In recent weeks there’s been discussion of the claim that Scotland has suffered its own ‘genocide’ during the Highland Clearances.

I consulted Sir Tom Devine and James Hunter, two of Scotland’s most respected historians.

Tom Devine is Professor Emeritus at Edinburgh University and has recently completed The Scottish Clearances: a History of the Dispossessed 1600-1900), forthcoming October 2018(Penguin).

I spoke first to James Hunter, Director for the UHI Centre for History and Chairman of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust. James is an award-winning historian and author of a collection of definitive works on the Highlands including: A Dance Called America, Last of the Free, Culloden and the Last Clansman, and Glencoe and the Indians.

Is it accurate to describe the Highland Clearances as “Genocide”?

“I wouldn’t use the term genocide, no. This implies a mass slaughter of people. That’s not what happened. There is of course a strand of thinking that identifies Highlanders and Celts generally as racially and culturally inferior. That’s very evident in the thinking of the notorious Patrick Sellar for example.

But it’s important to make the point that these attitudes were held just as strongly, maybe more strongly, by Lowland Scots as by English people.

Whatever else they were, the Clearances were not some sort of English-inspired attack on Scotland. After all, many, indeed most, clearing landlords were themselves Scots.

What these landlords wanted was to get people out irrespective of who they were. There was oppression. There was misery, hardship, and dispossession. But there was no genocide in the sense of a coordinated attempt to kill people.

In fact the origins of crofting are bound up with the determination of landlords to keep people in the Highlands and Islands to provide a workforce for what was called the kelp industry – involving the highly lucrative manufacture of a crude industrial alkali from seaweed.

That changed when the market for kelp collapsed and landlords decided that they’d be better to be rid completely of what they now declared ‘a redundant population’.

To use the term ‘genocide’ is a kind of insult to people who have genuinely experienced organised slaughter on a huge scale – such as in Rwanda or in the Holocaust. It’s not seeking to find out what really happened. In fact something closer to genocide is at play in the actions of colonists in Australia – including Highlanders and other Scots – ironically to make way for sheep. And Australia’s indigenous people, unlike a lot of Highlanders, were certainly given no chance to get on a ship and leave for a better life elsewhere.”

We asked Tom Devine the same question: is it accurate to describe the Highland Clearances as “Genocide”?

“It is ludicrous to suggest a genocide or anything like it”.

“It’s a bizarre assertion”.

“There is no direct evidence at all of any levels of increasing mortality caused by clearances.”

You can see that at the end of the Clearances in the late 1850s the population of the four Highlands counties of 300,000 had increased by 36,000 since 1801.

“We can see also that the period where people left in large numbers was due largely to the mid-century potato blight. If you take the Census of 1841 and 1861 you can see that about a third of the population left for the Lowlands or for Americas and Australasia. That famine could have resulted in increased death rate but the Highlands did not starve because of government and charitable intervention.”

The Highland clearances was a terrible period in Scottish history, a reality covered in considerable detail by both Devine and Hunter over many years. Put in the context of the concentration of land ownership, and with the attacks on the cultural base of Gaelic and Highland culture, the clearances were, and remain a destabilising process for Scotland.

In no way do I wish to undermine the reality that the clearances were brutal, oppressive and at times violent and coercive. Nor do I suggest that the clearances weren’t a process that has had a lasting and damaging legacy or that this wasn’t a shameful period.

However, I don’t think that the case for Scottish independence is strengthened by bad history or by claiming a victim status that isn’t supported by the facts.

The sort of manufacture of grievance and the idea that anyone who challenged this narrative was somehow a ‘British nationalist’ is both offensive and ahistorical. It doesn’t serve the movement for Scottish independence to create a hysterical account of the past.

The case for Scottish democracy rests on the appalling mismanagement of our society and our economy by successive governments we didn’t elect, the abject failure to protect and develop the potential of people living in Scotland, the reality of whole communities disfigured by poverty and the toxic legacy of the British State. It does not rest on pretending that we experienced genocide.

Much of the recent debate around adopting the term ‘genocide’ in relation to the Clearances has been done via a retrospective interpretation of Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Yet, reading Article II in its entirety shows specifically what does not constitute genocide.

“The intent is the most difficult element to determine. To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group. It is this special intent, or dolus specialis, what makes the crime of genocide so unique.”

Further Reading

Tom Devine:
To the Ends of the Earth, Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010 (Penguin, 2011)
Clearance and Improvement: Land, Power and People in Scotland, 1700-1900 (John Donald Publishers Ltd, 2006)
Clanship to Crofters’ War: The Social Transformation of the Scottish Highlands (Manchester University Press, 1994),
To the Ends of the Earth, Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010 (Penguin, 2011)
The Scottish Nation: A Modern History (Penguin. 2012)

James Hunter:
A Dance Called America (Mainstream 20101)
Last of the Free (Penguin, 2010)
Culloden and the Last Clansman (Mainstream 2010)
Glencoe and the Indians (Mainstream 2010)
See also The Making of the Crofting Community (forthcoming, Birlinn April 2018)

See here for these books and more by the author.