In Our Time but not ‘in our voice’: the BBC’s contribution to the misrepresentation of Highlanders and their history.

At the height of the late 19th century land agitation in the Gàidhealtachd – that part of Scotland inhabited by Gaels – the Gaelic scholar JG MacKay published a trenchant leaflet called The Misrepresentation of Highlanders and their History in which he complained that ‘there is not another race under the sun that has so often been treated to the opinions of others regarding them, as the Highlanders have been’.

MacKay went on to excoriate an apparently endless list of publications in which ‘misrepresentation, absurdity, nonsense, and pure fiction, are boldly and unblushingly served up to the public’ regarding Gaelic Scotland by writers ‘ignorant of its manners, customs, institutions and language, and prevented by prejudice and incapacity from acquiring any accurate knowledge’ of the people and their land. Of the writers of such works, often historians, he added: ‘It never enters his imagination that any knowledge of the subject is at all necessary; the less he knows of it the better, and the more easily he can satisfy his preconceived ideas and cater for the taste of his fellows’.

MacKay’s reprimand fell largely on deaf ears; a set of beliefs – even if they be largely mythological – that provide existential comfort for their believers are hard to shift. Although the prejudices of others are now usually less crudely expressed, and the native critical responses often less trenchant in tone, the misrepresentation of Gaels and our historical struggles continues to this day.

External misrepresentation and native critical response were both in evidence on Thursday of last week when the history of the Gàidhealtachd was the subject of two simultaneous BBC radio broadcasts: the misrepresentation appeared on Radio Four’s morning intellectual history programme In Our Time featuring Professor Sir Tom Devine, Professor Marjory Harper and Professor Murray Pittock talking about ‘the Highland Clearances‘; the indigenous critical response came on the morning talk-show on BBC sister station Radio nan Gàidheal which was discussing land struggle in the modern Gàidhealtachd.

A guest on the Gaelic show, Aonghas Dòmhnallach, described how the Inverness Courier newspaper had covered the mass eviction of Gaels in Glengarry in the mid-19th century. Dòmhnallach remarked that in its coverage the paper had roundly denigrated the character of the people being dispossessed in terms that seemed not only unfair, but also irrational. He then observed that this can be considered as part of a long tradition of ‘history from above’ in which the culture of the Gaels, past and present, has been given a very partial representation by non-Gaels. This prompted the show’s presenter, Coinneach Mac a’ Ghobhainn, to refer to the In Our Time broadcast on Radio Four, saying:

“fair ma tha thu ag ràdh gu bheil iad a’ sgrìobhadh eachdraidh bhon taobh a-muigh ‘s tha e inntinneach faicinn chan eil aon Ghàidheal a-nise a-measg nan triùir a th’ aca bruidhinn air na fuadaichean air a’ phrògram tha sin. Is tha e coltach a tha iad a’ dèanamh tòrr fuaim air e twitter is rudan mar sin an dràsda duine bruidhinn air a’ phrògram – ach inntinneach fiùs ‘s ’ad ann an sheo chan eil thu faicinn guth nan Gàidheal idir air cùisean”

Mac a’ Ghobhainn was pointing out that, in regards to history being written from outside, it was significant that not one Gael was amongst those speaking on the Radio Four show that morning. He added that, while it was likely that the programme would generate much discussion, it is ‘interesting that even today you don’t get the voice of Gaels at all on these matters’.

An Imperial Throwback

It is a pertinent criticism, especially as there are no shortage of suitable candidates to take up the role of providing a Gaelic voice for In Our Time. Many Gaelic scholars could have acquitted themselves well, and brought necessary breadth and perspective to the Radio Four broadcast, correcting some of its more egregious errors. For instance, Murray Pittock – who gave the wrong year of publication for the seminal Napier Commission report on the condition of crofters and cottars – might at least have deferred to his Glasgow University colleague, Martin MacGregor, who teaches the university’s honours course on ‘the Highland Clearances’. Another outstanding candidate would have been Donald Meek, whose Scottish Gaelic Texts Society volume on the poetry of the clearances and land agitation is the single most important work offering a contemporary Gaelic perspective on the land struggles.


It could be argued that the exclusion of a Gaelic voice from the show is something of an imperial throwback on the part of In Our Time’s producers, who could not – to cite a recent instance from the programme – conceive of examining Sikh history without (and rightly so) including representation from the people being discussed.

However, it was not simply a matter of the contributors on the show itself; In Our Time chose even more thoroughly to excise the Gaelic voice by not including a single Gaelic perspective in the extensive bibliography on the ‘clearances’ on the show’s webpage.

Thus, the show featured a total absence of representation from the people whose lives were being discussed. How, then, did a programme to which no contributor had significant interpretative access to the Gaels’ language represent the indigenous voice in describing the systematic efforts to destroy their society and culture in the modern period?

