2007 - 2022

‘Complicity’ or Duplicity: a Marxist account of the Gàidhealtachd (Part II) 


This article continues my examination of Ray Burnett’s ambitious attempt, published on Bella Caledonia in August 2014, to portray the history of the 19th century Gàidhealtachd in terms that justify his socialist vision for Scotland’s future.

In his article Burnett presented a historical account of the clearance and post-clearance period in which he made three central claims:

  1. the history of the clearances is in fact essentially a narrative of the ‘complicity’ of Gaels in the development of landlord hegemony;
  2. this narrative of ‘complicity’ has been largely omitted from accounts of the clearances ever since;
  3. political opposition to clearances was determined by class interests and other factors, such as Gaelic culture, are irrelevant. 

As I demonstrated in the first part of my analysis, Burnett used these claims to dismiss the efforts of a new generation of Gaelic scholars and writers to formulate and act upon an understanding of history seen through Gaelic eyes.

The purpose of my analysis in this second article is to test whether his three claims are, in fact, sustained by the historical evidence; this will enable us to judge whether his historical account is accurate and whether his dismissal of a distinctly Gaelic political perspective on the present is warranted.

My analysis will begin with his second claim and end with the first, which is the most vital in establishing the credibility of his argument.

Burnett’s second claim is that since the late 19th century the historiography and popular consciousness of the Gàidhealtachd has been largely silent on the issue of what he calls the ‘complicity’ of the Gaels.

Yet this perspective is at the heart of Eric Cregeen’s seminal work on the 17th and 18th century Campbell colonisation of Morvern, Mull, Coll and Tiree. This colonial process included the creation of the later overseas imperial regiment ‘Am Freiceadan Dubh’ – The Black Watch – to police the new Campbell dominions: Gael policing Gael to maintain the colonial order. (Cregeen 2004: 67) However, Cregeen also observes that, in terms of the fons et origo of oppressive power, the colonisation was ordered by the culturally alienated Duke of Argyll, and the subsequent tenurial reorganisation was designed by Forbes of Culloden, the president of the Scottish Court of Session. (Cregeen 2004: 51, 65)

The focus on Gael involvement has not ceased since. Professor James Hunter discusses it in ‘The Making of the Crofting Community’. (Hunter 2000: 175f) ‘From Clanship to Commerce’ by Professor Allan Macinnes is, in its entirety, an account of the process by which the the elite of Gaelic society were led into the oppressions of the 18th and 19th centuries, abandoning traditional obligations of clanship even while there was “tenacious adherence by the erstwhile clansmen” to the importance of these obligations. (Macinnes 1996: 233)

A considerable body of scholarship has followed illustrating aspects of this process. (e.g. Nenadic 2001. Nenadic 2006. Watt 2006)

Within the culture itself, Gaelic self-understanding about what was going on in the 19th century has been forcefully put by John MacInnes.

The chaos that the break up of any traditional society produces was intensified beyond endurance by the bewilderment of a people attacked by its own natural leaders. (MacInnes 2006: 385 – my emphasis)

Gaelic poetry and song from the period contains many references to this social break-up and the growing distance of the elite from the people. (Black (ed.) 2001: 28-37. Bateman and Loughran (eds.) 2014: 80, 83) Indeed, the central role of Gaels in social oppression is proverbial in the culture. (Nicolson 1996: 34, 345, 354)

Therefore, we can say, with regard to Burnett’s second claim, that a fuller examination of the Highland ‘case-notes’ shows there has been no lack of acknowledgement – either by historians or within the culture itself – about the involvement of Gaels in processes of clearance; his second claim is unsound.

Turning to his first claim – and maintaining Burnett’s focus on the Isle of Skye – he argues that in the politics of the clearance and post-clearance eras “the lines of opposition and alliance…were determined by class”. (Burnett 2014 – my emphasis) In his view, any other factors, such as cross-class cultural affiliations and understandings, are irrelevant.

So what, then, of the critical role played by the poetry of Màiri Mhòr nan Oran – the Skye bard Mary MacPherson – in fostering a spirit of resistance among the Gaels? The importance of her poetry is acknowledged by both Ray Burnett and his antagonist Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach. Alongside other bards, she invoked a sense of Gaelic peoplehood to help galvanise the diverse local antagonisms of the land war and give the movement the collective strength to press for change. (Thomson 1989: 233, 245-248)

Yet her powerful poetic works might never have achieved their breadth of influence in that critical period had their first publication not been paid for by Lachlan MacKinnon MacDonald, a Skye landlord who “made repeated exhortations of the crofters’ cause”. (Macdonald and Maclean 2014: 189f) Indeed, support for the crofters’ cause was intergenerational in this landed family. MacDonald’s son sold part of his estate to crofters at Borve in 1993, enabling one of the earliest community buy-outs of the present land reform moment. (ibid: 188)

Many examples of inter-class solidarity and intra-class struggle can be found, even on Skye alone. However, it seems to me that MacKinnon MacDonald’s critical role in disseminating the poetry of Màiri Mhòr during the crofters’ struggle is by itself enough to prove that while class was certainly a factor in the political struggles, as Burnett has amply demonstrated in his own article, it clearly did not determine opposition and alliances; therefore Burnett’s third claim is also unsound.

