What a fascinating country Albania is. I’d like to go back there, to the north of the country next time. This is a short video of a recent trip to the south of Albania.
Michael Herr, who authored Dispatches, is mentioned in The Cat from Huế which I reviewed in this blog a few weeks ago. Herr was a journalist who volunteered to go to Vietnam to cover the war. He effectively volunteered every time he got in a helicopter and was taken to a landing zone, as he could have turned around and walked away. To repeatedly put your life under threat when you don’t have to is a very strange thing to do. The ‘grunts’ knew this, and frequently asked Herr what he was doing in Vietnam. It was a question he found difficult to answer.
Herr writes in a unique style about the Vietnam War. It’s almost gonzo journalism, like that of Hunter S. Thompson. You can read many of the sentences once and they seem to make sense, but if you read them again, the flow of words is harder to comprehend. But parts are similar to how some in the military spoke in Vietnam, at that time. This is how he makes things authentic, and is part of the appeal of the book.
Herr, like John Laurence (author of The Cat from Huế) knew Sean Flynn, the son of Errol Flynn, who was a photojournalist in Vietnam. I believe that Herr, like Flynn, was one of the better correspondents. There were plenty of others who barely left the briefing rooms, or who simply repeated verbatim the military briefings in their reports. Herr, Burrows, Laurence, Keith Kay, Greenway and a few others ‘walked the walk’ (to quote that chap in Full Metal Jacket) and tried to report accurately what they saw. Sometimes they were hated by the grunts, and they all heard from officers words to the effect of ‘My Marines are winning this war, and you people are losing it for us in your papers’ (the war became very unpopular at home in the US). The correspondents saw that it was a pointless war, where the victims were too often civilians with no particular affiliation to either South Vietnam or North Vietnam, so how do you accurately report on that situation? What will the colleagues of a dead Marine in a body bag think of the photographer who takes a photo of the bag?
The western music played by correspondents and grunts was very distinct, and included songs by Creedence, Hendrix, Wilson Pickett, the Doors and the Grateful Dead.
All concerned had a macabre sense of what was going on in Vietnam, and this comes across well in Herr’s book.
Dien Bien Phu was an important battle, in 1954, during the Indochina War (1946-1954) between the French colonial army and the Việt Minh, a Communist people’s army dedicated to the liberation of Vietnam. After a 57-day siege, Dien Bien Phu fell to the Việt Minh. The defenders (the French forces) lost a third of their 15,000 force, and many more died in captivity. It effectively ended France’s empire in the East.
Howard Simpson points out that American advisers and observers who were involved in the Dien Bien Phu siege learned little from their experience, and this did not bode well for when the US became more directly involved in Vietnam. As with Americans later on in the Vietnam War, by 1954 the French had started to question why their soldiers were fighting in Vietnam. North African and West African troops in the French army also questioned why they were fighting for a colonial power. On the other hand, the Việt Minh had the support of many of their people and also backing from Chinese communists.
Howard Simpson’s book, Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, deals with military operations and the personalities involved. For him, the lessons that the US did not learn from the defeat of the French are mostly military ones, i.e. do not underestimate nonconventional units or a guerilla enemy; do not become overdependent on air support; do not underestimate the hostile jungle environment; and the effectiveness of a military force is directly linked to government support and backing of the people of the nation involved. I would like to know more about the opposing forces of the Việt Minh and their motivation. For example, how could they keep up morale when so many were killed and when such immense effort was needed to effect attacks on the colonial forces? I had not known that a fair proportion of the local ethnic groups helped the French. T’ai people acted as guides and the T’ai Tribal Federation remained loyal to France. Why was this? The Meo, Man, Yao and Lolo were also generally hostile to the Việt Minh. Why was this, and could more have been made of anti-Việt Minh sentiment?
Simpson writes of the culinary requirements of the French forces: lamb for the North African riflemen, yams for troops from West Africa, pork and noodles for the Vietnamese of the National Army, and blood sausage for the Legionnaires.
The French were hoping that the Việt Minh would attack their forces at Dien Bien Phu, be defeated by superior French fire power, and this would rally support from the French public. General Giap, the Việt Minh commander, decided not to attack in January but instead waited for more ammunition and firepower.
The attack began on March 13th, and very gradually several of the French fortified positions were overcome. Việt Minh artillery made the landing of French aircraft impossible, as several planes were destroyed, losses on both sides were very heavy and there was considerable close-quarter fighting. It all went horribly wrong for the French.
