This land is your land, this land is my land

Clearances L_tcm4-568063


‘Divide and rule’. It’s the oldest game in town, so why on earth do we fall for it? Set up the polarities: Highlander/Lowlander, Gaidheal/Gall, local/incomer, crofter/environmentalist and let rancour commence. Scotland fractures, this great ‘Union’ of ours is thereby preserved and we will all live happily hereafter – ‘Better Together’ an’ a’ that.

These thoughts came to mind as I read my way through Domhnall Iain Domhnallach’s recent posting asking ‘Whose Land Is It Anyway?’ by way of response to an earlier spat over the promotion of Gaelic down in the South West and across Scotland generally. The array of issues Domhnall Iain touches on – the future of Scotland’s languages, our ‘wild lands’, the local governance of our island communities – are all important and worthy of further discussion. However, for brevity in this response I would like to focus on the core issue of: ceist an fhearainn, the ‘land question’.

The ‘land question’ in all its manifestations, I have for long felt, is an issue of particular and fundamental significance to the past, present and future of the left in Scotland. Firstly, it goes deep. It takes us to the heart of the matter as to what a struggle for ‘freedom’ in our contemporary world is ultimately all about, namely how we liberate humanity from the fetters of a capitalism order rooted in the practice of dispossession and the private appropriation of our common wealth and resources, sustained by the fetishised fictions of ‘market forces’. Secondly, it is an issue that has a specific resonance within Scotland because of the peculiarity of its place and importance in our social, cultural and political history. It takes us to the roots of our radical thought, the origins of our oppositional agencies and the legacy of inspiration and lessons to draw from an array of popular actions and struggle across a diversity of locations and particular cultural and social resonances. From this diversity and its achievements we learn some valuable lessons as to how success is achieved not by sowing division and internal discord but through the mobilising of a national-popular bloc that draws on, to borrow a phrase, a ‘national collective’ of shared cultural historical referents and memories, the agenda and the resources of an organically rooted Scottish left, as opposed to a left in Scotland.

A recent reading of David Harvey’s latest stimulating refresher, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, reinforces the validity of the first. A scan through some of the troubling divisions bubbling within the exchanges on this and related issues that filter through the contributions and comments to Bella underlines the dangers to the second. There is no better way for the toxic poison of manufactured division to enter the system of our body politic than through the open wounds of self-inflicted lacerations. By way of antidote let me attempt to cauterise the wound by offering a very different diagnosis of the Highland historical case notes.

Fuadach nan Gàidheal

The representation of the clearances as ‘the expulsion of the Gaels’ has a long pedigree. It can be traced to Donald MacLeod’s Gloomy Memories and its fuller explanatory subtitle — A faithful picture of the extirpation of the Celtic race from the Highlands of Scotland. MacLeod’ first hand accounts were widely circulated. But it was when they were subsequently incorporated into Alexander MacKenzie’s compendium The History of the Highland Clearances, that MacLeod’s accounts assumed their position as the standard narrative of the events they covered. Principal amongst these were ‘the enormities perpetrated in South Uist and the Island of Barra in the summer of 1851’, (the very events on the island estate of the Aberdeen-shire Colonel Gordon of Cluny that removed Domhnall Iain’s forebears from South Uist to Eriskay and many like them to the mainland and North America).

But there was a crucial elision in the account as subsequently re-presented by MacKenzie. When the forced emigrants from Barra went public with what had happened to them their testimony was scornfully repudiated and their character traduced by the public authorities on Barra. In a powerful passage on ‘The Exiled Barramen and their Calumniators’, MacLeod had scathingly denounced this local resident network of the absentee landlord’s authority and power as ‘vicious dogs’ to be classed alongside ‘the Devil and his angels’ and deserving of the same eternal fate. Yet, as he must have been aware, ‘the oppressors of the poor’ of the poor he was so intent on exposing, were all themselves island Gaels, each firmly embedded in Gaelic society and culture, each with their own deep kinship lineages and sense of ‘dualchas’. Precisely the same applied to those responsible for the parallel events on South Uist. But when MacKenzie came to re-present Macleod’s account in the form it has been commonly received ever since, he omitted this critical passage of criticism and exposé of the complicity of fellow Gaels. This better facilitated the presentation of these forced emigrations of 1851 as moments in a deeper, wider process: the systematic ‘ethnic cleansing’ of an indigenous culture and people by other non-Gael external forces fuelled by institutionalised racism.

That there was an ethnic and racist element involved is not in doubt. But once the ethnic and cultural dimension is introduced the real tragedy is not the in the compulsion of the clearances but in the complicity. It was an awareness of this that led Neil Gunn, when asked later why he had written only one novel on the Clearances (Butcher’s Broom), to give the painful reply, ‘Because of the shame of the thing.’ And pressed as to why he personally felt so ashamed, so long after the event, he put it in the starkest possible terms: ‘Because our own people did it’.

