Civic ‘im­prove­ment’ and the price of wool

Rappahannock News - - LETTERS -

At the end of the 18th century, wealthy land­lords, both Scot­tish and English, looked upon the indige­nous peo­ples of the Scot­tish High­lands and saw a back­ward, rus­tic, sim­ple so­ci­ety of bare­foot la­bor­ers ek­ing out a rudi­men­tary ex­is­tence on small plots called crofts.

These crofters uti­lized enough land to pro­vide for them­selves and their im­me­di­ate com­mu­ni­ties with very limited ex­port of cat­tle. Most were Gaelic speak­ers. Most did not have the English lan­guage and even worse (in the land­lords’ eyes), most were Catholics. To the civ­i­lized out­siders, these people were hea­thens. In the opin­ion of their bet­ters, they re­quired im­prove­ment.

Of course, these people didn’t ask for im­prove­ment. In fact, un­seen to the out­sider who had no eyes to see it, High­land cul­ture was ex­traor­di­nar­ily so­phis­ti­cated and rich in tra­di­tion. For a thou­sand years, the deep knowl­edge of the clans was cap­tured and trans­ferred across gen­er­a­tions by bards held in the high­est es­teem. These an­cient sto­ries, crafted in prose, po­etry and song were rein­ter­preted by suc­ces­sive poets and singers, many of which were al­ready in print by the turn of the century and many more of which have been dis­cov­ered since.

The Ir­ish play­wright Brian Friel has given us a win­dow into this world in his deeply mov­ing and exquisitel­y frag­ile mas­ter­piece, “Trans­la­tions.” His play is set at about the same time, dur­ing the Napoleonic Wars, de­pict­ing the depre­da­tions in­flicted upon the Ir­ish in­hab­it­ing the most western Celtic fringe of Ire­land — a place, like the Scot­tish High­lands, where English was rarely spo­ken and the people there­fore seen as prim­i­tives by those who did not know or care to know about them or their cul­ture.

One can spend days por­ing over the high-minded jus­ti­fi­ca­tions writ­ten and pub­lished by land­lords, their min­ions, their lawyers, their es­tate agents, their “fac­tors,” their sher­iffs and their clergy-for-hire.

The mes­sage, in all its per­mu­ta­tions, in all its le­gal­is­tic and re­li­gious vari­a­tions was this: “You people are liv­ing in mis­ery, squalor, poverty and ig­no­rance. It is our mis­sion to save you. We will im­prove your lives.” Then, with one hand con­trol­ling the law and the other the banks, they pro­ceeded to do just that. And the im­prove­ment was bru­tal.

Be­tween the last decade of the 18th century and the hun­dred years that fol­lowed, nearly the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of the Scot­tish High­lands was forcibly cleared from the land to make room for sheep. This was the real rea­son the lives of these back­ward people needed im­prov­ing: Money, lots and lots of it.

The cost of wool had been steadily climb­ing from the mid­dle of the 18th century, spurred by Europe’s pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion and ex­ac­er­bated by con­ti­nen­tal wars that dis­rupted trade. Herds of graz­ing sheep need mas­sive amounts of open land.

By the end of the 18th century, the open land in Eng­land and the low­lands of Scot­land had al­ready reached their car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity for the graz­ing of sheep. The only place left was the High­lands. The people were in the way. They had to be moved out in the name of progress.

Progress was all the rage in En­light­en­ment Scot­land, which cre­ated the per­fect storm for the prim­i­tives who stood in its path. Their lives were “im­proved” by clear­ing them off their an­ces­tral lands, re­lo­cat­ing en­tire vil­lages to the coast to learn how to fish (which they had never be­fore done) or to the big cities of Glas­gow or Manch­ester (where they would be­come Karl Marx’s pro­le­tar­ian fac­tory work­ers) or to emigrant ships bound for North Amer­ica. Many per­ished at sea.

The people at the top of this par­tic­u­lar food chain, the Duke of Suther­land and his royal cronies, were among the very rich­est people in Europe. Right be­neath the sur­face of their sanc­ti­mo­nious church-en­dorsed, govern­ment-backed plans for the im­prove­ment and re­set­tle­ment of the High­land clans was the prospect of vast prof­its. Once the bare­foot Celts boarded the wooden ships and set sail across the At­lantic, their “im­prove­ment” a fait ac­com­pli, the sheep poured in and the bank ac­counts swelled.

By co­in­ci­dence, I’ve been pre­par­ing a mo­tion-pic­ture set among these very events, based on the pow­er­ful novel “Con­sider the Lilies” by Iain Crighton Smith. This is why it was that I im­me­di­ately rec­og­nized these words when I saw them in print in the Sun­day Wash­ing­ton Post on June 8:

“This tiny town . . . was lit­er­ally go­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion . . . It was hol­low . . . it was va­cant . . . it was empty . . . there was no pulse.”

And just like the pro­pa­gan­dists of the 18th century, who used al­most iden­ti­cal lan­guage, be­hind the high-minded rhetoric of im­prove­ment is al­ways the price of wool.


Flint Hill

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