My pre-owned copy of Dien Bien Phu: The Epic Battle America Forgot, came with several inserts, including a copy of an article mentioning the battle in the Sunday Việt Nam News, December 15, 2002, and an obituary for Howard Simpson. My copy was once owned by someone called Lawrence Jones (according to a sticker inside the front cover) from San Francisco. Inserted in the book was a copy of his Funeral Mass in 2016. From the picture on its front page, it looks as if he was in the military.
The Cat from Huế, by John Laurence, is a big book – in fact, it is 850 pages long. However, it received glowing reviews, and that was enough motivation for me to get interested. The introduction, covering seven days from February 19th, 1968 to February 26th, 1968 and featuring the Battle of Huế and the early troubles of the cat in the book’s title, is also long. It’s not until page 90 that John Laurence writes “So here is my story. Come, if you will.” By then I was glued, so I came along.
John Laurence was a reporter who covered numerous conflicts, including the Vietnam War, the topic of this book. Wars are terrifying and Laurence was often afraid. Vietnam suffered from various conflicts for hundreds of years – just look at this list and you can see that the Vietnam War was one of many, many conflicts.
As well as being terrible things, wars can result in innovations. Imagine the creation of a 15,000 member force in the 1960s, the US 1st Cavalry, and the decision to move entirely by air using 450 helicopters. This was an entirely new military concept for the mobility of troops and looked likely to succeed. In addition, the Americans had plans to spearhead a social and economic revolution in the rural areas of Vietnam, aiming at redistributing land, improving living conditions in the countryside, the introduction of generous new programs to help communities develop and put an end to corruption.
What could possibly go wrong?
It is easy to see how the first wave of Americans arriving in Vietnam would have felt very positive about their involvement in Vietnam. First, they needed to get rid of the threat posed by the Viet Cong. With thousands of U.S. military personnel arriving every day in 1965, supported by the latest combat hardware and an impressive airforce, the expectation was that victory would not take long. Even the pessimists said that it should be over in a year. By a near-unanimous majority of the US Congress, the administration had been given a blank cheque to preserve South Vietnam as a non-Communist state and thereby demonstrate that the Communist world, especially China and the Soviet Union, would be defeated in their attempts at subversion and armed aggression.
As a professional journalist, Laurence wanted to be honest in his reporting, and be a bridge between the American troops and the American public. He certainly was not a propagandist, but like virtually everyone else in the West in 1965, he regarded the cause as honourable, and expected a US victory in short time.
He followed troops into battle, put himself in extreme danger, got shot at, and gradually saw why the VC were so difficult to defeat – mainly because the VC often avoided pitched battles and faded into the bush only to return to villages once the Americans and South Vietnamese forces pulled out. Laurence loses friends in battles.
After the death of a journalist colleague, Laurence goes back to the US for a while, but eventually is drawn once again to Vietnam where he experiences a terrifying battle at Con Thien. He gradually sees the pointlessness of the whole war, and that the Americans who came to liberate the people end up killing more and more of them, and getting killed themselves. Later on again, he is on the ground during the Cambodia Campaign.
As for what happens to the cat, I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to read the book yourself.
One of the characters mentioned in the book is Sean Flynn, a journalist and the son of Errol Flynn. Sean was a friend of John Laurence. Sean, along with Dana Stone, another friend of Laurence, went missing in Cambodia (as did several other journalists). A few years ago, and again more recently, somebody reckoned they’d found their bones.
In Ghosts of Happy Valley, Juliet Barnes writes about the houses built and owned by a group of white, hedonistic aristocrats in the area of Kenya known as the ‘Happy Valley’, a region of the Wanjohi Valley near the Aberdare mountain range, from the 1920s to the 1940s. The Happy Valley got its name from all of the debauchery and naughty goings-on that happened there, largely led by Lady Idina Sackville. You may have seen the White Mischief movie, which featured some of the participants.
The buildings in question were not fantastic constructions, and there were not all that many of them, and some of them are now little more than ruins, but Juliet Barnes makes them come alive once more in the pages of this book. Barnes made numerous visits to Wanjohi Valley, mostly in the company of a chap called Solomon Gitau, who works tirelessly for various conservation projects and who despises the recent destruction of large parts of the Aberdare forest as a result of population growth and unenforced regulations.
Ghosts of Happy Valley is a fascinating book, though at times I found it difficult to follow all of the historical characters involved, as they are numerous and many had nicknames. An awful lot of them seem to have had character flaws, many became alcoholics and several met with untimely deaths from one cause or another. The murder of Josslyn Hay (Lord Erroll), who was married to Lady Idina, has fascinated a lot of people, as no-one was ever convicted of the crime, and Barnes examines the evidence once more.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a scramble for Africa by European countries. This process helped to avoid conflict among the Europeans but had a lasting effect on Africa. At the Berlin Conference of 1884, spheres of interest were agreed and lines were drawn on maps. It is generally agreed that the interests and traditions of the indigenous peoples were completely ignored. The new boundaries often bisected ethnic groups.