Nowhere was ‘the shame of the thing’ more manifest than on the islands of Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay, Barra and the Barra Isles. The proprietor, Colonel Gordon of Cluny, was indeed, a non-Gael. But the beneficiaries of the wholesale evictions carried out on his island estate, the tacksmen who took up the tenancy of the newly created grazing farms were all Gaels. All those who continued to hold the tenancy of these farms under his successors were Gaels. And all those in authority in the islands who subsequently praised the memory of the late landlord as an outstanding benefactor of his tenants and all who implemented the pursuit of policies based on the continuing promotion of emigration, the curtailment of crofting and the denial of the restoration of land for resettlement were also Gaels.

Màiri Mhór nan Oran and the ‘Crofters’ War’

A similar pattern of complicity prevailed elsewhere throughout the Gaidhealtachd, not least on the Skye, the island that emerged as the focal point in the 1880s of an emergent resistance. Domhnall Iain rightly flags up the role of Màiri Mhór nan Oran as the embodied voice of the resurgent people but in doing so he makes a virtue out of what was, in fact, her principal weakness. No one championed the poetry and song of ‘Big Mary of the Songs’ more passionately than Sorley MacLean who felt strongly that ‘her limits have been exaggerated and her merits depreciated.’ Yet it was also MacLean who drew attention to the fact that ‘inconsistencies abound’ in the contradictory array of those she praised and those she condemned. He was unambiguous in his criticisms of her misplaced allocation of blame, noting that ‘she attacked the English for their doings in Skye, although it was very plain that not one Clearance had been made in Skye by anyone who had not a name as Gaelic as her own.’

MacLean shared Màiri Mhór’s deep sense of attachment to the places, the people and the cultural landscape of Skye and his own native island of Raasay. He was, however, all too aware that the systematic clearances of Raasay’s townships, the memory of which will endure forever in his timeless lines on ‘Hallaig’ and ‘Screapadal’, were also a terrible consequence of the Gaelic complicity that Màiri Mhór found so difficult to acknowledge. And, as his early writings make clear he was conscious of a capacity for ‘intellectual shufflings’ amongst the bards of Gaeldom as they sought to avoid the unavoidable as to the extent of collusion within the Gaidhealtachd as to what happened to the people, their land and their culture.

It is a measure of MacLean’s own intellectual courage and integrity as much as the acumen of his observations that even when introducing a seminal paper on the subject to a body (the Gaelic Society of Inverness) whose roots were firmly in the very ambivalency that he was addressing, MacLean did not present ceist an fhearainn, ‘the land question’, in racial or ethnic terms but in the unambiguous language of capital and class:

The Highland Clearances constitute one of the saddest tragedies that has ever come on a people, and one of the most astounding of all the successes of landlord capitalism in Western Europe, such a triumph over workers and peasants in a country as has rarely been achieved with such ease, cruelty and cynicism.’

What is more, he went on to argue, the principal causes of the emergent note of ‘courage and hope’ in the ‘resurgent spirit’ of the 1880s, were to be found external to Gaeldom, not least in the emergence of working class radicalism in Scotland’s Lowland cities and the active agitation driving forward the struggle for land in Ireland.

Vatersay and the post-WWI Land Raids

As Domhnall Iain notes the resistance gained the Napier Commission and the Crofters’ Act 1886. It did not, however, win back the land. This process did not begin until a sequence of land raiding began on Vatersay in 1906. Stalled in 1914 by the hiatus of the Great War, over 1918-1923 it was galvanised by the latter into a proliferation of direct action land seizures across the Highlands and Islands in the post-war context of failed promises and wider social upheavals. As with the earlier 1880s, for Gaeldom this was also a period marked by a combination of complicity within and commonality beyond. The lines of opposition and alliance were determined not by the identity of race, ethnie or language but by the interests of class. Although the period of extensive land seizures and consequential legal proceedings was also the era in which there was a resurgence of promotion of Gaelic language and culture by a growing body of Gaelic cultural enthusiasts and societies, the noticeable absence of public expressions of support for the imprisoned raiders, their families and communities by leading Gaelic cultural figures and agencies is striking.

Those who were aware of a common cause and who expressed it accordingly were the working men and women of Lowland Scotland, from the dispossessed crofters and farm servants of the rural hinterland, the women campaigners against landlordism and rack-renting in the slum tenements of the cities and the miners who challenged land and mine owners over ‘ownership’ and control of the resources of the land. When, in 1906, the protracted and ultimately successful campaign to reclaim the island of Vatersay began, it was the columns of Tom Johnston’s Forward and the meetings and resolutions of an array of Trades Councils across Lowland Scotland that rallied support behind the Vatersay raiders. Significantly, when all Scotland, not least the crofting communities of the Highland was carried along in the jingoistic imperial patriotism of the Great War, it was over the iniquities and power of landlordism that Johnstone’s Forward and the wider Left in Scotland were able to sustain a campaign to expose in whose class interests the war was ultimately being fought. They did so by focussing on landlordism – ‘The Pure Milk of Prussianism’ as it was described in relation to the Glasgow women’s housing campaign. In this promotion of a shared resistance to the landlords of the Highlands, the profiteering mine-owners and big farms of the rural Lowlands and the rack-renting landlords of the cities, urban and rural working class families, Gael and non-Gael, were thereby drawn together in a national-popular struggle against ‘The Huns at Home’.

