Sir Tom Devine: Revisiting the nation's historic bestseller

John Prebble's The Highland Clearances, published for the first time in 1963, is the best-selling Scottish history book ever written, having achieved worldwide sales of more than a quarter of a million copies. It still sells well and is the most widely read text in the United States on any aspect of Scottish history.
A re-enactment of the Jacobites' fateful march from Culloden to Nairn, on 15 April, 1746, the day before their defeat on Culloden Moor. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/GettyA re-enactment of the Jacobites' fateful march from Culloden to Nairn, on 15 April, 1746, the day before their defeat on Culloden Moor. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
A re-enactment of the Jacobites' fateful march from Culloden to Nairn, on 15 April, 1746, the day before their defeat on Culloden Moor. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

The book is part of his Highland trilogy, Fire And Sword, which also includes Culloden (1961) and Glencoe (1966). In the foreword to Glencoe, Prebble revealed his objective: “I have written this book because its story is, in a sense, a beginning to what I have already written about Culloden and the clearances – the destruction of the Highland people and their way of life.”

John Prebble (1915–2001) was born in England but emigrated, aged six, to Canada with his parents, later returning to the UK as a young boy of 12. It is suggested that early friendships among members of the Scottish emigrant communities in Canada first stimulated his interest in Highland history. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain as an adult but left after the end of the Second World War. However, Prebble never lost his hostility to the human impact of market capitalism or sympathy for its victims.

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Many scholars have rubbished The Highland Clearances as a work of faction, or a fusion of fact and fiction, rather than a serious history. Predictably the book rarely features in the prescribed reading lists of Scottish universities, except perhaps as an exemplar of partisan historical interpretation. I recall a colleague once setting students the essay question: “Prebble’s The Highland Clearances is not good history but it is a good novel. Discuss.”

But most readers seem not to care about the ferocious criticisms which the volume has sometimes attracted from members of the academy; it continues to sell well long after his death. For the general public, Prebble tells a compelling story in very readable prose presented as a dramatic saga of betrayal, loss, tragedy and forced exile of the Highland clans from their native glens which in his interpretation remain empty to this day as silent memorials of man’s inhumanity to man.

The author makes his own position perfectly clear from the outset: “This is the story of how the Highlanders were deserted and then betrayed. It concerns itself with people, how sheep were preferred to them, and how bayonet, truncheon and fire were used to drive them from their homes.”

The book is an accessible and fluent read, in part because the author does not even try to come to grips with any of the many challenging complexities of Highland history. Those in the dock are always the former chieftains of the clans, by the later 18th century transformed into commercial landlords, whose greed, Prebble insists, led them to sacrifice their erstwhile clansmen for filthy lucre. At root, indeed, the volume is concerned with a classic struggle between the forces of good (the defenceless people of the Highlands) and evil (the brutal landlords and their callous lackeys, the notorious factors – estate managers – of ill fame).

Prebble’s perspective on clearances had been fashioned by almost a century of earlier polemic, political and fictional writing which stretched back into the Victorian era. Most of the documentation in the book relies on these earlier works with little evidence of original research by the author. Almost all of this passionate oeuvre was produced at the height of Victorian controversies about clearances between the 1840s and the 1880s. It was deeply sympathetic to the people who had been displaced, strongly supportive of the vital need for land reform and bitterly hostile to what was seen as oppressive and brutal landlordism.

It was significant too that The Highland Clearances achieved bestseller status in Scotland 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. As the country started to move politically to the left, the history of the evictions became a symbol for the emerging tragedy of an economy in decline, the social impact of deindustrialisation sometimes being described as a modern clearance.

This was also the time when Scottish nationalism finally achieved some electoral purchase with Winnie Ewing’s famous victory in the Hamilton by-election of 1967. 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 sometimes also, against all the evidence, that English landowners and sheep farmers were mainly responsible for the draconian acts of eviction.

Prebble himself never claimed to be a historian and always referred to himself as a historical writer. He seems to have been taken aback by the storm of criticism generated in some circles by his book, especially by the intervention of the late Professor Gordon Donaldson, a former Historiographer Royal,who bitterly denounced Prebble’s work on the Highlands as “complete rubbish”.

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Some thought the furore simply reflected jealousy on the part of an academic establishment whose works might be scholarly and rigorous but could never hope to achieve a fraction of Prebble’s sales. It is also fair to say that he had tackled an important and controversial subject which most historians up until that time had studiously ignored or consciously avoided. But scholars were also right to be concerned that a book which some of them believed to be riven by bias and distortion, as well as being under-researched and devoid of much critical perspective, was widely accepted by the public as the authentic chronicle of clearance.

There is indeed still much to be said about this controversial and emotive subject. In my new book The Scottish Clearances, which will be published later this year, I return to the saga of the dispossession of peasant communities, not just in the Highlands but throughout Scotland between 1600 to 1900. Based on four decades of research, writing, teaching and reflection I see it as my most ambitious and challenging project to date.

Sir Tom Devine is Sir William Fraser Professor Emeritus of Scottish History and Palaeography in the University of Edinburgh

The Scottish Clearances: A History Of The Dispossessed 1600-1900 will be published by Allen Lane: The Penguin Press on 4 October at £25.00