I wouldn’t for one moment defend this process, but it is interesting to consider the alternatives. For example, the European powers could have stayed out of African politics. This would probably have been impossible, as European traders and settlers were already on the ground, and, to some extent, the new boundary agreements sometimes kept them at bay by providing a legal structure and some level of control. Of course, the boundaries could have been drawn in a much more sensitive way with respect to ethnic groups, but at the time knowledge of such things, in several large areas, was scant. By 1884 numerous boundaries had in any case already been agreed. There were, and had been for some time, ideas about a French empire stretching from west to east Africa and a British empire stretching from Cairo to Cape Town. In West Africa, the colonial powers had already created countries stretching, on the whole, from south to north. These completely ignored the traditional ethnic groupings in that region which tended to stretch from west to east (those in the coastal regions, those further inland, and those in savanna and semi-arid parts). There are something like 3,000 distinct ethnic groups in Africa, with 2,000 languages, and a political map based on all such groups would have created a very complex situation.
Nevertheless, when King Leopold II of Belgium helped himself to an enormous chunk of Central Africa, which became known until 1908 as the Congo Free State, it was a land grab of massive proportions with extremely little logic, and virtually no consideration for the interests of indigenous people in that region. The Congo Free State contained over 250 ethnic groups. Some, such as the Bakonga were sliced in half by the new border. The new boundary fenced together other groups who had been enemies for centuries. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and it didn’t take long for problems to emerge.
Despite all the criticism of European powers creating unworkable countries out of Africa, it is a sad case that when those various African countries became independent from the 1950s onwards there were few peaceful, organised attempts to rectify traditional borders. Two examples of where this did happen were in Western Togoland and the Volta Region and British Cameroons. In most other cases attempts to change boundaries and attempts by groups to secede led to wars, which were then often directly or indirectly sponsored by western powers as part of the Cold War, and the result was that those conflicts were more brutal and longer lasting than they might otherwise have been.
One such war occurred in Katanga and is the subject of Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, spies and the African nation that waged war on the world, by Christopher Othen. The war in Katanga was a most peculiar conflict. There was very little sympathy anywhere for the State of Katanga/Republic of Katanga when Moïse Tshombe declared its independence from the Republic of the Congo (as the Congo Free State had become), and few saw it as a legitimate nationalist movement or an attempt to rectify old colonial anomalies, despite the fact that there was considerable support for independence in the southern parts of the new state amongst the indigenous population. In fact, the new republic created new anomalies and split the baLuba, in the north of Katanga, who were opposed to independence. Katanga was generally seen by most as the creation of white colonials who wanted to retain control over a mineral-rich region. Just about everyone else quickly lined up against the new state.
As explained at Goodreads, “It was a fantastically uneven battle. The UN fielded soldiers from twenty nations, America paid the bills, and the Soviets intrigued behind the scenes. Yet to everyone’s surprise the new nation’s rag-tag army of local gendarmes, jungle tribesmen and, controversially, European mercenaries, refused to give in. For two and a half years Katanga, the scrawniest underdog ever to fight a war, held off the world with guerrilla warfare, two-faced diplomacy, and some shady financial backing. It even looked as if the Katangese might win.”
This conflict is therefore fascinating for historians, and Christopher Othen provides the detail.
Leading on the one side for a while, was Patrice Lumumba, the Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo, and on the other was Moïse Tshombe, the self-declared President of Katanga. After UN forces succeeded in suppressing Katanga, Tschombe fled to exile. However a few years later he returned as prime minister of the Congo in a new coalition government. Lumumba, in the meantime, had been quickly replaced in a coup d’etat by Mobutu, who sent Lumumba to Élisabethville (now known as Lubumbashi), where he was executed by a firing squad under the command of Katangan authorities. Later on, as Prime Minister of the Congo, and despite his previous history, Tschombe was very much against concilliation with the Simba rebels (supporters of the late Lumumba), who had previously also declared independence from the Congo as the Free Republic of the Congo. Tshombe was subsequently dismissed by President Kasa-Vubu, and then General Mobutu, who staged a successful coup against Kasa-Vubu, brought charges of treason against Tshombe, who again fled the country and settled in Francoist Spain. Much later, in 2006, Antoine Gizenga who had previously in 1960 declared independence of the Free Republic of the Congo and who subsequently spent various periods in prison and then fled the country, became Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (as the Republic of the Congo is now known (after being known as Zaire from 1971 to 1997)).
