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 Review Article: Michael Fry's "Wild Scots"

Wild Scots and Buffoon History


Published in The Land, Issue 1, 2006, pp. 7 - 10. (This is the journal of English land reform, produced by Simon Fairlie and the people at Tinkers' Bubble in Somerset, and incorporating Chapter 7 News and The Land is Ours Newsletter - see  http://www.tlio.org.uk.) See also my land reform appraisal in Reforesting Scotland.


Alastair McIntosh responds to fashionable claims that the Highland Clearances never happened.


The latest book by the historian Michael Fry has caused quite a “stushie” in Scotland. But the issues it raises are also relevant south of the border. So what is it about Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History (John Murray, £25) that, for example, caused the BBC to dig me out late on the eve of its publication for irate comment? What does it mean for Fry to be authoritatively accused, like those who question the authenticity of the Holocaust, of being a “Clearance-denier”?


The so-called Highland Clearances are, like the earlier Enclosures in England, the central fact of much Scottish social history. But just as the Americans “don’t do body counts” in Iraq because they would not assist their self-image, so those who controlled history in Scotland traditionally watered down the Clearances. It was thanks to an English historian, John Prebble, that the induced culture of silence was first broken through in 1963.


“This book,” says Prebble in his Foreword to The Highland Clearances, “is the story of how the Highlanders were deserted and then betrayed. It concerns itself with people, how sheep were preferred to them, and how bayonet, truncheon and fire were used to drive them from their homes. It has been said that the Clearances are now far enough away from us to be decently forgotten. But the hills are still empty … and if their history is known there is no satisfaction to be got from the experience.”


Prebble’s revisionism was met by howls of horror from an Anglicised academic establishment. The Historiographer Royal for Scotland, Professor Gordon Donaldson of Edinburgh University, objected in the strongest possible terms. “I am sixty-eight now,” he promulgated, “and until recently had hardly heard of the Highland Clearances. The thing has been blown out of proportion.”


As the Native Americans say, “Where there is no victim, there was no crime.” Prebble’s work languished in an academic backwater until 1976 saw the publication of James Hunter’s seminal work, The Making of the Crofting Community. A host of other research followed in its wake. Interestingly, there was still no reliable body count of how many people had been subjected to diaspora. Some estates kept meticulous records; others kept none. Some estimate a million souls directly or indirectly cleared from their homes over 200 years. After discussion with colleagues, I generally work with the safer but still anecdotally guestimated figure of half a million. But the bottom line evidence of the evil continues to be, as Prebble suggests, the ordering of the country as it is today. Andy Wightman’s research is incontrovertible. Just 1,000 owners continue to control nearly two-thirds of the private land in Scotland.


There is enough land in Scotland to give each man, woman and child 4 acres – that’s 3 football pitches for everyone. And yet, the cry all around the Highlands is that local families cannot get a housing plot for less that fifty grand. Even where land is available, the landed classes in the past stitched up the very conception of the countryside to represent it as rightly (in terms of their interests) being an empty wilderness … for the rich and their servants. The planning laws therefore also get in the way of reform. You can build huge ugly barns in the country with EU grants, but not convivially toned-in ecohomes for the poor.


Thanks to the Land Reform Scotland Act 2003, this logjam is finally starting to clear. The best source on this is Andy Wightman – see http://www.andywightman.com/ , who has undertaken an incredible job over many years with very little funding. Land reform has guaranteed, 1) the right to roam, including wild camping and canoeing, 2) the right of pre-emptive purchase at government valuation by a community of rural land that is put up for sale, and, 3) in areas traditionally governed by crofting tenure, the right of a community to buy their land at valuation even when the laird has not placed it on the market. Some will say that this latter measure is no different from a 1976 act that allowed individual crofters to buy their patch freehold. But the difference is huge. The 1976 act forced individualism and so was shunned by many indigenous tenants. The 2003 act allows land to be bought but tenancies over it to be held by the community. As such, our innate theological sensitivities - namely, that we can be "landholders" but no-one can ever really be a "landowner" - are not offended!