This third claim echoes the sweeping statement at the outset of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ when Marx and Engels declared: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx and Engels 2004: 62) Invoking the idea of evolution as a series of stages of ‘progress’, Engels explains in a footnote that a group or nation of people only enter ‘society’ with the development of writing. (See also Marx 1853)

This Marxist historiographic convention may help to explain Burnett’s first, and most controversial, claim. It is the crux of his argument. He believes that the history of the clearances is, in fact, essentially a narrative of Gael ‘complicity’ in the development of landlord hegemony. He writes:

The Highland hegemony of landlordism was built not on coercion but on complicity.

This claim is, in fact, made up of two parts, both of which must be shown to be true for the claim to be valid:

  1. Landlord hegemony was built on complicity
  2. Landlord hegemony was not built on coercion

As with Burnett’s other two claims, this is being made in service of a theory on the use of history for political ends.

As with his other two claims, what is most interesting is what he needs to exclude from his history in order to make the claim reasonable. In order for the claim to be reasonable the history of political struggle in the Gàidhealtachd must exclude all those instances in which people were driven from their homes against their will, regardless of whether the coercive agents were ‘Gall’ (such as Patrick Sellar or Robert Ballingall) or ‘Gael’ (such as MacDonald of ‘Tormore’ or MacDonald of ‘Treaslane’). This history needs to be excised because Burnett has said he believes that “landlordism was built not on coercion”. This statement is a travesty of the historical record and such a belief, if genuinely held, is not only historically unwarranted: it is beneath contempt.

In addition, Burnett must also exclude the long history of political struggle in the Gàidhealtachd up until the period when social relations within the area can be construed in terms of the Marxist convention of what constitutes ‘history’; that is, when social relations cease to be coordinated and instead become oppressive and competitive, and can therefore be portrayed as ‘class struggle’. Although they pay close attention to the clearance era, Marxist historians generally have less to say about the 500 years of political struggle that characterises the history of the Gàidhealtachd before it finally emerges into the historical era as defined by Marxist scholarship.

Yet within this 500 year period lie the Statutes of Iona, a seminal moment in the colonisation of the Gàidhealtachd, according to the historian Martin MacGregor. (MacGregor 2006: 118, 131) By signing the statutes in 1609 the leading west Highland and Islands chiefs signed up to a series of measures that contributed to fiscal problems and to a prodigality which was “the watchword of the rest of the century, and normally resolved at the expense of the tenantry, through rent-raising”. This was the creation of an “asset-stripping society” which fomented “social tension”.  (MacGregor 2006:169f).

Also in this 500 year period falls the Scottish Crown’s political emasculation of Clan Donald, a long process preceding the Statutes of Iona. Clan Donald had created an island based political structure which they ruled in their own terms as ‘Rì Innsi Gall’ – Kings of the Isles – and considered themselves, in the words of Richard Oram, “a fully independent power” from Scotland. (Oram 2011: 86f)

So, were these two processes of political struggle, which helped to set the conditions for the ‘clearances’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, defined by the coercion or by the ‘complicity’ of the Gaels?

In the case of the Statutes of Iona, the leading west Highlands and Islands’ chiefs were kidnapped and imprisoned until they signed up to them.

In the case of Clan Donald, successive Rì Innsi Gall rebelled against the Scottish Crown in order to try to maintain their independence, but were finally forced to submit to the Scottish king. Dòmhnall Dubh, the final of the direct line of the Rì Innsi Gall, was imprisoned in infancy by his maternal grandfather, the Campbell Earl of Argyll, chancellor to the Scottish king.

He spent most of his life in prison, either in Stirling or Edinburgh.

Clearly these two processes were fundamentally coercive. They form part of the long colonisation of the Gael, a people that the Scottish and British authorities considered savage and barbarous because they were culturally and politically different and would not comply with the authorities’ demands on them. (MacKinnon 2014) As Martin MacGregor noted, the authorities’ coercion in the north-west led to the creation of an asset stripping society and to the period of the clearances.