Belgium provided some support for Tschombe in Katanga, the US backed Mobutu, and the Russians meddled a lot and leant moral and financial support to Lumumba and also Gizenga. A few Brits, some Rhodesians and also Roy Welensky, thought that the new Katanga might want to join the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Numerous mercenaries then pitched up, looking for action. Tschombe favoured a new federation of countries formed out of the Republic of the Congo.
Is all of that crystal clear? It shows how fluid politics could be in those parts of Africa in those days. With so much external meddling, what chance was there for home-grown politics, which were in any case immensely complex, and usually based on ethnic groupings which were often hostile to each other?
There was a lot of bad nastiness, torture, killings and rapes, in various regions immediately after the Republic of the Congo gained its independence, and this continued for some time across the country. The United Nations sent many troups, arrested and deported mercenaries, and then forcefully took over parts of Katanga. Then the Katangese forces, aided by mercenaries (French, Belgian, British and a few from elsewhere) started to fight back, and chaos ensued.
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.
The Sheltering Desert, by Henno Martin, is about how two men, Henno and his friend Hermann Korn, decided that they wanted nothing at all to do with World War II, and in 1940 went to live in a remote desert part of Namibia until, they hoped, hostilities ended.
They had gone to what was then South West Africa in 1935 to do geological research on the Naukluft, and by 1940 were threatened with Internment. They were completely against the madness of the War, and decided to live and survive like Bushmen in the Kuiseb River canyon. This is a very harsh part of the world, where there is little water and the temperature rises in summer.
The story was made into a movie in 1991, and you may be able to find it on Youtube. The movie diverges considerably from the book, in that it spends quite a bit of time setting the scene in 1940s South West Africa, and also seems to overemphasize the search, by the authorities, for the two men, but it’s a watchable film and the scenery is wonderful.
Because the terrain was so harsh in the Kuiseb River gorge area, and at times the wild game and water ran out, they found it difficult to survive. They lived off what they could shoot with their pistol and fish that they found in some pools. After a year, they found themselves getting philosophical, and had discussions between themselves about whether evolution was purely mechanically determined by the interplay of hereditary and environment. Their conclusion was that animals with specialisations were less likely to evolve, and that man had evolved particularly because of a lack of specialisation.
The Namib sounds like an interesting part of the world. It was inhabited by scattered Khoikhoi for thousands of years, and Martin and Korn found numerous stone tools near their various camps.
Yesterday I enjoyed a very pleasant afternoon through in Glasgow with JJ, No Longer Grim Jim, and Heppie, three people I went to Elgin Academy with, in the 1960s. JJ had brought along all sorts of memorabilia, photos, school magazines, newspaper cuttings and such-like. He has a good collection, and when I got home I looked out some of my own old photos.
I haven’t posted the above photo before, which I think is of the Elgin Academy athletics team and I think was taken in the summer of 1966. We seem to have won a trophy. Hopefully, someone will tell me if I’m wrong (you can do so by making a Comment on this post – and you can do this anonymously if you wish). The only names I’m completely sure of are: back row middle – myself; other people include Ally Blackburn, Barbara Spence, Anne Mackenzie. Maybe someone else can fill in some more details.
Update: these other names have been suggested to me: George Inch, Graeme McDonald, Jim Anderson, Vivien Welsh, Drew Baillie, Martin Firth, Ogg twins (Hilary & Rosemary). Perhaps Ali MacDonald & Ragna Tulloch.
Other old posts about Elgin in the past on this blog include: Elgin – the past, The Two Red Shoes, Working in the sawmills, Black Eck at the bakery, and Mad Dave and the Cromdale Mob – A short story of the late 1960s.
I briefly spoke to Sir Tom Devine last year, after one of his presentations, and he told me that his next book would be ‘explosive’. Well, he wasn’t wrong, but The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed is much more than explosive.
Here’s a couple of quotations from the Introduction:
“Nationalism, clearances and victimhood soon became intimately linked by some polemicists, a tendency which has continued to the present day through the proliferation of social media. The contentions were that the historic tragedy of the Gaels had taken place during the Union and sometimes also, against all the evidence, that English landowners and sheep farmers were mainly responsible for the draconian acts of eviction.”