The Largesse of the Lairds


To the right wing press, land reform marks the “Mugabification of Scotland.” To 5 million Scots, it is, at last, the start of a reversal of the ongoing wrongs of the Clearances. How fitting, therefore, that the failed Conservative Party candidate, Michael Fry, has taken it upon himself to make out that the Clearances never took place. How fitting to have, shall we say, a Historiographer Royal to the Landed Classes! His work is not an attempt to edify us about the past. It is, rather, a highly politicised attempt to turn back Prebble’s and Hunter’s tide of historical revisionism that has undergirded land reform as the flagship policy of our new Scottish Parliament.

How does Fry do it? Basically, he is a historian of the “Great Men” approach. History is about chaps just as geography’s about maps, and like most reactionaries, Fry sees history through the eyes of those swashbuckling types who put the Great into Britain. This is what actually makes his writing so entertaining, but it also averts our gaze to underlying social processes and structures. Fry’s aim, I infer, is to convince us that the landed Powers that Be are the right ordering of the countryside who always meant well, but have been misunderstood and misrepresented.


The lairds (or Scottish lords) were forced to modernise land tenure through “improvement” because rising population made the people’s condition untenable. Fry's evidence on this is slim. The Highland population, he says, rose from 337,000 in 1755 to 382,000 in 1801, but that in itself is hardly grounds for saying that the lion’s share of Scotland’s 20 million acres were insufficient to support them. What made the quantity of available land insufficient for the people, and thereby made them vulnerable to the Great Potato Famine of 1845 – 1850, was not for the most part population growth. It was population stricture, as people were forced off their ancestral homelands into “townships” where the Apartheid-minded lairds wanted them.


Why? For the same reason as Lord Delamere did it in Kenya, and as others did in a host of other colonial situations. Delamere told the Native Labour Commission of 1912-13: "If ... every native is to be a landholder of a sufficient area on which to establish himself then the question of obtaining a satisfactory labour supply will never be settled." In the Celtic lands, that waged labour was needed in landownerer-controlled industries such as fishing and processing seaweed for industrial uses. But equally, the vacated land was wanted for sheep farming, wool being more profitable than tenants. As for the Potato Famine, that was a political famine. In both Ireland and Scotland tenants had become over-reliant on the single crop that could produce high yields from little land. Meanwhile, as the people starved, food was exported from Ireland to English cities. These are colonial realities that have to be faced so that our peoples can move on.


In Scotland, many of the lairds were themselves Scottish, as Fry rightly says. But their “spirit of enterprise” that he so admires was seeded into them by Anglicised "public" (i.e. elite private) schooling, forced by the 1609 Statutes of Iona and King James’s subsequent Education Act. Paulo Freire of Brazil would have called it “cultural invasion.” As Prebble surmises, “Once the chiefs lost their powers many of them also lost any paternal interest in their clansmen. During the next hundred years they continued the work of Cumberland’s [of Culloden] battalions. So that they might lease their glens and braes to sheep-farmers from the Lowlands and England, they cleared the crofts of men, women and children, using police and soldiers where necessary.”

Duke of Sutherland's Dunrobin Castle, Golspie, Sutherland, Scotland

Photo: Alastair McIntosh 2005

In other words, the Highland Clearances were part of the internal colonisation of the British Isles that melded Great Britain. Like much subsequent colonial policy, this process also constituted an “inner colonisation” of the minds and social structures of Highland peoples. Fry’s “spirit of enterprise” defeated the “primitive communism” (as he calls it, failing to apply any indigenous theological explanation) of the traditional way where, at its best, land was valued not for how much profit it could produce, but for how many of the clan or “family” it could support. The early modern era in Highland Scotland, initiated by King James’s 1609 Statues and consolidated with a vengeance in the reprisals that followed the Battle of Culloden in 1746, turned land from being God’s providence into a mere commodity, to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. That is how matters still stand today. Most rent is but a poor man’s tax, payable to maintain the idle mores of the rich.