A longer view of the past discloses the coercive processes against Gaelic society that preceded and led to the clearance era. It demonstrates that Burnett’s primary claim – that Gaels were essentially ‘complicit’ in processes of clearance – is grossly oversimplistic and unsound.

His Marxist inspired, class-based essentialism has forced Burnett to create a narrative of the past life of the Gàidhealtachd that is selective and highly misleading.

The repentant Marxist philosopher, Alastair McIntyre, gave his summation of the state of Marxism in ‘After Virtue’, a book which he dedicated, in Gaelic, to his father and his father’s brothers and sisters.

Marxism is exhausted as a political tradition, a claim borne out by the almost indefinitely numerous and conflicting range of political allegiances which now carry Marxist banners – this does not at all imply that Marxism is not still one of the richest sources of ideas about modern society – but I believe that this exhaustion is shared by every other political tradition within our culture. (MacIntyre 2007: 262)

Against the exhausted universalism of liberal and Marxist ideology, MacIntyre proposed a radical localism.

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. (MacIntyre 2007: 262)

As Western and westernised neo-imperial societies – liberal and socialist – move us further into the night of our exhaustion  we might also seek other ways of understanding and acting in the world; “local forms of community” that draw from our own diverse cultural understandings and place-based traditions, and which might move us on from here. It is from out of the present darkness that Dòmhnallach, MacLèoid and others are seeking to reconceptualise and rekindle indigenous Gaelic traditions that might serve a real enlightenment and, as the Uist bards have called for, bring closer “justice in our lives”. (MacDonald and MacDonald 1981)

Gus am bris an latha’.

[Iain MacKinnon is a research fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of CAWR.]



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  1. wwildwood says:

    A Native People were deprived of their land consistently through the centuries. Their Indigenous status undermined by Law. That states when their Chiefs became Feudal rather than Tribal, the claim to Indigenous status was lost. Though they themselves remained the same. The Clan Chattan Document, once one of Scotland’s oldest documents was Clan Chattan being recognized by The Lord of The Isles as the descendants of Catt. Pictish Royalty. This gave them claim to land such as ‘Glen Shee’. In 1666 the Stuarts ‘lost’ the document. With it went Land Rights and the legal precedent that would have set in a Modern Scotland. The land belongs to The People, always has done and always will do. Whether any of us are left or not.

  2. It has been interesting to read all contributions on this subject in Bella Caledonia and this is a particularly engaging article (partly because I agree with Iain Mackinnon’s conclusions it should be said).

    With regards to lines of opposition being determined by class during the clearances, another figure that could be cited to challenge this view is Major General David Stewart of Garth. Stewart was a Gael at the heart of the early nineteenth century Highland, Scottish and British establishment; he was a landowner, had been an officer and captain of the Black Watch, counted Walter Scott as a friend and King George IV as a correspondent. Yet he was also one of the most passionate, eloquent and influential opponents of clearance. It was Stewart’s quite radical view, published in 1822, that:

    ‘Such a state of society in which the employed are kept down by the strong arm of the law, and the lives and properties of the employers protected by military force, does not form a very desirable example of Highland proprietors, in the case of the once chivalrous, and still valuable occupiers of the land’. Sketches, Vol 1, 169.

    Certainly, many of those involved in the process of clearance came from within Gaelic society but so too did many of its most vocal opponents – from all strata of society. It goes without saying that unity and cooperation are essential elements for any effective political struggle or campaign, but this is no reason for ‘the breath of the Gael’, in Derrick Thomson’s memorable words, to be subsumed. Indeed, it should be fully harnessed.

    1. Bothy Basher says:

      …”In his (Burnett’s) view, any other factors, such as cross-class cultural affiliations and understandings, are irrelevant.”

      What you say Ruairidh – about ” Major General David Stewart of Garth.” is a welcome counter to this – except for the danger of using an individual to represent a class. Yet community and culture can be a binding agent in struggle. However Stewart was of the exploiting class, evidenced in ”Highland proprietors, in the case of the once chivalrous, and still valuable occupiers of the land’.

      His words betray his class’s true role as ”occupiers of the land”. Stewart harks back to long lost feudal values with his reference to chivalry, and makes himself no ally of the people who he declares by inference, are to be relegated to a position of inferiority and dispossession. Same old, same old.

      1. I believe the “occupiers of the land” refers to the people who lived and worked on it: the point he’s making is that the current proprietors were not a good example to them. I take the point though that one person’s views shouldn’t be mistaken for a ‘class’ as a whole, but there were others who opposed clearance from similar backgrounds, as indicated in the article. Neither am I saying that Stewart of Garth was without fault – but he was a vocal and influential opponent of clearance, and attracted the anger of figures such as Patrick Sellar for his outspoken views.