Nor – and this is the crucial point – was this notion of a common cause something that was somehow foisted on the Gaelic communities of the Highlands from the outside. Nowhere demonstrates this better than out here in the Uists and Barra, the very islands on which Domhnall Iain constructs so much of his argument for Gael/Gall antipathy. The history of the struggle for land in these islands over this period shows quite clearly that from the outset the raiders and their communities had a deep sense of solidarity, a clear awareness of commonality and a strong feeling of empathy with the rural and urban struggles of the people of Scotland from the Barra Isles to Buchan, from Shetland to the Borders. When the Vatersay raiders attacked individual Lords who had made pronouncements on the land issue, they were put down in no uncertain terms not just for their ignorance as to the reality of life in the crofting townships as opposed to the deer forest and grouse moors, but also for their equal lack of awareness of hardship and adversity elsewhere in Scotland, not least in the congested squalor of the urban tenements.

It was a consciousness of class that also drew on the solidarity of nation, a sense of the national-popular that most vividly expressed itself in relation to the governance of Scotland from Westminster. When, in context of the constitutional ‘Peers versus the People’ crisis, the Lords also blocked a Scottish Land Bill designed to facilitate a limited degree of land settlement through a modest measure of land reform, they were immediately denounced by the Vatersay raiders in scathing and angry terms. The response was not couched in terms of the localised grievance of a small outlying community, nor in the wider terms of the ‘dispossessed Gaels’ of the Gaidhealtachd, bit in the battle front numbers of Lords of Westminster versus the Scottish nation. ‘There are four hundred of you’, declared the Vatersay raiders, but, ‘there are four million of us’.

Class and nation also drew on wider circles of consciousness. After 1917 the seizing of the land by direct action was widely and disapprovingly reported in the Scottish press as ‘Bolshevik tactics in the Highlands’, an ‘alien’ imputation that did not distress the raiders and their support. In 1919 the Greenock branch of the re-formed Highland Land League cheerfully concluded its meeting with two Gaelic songs and the choir singing the International. And as an old North Uist raider told me of the itinerant visitor he remembered who acted as their contact with their supporters in Glasgow and the mainland: ‘Oh, he was a great friend of the crofters. He must have been a Bolshe-ayvik, or something.’

When a ‘national committee’ for Scotland was formed, Angus Macdonald of the HLL and Joe Duncan of the farm servants union joined leading Clydesiders, including the great John MacLean, to issue a manifesto declaring that Scottish workers were being held back by the sluggishness of the less-progressive English labour movement. They must go it alone for socialism. Nowhere is this promotion of a radical ‘national collective’ agenda more evident than in the aims of the reconstituted Highland Land League itself. Its stated objects included, ‘the return to the people, for their use and enjoyment, of the land taken from them and now held in large areas by nobles and other landholders in the Highlands of Scotland’. This, however, was prefaced by the first declared aim of the HLL: ‘1. The objects of the League shall be to secure Autonomy for Scotland’, the emphasis being in the original. The means of achieving this, the discussed and adopted land policy declared, would be through the State assuming public ownership and possession of all the land, lochs and rivers of Scotland.

The radical Gaels of the HLL, however, had their own reactionary counterpart. While the HLL and their non-Gael Lowland allies came together in a shared opposition to landlordism on a national-popular agenda of ‘expropriating the expropriators’, the Gaelic petit-bourgeois of the Highlands, the dominant social force in Inverness, the Highland capital, and across the small town network of the Highland counties, was strident in its defence of property, privilege and the prevailing order. The Highland hegemony of landlordism was built not on coercion but on complicity.

In the Uists and Barra it was John MacDonald, Lady Gordon Cathcart’s resident factor, a Gael who despised crofting as much as Catholicism, who dutifully warned her ladyship how the crofters and Gaels of the islands were aligning themselves with fellow malcontents in the Lowlands and beyond. The young men returning from the Army, he reported, ‘appear to be polluted with revolutionary ideas’, an influence, they both agreed, that could be easily traced to Glasgow. While ‘this unfortunate state of affairs’ was prevalent throughout the Hebrides, on the predominantly Catholic islands of Benbecula, South Uist and Barra, there was an additional subversive element. Deeply anxious for the threat it posed to estate authority, landlordism and the established order, Macdonald loyally informed her ladyship that ‘over and above Bolshevist ideas’, there was ‘clear evidence that Sinn Fein ideas are rampant… and one hears on every hand threats being made to establish a similar state of affairs in the islands as we have in Ireland today.’

