In Our Time but not ‘in our voice’

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.

Comments (43)

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  1. Demented Dad says:

    An excellent critique of how the British establishment once again tries to rewrite history. It matters not a whit whether people were evicted, were starved out because they could not be evicted or left before they were victim to the same practices.

    It all added up to the same deliberate policy of breaking the clans as cohesive societies and pushing the people out of the land that their families had farmed for generations in favour of making more money from sheep that were less liable to rise up and be perfidious Scots.

  2. Steve Minton says:

    Of course you do realise that Shetland is missing from your map? Or is Shetland not part of Scotland anymore? If that’s the case does that mean I don’t have to pay any tax from now on? Have you heard of Google? It’s a pretty good site if you need to do a bit of research every now and then, I mean you wouldn’t want to appear ignorant in any way by missing a rather large part of the country out now would you?

    1. It’s not a map, it’s an illustration.

      1. J Galt says:

        I daresay but he does have a point.

        The contrasts in history and pattern of land use and ownership between the Western Isles and the Orkney and Shetland Isles would be helpful. What were the differences in experience and if so what role did language and culture play?

        This not a criticism of the essay which is excellent and only goes to expose my ignorance of many aspects of the history of my own country.

  3. Anagach says:

    There was a previous article in Bella where the editor assured every one that the Clearances were clearly not part of a set of policies that amounted to genocide. He had been assured of this, not by any Gaels, but by historians who were experts. And what was missing was any attempt to read of, or see the historical events from the point of view of the Gaels. Like getting a bunch of Turkish historians to talk about Armenian history.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      He was correct.

      1. Bob says:

        “The Clearances have been seen as an act of greed and betrayal, an attempt by the ruling class to preserve their wealth by sacrificing their people.” a quote from BBC documentary a few years ago on this subject. The word genocide may not be appropriate at the time the highlands were cleared but does seem appropriate now to give some perspective to these events with Scotland being change again by the ruling classes against the will of the majority of people living here.

        1. Anagach says:

          I don’t think the Clearances on their own, viewed in isolation, are sufficient case to call genocide. But seen as part of a wider set of measures, state enacted or state enabled there is I believe a case that can be made. Now that’s my opinion and it may be wrong, but I would not claim that the answer is obvious or clear at all. And it would be good to see historians who are Gaels or reporting the view from that community rather than just the usual non-Gael Scots and English ones.

        2. Ken says:

          If the word Genocide is problematical in relation to the Clearances, I don’t think there can be any dispute with the phrase Ethnic Cleansing

      2. Anagach says:

        As no doubt are Turkish historians when they discuss Armenian history.

        1. Graeme Purves says:

          Are you really suggesting that the considered opinions of historians such as Tom Devine or Jim Hunter can be equated with the stance of those Turks who deny the Armenian genocide? Deniers of the Armenian genocide generally take that stance on the chauvinistic grounds that the very suggestion that such a genocide could have occurred is an affront to the honour of the Turkish people. In contrast to the situation in Turkey, there is no state or official policy in Scotland of denial that the Clearances took place and it is widely accepted that Scotland’s Gaelic culture was subject to sustained assault from the 18th to the 20th Century and that contemporary perceptions of ethnic difference was one of the drivers. However, you yourself indicate that you do not consider that the Clearances, taken in isolation, amounted to a genocide. On any objective assessment, the systematic extermination of some 1.5 million Armenians during the First World War was clearly a genocide. The situations are hardly comparable.

          I very much agree with Iain McKinnon that the absence of a Gaelic scholar from the BBC ‘In Our Time’ programme on the Clearances was a serious omission. Marjory Harper’s suggestion that it is the testimony of external witnesses and commentators that allows us to be confident that the Clearances actually happened jarred with me too. I wonder, however, how easy it is to divide Scots neatly into Gaels and non-Gaels? My father’s family were Borderers, but my maternal grandfather’s family came out of Glen Lyon and my maternal grandmother’s family came out of Glen Muick. My maternal grandmother had a smattering of Gaelic in her vocabulary. Many Scots who present as irredeemable Lowlanders could make a claim to be children of the Clearances.

