I was driving through Tong on the Isle of Lewis. I was with an old school friend from Leurbost village of my childhood on the island.
“Wonder which is Trump’s house?” I said, though not intending to veer off and go a-gawking. It was just a passing point of conversation, the way you do when driving round the island with folks who know it intimately, exchanging stories, retelling history, and whatever else comes from the free association that springs up along the route.
“I know which one,” he said. Then pre-emptively, just in case I was going to make a detour, “But I’m not showing anybody.”
In a nutshell, that sums up the island view of Trump. Partly because he so much doesn’t represent the island’s values that they’re at a loss to explain it. And equally, partly out of the respect for the privacy of the family. Trump is dirty washing that the island would rather not hang out, and not just on Sundays.
“Trump is dirty washing that the island would rather not hang out, and not just on Sundays.”
Donald John, or Dòmhnall Iain, is one of the most common island names. It translates, from the Latin and Norse roots, dom and val, as The Ruler of the World.
Far be it for me to apply the Second Sight as to the American election outcome. Ironically, however, the island’s traditions of the Second Sight – an dà shealladh or “the two sights” – might shed a little light on just how The Donald should have turned out so very wayward, or “prodigal”.
In his acclaimed biography of a way of life, Isolation Shepherd, Iain Thomson of Loch Monar remarks: “No Highlander has any doubt about the existence of the second sight or indeed simple prognostication.”
Such a statement still holds true of most indigenous Hebrideans to this day. It is based on ongoing experience. Experience that characterises tight knit communities where empathy remains profound. Where it does so because the deeper levels of the psyches of individuals are not as disconnected from one another as they become in highly competitive metropolitan settings.
I found myself reflecting on this after hitting on some correspondence about the Second Sight that took place in the late 1600s. It was between Lord Tarbett and Sir Robert Boyle.
“Donald John, or Dòmhnall Iain, is one of the most common island names. It translates, from the Latin and Norse roots, dom and val, as The Ruler of the World.”
Tarbett was one of the Mackenzies of Kintail and Seaforth, the Anglicised clan that had connived to own the Isle of Lewis from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Sir Robert Boyle was the Anglo-Irish physicist who gave us Boyle’s Law – the one stating that the volume of a gas varies directly according to its temperature.
Their correspondence is quoted at some length by the Rev Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle, writing around 1690. His posthumously published book is called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. Ethnographers consider it to be probably the most important early statement of Gaelic metaphysical beliefs.
Tarbett took a business interest in “the African Trade,” as he called black slavery. A later family owner of Lewis, Colonel Francis Humberston Mackenzie, governor of Barbados in the twilight years of British slavery. His daughter, Mary Elizabeth Frederica, inherited Lewis in 1815 and used her power of landed patronage to introduce the new breed of hardline evangelical clergy to the island.
Tarbett tells Boyle about an observation made by a gentleman friend of his who been to the Barbados. Of islanders, who went abroad, “Several of those that did see with the Second Sight when in the Highlands or Isles, when transported to live in other countries, especially in America, they quite lost this quality.”
That fascinated me. It suggests that when the bonds of community are broken, the capacity for deepest intimacy goes too.
In recent articles, it has emerged that Donald Trump’s mother did not leave the island to go for a holiday in New York. As one island writer has it, the idea that anybody went from Lewis to New York for a holiday in the 1930s “is so unlikely it’s almost laughable.”
The Macleod family daughters who went to America were economic migrants who “made good”. There appears to have been a family difficulty involving Mary’s elder sister having a child out of wedlock, but in the backdrop, large numbers of the island’s youth were at that time emigrating to America.
Why? Because they lacked land, the prerequisite for livelihood.
Why did they lack land?
Because during the first half of the 19th century, the proto-capitalist speculative Mackenzie landlords evicted people from southern and western Lewis (Pairc and Uig). Their ancestral land was rented out for commercial sheep farming. These Hebridean expressions of the Highland Clearances started with the need Francis Humbertson to pay off his gambling debts run up in the Barbados. The first clearance orders were issued from that distant outpost of the Empire.
At the same time as Mary Elizabeth Frederica was evangelising the islanders with hellfire preaching, her second husband, James Alexander Stewart-Mackenzie was clearing them to maintain himself in the lifestyle to which he aspired. In Uig, land was even cleared of families specifically to make way for the minister’s greed for grazings.
CNN Politics put it all in perspective this past week. It reported, from local genealogical evidence: “Two branches of Trump’s family were forced from their homes in this way, becoming refugees in their own country – the Macauleys forced from their homes in the west of the isle, the Smiths further south.”
When I look at Donald Trump – his colossal egotism, his grandiosity, his disconnect from empathy – I see a man who nurses a narcissistic wound, a wound to his primal integrity from places that he probably doesn’t even know about. And that’s just on his mother’s side. Like those plantation managers in the African trade of whom Lord Tarbett spoke, his capacity to be and inwardly see – his capacity even to have an inner life as distinct from it all being on the outside – has been cut off by his deracination, his uprooting, from holding in his community.
“When I look at Donald Trump – his colossal egotism, his grandiosity, his disconnect from empathy – I see a man who nurses a narcissistic wound, a wound to his primal integrity from places that he probably doesn’t even know about.”
Such is the tragic dynamic by which – not inevitably, but very often – the oppressed turn oppressor. It is why Paulo Freire said that the great task of the oppressed is to liberate their oppressor as well, otherwise there can be no lasting freedom.
Such a background also speaks to The Donald’s appeal to poor white American voters, many of whom share a similar psychohistory. Their ancestral hearts, similarly, had metaphorically been buried at Wounded Knee, long before they and their kind perpetrated such massacres as Wounded Knee.
Such is the psychopathology that the American election has set loose upon the world. It is in part fuelled by a binary division in fundamentalist religion between the Damned and the Elect; a division by which the oppressed, held in a kind of Stockholm syndrome, take solace in the notion that at least there’ll be comeuppance for those who have humiliated them in the afterlife. Tragically, this too easily plays out into the world as the binary politics of good state / bad state, with us / against us, and the black / white racism not just of America, but previously of Apartheid South Africa that drew explicitly on such sorry theology.
Irrespective of whether Trump wins or loses, roughly half of America will have voted for him. It’s time to understand such psychohistory. Time to call our prodigals home. Even a Donald Trump is still the island’s son.
Alastair McIntosh has based and sourced much of this piece from his recent book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage: an Island Journey (Birlinn, 2016, hardback). Also, for the theology, his earlier Island Spirituality: Spiritual Values of Lewis and Harris (Islands Book Trust, 2013), now free online. His theme of calling Donald Trump home was first explored on Bella Caledonia in poetry in 2011.