‘Whose land is it anyway?….’

Domhnall Iain asks the Left to ‘pay attention’ to the Highlands and Islands in the move to and beyond independence and cites fellow Gaelic activist, Angus MacLeod who argues that to gain ‘an understanding of the experience of those marginalised by economic exploitation, then a genuine engagement with an exploited culture close to home, is … a good place to start.’ This basic proposition that the Left needs to understand how social and economic exploitation within capitalism is lubricated and facilitated through cultural hegemony and the concomitant processes of subalternity I readily concur.

However, in relation to whichever of our many scotlands we are addressing, an appreciation of how this subtle process of induced inferiorisation and self colonialism works will never be gained by an uncritical reassertion of the essentialist binaries of the past. Engagement with the plurality of our exploited cultures – and recognizing this plurality is crucial – requires not only a critical revisiting of history but an acknowledgement and understanding of the extent to which collaboration and complicity were a core element in the exploitative process just as solidarities and a sense of common cause across these binaries was a key dimension to successful opposition and resistance. In drawing on the essentialist discourse of the past to remind a present generation of past hardships, struggles and achievements it is imperative to retain a critical awareness of the context in which these polarities were constructed.

In charting the long march of campaigning on the land question in the Highlands since the 1880s, Domhnall Iain flags up the input in the early 1970s of 7:84 (Scotland) Theatre Company and the West Highland Free Press. Sadly, 7:84 is no longer with us and the epithet ‘radical’ has long ceased to be meaningful in relation to the pavlovian labourist unionism of the WHFP (aka The Unfree Press). However the engagement with the land question in that brief window of ’73-’75 was significant, not least, of course, in the tour and subsequent tv transmission of 7:84’s ‘The Cheviot’.

All the more ironic that 40 years on Domhnall Iain’s chooses to conclude his own idiosyncratic account of campaigning on the land question in the Highlands with the same lines from Màiri Mhór’s Eilean a’ Cheo with which The Cheviot ended, the high optimism as to the future of Skye when the wheel will turn, the resources of the earth will be available to the people and the ‘Sasunnaich’ will be driven from the Green Isle of the Mist. In drawing on ‘the big brave heart’ of Màiri Mhór na Oran, The Cheviot sought to end on a note of high optimism that went beyond localism and circumscribed grievances (as the next generation of land raiders did) through the building of common cause national-popular alliances against the formidable power of global capitalism. Both here and related writings there was a careful utilisation of powerful essentialist poetry and song for a national liberating political purpose, a deployment that has been subsequently described as strategic essentialism.

It is sad that Domhnall Iain seeks to use the same songs not to take us forward or to promote unity but in the service of a misguided tirade against illusory enemies and a divisive polarisation as to who ‘belongs’ and who does not.

Those who seek to defend and promote both our Scots and our Gaelic languages and cultures, or to protect the biodiversity and vulnerable environment of the ‘wild lands’ of our ‘wee bit hill and glen’ against inappropriate developments and exploitation by multinationals, or to defend the people of our small towns and big cities against the loss of common lands to speculative property development and the communities of our inner cities against gentrification and anti-social landlordism are allies, not enemies. Discussion and debate over emphasis, or balance is positive and healthy. Denigration and division over ethnie or language over ‘native’ or ‘foreigner’ is debilitating and damaging, particularly at this critical juncture in the campaign. Perhaps the best way forward is to step back from further acrimony and re-unite around the answer to the question ‘whose land is it anyway?’ given in Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land

This land is your land, this land is my land ……..
This land was made for you and me.

With Pete Seeger’s pertinent additional verses added on for good measure, of course.


Comments (17)

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  1. This is a brilliant piece of writing that makes very sound points about divide and rule, but I can’t help feeling it’s a little hard on Domhnall Iain, and I’ll explain why.

    I encountered DI a few years ago when I’d been invited to speak at an event in his home area at which he was a panelist and at the time, a pupil in the local school. Somebody in the audience asked why there were hardly any crofters present. DI replied that it was May, the month of the ploughing and sowing late into the evenings, and anybody who wanted crofters to be present at an event should have avoided that time. I recall a palpable sense of hurt in his voice – a sense of, yet again, having seen his culture not being understood. I also felt for the organisers who must have been embarrassed and doubtless had their own reasons for having organised the event when they did.

    It left me reflecting on lateral violence – how, when a issue cannot be resolved vertically, the tensions often break out sideways as poor-on-poor, black-on-black or whatever kick-the-dog responses. For sure, Gaels became implicated in their own oppression, but the opportunities to do so came, surely, from ideas such as capitalism that were not indigenous. It reminds me of the TB that ran amock through the Hebrides after WW1. My father, who still had patients of its victims on Lewis in the 60s, believed that it was a strain or strains introduced by returning soldiers to which the islanders had little natural immunity. Same with landlordism. We must be careful of shifting from the observation of victim complicity to victim blaming. Some would argue that we must be careful of blaming full stop: does not Paulo Freire argue that, in the end, emancipation must be just as much emancipation of the oppressor?