          1. Domhnall MacCoinnich says:

            Graeme Purves I have a little issue with your statement” I wonder, however, how easy it is to divide Scots neatly into Gaels and non-Gaels? My father’s family were Borderers, but my maternal grandfather’s family came out of Glen Lyon and my maternal grandmother’s family came out of Glen Muick. My maternal grandmother had a smattering of Gaelic in her vocabulary. Many Scots who present as irredeemable Lowlanders could make a claim to be children of the Clearances.”? Forgive me if I am misrepresenting you, but you appear to be implying that whether you can speak on Gaelic issues, with a Gaelic voice, is a matter of having some kind some kind of blood link, rather than a cultural knowledge. Being a Gael is not a blood issue. Anyone from any background can be a Gael providing they learn the language and take part in and understand the culture. It is a language/cultural identity not a blood one. Therefore, anyone who has Gaelic ancestors, or a smattering of Gaelic cannot really be upheld as a Gaelic voice as the author of the article is suggesting should have been included now and in the past.
            This is very important as I can not count the amount of times I have been confronted by someone claiming that Gaelic is all about blood nationalism, when it is not in fact a blood issue. Instances of misrepresentation of the culture from outside.

          2. Graeme Purves says:

            I don’t believe we are too far apart on this, Domhnall. I think it is necessary to read my second paragraph in its entirety, giving due weight to the first two sentences. I start off by indicating that not including a Gaelic scholar in the BBC’s ‘In Our Time’ programme on the Highland Clearances was a serious omission. That is because I believe that the perspective of those with an authoritative knowledge of the Gaelic language and Gaelic culture is essential to a full understanding of the phenomenon.

            I agree with you entirely that a commitment to Gaelic culture should not be seen as a matter of bloodline or ethnicity. My reference to my own ancestry was not an attempt to stake any bloodline claim to speak authoritatively on Gaelic culture, but to caution against a generalised assumption that Lowlanders are unable to connect or empathise with the Highland experience. Many Lowlanders have Highland connections – and vice versa. Individual identity is generally more complex than it appears. I have close friends who were brought up in the Lowlands but have gone on to learn Gaelic and bring up children who have Gaelic as their first language.

  4. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Scottish historiography, generally, can only flourish with Scottish independence; a blindingly obvious point to make, I’ll admit.

    Anagach: re: [Myths of Genocide in the Highland Clearances] “He had been assured of this, not by any Gaels, but by historians who were experts.” That, succinctly sums-up, in my opinion, the point we’ve reached in our understanding of Scottish history.

  5. Willie says:

    ” Now that we have catch’d Scotland we will hold her fast ”

    The strategy, and the tactics hold as good today, as they did then.

  6. Ewan Macintyre says:

    This was Robert Knox’s take on the Highland Clearances.

    “The really momentous question, for England, as a nation, is the presence of the three sections of the Celtic race still on her soil: the Caledonian, or Gael; the Cymbri, or Welsh; and the Irish, or Erse; and how to dispose of them. The Caledonian Celt touches the end of his career; they are reduced to about one hundred and fifty thousand; the Welsh Celts are not troublesome, but might easily become so; the Irish Celt is the most to be dreaded. . .
    Look at Wales, look at Caledonia; it is ever the same. The race must be forced from the soil; by fair means if possible; still they must leave. England’s safety requires it. I speak not of the justice of the cause; nations must ever act as Machiavelli advised: look to yourself. . .”

    (Source: The Races of Men (1850) by Robert Knox (born, bred and educated in the Lothians))

    1. That’s some quote – and the intersection between racism and sectarianism / anti-catholicism is an aspect of this that’s not really been explored here. Thanks Ewan.

      1. J Galt says:

        Isn’t it?

        Even Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of “Kidnapped” for goodness sake, talked of “England” when referring to the UK (in “Across the Plains” I think).

