Clearances", a reference to the historian who has played down the number of people killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
Professor Tom Devine, of Aberdeen University and author of The Scottish Nation, said Mr Fry’s comments could provoke a war of words that could make discussions on sectarianism seem tame.
Excerpts from Mr Fry’s book, due to be published in July, focus on the most notorious episodes of the era. These include Mr Fry’s assertion that the Duke of Sutherland moved tenants from their inland homes to the coast to give them new livelihoods in new industries on a par with the post-war Labour government moving people to East Kilbride.
He argues that since the population of Sutherland rose between 1801 and 1831, the Clearances could "not have been all that ruthless".
Mr Fry also claims there was no potato blight leading to famine in Scotland in the 1840s and that no mass graves were ever found.
James Hunter, professor of history at the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute, whose new book, Scottish Exodus, examines the Highland diaspora, said Mr Fry was "playing with words" and ignoring the responsibility of historians to honour those who had endured trauma and suffering.
Prof Hunter said: "The truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes that horrible, brutal landlords evicted the Highland population and Mr Fry’s views that no-one was evicted.
"The situation was complicated and people left or were put off the land for different reasons at various times."
Speaking from Los Angeles, Mr Fry said: "The novelty of my work is that I look at distinct facts rather than behave like historians such as James Hunter who lazily say it was all the wicked landlords’ fault.
"History proves there was a natural desire for people to improve themselves, and it was only afterwards that the landlords joined in. This took place against a background of the pressure on the land of the soaring population.
"Yet another fact proven by a private census showed that the Highland population stood at 250,000 in 1755 but this had risen to 400,000 in 1840."
Mr Wilson said:
"Fry set out to write a Clearances-denial book. Therefore his conclusions are worthless. It is a stunt which should not be treated as serious history."