    So, thank you Ray Burnett for such a beautifully crafted piece of writing in exploring this issue, and to Domhnall Iain for the frank courage of his original piece. Where do both leave me? They leave me reflecting on lines in Chaim Bialik’s epic poem, ‘Al Shechitah, “In the City of Slaughter”, expressing dread prophesy of lasting change for the Jewish people after the Kishinev pogrom of Easter 1903. Add the Holocast. Witness Gaza today, how easily we all get caught in the dynamics of oppressed and oppressor, and blurrings of the lines.

    The full poem can be read (for free) in Helena Frank’s translation at . It seems to me that, like Bialik, Domhnall Iain is asking “the old, old question/ … the one that never yet has reached to heaven,/ And never will: Why? Why? / … The suckling children, God, the little children!”

    (And I weep as I re-read the poem, and write this, and look at the face of that boy in the picture above, and see the same face of “frozen awareness” on kids in Govan today, the children of the Gaels in ongoing intergenerational poverty).

    And that Ray Burnett is answering, as does Bialik in his terrible closing lines: “And like a poisoned arrow shoot it forth /…/ And pierce thy race, thine own race, through the heart!”

    At the risk of overplaying my hand in using a poem of pogrom to reflect on “mere” clearances, I ask: What kind of a cultural psychotherapy can deal with this? What kind of a healing of the nation, and nations?

    1. Simon Brooke says:

      I found Ray’s essay very enlightening for me, and it is causing me to do some (ongoing) rethinking: but I feel the point he is making is not so much that Gaels were complicit in the oppression of Gaels, so much as that seeing these struggles in the context of ethnicity may obscure for us the context of class, wealth and power; and that our (many) ethnicities within Scotland do not – or should not – divide us, or divert us from the task of democratising wealth and power.

      1. I think he’s saying both, Simon. For example: “Yet, as he must have been aware, ‘the oppressors of the poor’ of the poor he was so intent on exposing, were all themselves island Gaels, each firmly embedded in Gaelic society and culture, each with their own deep kinship lineages and sense of ‘dualchas’.” But you’re right that he’s saying that from within a wider class analysis. I see the importance of that analysis. At the same time, I am never quite convinced that a Marxian take fully takes on board the nature of indigenous Highland/Hebridean clan-based societies. However, I don’t feel confident enough in that analysis to push it beyond a suggestion. If the likes of Iain MacKinnon, Margaret Bennett or Michael Newton happen to come in on this debate it would be good to hear their take – or, indeed, that of Ray or DI themselves.

        Another parallel that Ray’s essay raised in my mind is with Highland clergy. In Island Spirituality (Islands Book Trust – ) last year I explored how Highland conservative evangelicalism was initially landlord driven, but very rapidly became indigenised. The Rev John Macinnes (not to be confused with the ethnnographer) remarks on this in his 1951 seminal study, The Evangelical Movement in the Highlands of Scotland 1688 to 1800 (AUP). He says, p. 11, “the established Presbyterian Church, in 1688 [i.e. at the time of the Glorious Revolution] an alien intrusion offensive to the majority of the Gaelic people, became in a relatively short time the beloved and venerated spiritual Mother from which it was not only grievous loss but sin to be separated.” There could be at least two ways of looking at that. One would be that the new wave evangelicals, backed by the SSPCK from London with King’s Bounty money to curb the Jacobites set loose the fire of God previously lacking. Another way would be that the extensive use of fear – Dr Kennedy’s “The Days of the Fathers in Ross-Shire” brings this out especially strongly in a series of clergy case studies – effectively led to a spiritual colonisation, a kind of Stockholm syndrome. However, even as I say that I think of a Lewis evangelical friend who emailed me yesterday, evidently a man of deep spirituality, who just quietly said in response to a challenge I’d laid to the Westminster Confession, “I believe the Confession.” It was a reminder to me that these things go deeper, and are more complex, than we should deceive ourselves into thinking we can analyse. But I do wonder if there are parallels between the indigenisation of a religious approach that was introduced from the south (and east of Scotland), and the indigenisation of a new approach to land tenure.

  2. Peter Arnott says:

    Wonderful and well informed and argued. I think there is an argument in principle that we can have as well as an argument in history and geography. And that is a definition of democracy that upends the model of sovereignty we inherited from Britain (and indeed feudal Scotland). If we can take as a lesson and leitmotif of the transformation in our civic society that has already taken place in the course of this campaign that autonomy begins with the individual, then we can take forward a 21st century paradigm of power devolving from the citizen into areas of pooled resource and action…into communities and countries…with each of us in all our multiple identities finally seeing ourselves the people, as the source of power and political legitimacy. That we lend power to the politicians according to principles of pragmatism and accountability. And that the loan is no longer the other way round.