        That even the idea of Scotland survived ceaseless subversion is nothing short of a miracle.

    2. Gashty McGonnard says:

      Hmmf. #Thanet

    3. Gashty McGonnard says:

      That quote puts a few things in perspective. A wee reminder that the Empire’s first colony was England, for one.

      And an indication that for much of English history, they didn’t see a Celtic ‘fringe’, but an encircling, hostile terra incognito. The perpetual aggression of their rulers may be based more on “dread” than on rapacity – they saw enemies on every side. Whence the deep cultural roots of Kipperism, and the need to spread ‘British’ swivel-eyes-ation to every airt?

      On the question of ‘genocide’: anybody talking that way nowadays would risk being charged with inciting it. Mr Knox clearly evidences the motive.

    4. John S Warren says:

      The remarks about Knox are interesting.

      Robert Knox (1793-1862) was a brilliant anatomist, and a quite early (but not the earliest) evolutionary theorist. He was at least indirectly involved in the Burke and Hare case; at the time anatomists had difficulty accessing corpses legally to perform dissections for teaching, and hired the “resurrectionsists” (like Burke and Hare) to rob graves immediately following burial. Knox was believed to use Burke and Hare.

      Knox avoided prosecution (the law typically turned a blind eye to the activities of the anatomists in this area, and had done back into the mid 18th century at least), but he lost his position at the College of Surgeons, and his glittering Edinburgh career was ruined. He was involved in the mid-19th century debates on monogenesis and polygenesis, and he was a racist.

      He was radical and a controversialist but the racial division he describes in the quotation used above is not really between Scots (Gaels) and the “English”(defined as England, south of the border); but rather the latter were Scots who for Knox, were part of the prevailing dominant Teutonic race who had originally settled much of Scotland (especially the east coast), as well as England, long before the Norman Conquest of England. The racial division for Knox was within Scotland, not a division at the border. The politically and socially predominant race of non-Gaels as conceived by Knox, I would tentatively suggest were typically lowlander and mainly, but not exclusively, East Coast; in effect the 19th century Presbyterian hegemony, rather than people from England. The racism that can be found in some (not all) associations with early evolutionary theory, continued as a presence, but later in the century evolved, and turned into the eugenics of Darin and Galton, and in the 20th century, with the re-launch of Neo-Darwinism by Fisher, who was a very strong advocate of eugenics. This is a very difficult and uncomfortable history; but it is unavoidable.

  7. Alisdair says:

    Thank you for replying to the broadcast. It left me feeling I had misunderstood everything I had ever learned about my highland family’s past.

    1. Alastair McIntosh says:

      “But why did they keep our history from us?
      I’ll tell you they are frightened
      In case the children of Gaeldom awaken
      With searching and penetrating questions
      Twenty years for the truth
      I had to wait
      I had to search
      Twenty years of deceit
      They denied me knowledge of myself”

      (Runrig, Twenty Years)

  8. Alistair Livingston says:

    In September we are having a one day conference ‘Galloway- Gaelic’s Lost Province’ -details here

    Unfortunately the loss of Gaelic in Galloway was so complete that it is very difficult to work out how and even when it occurred. My contribution to the conference will be on the transition from Gaelic to Scots. I think the transition began in the 14th century with the plantation of Scots speakers in Galloway. This was a response to the region’s support for the Balliols, especially Edward Balliol between 1332 and 1356. The final stages occurred after the Lordship of Galloway was extinguished by King James II in 1455. By the Reformation in 1560 the shift to Scots was extensive enough for John Knox to preach to the ‘common people’ of Galloway without the need to translate his words into Gaelic.

    What I don’t know is if there was any policy designed to make Galloway’s Gaelic population learn and use Scots.

    Could Gaelic have vanished from Galloway by ‘natural causes’? Or would some degree of enforcement have been required?

