Trauma hid­den in the wilder­ness

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - EWEN A CAMERON


As Tom Devine makes clear in this pow­er­ful book, the Scots are a land­less peo­ple who have re­tained an in­tense at­tach­ment to the idea of the land. Since the cre­ation of a de­volved Scot­tish par­lia­ment in 1999, there have been two land re­form Acts and the his­tory that is an­a­lysed in this book was a fre­quent ref­er­ence point in the de­bates lead­ing up to their pas­sage. Im­por­tant works – such as Neil M Gunn’s Butcher’s Broom – that deal with the land punc­tu­ate mod­ern Scot­tish lit­er­a­ture. In Ire­land the “land ques­tion” may not be a cur­rent is­sue in so­ci­ety or pol­i­tics but the Ir­ish peo­ple are not land­less.

The land-pur­chase poli­cies of the UK govern­ment be­fore 1922 and the work of the land com­mis­sion af­ter that date have en­sured that this is the case. This is a more im­por­tant point of com­par­a­tive his­tory than the sense that the chronol­ogy and themes of Scot­tish and Ir­ish ru­ral his­tory ran in broad par­al­lel. There were points of sim­i­lar­ity, of course, such as the huge ex­tent of evic­tion in Ire­land and the con­di­tions that led to the famine of the 1840s, although the Scot­tish ver­sion was a less in­tense re­gional famine rather than a na­tional catas­tro­phe.

One of the many mer­its of this book is that it lives up to its ti­tle and cov­ers the whole of Scot­land. This is im­por­tant be­cause there have been many books about the High­land clear­ances, which have a pre-em­i­nent place in the Scot­tish na­tional mem­ory. Be­tween the early 18th cen­tury and the late 1850s, High­land so­ci­ety was sub­jected to two broad cy­cles of clear­ance. In the first, up to about 1815, land­lords en­gaged in so­cial and eco­nomic engi­neer­ing to re­lo­cate pop­u­la­tion in the in­ter­est of cre­at­ing ex­ten­sive graz­ing lands for sheep; tra­di­tional town­ships were swept away and the peo­ple were re­moved. New “croft­ing com­mu­ni­ties” were cre­ated and sus­tained by fish­ing, kelp-gather­ing, mil­i­tary em­ploy­ment – all of which prof­ited the clear­ing land­lords, who dep­re­cated em­i­gra­tion – and de­pen­dence on the potato. This so­ci­ety col­lapsed af­ter the Napoleonic Wars and cre­ated the con­di­tions for a famine in the 1840s when the potato crop failed, dur­ing and af­ter which poverty-stricken croft­ing com­mu­ni­ties were swept away in a sec­ond cy­cle of clear­ance and em­i­gra­tion.

Less well-known and hardly re­mem­bered are the Low­land clear­ances. In this process dur­ing the 18th cen­tury, older forms of com­mu­nal town­ships and farms were erad­i­cated and a highly-ef­fi­cient form of im­proved agri­cul­ture was im­posed. The bur­geon­ing in­dus­trial econ­omy of Low­land Scot­land ab­sorbed many of the vic­tims of this process and the land­scape was purged of traces of the older regime. These ideas were ex­ported to Ire­land in the af­ter­math of the Famine, when Scots gra­ziers be­came hated fig­ures in the west of Ire­land.

Fur­ther, many Ir­ish land­lords sought Scots land agents to bring new “im­proved” ideas to Ir­ish agri­cul­ture. As Devine makes clear, these are im­por­tant el­e­ments in the way that these events are elided when mat­ters of land are dis­cussed in mod­ern Scot­land.


In the High­lands, there were ad­di­tional el­e­ments that en­sure the sur­vival of the nar­ra­tive. The idea of a clash of cul­tures and races is part of this story. Low­land Scots sought to af­firm their su­pe­ri­or­ity over Celtic peo­ples, their back­ward ways and their worth­less lan­guage. The way in which Devine weaves Gaelic ma­te­rial and lit­er­ary ev­i­dence in Low­land Scots into the ac­count is es­pe­cially valu­able. De­spite this, High­landers were co-opted as de­fend­ers of the Em­pire in new reg­i­ments of the Bri­tish army from the 1740s. The rugged­ness of the peo­ple and their in­her­ent mar­tial qual­i­ties en­sured their util­ity in this project. El­e­ments of ro­man­ti­cism in Low­land views of Gaels, as ex­pressed in the draw­ing rooms of Ge­orge Square in Ed­in­burgh, did not mit­i­gate the process of evic­tion on the ground in the north of Scot­land.

In di­rect prose Prof Devine lays out this his­tory with ad­mirable lu­cid­ity. He cov­ers the dif­fer­ent as­pects of the process in a com­pre­hen­sive ac­count. As he writes, clear­ance was an “om­nibus term” and its man­i­fes­ta­tions ranged from silent aban­don­ment of tra­di­tional town­ships and vol­un­tary em­i­gra­tion, as a way of re­ject­ing loss of sta­tus in the new regime, to events of ex­treme vi­o­lence and co­er­cion. He deals with events in the bor­der of south­ern Scot­land and fa­mil­iar events in Suther­land and other ar­eas of the High­lands.

In some ways the most com­pelling sec­tions of the book are the chap­ters that deal with the erad­i­ca­tion of the cot­tar class in Low­land Scot­land, the “clear­ance by stealth” and the “for­got­ten his­tory” of dis­pos­ses­sion in the borders as large-scale sheep farm­ing en­croached into this part of Scot­land long be­fore it was con­tem­plated in the High­lands. Although these mat­ters have been dis­cussed in aca­demic cir­cles, it is im­por­tant that they be con­veyed to a wider au­di­ence in Scot­land and beyond.

One very im­por­tant point that is em­pha­sised is the ex­tent of protest against clear­ance. Although this be­came more politi­cised and ac­tive in the High­land Land War of the 1880s – in which Ir­ish fig­ures, such as Michael Davitt, were very ac­tive – ex­ten­sive protest was ev­i­dent through­out the years of clear­ance. The bal­ance of power was so heav­ily weighted to­wards the land­lords and the state that it was very dif­fi­cult for groups of small ten­ants to sub­vert the process. As well as riot and dis­tur­bance, protest was man­i­fest in em­i­gra­tion against land­lord wishes, Gaelic song and po­etry and the re­jec­tion of the land­lord-dom­i­nated Church of Scot­land in many ru­ral ar­eas in the “Dis­rup­tion” of 1843, which saw the cre­ation of a new Free Church of Scot­land.

The pro­cesses of dis­pos­ses­sion re­lated in this im­por­tant book con­tinue to mark con­tem­po­rary Scot­land. The empti­ness of the Scot­tish coun­try­side, north and south, is mar­keted as a nat­u­ral and pos­i­tive state of af­fairs. Soli­tude and wilder­ness are valu­able com­modi­ties. Tom Devine lays out, in com­pre­hen­sive depth, the trau­matic process that cre­ated such con­di­tions.

Ewen A Cameron is Sir Wil­liam Fraser pro­fes­sor of Scot­tish his­tory and palaeog­ra­phy at theUniver­si­ty­ofEd­in­burgh

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