    We have already changed ourselves…we are already “independent” in almost every sense of that word but one.

    1. Ray Burnett says:

      Thanks Alastair, Peter and Simon for your generous comments and my apologies for the delay in replying. In brief response to the points raised:

      I share Alastair’s commendation of those of a younger generation who stand up for their specific strand of our inherited linguistic and cultural legacy, not least for the singular importance of the Gaelic dimension of our past and present. It was not my intention to be ‘hard’ on Domhnall Iain as a bonnie callant in defence of Gaelic language and culture but to be robust in my criticism of the alignment of his argument along a set of binaries that are as damagingly divisive as they are misleading and obfuscatory.
      The very fact that they are so regularly and fervidly evoked by the opponents of independence in an attempt to foster antipathies and antagonisms within our ranks should surely make us tak tent and reflect.

      There was certainly no intention of ‘victim blaming’ and I am sorry (and perplexed) if what I wrote somehow gave that impression. Simon summarises the general thrust of my argument in succinct terms — ‘struggles in the context of ethnicity may obscure for us the context of class, wealth and power’. But Alastair is also right to say that I was also flagging up complicity. For the key element in these traumatic events that the ‘extirpation of the Gael’ narrative obscures is the extent and degree of complicity, the painful actuality that only becomes apparent when we reframe and re-interrogate the past in ‘the context of class, wealth and power’.

      Whatever caveats there may be, it is heartening that all three of you agree as to my suggestion as to the conclusions to be drawn from reflections on how our history is to be reclaimed and interpreted. I wholeheartedly concur with Simon, ‘our (many) ethnicities within Scotland do not – or should not – divide us, or divert us from the task of democratising wealth and power’. And Peter puts it well as to how we can surely come together in the tricky but not insurmountable task of building the agencies of change when he alludes to ‘areas of pooled resource and action’ …. with each of us in all our multiple identities finally seeing ourselves the people, as the source of power and political legitimacy’.

      Finally, Alastair raises some very interesting points concerning the dissemination and adoption of ideas and consequential social practices that were not ‘indigenous’ and whether a ‘marxian take’ is adequate for an understanding of ‘the nature of indigenous Highland/Hebridean clan-based societies.’ These are important questions and certainly worthy of discussion, but perhaps later – once present business is attended to?

      1. Ray, thank you for such a thoughtful reply. Both you and Domhnall Iain before you ventured onto territory that is deeply important and very difficult to raise. Often I have put pen to paper (is that metaphor still digitally valid?) on such matters, only to scrap it, because in saying what I felt about ongoing cultural colonisation a whole raft of contrary positions immediately floated up in my mind, and I couldn’t reconcile them. In Soil and Soul I discussed the 3-fold Buddhist percepts of right speech – is it necessary? is it true? is it kind? – and how often, especially in the context of land reform, I wrestled with the latter. I therefore really appreciate what you have both shared on this site and the comments posted above, all of which (thus far) come from a place of discernment. Finally, am I right in thinking you’re based at least part of the time on Benbecula? My wife Verene and I are heading up to Berneray on Friday for a couple of week’s part-working holiday housesitting a friend’s place. If you’ll be around, drop me a line on [email protected] and we can maybe meet up for a jar one evening.

      2. Ruairidh Maciver says:

        Thanks for what you’ve written here, and with regards to my last comment – I neglected to mention why I enjoyed reading this article. There is a deep-rooted misconception that the clearances were foisted upon us by non-Gaels – far from the truth – and though there be caveats within what is a complex period of history, it’s worth remembering this point. What you said about the support received from Urban Areas is spot on, and there were strong connections and networks of radicals across Scotland at that time. These had deep roots: in 1794 (?) Lord Seaforth’s man on the ground in Stornoway was writing to the authorities to update on a recent mutiny among soldiers there who were refusing to go to India, having been promised some home leave. In it he spoke of ‘pernicious doctrines’ being spread among the men and mentioned that posters and handbills of Tom Paine were circulating in Stornoway, possibly from connections in Greenock. I’ve gone slightly off-topic but not quite I hope – we have a greater chance to change the status-quo in Scotland if North, South, East and West stay connected and informed. Praised be the internet and bring on the Revolution!