    1. MBC says:

      The foundation of various royal burghs in Dumfries and Galloway may have accelerated linguistic change. Generally language follows commerce. That was the pattern elsewhere. English (or rather Scots English) was spoken in the royal burghs in central Scotland and spread out from there, but as we know, Gaelic clung on in the surrounding countryside. George Buchanan was from Stirlingshire and was a native Gaelic speaker. And that was the sixteenth century. Robert the Bruce understood Gaelic. So it must have been sufficiently prevalent in Galloway in his time. The late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries.

    2. Iain says:

      The Gaelic in Galloway conference looks fascinating. Do you know if there are plans to issue the papers in book format afterwards? It would be very valuable as there are to be very interesting speakers present.

      1. Alistair Livingston says:

        I don’t know Iain. I will ask if there are any plans to do so.

        1. Michael Ansell says:

          We are looking into publishing proceedings of the conference but not confirmed as yet. Depends a on funding and the willingness of the speakers. To be sure why not attend, still 24 out of the 91 seats available!

          Michael Ansell

  9. Kenneth G Coutts says:

    Nice to see a positive rubbishing of state historian lackeys.
    I’m no expert, however, I have always had
    A gut feeling about state acclaim awarded to
    Such as those.
    Now backed up.
    As you say, I did notice the historian referred to the Mythology of the clearances.
    Despicable to say the least.
    It happens and has happened today.
    When the English state remove industry.
    People move away or become compliant!

  10. Hamish says:

    Melvyn Bragg is the commentator who has stated “There are no classes in Modern Britain.”

  11. milgram says:

    Good point that there should have been a Gaelic voice on the show.
    But you’re taking an over-literal view of the “mythology” they were talking of. The context of it in the whole programme was set at the start when talking about clans. I think it was TD said “the clan structure emerged around 500 years ago, not time immemorial”. That was the “myth”, which they said drove Gladstone’s legislation and a thing can be both existing and not having existed forever.
    I think the programme was more nuanced than you’re giving it credit for, but absolutely yes, a Gaelic voice would have improved it.

    1. Gashty McGonnard says:

      “… the clan structure emerged around 500 years ago…”

      Really? Did they provide any justification or context for that point, in the programme? Clan structure was foundational to Brehon Law, which goes back much, much further than half a millennium. Sure, some aspects of the clan system came later… but out of context that claim seems sketchy.

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      Spot on on the matter of “mythology”!

      It’s high time we revisited the debate about Scottish myths which the magazine ‘Cencrastus’ supported in the decade following Murray Grigor’s important ‘Scotch Myths’ exhibition in 1981.

      Here’s a clip from Moray Grigor’s film ‘Scotch Myths’ (1982):

  12. Ken says:

    Wow! Bragg is a stalwart of BBC Radio 4 – a station which manages to mention “class” in all manner of programmes and contexts umpteen times a day. Has he not noticed, or are the English so obsessed with “class” that they just take it as a natural, ever-present topic, not worthy of notice?

  13. kate macleod says:

    Irish scholars would probably take a keener and more empathic interest in scottish gaelic history and especially language than lowland scottish historians, who are educated to be more british and underlying that colonialist in outlook. To join irish and scottish gaelic scholars in discussions might provide more interesting and useful outcomes.

    I’ve read on a few occasions that though the irish were left to starve during the irish famine, in the highlands during the potato famines of the mid nineteenth century people were fed and given aid. but i have never seen a historical comparison of the treatment of the two or attempted explanations. have other people?

    1. Iain Ross says:

      “in the highlands during the potato famines of the mid nineteenth century people were fed and given aid”

      My understanding of the ‘aid’ given is in monuments such as the famine wall on Beinn Dearg. If you you have ever seen that, and it is completely without purpose, then perhaps you might question the humanity of sending poor starving people up there to build it in return for a handful of meal. To me that is a funny way of offering ‘aid’ but the idea seems to be that Gaels (or the poor in general) were lazy freeloaders and you could not give them something for nothing. Echos a lot of right wing policy I see today.

      le dùrachd,

      1. kate says:

        Thanks for your reply. No i haven’t seen the wall. yes it sounds a modern / neoliberal ‘work for the dole’ like project and also like some Great Depression works. Nothing may be given for free by the well fed classes. Probably there were contractor profits to be made from the labour of the poor in workhouses or perhaps constructing walls, as there is now in prison labour.