For a start we can note that the only Gaelic word uttered in the course of the entire broadcast was dùthchas which was garbled on each occasion in pronunciation and in meaning, affirming, perhaps, only the exhortation of Gaelic poet Angus Peter Campbell that ‘anyone who dares to to write anything about Gaelic Scotland’ should read Dùthchas nan Gàidheal – the selected essays of John MacInnes – first.

Furthermore, and strangely for a programme featuring three historians, not a word was mentioned of Gaelic historical sources. Indeed, according to Marjory Harper, the information which allows us to know that ‘the Highland Clearances’ happened are witness reports (made by non-Gaels); official documents which chart resistance to eviction; the ‘retrospective writings’ of late 19th century Gael cultural activists such as Alexander MacKenzie; and, strangest of all, the comments of Canadian immigration agents. In Our Time listeners would, therefore, never know that the eloquent and spirited Gaelic poetic denunciations of Patrick Sellar, Sheriff Ivory, Iain Dubh Caimbeul of Islay, the Riddells of Ardnamurchan and many others had ever been uttered; Professor Meek may wonder if his life has been spent in vain.

The Sense of Betrayal

The apparent lack of familiarity with the sources came out again and again in the broadcast. When speaking about alliances formed between the Irish and Highland Land Leagues, Pittock claimed the Highlanders were particularly bewildered by the actions of their landlords because ‘unlike Ireland the landlord is not seen as an alien; the landlord is actually one of us’.

This is, at best, an oversimplification. The poetry of the land risings – and certainly by the time the land leagues were on the go – repeatedly distinguishes between potentially redeemable native landlords and unredeemable foreigners who should be banished or otherwise come to a bad end, the poetry of Màiri Mhòr nan Oran and the Lewis bard Iain Mac a’ Ghobhainn being perhaps the most prominent examples.

Tom Devine went considerably further than Pittock, seeming to suggest that the sense of betrayal felt by many Gaels is a curiosity and may, indeed, be largely fictitious. He told Melvyn Bragg: ‘The curiosity is [that] the sense of betrayal – either exaggerated or real – is actually most important post-Clearance; that is, it is the descendants [that feel it most], and this goes on to the present day.’ He added emphatically: ‘The exaggeration thing is very important…The vast majority of the people left the Highlands because of difficulties of circumstance and opportunities elsewhere, not because of eviction – okay!’

There is obviously a great deal in Devine’s statement that is unhistorical. His value judgement here – that the sense of betrayal is ‘actually most important’ to descendants of the generations that experienced clearance – is highly subjective, particularly as it is not backed up with any evidence. Those who have read the bitter early poetry of the clearances – such as the visceral, astringent final verses of Fios Chun a’ Bhàird – and some of the curses and awful fates proposed therein for those held responsible, will probably conclude that Devine simply does not know what he is talking about.

His whole argument has the feel of someone dancing on the head of a pin; as if the justification of a person’s feelings of loss and sense of betrayal really depends upon whether someone had actually been physically removed from their home by estate managers, or whether instead the policies and actions of those estate managers had placed people in such ‘difficulties of circumstance’ (a euphemism that seems characteristic of Whig approaches to history) that they felt no option but to leave their homes of their own will (if it can be so described). Devine’s awkward dance only begs the questions of who and what had caused such circumstances that led people to leave; a question that as often as not returns us to the landlord’s front door.

The discussion of religion was similarly flawed. Had Professor Meek or another Gaelic speaking historian such as Allan MacColl participated, it is unlikely that Murray Pittock’s one-sided and out-dated (he acknowledged as much) caricature of the role of the Presbyterian religion in the clearances as emphasising the people’s sinfulness and encouraging their passivity would have gone unchallenged. A series of scholarly works – not all of them recent – demonstrates that the response of the church and its leaders to clearance was varied and complex and contradicts Pittock’s narrow portrayal of ‘the grim figure’ of Calvinism and its ministers. To argue as I am doing here is not to deny that such grim individuals existed, but to recognise that such individuals did not define the whole Presbyterian response to the clearances, and therefore such individuals should not be used by contemporary historians to suggest that they did.


All three contributors to In Our Time seemed happy to agree that the native people’s view of their own past could best be thought of as ‘mythology’ – presumably unaware that some of their own contributions could be considered in much the same way. Pittock began this trend by arguing that the architects of the 1886 Crofting Act had been critically influenced by WF Skene’s Celtic Scotland of 1879, a book which had laid out a schematic account of pre-crofting landholding arrangements among the Gaelic speaking clans.

Therefore, claimed Pittock, when the Government legislated ‘they did so on the basis of really a slightly mythologised view of immemorial rights to landholding which themselves had really had been the consequences of relatively recent historical developments’. Pittock went on to claim that ‘that mythology actually underpinned the way the clearances then presented themselves in the cultural memory of Scotland in the 20th century’.