  3. john young says:

    Steal their land deny their heritage/language/history hey presto has been the modus operandi throughout the ages,how much of gaelic/scots history was/is taught in our schools very little I will wager,no wonder there are somany in our country see themselves as British as opposed to Scottish,how many Saltires flying throughout the land,by comparison go to England and you will see plenty of the flag of St George and rightfully so they do not have a “crisis of identity”.

    1. Bothy Basher says:

      Yes John – Steal their land deny their heritage/language/history hey presto has been the modus operandi throughout the ages”. True.

      Like me you will know that many many forced Scots emigrants did precisely this to native populations when they reached foreign lands.

  4. Alastair McIntosh says:

    I’ve often wondered how well urban and rural-feudal concepts of social class map onto indigenous societies, and specifically, Highland and Hebridean societies. Watching the recent BBC Alba film about the pioneering educationalist, Dr Finlay Macleod of Shawbost, I was struck by a discussion amongst 2 of the Shawbost women, now in their 50s, talking about how, in the village of their youth, “we were all the same.” They were quite emphatic about this. It confirmed my own experience on the other side of the island in Leurbost. Yes, there was a class system in the sense of the laird, but he was of a different order of reality that did not belong to the village social system. Within the village there was a kind of class system of the minister, the doctor and the teacher (you can tell I was the doctor’s son, as others would list it as the minister, the teacher and then the doctor!), but what distinguished this triumvirate is that their positions were respected in that they served the community, with the minister at the top of the tree having, of course, been “called” by the local congregation. I’m also mindful of Ronnie Black’s West Highland Free Press articles back in the 1990s talking about the chief as the “highest apple” on the tree, again with the emphasis if I remember correctly on that position being constellated by service to the people.

    If these observations are valid, they suggest the need for a nuanced understanding of class, that distinguishes between social class in service of its own domination system (Walter Wink), versus social class in service to the community. Furthermore, one could arguably substitute the term “social class” in what I’ve just written with the word “education” and the sense that it was the duty of the educated to serve their community. Thus, widening out from the Highland/Hebridean nexus, the relevance of Gandhi’s observation that his greatest disappointment in life was “the hard-heartedness of the educated” – i.e. those who forgot the people from whom they’d come.

    1. wwildwood says:

      With regards to Chiefship. The transition from Tribal to Feudal denoted the change from ‘Father Protector’ to ‘Overlord’. Chief’s heirs would often lead cattle raids so the Clansmen could size them up. If unsuitable they could be voted out. The Overlord serves his Hierarchy and his people serve him regardless. Their tenure hinges on it.

      1. Bothy Basher says:

        Yes Wildwood -this is a reason why the clan system in that form could not survive. The dog eat dog system of ‘rob thy equally poor neighbour’ was unsustainable. Rightly.

        Don’t kid yourself this was a form of democracy.

        1. wwildwood says:

          My point, was that their leadership originally nurtured their people. When they become Feudal, the emphasis is no longer on the Children it is on the Laird. I was not drawing a comparison with Democracy. I was stating that this change denoted the people losing a hitherto Indigenous Status.

    2. Bothy Basher says:

      Yes Alistair, what you describe in Leurbost is a kinder, more mellow, less brutal form of patriarchy, of deference. It reminds me of the patrician Toryism of Harold MacMillan who criticised Thatcher’s class rapacity in the selling of public property – a less vicious world for sure but which retained wealth and means of production in the same hands. The ‘highest apple ” sounds rather like ‘first among equals’. Hmmm!

      You say ”I’ve often wondered how well urban and rural-feudal concepts of social class map onto indigenous societies, and specifically, Highland and Hebridean societies.”. Though I am far from a political theorist, I too have wondered about the ‘fit’ of these communities into urban/industrial generated theorisings. As a product of urban/industrial life, I don’t think they do fit easily. I met many exHighland riggers (exseamen often) in shipyards and they were ‘different’, more gentle than we Glesga keelies, hardened by our context.

      However, the picture you paint is seductive I have to say, and what comes through in your account is definitely a sense of community and that I value immensely. It’s what we all seek and may not find.

      In the 70s I was wandering South Uist and spoke to an elderly man who lamented the absence of younger help in cutting peat for the older people there; he said things had changed.

      I recognise Gandhi’s words on the ‘educated’, pulling up the ladder behind them. Mind you, being unable to get a job in Scotland, I taught in London and was scarred by the nature of rejection of education by working class kids – my class, as being an ex-Govan shipyard plater testifies. Not Asian kids incidentally, who were a relief to work with -and I wasn’t the only one who felt that.

      Thanks for your account of life there. The Welsh/European Raymond Williams is perceptive on ‘community’ though he can also be elusive.