        1. Ray Burnett says:

          Thanks, Ruairidh. Far from being ‘off-topic’ I think your input re Tom Paine material circulating in Stornoway in the 1790s is right on the mark. We discussed ‘external’ ideas being assimilated by those of wealth and power. But as you rightly remind us ‘external’ ideas of a radical nature also circulated and were absorbed amongst the common people, not least in the towns and ports connected by the highways of the seas, all around Scotland and far beyond. I touched on this point myself in an essay on the radical traditions of Edinburgh which begins in the 1790s with the intercourse between France, the United Scotsmen and the United Irishmen. If you can get hold of it you might find it of interest. See Ray Burnett, ’In the shadow of Calton Hill; E. Bort (ed.), Commemorating Ireland, Irish Academic Press, 2004 (pp 133-166). It’s also pertinent that you specifically flag up the 1790s in regard to the land issue. This was the era, after all, in which the commodification of land as ‘property’ began to be challenged. The era of Burns’ ‘Address of Beelzebub’ on the disaffected tenantry of the ‘rebel generation’ on the lands of Macdonald of Glengarry who had the temerity to oppose the power of landlordism over their lives:

          ‘what right hae they
          To meat, or sleep, or light o’ day?
          Far less – to riches, pow’r, or freedom,
          But what your lordship likes to gie them?’

          And the era of the Year of ’98 and the enduring words of Wolfe Tone:

          “If the men of property will not support us, they must fall. Our strength shall come from that great and respectable class, the men of no property”.

      3. Pepsi and Shirley says:

        I really enjoyed this article. Very enlightening and did not go over the usual ‘rent-a-quote’ stuff that is often churned out. Very little attention has been given to the Land League in the past (a shame) Though on the point of the Vatersay Raiders – I had been of the impression that they did gain public support. Though by that time the Liberal Party were not the force they were in the 1880s. Also the Labour Party were backtracking on their commitments to Home Rule for Scotland. Scotland was really in the trough at that time – with mass emigration, poverty and death from the Great War. Gaelic bodies An Commun Gaidhealach were always extremely conservative. What other bodies were there? Churches?
        Apart from the poets who continued to compose songs (in support of the raiders) And people passed the stories and songs of the raiders down through their families. Is this lack of opposition unconnected to the Government agents promoting assisted emigration as a solution? My knowledge of this is a bit sketchy to be fair so I’d need to look it up. Apparently the government were prepared and Highlanders were met ‘Head-on’ with the offers of assisted emigration. I do remember being told in school ‘Everyone left here of their own accord because it just was not sustainable.’ And I did think to myself – why then did these emigrants to Canada compose all these longing songs? It did seem to me that nobody leaves their home unless they have to. I saw a programme on BBC Alba about Highlanders in Canada. It showed a Uistman speaking Gaelic as if he was still on the island. It seemed really shocking to me at the time. I just thought the 20s/ 30s was like the Middle Ages and the man would have just become a Canadian.

  3. I enjoyed this piece and it is indeed well-informed and argued. I think it unfair though to criticise Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach for drawing on the words of Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, in conclusion to his own equally-informed and argued contribution. For too long, the voice of the Gaels (and the poets were still the spokespeople of Gaelic communities in the nineteenth century) has been missing, almost entirely, from all manner of debates about their history.

    Sure, many of those involved in the Clearances came from within the heart of Gaeldom; but it had been a long time since clan chiefs had ceased to be clan chiefs and had become Landlords, more interested in the capitalist ideas and opportunities of southern regions than the sense of ‘dùthchas’ once particular to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

    But I do agree that the ethnicity of the Gaels versus the ethnicity of anyone else is an unhelpful way of thinking in 21st century Scotland. I just don’t see where the article referred to sets forth the polarisations to which this article protests. Unless it is in referrence to the salient points made in this paragraph:

    “When the Scottish government decided to designate the area around my island as a Special Area of Conservation, they put the fish ahead of the people – despite the fishermen marching on Edinburgh to defend their livelihoods. When crofters were banned from shooting the birds who ruined their crops, wildlife groups gave more value to geese than Gaels. When animal rights activists attack the men of Ness in Lewis for harvesting 2000 guga chicks a year, they choose a tiny fraction of a massive colony of seabirds above deprived islanders living in the most distal part of the UK. And when land that’s been settled for centuries is called wildland, when the government embraces the ideology of the Highlands as a wilderness, Scotland is entrenching and upholding a vision of Highland land use belonging to the age of Clearance.”

    If Màiri Mhòr was with us today I’m sure she would agree with this – and she would no doubt be a regular contributor to Bella Caledonia! And I think Màiri and the sadly-departed Pete Seeger would have got on like a proverbial house on fire.

    1. Iain MacKinnon says:

      Ruairaidh, I should say that your comment that the Gaelic voice has not been properly recognised in these debates puts me in mind of a great book by a fine scholar, the Canadian political philosopher James Tully. In ‘Strange Multiplicity’ Tully says that the late 20th and early 21st century is a period often described as post-modern or post imperial – terms which refer to it as coming after something. He said that often, when it is characterised in its own terms, it is called an age of cultural diversity, adding:

      “The question is not whether one should be for or against cultural diversity, Rather, it is the prior question of what is the critical attitude or spirit in which justice can be rendered to the demands for cultural recognition.”

