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:
- the history of the clearances is in fact essentially a narrative of the ‘complicity’ of Gaels in the development of landlord hegemony;
- this narrative of ‘complicity’ has been largely omitted from accounts of the clearances ever since;
- 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:
- Landlord hegemony was built on complicity
- 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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