      So yes ! ” if these observations are valid, they suggest the need for a nuanced understanding of class, that distinguishes between social class in service of its own domination system (Walter Wink), versus social class in service to the community”.


  5. charles Murphy says:

    Scots …. ever our own worst enemy .. will we ever learn do you think ?

  6. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Not our own worst enemy, Charles Murphy. Just a need to understand ourselves more deeply – what Paulo Freire called “conscientisation”, the coming together of conscience and consciousness in a critical awareness, a “praxis” of action-reflection-action, of what has positioned us how we are and how that impacts on where we might want to be headed to. That is why the issues raised by Iain MacKinnon here are so important, as are the original points made by Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach and, indeed, the reaction of Ray Burnett to which MacKinnon so thought-provokingly responds.

    Thinking more about this question of social class and the democratised intellect, I recalled last night that what helped me to understand the world in which I was raised (as an incomer, but with some indigenous ancestry) was when, in 1977, VSO sent me to Papua New Guinea. There I met so much that was familiar and yet was seeing it with the eye of an outsider. An insight into this is the famous anthropological film that was used in our VSO training, “Ongka’s Big Moka” (1976). Ongka’s status and that of his tribe depends not on prowess in warfare (the alternative option to achieve status), but in his and his people’s capacity to give lavishly to neighbouring tribes in a huge Moka feast that included 600 pigs and a motorbike. At the end Ongka said (quote from Wikipedia entry for the film): “Now that I have given you these things, I have won. I have knocked you down by giving so much.”

    Hebridean society does not do its giving in a showy way like that – quite the opposite – but it was (in my time, and remains so at least amongst many of my era, born mid 20th c.) a giving-based society, where kindness is what ranks highly in social standing – a triumph of kindness over fixed categories of class. See this illustrated, for example, in the epic poem by Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn (John Smith) – “Spiorad a’ Charthannais” (The Spirit of Kindliness) – Gaelic commentary followed by English at http://goo.gl/H7Nmdm. I can only find short extracts online in English – for example, in one of Wilson Macleod’s papers at http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_164190_en.pdf. There is a full translation by Donald Meek in his book on poets and landlords from the Gaelic Tracts Society (I think it is).

    My point is that “class” as I have experienced it in a Hebridean society is based on the degree to which one gives into that society, contributing to the wellbeing of the whole, and not on individualistic self-achievement. This is why the Marxist analysis of class is an ill-fit. It misses the deeper spirituality that underlies an indigenous people’s mores, a spirit of generosity in which the competitive impulse is channelled by, one might say, competing to cooperate. It’s like on those single track roads in Harris where the only traffic jams are caused by locals flashing their lights to one another from lay-bys as if to say, “You come on” … “No, you come on”… “Oh no, you must come on!” This is the gift that such societies have to teach the world, a.k.a. “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

    1. Bothy Basher says:

      Alastair said ” ”My point is that “class” as I have experienced it in a Hebridean society is based on the degree to which one gives into that society, contributing to the wellbeing of the whole, and not on individualistic self-achievement. This is why the Marxist analysis of class is an ill-fit. It misses the deeper spirituality that underlies an indigenous people’s mores, a spirit of generosity in which the competitive impulse is channelled by, one might say, competing to cooperate.

      Yet Marx said, ”If we have chosen the position in life in which we can most of all work for mankind, no burdens can bow us down, because they are sacrifices for the benefit of all; then we shall experience no petty, limited, selfish joy, but our happiness will belong to millions, our deeds will live on quietly but perpetually at work, and over our ashes will be shed the hot tears of noble people.”

      As Alastair ends on a religious note equating to ‘each according to his need etc” – we can say that we all know this immensely compassionate thought from Marx –

      ”Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”

      I guess this is why Marx said he was not an ( ill-fitting?) Marxist! The interpretations mask the man.

  7. Bothy Basher says:

    ”In this account he repeatedly excoriates alternative positions which suggest that the struggles might also have been informed by distinct cultural norms belonging to Gaelic Scotland, or by the sense that Gaels of the time might have considered themselves a distinct people within Scotland. Burnett unequivocally rejects the possibility that any factor other than class – such as language, culture, religion or sense of nationhood – could have played a meaningful part in the political oppositions and alliances of the period.”

    The ”cultural norms” that Burnett rejects sounds very like a counter to superstructure and I’m amazed he dismisses it.

