Scotland’s Last Frontier: A Journey Along the Highland Line, by Alistair Moffat, jumps around a bit, both geographically and chronologically, but doesn’t suffer as a result, and I enjoyed most of the book and learned a lot from it, mostly about ancient, medieval and local history concerning various parts of Scotland but especially those areas around the ‘highland line’ with which this work is concerned. I have been to presentations by Moffat in the past, and appreciated his expertise and speaking skills. I have no idea, therefore, why he practically spoils what is otherwise a good and informative read by including a ridiculously biased section.
The section I object to is about the Highland Clearances. Prior to misrepresenting the Highland Clearance process, Moffat writes about the bitter harvests and famine in Aberdeenshire in the 1690s which resulted from temporary climate changes. He writes about the Monymusk Estate, near Inverurie, and the improvements made by the Grants, the landowners in the early 18th century. Moffat describes the tumbledown houses of the locals, the open grounds divided into small parcels, the inefficient methods of cultivation, the ditches with weeds and stones in them, all of which were essentially an example of the medieval landscape of much of Scotland at that time. Grant planted trees, millions of them, and he drained the land and cleared stones, making ditches around new fields. He introduced new crops and new rotations, and better fields which allowed more milking cows to be kept alive during winter which in turn improved the health of the locals. In addition, the invention of the swing plough virtually revolutionised agriculture by enabling deeper furrows (better drainage) with a requirement for fewer draught animals and labour. Many areas east of the highland line turned to more efficient cereal production. Moffat recognises that these agricultural changes often came with a human cost, but he sees them as improvements which transformed society for the better and helped new industries, such as textiles, to thrive. During this same period, the early 18th century, in the Highlands there were fewer agricultural changes, due to the different geography of that region, though one benefit of the Act of Union in 1707 was to open up new markets for highland cattle. He writes, “Highland chiefs and landowners were generally paid rents in kind rather than cash and cattle was the main currency. Landowners also acted as agents for tenant farmers who had surplus to sell or they bought from them directly. Many crofter-farmers had to sell their beasts on before the winter in any case since they did not have easy access to the new sources of fodder being grown in the Lowlands. And cattle supplied their own transport. They walked to market.”
So far, so good. Moffat has accurately described the process of land improvement, enclosure, and agricultural and industrial transformations in the Lowlands which resulted in economic and health benefits for those concerned, and mentioned that in the Highlands developments had been much more piecemeal with a continuing subsistence-based economy supplemented by the sale of highland cattle (a trade which suffered after the end of the Napoleonic Wars). Then he turns to the Highland Clearances (Fuadach nan Gaidheal) and rather loses the plot. He writes “Increasingly absent and anglicised clan chiefs came to value their estates not for the number (and loyalty) of the people they could support but for how much of an income they could produce.” In truth, the highland chiefs had become no more ‘anglicised’ than any of the numerous landowners elsewhere and in the Lowlands, (many of whom were also absent) who had improved their land, so why suddenly use that term, and in an inferred derogatory sense? The Highland landowners had the same aspirations as their Lowland counterparts. The poorer highlanders were also no different from their Lowland equivalents (apart from the language they spoke, as the Gaelic language had become much less common outside the Highlands). Many of the Highland landowners also tried to improve their land, a little later than had happened in the Lowlands, but the desire to improve was no different. The differences, however, and these are very important, were that their land was generally less fertile, the pressures on land from population growth by this time were more acute, and, unlike in the Lowlands, the new industries often failed (for numerous reasons). Moffat doesn’t seem to grasp much of this, but instead falls into a fairly common trap of calling Highland landlords ‘brutal’, ‘ignorant’ and having ‘careless contempt’ for their tenants. As I have written previously, this is an example of perpetuating some myths of the Highland Clearances. Sir Tom Devine has written much more accurately on the matter. Moffat even heaps praise on the ‘historian’ John Prebble. As I have pointed out in other posts on this blog, Prebble never let actual facts get in the way of his yarns. Prebble’s inaccurate interpretations have unfortunately had much influence on popular, especially nationalistic, perspectives of Highland history.
In the remaining chapters of Scotland’s Last Frontier, normal service is resumed. There’s a very interesting description of the archaeological digs that revealed the enormous Roman fort at Inchtuthil, built after the Roman victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius (AD83) and abandoned five years later. There is also an amusing account of the bungling, ham-fisted removal/theft/liberation of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster Abbey by Ian Hamilton in 1950; another story about a fight to the death between 30 men from Clan Cameron and 30 men from Clan Chattan in 1396; and an account of James Macpherson and the ‘lost’ poems of Ossian.
If only Moffat hadn’t been so biased in his interpretation of the Highland Clearances, this would have been a better book.