But should we not be grateful for the largesse of the rich? The Duke of Sutherland, Fry impresses upon us, was the richest British subject of his day, nicknamed the “Leviathan of Wealth.” His investment in “improving” one-twentieth of the surface of Scotland was the economic regeneration of its time. Today, Fry continues, it bequeaths the nation a fine crop of old masters hanging in the National Gallery. How petty of the people to have fussed so much about being moved around by their benign master. And if awkward tenants did have to be burnt out, the excesses were down to his factor or his advisor – the latter having been one James Loch whose meddlings could best be looked upon as an early attempt at, according to Fry … wait for it …  “land reform”!

Duke of Sutherland's Statue above Golspie


As for the Duke's wife, she, the countess who hosted Harriet Beecher Stowe of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame could hardly be considered culpable. “Her estate, [as she described it] was an ‘object of curiosity.’” We should, Fry continues, be grateful for her husband’s millions, “much of it paid by tenants in the fertile Midlands of England.” Well, precisely! That is what built Dunrobin Castle – and a fitting name it is too – “done-robbin’”! Indeed, my own great-great grandfather was sent by the Free Church as a precentor (the leader of spiritual song) for the workforce there. Common people gave huge chunks of their lives to fit the fancy of the duke’s whims. He had the power because he had the money because he had the land. And so he had people’s lives in his palm, and to this day his statue, paid for by public collections (to which few dared not contribute), is visible all over the Dornoch Firth. People talk about blowing it up and so we should.


Slurs and Slurry


Deconstruction … that is what I mean … of Fry’s language, lays bare the scatological depths of his prejudice. It is not just his sweeping caricatures, such as opening a chapter on "eviction and development" with the block-capitalised statement, "SCOTS LIKE FIGHTS." Talk of victim blaming! But that at least is blatant. My argument is more with the insidious distortion of perception, which is to say, distortion of the reader's consciousness, that Fry conceals beneath his outwardly avuncular mask of bonhomie. For example, he twice chooses not to refer to the native people as "spreading manure on their fields". Rather, he says, they engage in"throwing excrement over a patch of moorland.” In other words, Fry takes a natural process of traditional rural life and by his twist of terminology heaps contempt upon it. This not only degrades the people and their organic agricultural practices. It also implies that their homelands were worthless, thus making it easier to justify the oppression practiced by their "humane, liberal, progressive landlords[s]," typically "amiable but businesslike" and including "achieving Scots," who were merely advancing "the spirit of enterprise" that flowed from "an enlightened education."

My great great grandfather, Murdo MacLennan of Contin (1808-99), was sent by the Free Church as precentor to those building Dunrobin Castle.


The bottom line, Fry says in a clever framing of the debate that focuses on a particular narrowly-defined era but infects the reader with a much wider impression, is that there was no "first phase of clearance" in the late-eighteenth century. Not “if ‘clearance’ [he uses a lower-case c] is taken to mean the disappearance of a population from its habitat – such as the disappearance of Albanians in Kosovo in the Serbs' ethnic cleansing of 1998 or, to go further back, of the Jews from Berlin after these were transported to the camps by the Nazis.” This, Fry surmises, having carefully framed his definition of Clearance in totally over-the-top terms, "vindicates a denial that in this era any Highland clearances took place." So there we are! The "excrement" in question grows the wherewithal to construct a classic “straw man argument"; that is to say, an argument that dishonestly sets up a flimsy or contrived opposing position, so that it can be easily knocked down. If I might underscore this point of discourse analysis (for that is one way in which we need to learn to approach and tackle these people!), Fry's false syllogism is that Kosovo and Berlin were Clearances; Scottish history has nothing as bad as Kosovo or Berlin; ergo there were no Clearances in Scotland and the lairds stand exonerated.