    The late Welsh/European Raymond Williams writes informatively in ‘Culture and Society’. He says (there is MUCH more)

    ”We may now see what is properly meant by ‘working-class culture’. It is not proletarian art, or council houses, or a particular use of language; it is rather the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, habits of thought, and intention which proceed from this. Bourgeois culture, similarly, is the basic individualist idea and the institutions, manners, habits of thought, and intention which proceed from that. […] The culture which it [the working class] has produced […] is the collective democratic institution, whether in the trade unions, the co-operative movement or a political party. Working-class culture, in the stage through which it has been passing, is primarily social (in that it has created institutions) rather than individual (in particular intellectual or imaginative work). When it is considered in context, it can be seen as a very remarkable creative achievement. (313)

  8. Bothy Basher says:


    Having quoted Williams above, I have difficulty in calling the Highland community ‘working class”, but like me they’re certainly not the owners of the means of production – nor me from an industrial/urban background.

    A better person than I will clarify the issue.

  9. Bothy Basher says:

    lastair said ”a huge Moka feast that included 600 pigs and a motorbike. At the end Ongka said (quote from Wikipedia entry for the film): “Now that I have given you these things, I have won. I have knocked you down by giving so much.”

    Moka could have delivered expertly any British Budget speech – equally with other people’s resources!

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      I have been thinking about your point, Bothy Basher, all this Hogmanay evening from were I find myself writing with my wife’s French relatives; thus only partly in the loop of conversation as my French and my hearing these days is so poor: and I think my answer would be that Ongka needs to be understood not in the sense of western individualism, but from the context of his tribe, as a clan chief; and thus what appears to us to be a highly individualistic statement parasitic upon “other people’s resources” was, in fact, an expression of their collective identity.

      But forgive me if I overstate the case. It is Hogmanay, and my kind French relatives here near Montpellier have plied me not just with what is appropriate to a French Hogmanay, but also to a Scottish one: and so a good New Year to you all and especially to MacKinnon, Dòmhnallach and Burnett. I note the latter’s note this afternoon, to be followed up on: and would urge that it is a great thing that this sort of a conversation is opening up in the Scotland of 2015, and that we must try and use our differences as spades with which to dig more deeply for the common treasure. It is not just Ongka that represents something more than his own ego self in Melanesian culture: it is also all of us in conducting this kind of debate around the internet fireside. We are speaking, each of us, for more than just our own individuality. At least, that is what a bottle of beer, 2 glasses of local vin rouge and a dram of Glenfiddoch tells me on this good night.

      1. Bothy Basher says:

        Bonne annee a tous a Montpellier!

        I passed many New Years in Auvergne near Le Puy and enjoyed the calmer, much less commercial festive season there.

        Oddly enough, my hearing is also diminished, thanks to Clydeside boilershops and shipyards.

        Excuse my misinterpretation of Ongka – which I did from my context as he spoke from his.

        On spades and digging- let’s invoke Seamus Heaney for 2015…

        ”Between my finger and my thumb
        The squat pen rests.
        I’ll dig with it.”

  10. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Bothy Basher quotes some interesting passages from Marx and then says:

    “Having quoted Williams above, I have difficulty in calling the Highland community ‘working class”, but like me they’re certainly not the owners of the means of production – nor me from an industrial/urban background. A better person than I will clarify the issue.”

    I sometimes wonder if there was more of the Hebrew prophet in Marx than Marxist atheism suggests. But as for clarifying the issue while not presuming any betterness of personhood in the question, the point that I think is lacking in much academic analysis of the Hebridean psyche is the depth of its spirituality and how those qualities remain present even in many a Hebridean who might today consider themselves to be agnostic or atheistic (not that I meet that many of my generation).

    One shouldn’t generalise. I would only say that a great many of the people amongst whom I was raised from the age of 4 (in 1960) onwards would have considered ownership of the means of production, and even ownership of the land, to be a very secondary question. The primary concern amongst those people – and I continue to see it expressed whenever I go visiting back home, even amongst some of the younger generation – is a recognition that the means of production, including the land and sea, are providential. Thus you can’t own the land because God owns the land (Leviticus 25), and we, whatever our social pretentions might or might not be, are sojournours over its surface.

    Last year the people of N. Uist voted not to have a community buy out. I spent an afternoon in August at the home of one traditional gatekeeper, and it was clear from her thinking that provided the people were no longer being directly oppressed then the greater concern was with matters like Sabbath observance (as a marker, not least, of community coherence and belonging) than whether the estate or a trust controlled land use.

    I also spent time this past summer with community leaders in Kinloch (Lewis) and Scalpay (Harris) and it was clear in their thinking – people of my generation born in 1950s – that providential thinking retained traction, even though they would not have presumed to propose the subject unless I had first raised it.