        I do not have the impression Scottish highlanders were treated well, I’m interested in how apparently their lives were held to have more value than rural Irish who actually died of starvation in large numbers, as far as i know, and how that crucial difference of being kept alive, if only just, came about. Maybe the Dingwall riots were somewhat successful in keeping grain at home? Religious bias towards protestants baulked at starvation? Random individual interventions? Crops just didn’t fail as badly?

    2. Domhnall MacCoinnich says:

      I have also read that when there was grain being shipped out of places like Dingwall (from the Highlands bound for elsewhere to be bought up by speculators) during the famine which led to riots and rioters being shot. That and people being made to work on pointless building projects based on a racial and racist understanding that the Gaels needed to be encouraged to work for their famine aid as just giving them the food would encourage their inherent indolent nature etc.

      1. kate macleod says:

        thanks for your reply too

  14. Gordon Benton says:

    Very interesting article and analysis of the BBC’s ‘In our Time’ last Thursday morning. Without detracting anything from the Highland Gael ‘clearances’ atrocity argument, may it be mentioned that of course not only were the Scots Gael ‘cleansed’, but other natives of Scotland too.And I contend this is happening today.
    My interest was aroused when researching who actually would vote against its independence, I checked the voting analyses after IndyRef1 on voters ethnic origins This indicated that English immigrants voted about 3 to 1 for the Union. Of course this could be expected, but it asks questions as to whether the continued immigration of English into Scotland would constitute not just the increasing impossibility of getting our Independence, but the hybridisation of the native Scot and its eventual hegemony over the land. I have no intention of turning this into a Scot versus English argument, and completely understand that merely to mention it, will raise hackles.
    It is no coincidence that those Scottish constituencies with the largest English immigrants, have returned Unionist candidates. At the very least, more efforts have to be made now to convince all immigrants as to where their bread is buttered, and that it smacks of disrespect and insensitive impropriety to come to this country and vote against the wishes of the indigenous people.
    Looking around the World, we can note the predicaments of the Amerindians, the Kurds, the Maoris, Australian Aborigines, and indeed all the aboriginal peoples of the world. It may be argued that it ever t’were so, and that the Scotland we know today is a hybridisation of Anglo Saxons, Britons, Scots for Ireland, Vikings ad infinitum. But if any of us wish for Independence, clearly there are difficulties about getting a large percentage of newcomers to support us, or zip up whilst enjoying the delights of living in this country.

  15. Ross says:

    With the qualifier that I am not originally from the UK:

    John S Warren remarked above:
    He was radical and a controversialist but the racial division he describes in the quotation used above is not really between Scots (Gaels) and the “English”(defined as England, south of the border); but rather the latter were Scots who for Knox, were part of the prevailing dominant Teutonic race who had originally settled much of Scotland (especially the east coast), as well as England, long before the Norman Conquest of England. The racial division for Knox was within Scotland, not a division at the border. The politically and socially predominant race of non-Gaels as conceived by Knox, I would tentatively suggest were typically lowlander and mainly, but not exclusively, East Coast; in effect the 19th century Presbyterian hegemony, rather than people from England.

    Much of the debate over Scottish independent turns on the differences between Scotland, as a whole, and England, as a whole. What the quote above highlights, is that it is the differences within Scotland that matter as well.

    I am somewhat of an outsider to the independence debate (but bear with me) – and it seems to me that we have not looked enough at the differences within Scotland. When I first got here, I was told, “There’s Scotland and then there’s Edinburgh”, and its voting behaviour in both Indyref1 and the EU referendum does, I think, bear this out.

  16. steven McPhee says:

    I have read Devine’s Books and listened to radio show…..A lot more informative that twaddle I just read.

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