Obsessive Eccentrics


The purpose of Fry’s re-revisionist history becomes clear in his various jibes at land reform. Land reform, he tells us, has been "an obsession with Scots" thanks to nineteenth century agitators like John Murdoch and Professor John Stuart Blackie whom he portrays as eccentrics for "countering the forces of the market with the call of a culture." Blackie, we are told by the incredulous Fry, even "decided 'ownership in the land exists for the people; not the people for the sake of ownership' - a tenet of the Scottish left ever since."


But the point of Fry's attack is not just to poke fun at history, as becomes apparent in his concluding chapter, "The land's for the people: The Highlands under devolution." It is not just land reform but modern land reform that is the target and motivation for writing this book. Here is why it has been so indulgently reviewed in the establishment London press - the Times Literary Supplement, for example, saying "It should be prescribed reading"; The Times maintaining, "He overturns the conventional demonology." It is in the interests of a certain class of powerful people to have Fry pontificate as their propagandist precisely because the growing success of modern Scottish land reform is a threat to their interests. Let me illustrate by focussing on one of his case studies about which I happen to know a lot as my book, Soil and Soul: People versus corporate power, is substantially about land reform and the community land trust of which I was a founder on the Isle of Eigg.


Fry’s treatment of this is a dogs’ dinner that libels the people’s cause. He makes no mention of the buy-out bid being led by the community trust. Rather, he gives the impression that the charge was led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT), which then handed it over to the community trust after pulling in a huge cache of public money. This was simply not so. There was only some £30,000 of public money applied as a "last brick in the wall" to the fundraising target. The balance of £1.6 million that secured the community's buyout came from a mystery woman who gave £1 million, and 10,000 small donations totalling £600,000 – 70% of them, I might say, from England! Indeed, I vividly remember being present when an envelope was opened containing £2 from "unemployed of London" with a note on a scrap of paper which said, "It gives me hope." Such are the kind of people who backed the spirit of Eigg, and who demonstrate that land reform is needed as much in England as in Scotland. As for the composition of the buyout partnership, the SWT was a 25% partner in the final buy-out but it certainly did not lead the charge. That was the part of the people of Eigg, working powerfully in political partnership with Highland Council. As such, Eigg residents represented the people of Eigg, Highland Council represented the wider democratic constituency, and the SWT represented the wildlife with support not just from Scotland but also from the extensive and generous network of English wildlife trust sister organisations who wholeheartedly joined in and amplified the appeal process.  It was partnership in unity against oppressive landlordism that made Eigg happen. That’s the kind of fact that Fry doesn’t let his readers see and that’s what renders his history, in my view, buffoon history.


Eigg Islanders celebrate their community land buyout, 12 June 1997

Photo: Courtesy of Murdo Macleod (of The Guardian)

What does this book say to the English? I think it is a warning. In Scotland we have succeeded in naming, unmasking and engaging the power of the lairds. It is now no longer an honourable thing to be a landlord. We have successfully attacked the psychological root of the affectation. Most lairds now euphemistically claim that they are merely farmers. Indeed, the Scottish Landowners’ Federation in March 2004 euphemistically rebranded itself as the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association (SRPBA). [Editor's Note: In England, the Country Landowners' Association, whose members own approximately half of England, changed its name to the Country Land and Business Association. While both bodies chose to get rid of the word "landowner", only the Scottish organisation chose to dispense altogether with the concept of "land".]


Watch out in England for similar dissembling if the politicians start waking up to the fact that land reform can offer big political impact on the rural housing crisis for very little cost.


Watch out for more dodgy histories, and not just the usual ones that set out to try and make us identify with our “noble” families and their landed estates.


In short, watch out for those that would keep your minds clapped in irons.



Wild Scots: Four Hundred Years of Highland History by Michael Fry is published by John Murray at £25.





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5 March 2006