    This puts spiritual agency at the heart of proprietorship, human agency being secondary and socially sanctioned only inasmuch as it respects spiritual principles such as can be summed up in one word as “community”. My experience is that the same principles are held equally amongst both Protestant northern Hebrideans and Catholic ones in the south, but religious schisms have made people shy about acknowledging it these days. In particular, most Calvinists I know – and that’s the majority of folks I know from the Lochs area – pedal very softly these days in pushing any form of religious thought unless invited because they are well aware of the need to take distance from past excesses. This, however, adds to the scholar’s problem, because unless the scholar approaches such a society with an intrinsically sympathetic and inviting receptivity, then a topic such as providential relationship to reality will be unlikely to be raised. It used to be the sith that were frightened away; now it’s the Presbyterians! It’s an interesting methodological conundrum to which my reply would simply be – go to the islands, be respectful, consider even attending the local church, and just ask people. They’ll love it if they see you’re genuine, and if you’re not, they’ll see right through you.

    Why does this matter – this failure of much scholarship adequately to grasp a culture’s spirituality and the implications of providential thinking? It matters because it can cause those of us who might research such questions to see the world in binary capitalist v. Marxist terms, and miss the fact that many indigenous peoples – Christian and otherwise – have a different worldview. Both capitalism and Marxism (as usually articulated) are anthropocentric. They put “material man” at the centre of the universe and therefore they rely on human solutions to human problems. In contrast, a God-centred worldview recognises human agency but constellates it around a dynamic, divine understanding. There is, to bring it back to the Christian Hebrides, a sense of God’s active agency in sustaining life on Earth, and thus the town motto of Stornoway: “God’s Providence is Our Inheritance.”

    Aye, it sounds quaint to today’s ear: but in turning a deaf ear perhaps we miss the deeper music.

    1. Bothy Basher says:

      ” Both capitalism and Marxism (as usually articulated) are anthropocentric.” I’d say that capitalism is utterly indifferent to man’s existence and that Marxism is anthropocentric as it should be.

      I have made many long pilgrimages in France and Spain as an atheist and seek some kind of secular spirituality – which is utterly contradictory in its terms. Yet I have an instinct that it matters.

      I cannot subscribe to a god centred world view because there is no evidence for a god and lots of evidence against that notion. But when the god spell is broken we see that it was an illusion.

      ‘Material ‘man has had a bad press and this puts religion in a far better light. But we have the advantage of history here, and see that religion is bereft of solutions and must be rejected.

      ”a sense of God’s active agency in sustaining life on Earth” ? I’m afraid not. 98% of earth’s species are now extinct.

      Happy New Year to Bella and all.

      1. Alastair McIntosh says:

        BB – I don’t want to sideline this debate into the God debate more than was necessary to point out that it is a key and often overlooked or misunderstood factor in trying to understand Hebridean cultures. However, if your background is in the shipyards and you’re still in the Govan area, drop in on us at the GalGael Trust on Fairley St (by Ibrox subway) – it’s open night with a community meal from 6.30 every Thursday (though not this week with hols) and you’d like the boat building that’s going on there plus the living community spirit. That’s me checking out from this debate for now – travelling all day.

  11. Ray Burnett says:

    This two-part posting by Iain MacKinnon was brought to my attention earlier today. Apart from not recognising myself, far less what I actually wrote on Bella in them, Hogmanay is not the best of times on which to respond.

    That will come later, hopefully before the auld ne’er’s day kicks in.

    For the moment I will leave the detritus of 2014 behind for now and simply wish a guid new year / bliadhna mhath ùr 2015 tae ane ‘n a’.

    Benbecula 31 Dec 2014

  12. Bothy Basher says:

    Thanks Alastair

    Yes the god bit was for another topic, excuse me; and as Ray Burnett says above, Hogmany isn’t the best time !

    I would like to have dropped in at the GalGael but I am so far away from Scotland now. When I read of your work there, I realised that this was the kind of initiative which I didnt come across when I was in Glasgow. Really important work, and sorely needed.

    Bonne route!

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  16. rhydd says:

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  17. Don says:

    I like Michael Newton’s take on this so called complicity.http://virtualgael.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/the-highland-clearances-in-the-long-view-of-history/
    Iain Mackinnon’s points are well made about the earlier enforcement that lead to a seeming complicity by the higher classes in later times. Go to any colonised area and there will be examples of high status people being deliberately brought into the fold (by legislation or force at first which later looks like complicity). In Gaeldoms case (as in many others) this was carried out by forcing chiefs to educate their children in English speaking (British establishment) schools. Other forces at work were the replacement of one type of economy/feudalism with another one (as explained above by Iain Mackinnon) and the emergence of more capitalistic and ‘enlightened’ economy/farming etc. Given that all these factors came from outside Gaeldom and just like in every other colonial situation where in some way seduced/cajoled/forced/bought into the colonised culture then complicity seems a strange way of putting it.

