Lament for the Clear­ances

Diana Ga­bal­don ad­mires a riv­et­ing study of the forces that sep­a­rated thou­sands of Scots from their land

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -


496pp, Allen Lane, £25, ebook £12.99

If Sir Tom Devine hadn’t cho­sen to be a his­to­rian, he’d have made a great his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist. That choice may have been a loss to lit­er­a­ture, but The Scot­tish Clear­ances: A His­tory of the Dis­pos­sessed, is worth it. The scope of this book – the Low­lands, the High­lands and the di­as­pora from the 17th cen­tury to the 20th – is im­pres­sive, and the de­tail and depth of knowl­edge dis­played are re­mark­able – but what’s truly amaz­ing about it is how damn read­able it is.

To some­one with a pass­ing fa­mil­iar­ity with Scot­tish his­tory, the word “Clear­ances” con­jures up two things: trans­ported Ja­co­bites and sheep. Emo­tion­ally mov­ing im­ages show­ing fam­i­lies cast adrift, in mo­tion to­ward an un­known place, are com­mon.

Less com­mon is a close look at what moved them. In re­al­ity, the forces and in­flu­ences that sep­a­rated thou­sands of Scots from the land that gave them both sus­te­nance and iden­tity were var­ied and com­plex. In many in­stances, de­par­tures were vol­un­tary and eco­nom­i­cally mo­ti­vated, rather than be­ing at the di­rect in­sti­ga­tion of a hos­tile gov­ern­ment or hard-hearted land­lords who thought their lands bet­ter sheepled than peo­pled.

Devine ex­plains the slow de­cay of the clan sys­tem as a mat­ter of agrar­ian de­vel­op­ment and in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion (aided by the oc­ca­sional famine and re­li­gious per­se­cu­tion) as much as of gov­ern­ment op­pres­sion, and shep­herds us through the grad­ual part­ing of the poor­est cit­i­zens from the land that was their only sus­te­nance, and from the mythic soil in which their emo­tions were rooted. And this is the real strength of the book. His schol­ar­ship is iron­clad, but the hard ev­i­dence of ta­bles, fig­ures and a 29-page bib­li­og­ra­phy is bal­anced by the let­ters, poems, songs and bits of the sto­ries that let the peo­ple of the past speak for them­selves.

In part, this is a demon­stra­tion of Devine’s nov­el­is­tic skills. He changes fo­cus of­ten, draw­ing the reader back to ap­pre­ci­ate the over­view of en­croach­ing forces such as en­clo­sure or so­cial climb­ing by land­hold­ers, then zoom­ing in to see the close-up ef­fects of those forces on in­di­vid­u­als, al­low­ing us both to un­der­stand and to em­pathise.

He has a deft hand with de­tail, too. One is al­ways spoilt for choice when it comes to the de­tails of Scot­tish his­tory, but Devine has an eye for the hu­man mo­ment that en­cap­su­lates and il­lus­trates a sit­u­a­tion or a point. The book has a brief sec­tion of lit­eral il­lus­tra­tions – pho­to­graphs, paint­ings and draw­ings – but Devine also draws his de­tail from bal­lads, paint­ings and nov­els, as with this brief quo­ta­tion from An­nals of the

Parish, an 1821 novel by John Galt. Here we see the Rev Micah Bal­whid­der, ap­pointed to a parish by a lo­cal pa­tron, ap­proach his new church for the first time:

CAST ADRIFTA satir­i­cal car­toon of the Crofter Act of 1886

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