However, even a listener without previous knowledge of the clearances might have hoped that Melvyn Bragg would ask Pittock to reconcile the ‘mythology of immemorial rights’ claim with the argument that Pittock had made just minutes before; namely, that dùthchas – which in Pittock’s view is ‘the idea that there is a common purpose and a common right of some kind in the land and also there is a protector who is the landlord’ – was a concept that ‘seems to have survived, albeit imperfectly, some of the changes’ in land management in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Therefore, Pittock’s statements here show that he believes both that the Gaels’ views about their immemorial rights to land were a myth, and also that they were a real and surviving concept. Considered separately, his two statements appeared eloquent and in earnest. But bring them together and they dissolve into absurdity.

Imperial conventions in Scottish history

None of the foregoing criticism is to say that the programme was without interest or insight. Each of the scholars made some useful contributions to the debate. However, as Brian James Macleod has also observed, it is to say that a whole range of assumptions and conventions about what – and who – counts in Scottish history had been brought to bear on the topic of the clearances; initially by the programme’s London-based producers; and subsequently by its three non-Gael Scottish contributors.

As the discussion of Sikh culture on In Our Time exemplifies, contemporary public discourse in post-imperial Britain, in some cases at least, has to be seen to include the views and voices of those peoples who were colonised by British imperialism and whose lives and cultures were changed irrevocably as a result.

However, although it is profoundly important to recognise and give public space for the voices of externally colonised peoples to tell their stories in their own ways, it also needs remembered that these were not the only peoples impacted by the ideological force of British imperialism. For instance, a growing body of historiography in Scotland is drawing attention to the central fact that Britain’s treatment of the Gàidhealtachd in modern times also took place in an imperial context, and that the removal of Gaelic speaking communities in the area was being described at the time by leading political figures as a project of ‘domestic colonisation‘. This history also highlights the central and critical role of racial and racist thinking against ‘Celtic’ Gaels in order to justify the clearance of people; not surprisingly, perhaps, this important aspect of the Highland Clearances was completely ignored by Radio Four and its panellists. In a recent article for the Northern Scotland journal I have outlined the ‘domestic colonisation’ of the Gàidhealtachd in the late 18th and 19th centuries and the racist thought that underpinned and helped motivate it.

This new historiography can be understood as a contribution to the wider work of peoples affected by colonialism who recognise that imperialism as a set of attitudes and assumptions did not end with the dismantling in law of the European empires in the mid-20th century and who today, in the words of the Canadian political philosopher James Tully, ‘continue the task of decolonisation by questioning and criticising the vestiges of imperialism in the received ways of thinking about and organising politics’.

The Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith writes that some colonised peoples are forming an ‘indigenous language of critique’ made up of two strands. the first of these strands reassesses our own past and traditions in order to remake ourselves. The second helps us to understand how we have been colonised: it examines how the imperial power relations are established, and perpetuated – Patrick Wolfe has argued that ‘settler colonialism is a structure, not an event’. It also examines how these structures affect our self-understanding and the way we live and think today – as the Haudenosaunee scholar John Mohawk has caustically put it, ‘colonisation is the means by which we are systematically confused’.

When JG MacKay wrote of the misrepresentations of Highland history in the 19th century he did not consider Gaels to have been colonised – he wrote as an advocate of British imperialism, not as a critic. Even today, Gaels have still to come to terms with our enmeshing in British imperial domination, an entanglement which, as Michael Newton and others have noted, is all the more complex for containing the roles of both colonizer and colonized.

Decolonising ourselves requires us to reassess and to open our own cultural horizons. It also requires us to critique the limited Anglocentric horizons imposed by scholarship such as that of the In Our Time contributors who are reminiscent of the European academics described by Edward Said ‘whose political horizon, whose historical location is within a society and culture deeply enmeshed in imperial domination. Yet little notice is taken of this horizon, few acknowledgements of the setting are advanced, little realisation of the imperial closure is allowed for.’ As a result, adds Said, the work of those academics tends to occlude the political context in which their representation, and misrepresentation, of the past takes place, ‘a context that is primarily imperial’.

When Anglophone Scottish historians use powerful media to seek to close off the experiences of Gaels in history, and the imperial and colonial relations that shaped it, they don’t simply recite history – they perpetuate it. In such instances, it is vital that our own representatives – and Coinneach Mac a’ Ghobhainn and Aonghas Dòmhnallach in their different ways last week are the latest in a long lineage – speak back and remind them of the people they are silencing and the history they are eliminating in doing so.


NOTE: I am grateful to Professor Norman Macdonald and to Arthur Cormack for providing me with a copy of JG MacKay’s important text ‘The Misrepresentation of Highlanders and their History’, and I am also grateful to Andrew Wiseman for his comments on an earlier draft of this article, and for checking my Gaelic transcription and translation. The articles’ contents, and any errors, are my responsibility.


Iain MacKinnon is a postdoctoral research fellow into the Governance of Land and Natural Resources at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of CAWR.