    Quite apart from this there is the race issue that is on record.
    “With the development of pseudoscientific racist ideas from about 1850, the Clearances were at times supported by belief that the Celtic “race” was inferior to the Anglo Saxon “race”.[30] George Combe’s popular and influential The Constitution of Man, published in 1828, provided a framework which would be used by some to support theories of racial superiority. In 1850 Robert Knox published “The Races of Men” which asserted the inferiority of the Celt compared to the Anglo Saxon and Nordic races.

    The view that the economic failures of the Highlands were due to the shortcomings of the Celtic race was shared and expressed by the two most important Scottish newspapers, The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald – and even the more northerly Inverness Courier.[30]

    In 1851 The Scotsman wrote that
    “Collective emigration is, therefore, the removal of a diseased and damaged part of our population. It is a relief to the rest of the population to be rid of this part.”[31]

    Similar views were held by senior public officials. Sir Charles Trevelyan was co-founder with Sir John McNeill of the Highland and Island Emigration Society. In a letter to McNeill in 1852 he wrote that

    “A national effort” would now be necessary in order to rid the land of “the surviving Irish and Scotch Celts”. The exodus would then allow for the settlement of a racially superior people of Teutonic stock. He welcomed “the prospects of flights of Germans settling here in increasing numbers – an orderly, moral, industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scotch Celt, a congenial element which will readily assimilate with our body politic.”[32]

    (The “flights of Germans” in the above quotation may relate to significant emigration from Germany in the years that followed the failure of the German March Revolution of 1848)” Wiki Highland Clearances

    The idea of the Gaels as an inferior barbarous people has long been Scottish/British central propaganda. Ethnicity and even race (as was defined in the past see above quotes) was always an issue. Telling us it was all about class just because the forces of racist and imperialist Britain (with all its propaganda and fixation on a progress that they were most obviously best placed to civilise the world with – a view still very commonly held in the UK on one level or another) was not resisted by all Gaels is clearly nonsense. Surely a major factor in this is that these upper class Gaels had been decultured deliberately as happened all across the colonial world. What culture anywhere effectively resisted these deculturalising forces of colonialism?

    The same ideas of cultural superiority and definitions of progress are alive and well in the UK. Darwinian arguments are used against ‘native’ languages like Gaelic and Welsh’s right to exist (or get any reasonable funding). Whereas incoming cultures and languages are resisted and seen as overwhelming (interestingly the Darwinian thinking as applied to language and culture is now forgotten) and we see calls for citizen tests, the state stepping in and anyone without English or communities in inner cities that don’t use English is frowned upon.

    My point rather clumsily made is that culture is a common fight too. What they do to us they will do to you. They will make your higher classes like them and force your culture to become regarded as solely a peasant one. The land will be improved and cleared of people and handed over for a few to make profit. They are English and Scottish and Gaelic and from all over. It is not really a case of there being a good or bad culture or people just a case that this kind of power and projection of progress and uniformity should be resisted. They don’t wish to ‘civilise’ as much as integrate and control. Is it some great coincidence that the most commonly spoken languages in the world are also the imperial ones?

  18. Don says:

    Another way of putting it is that culture is a common fight and cannot simply be speparated from the class struggle because it is part of the class struggle. Class has been created. Central aristocratic culture has been held aloft as the best way to speak, the most knowledgable, the most refined. All other regional cultures have been looked down upon. They can’t control you as well if they can’t understand you or the reason you might do things. The easiest way to control people is to make you just like them. The central aristocratic culture they have held aloft has sought to force all other competition into the shadows. Make it of a lower class. Make it of another time. Other cultures are deemed uncouth, archaic, unrefined, of no consequence in need of civilising.

    Gaelic was made into the peasant culture it is now perceived to be by so many. Not that it wasn’t/isn’t refined. Saying that the Gaels did it to themselves is just another cliche/hangover from the colonial era and another means of closing the culture down. Some on the left (I consider myself to be on the left) seem to hate anybody having a different culture. Culture is deemed unimportant. A vanity that the class struggle can’t afford. I say it is the other way around. People involved in class struggle cannot afford to deny culture and the deculturalisation that goes on all over the country/world to this day. That colonialism has deep and ongoing consequences just like it does around the world.

    Saying ‘forget your culture your leaders let you down’ is just akin to the process used in the imperial era. Another means to undermine. As Mark E Smith once said “Chairman Mao he dug repetition”.

    Besides who were the Gall of the lowlands that supported those in the Highlands if not other people (often Gaels) that were dispossessed of culture and land?

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