A book on the Highland Clearances

From the Observer 21 October 2001

If, as Ambrose Bierce argued, a violin is the revenge exacted by the intestines of a dead cat then history, in the hands of a skilled interpreter, may avenge vanished generations. The Highland Clearances are a good example of the phenomenon.

One view is that landowners brutally swept away the native people. Harder-nosed academics say that the Clearances were part of an inevitable change. But although we are in an age of opulence, a time when, in the words of Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazilian football coach, we tie dogs up with sausages, we seem to grow ever more bitter about the misfortunes of our Highland forebears who lived not in Arcadia but often in poverty.

Despite the evidence Greens, New Agers and eco-freaks continue to romanticise the days when crofters dwelt with their cattle in the black houses. I had a French friend who restored a Hebridean cottage to its original stone-girt dignity; the locals, with their harled bungalows and central heating, thought it was a hilarious example of Gallic eccentricity.

And as the historian Tom Devine has shown, there was a similar process of ‘clearance’ in the Lowlands, driven by improving land-owners. Because it was accompanied by the dynamic growth of the Scottish cities and burghs, it was achieved with remarkably little social friction and did not become entrenched in the collective myths of grievance.

Yet the Highland story has an enduring melancholy nourished by the John Prebble canon of novels. Resentment still festers over post-Culloden genocide, the indifference to the plight of the native people of an anglicised lairdocracy, and the evils of a free market in estates operating under feudal law.

There is no doubt about the camp to which belongs Alistair McIntosh, academic and activist, fellow of the Centre of Human Ecology in Edinburgh. Indeed, as a founding member of the Eigg Trust, he became a leader of the movement which transformed public attitudes to Highland land. The idea of community ownership now enjoys almost universal support.

The Scottish Parliament has abolished feudal tenure; the Executive has published and consulted on a draft Land Reform Bill; and now the people of Gigha have until the end of the month to raise £3.85 million to buy their island from the laird, selling it because of ill health.

McIntosh’s new book ( Soil and Soul ) published this month, is a powerful addition to the literature of Highland grievance, distinguished for its attempt to set it in a world context and for the fluent grace of the writing. Some of it, I confess, I took with a pinch of impatience. McIntosh writes beautifully about his upbringing on the Isle of Lewis but can arouse irritation when, for example, he interrupts an absorbing account of bringing a stag down from the hill with reflections on the bardic tradition.

No doubt that puts me into the band of the banal and the anal for whom McIntosh has contempt, but I’m afraid I remained sceptical about his radical liberation theology, his rediscovery of the presence of God in nature and the neglected feminity of divine wisdom.

On the other hand, I found his account of the Eigg people’s struggle to acquire the island from the colourful Keith Schellenberg – for whom McIntosh confesses a certain affection – gripping and often moving. So too was the story of how he mustered a theological and spiritual case against Redland Aggregates’ plan for a superquarry that would have removed a mountain in the south of Harris.

He enlisted the support of both the Rev Professor John Macleod of the Free Church College and Sulian Stone Eagle Herney, paramount chief of the Canadian Mi’Kmaq Indians. Upon arrival in Scotland the chief grew irritated when McIntosh took him to the Faslane peace camp, where he was given vegetarian stew. I imagine a decent Scottish breakfast might have done more for his temper.

The reporter at the public inquiry into the superquarry, Gillian Pain, was irked by McIntosh’s idealistic presentation. Whether that contributed to her decision to come out in favour of the development I cannot say. Her finding was in any case overturned by Sam Galbraith, shortly before his retirement from politics, on the grounds that she had erroneously defined the national interest by expressing it in terms of the south of England.

No mater what you may think of his philosophy, you cannot question McIntosh’s sincerity or integrity. His campaigning damaged his career at Edinburgh University, where he was postgraduate teaching director in human ecology. He is now seeking new sources of funds to continue his work with marginalised commmunities.

There is, of course, an ample supply in that part of Scotland from which he largely averts his eyes – urban, industrialised Lowland Scotland, to which so many Highlanders migrated and which has had sufferings of its own. But it lacks the sad sweet songs of Gaeldom.