      For Tully, the Indigenous Peoples of the world in their demand for “a hearing and a place, in their own cultural forms and ways, in the constitution of modern political associations” are a particularly enlightening example of this question.

      When I read Domhnall Iain’s article, what I read was a demand for cultural recognition – a young man wrestling, imperfectly, to understand, express and contribute to an indigenous cultural perspective on our history that has been marginalised for generations, in a similar way to the contributions being put forward by other colonised indigenous peoples. A Marxist perspective, like the one offered by Ray, can offer vital political insights for us. But it lacks cultural and psychological depth and sometimes it seems that this lack can make its political language seem hard and a little cruel.

      For me, reading the likes of Domhnall Iain trying to come to terms with that marginalised indigenous Gàidheal perspective does not fill me with fearful images of “self-lacerating wounds” and “toxic poison”. It suggests the possibility of cultural renewal and revitalisation. It is an immensely rewarding and encouraging experience. Cum ort a bhalaich!

  4. Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach says:

    Now it seems to have generated two excellent rebuttals/extensions in the form of Ray Burnett and Johnny Marten’s articles, perhaps I should contextualize the original article. It was published in a student magazine called the Oxford Left Review, and was my attempt to justify to my peers why disparate issues like Land Reform, the fate of Gaelic, local government in the islands, environmentalism in the Highlands ought to matter to the Left in the UK. I had grown tired of people dismissing my desire keep Gaelic alive as “blood and soil nationalism” or of my interest in land reform with – “that’s a bit 19th century, isn’t it?” or “you mean, like Robert Mugabe.” I won’t deny the article was written in a rush of passion to a deadline, thus why the rhetoric surges now and again, and why much of the history was almost uncritically recalled from memory from the books cited and whatever vague remnant of oral tradition I grew up with. It ended up on Bella because a few people who liked it suggested I should submit, and so I did that. So, while I would rewrite some of the broad brushstroke history, I wouldn’t take back any of the perhaps overlypassionate sentences because, well, I care about this stuff and other people should to.

    I’ve been warned that there’s little to be gained from engaging in too much of a battle over this, but for the record, Ray Burnett, here are some points in my defence —

    1. I do take issue with the insinuation that the original piece was promoting an “ethnic” dichotomy over the Clearances and current land issues. For example, in the article I believe I treat the idiotic term “white settler” with the contempt it deserves, but maybe the tone was too subtle. If you are going to accuse me of “a misguided tirade against illusory enemies and a divisive polarisation as to who ‘belongs’ and who does not,” at least quote at length where I use essentialist, or racialist, or ethnic-centred language. I reference local/incomer dichotomies where appropriate, or where others do so (e.g. Huw Francis and his crofter/environmentalist dichotomy). Yours are strong claims which need stronger evidence. This would be an excellent article even without my piece as a springboard, so unless you have good proof I advocate all these dubious things, then it seems unfair and unreasonable to throw vague accusations at a strawman of me online.

    2. I reference Màiri Mhòr (while also mildly criticizing her sentiments) because I wanted my original readership – lefty students and academics – to know how this middle-aged woman from Skye became the key literary figure of the Crofters’ War. Hers is a story which deserves to be known about. A similar “promotional” current runs throughout the original article, witness my pleas that the crofters be regarded radicals on par with the Chartists or Suffragettes. That is – school history (even in the H/I in the 21st century) taught us about Chartist or early feminist radicalism, but not about the radicalism that went on on our own doorstep. And, thus, because Highland history does not fit into the cosy Higher and A Level syllabuses with their uncritical descriptions of “agricultural improvement” (in stark contrast to how the Industrial Revolution is dealt with), my fellow students for whom this article was originally written had no idea the Clearances were a thing, or that Scottish land ownership was so inequitable, or that the Gaelic language didn’t just decide one day to fall ill of its own accord.

    3. Perhaps it’s the use of the term “indigenous” that got you thinking I am arguing on ethnic grounds. But today a) being a Gael is primarily an identity of language choice, whether learned at home, in immersion schooling or in adulthood, while b) being a crofter is primarily a lifestyle choice, whether you’re from a crofting family, studying a crofting course at school, or just in search of the goodlife. Yes, coming from the islands means you’re more likely to get Gaelic / a croft from mamaidh and dadaidh, but this doesn’t preclude others coming under those banners too. In reality, these are fluid, not essentialist identities!

    4. Some might construe these final points as petty, but here goes. I wrote this article under the name Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach for my own reasons. It takes half a second to access the grave accent in Word to spell it correctly (which you managed to do for Màiri Mhòr anyhow). Moreover, it’s standard academic and journalistic practise to use someone’s surname when you are rebutting or referencing them, so I don’t really know why use my first name throughout – I don’t see many other articles on Bella that do that!

    Don’t get me wrong. I thought yours was an incredibly valuable and scholarly contribution to the debate, but as I’ve made clear, I think I have been misrepresented in your hunt for a hook for the article.

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