“Many third- and fourth-generation American Scots share the view that Scottish emigration across the Atlantic came from the Highlands and was initiated by force and coercion. The boring reality is that the vast majority left from the farms, towns and cities of the Lowlands and were mainly attracted to North America because they saw it as a fabled land of opportunity to achieve a better life.”
Devine is an expert oarsman, and he rows us through an important period in Scottish history, sometimes navigating choppy waters but always with complete control of the rudder. He covers all the important issues.
He explains the ancient history of the complex Scottish clan system in an expert way. All sorts of things had an effect on bloodlines, which were often fictitious or malleable, and new lines of descent could be created. In the absence of national governance, the clans filled a power vacuum. Inter-clan feuds often resulted in the complete abandonment of settlements, sometimes for many years. In places, there was considerable movement of tenants and cottars. Nevertheless, “the expectation of the people [was] that the ruling families had the responsibility to act as protectors to guarantee secure possession of some land in return for allegiance, military service, tribute and rental. It was a powerful and enduring belief which endured long after the rationale of clanship itself had vanished and when élites had shed ancient responsibilities and metamorphosed into commercial landlords.” He gives a wonderful explanation of how the clan system in Scotland actually worked, which is far different to popular, modern interpretations of unchanging, loyal and close brotherhood.
On the gradual disintegration of the clan system, he writes that by the 1660s or so, “The long transition from tribal chiefs to commercial landlords was now in train, many decades before Bonnie Prince Charlie’s historic defeat on Culloden Moor.” By the 1680s ‘victual’ rents were rapidly being replaced by money rents with consequences for those who paid rents. Demand by the Royal Navy for beef from highland black cattle during the Wars of the Spanish Succession provided a much-needed source of income to pay such rents.
There were other changes experienced by the clans in these pre-Culloden pre-clearances years. A reduction in inter-clan feuding meant a less militarised society (apart from those who fought as mercenaries in Europe, and who sometimes went on to command Jacobite forces), changes in some areas to the traditional use of tacksmen to collect rents, and for these and other reasons by the 1730s there were significant levels of emigration to Georgia and the Carolinas. Norman MacLeod of Dunvegan and Sir Alexander MacDonald of Sleat were threatened with prosecution for trying to deport some of their clansmen. Things just weren’t the same, for the clans.
All of the above is significant because it shows how clueless those people are today who would have us believe that, pre-Clearances, Gaeldom consisted entirely of extremely close-knit feudal communities which had remained unchanged for centuries until Culloden happened and consequently Highland society was destroyed by Clearances undertaken by those from England. Were pre-Clearance Highland communities viable before Culloden? Devine tells us that severe shortages were recorded in 1671, 1680, 1688, 1695 and 1702. The 1690s were known as the ‘Lean Years’. Food shortages were acute in the early 1740s. It would seem that life in the Scottish Highlands in the years before Culloden was rarely idyllic. And then there was the profound effect of rapid population growth, especially in the Highlands, where people had always lived close to the margins of subsistence.
But this book is not only about the Highlands. It’s title, after all, is The Scottish Clearances, so Devine also looks at the Lowlands and other areas of the country. Generally speaking, the land was more fertile in such areas than in the Highlands, but in the years after the British civil wars agriculture was not much more advanced than in the north. One big difference was in the preponderance of towns, and another was that the Lowlands were far less organised along the lines of armed followings compared to the north. There was less clan structure, leases between landowner and tenant were based on rents, and while many rural workers were now more proletarian than peasant in status, a capitalist class of landowner was also emerging. Devine notes that “In the long run this was to become a major source of divergence between the mores and expectations of the people of many parts of the Highlands and Lowlands, a growing differentiation eventually to have profound social consequences in later decades.”
Leases in the Lowlands were often longer, for periods up to 19 years, whereas in the Highlands there were mostly annual agreements. Longer leases were needed to ensure that arable land was developed over the years – the same was not necessary for pastoral smallholding patterns in the north. In the south was a proliferation of cottars, who occupied small plots of land with few rights to permanence. There was little security of tenure for them.
The clearances started in the Lowlands, two generations before the Highland Clearances, and saw people replaced by pastoral specialisation (sheep) on the hillsides and cattle in the lower areas, and the development of larger agrarian (or mixed use) farms. The sheep which were introduced were the same Cheviot breeds which were later brought to the Highlands. The Lowland clearances were significant and widespread, yet today few people seem interested in them, possibly because they’d prefer to wallow in populist misinterpretations of victimhood associated with the similar process of the Highland Clearances.
In the Borders, generations before the Highland Clearances, there were significant levels of dispossession, with landlords evicting tenants and tenants evicting cottars. In the areas around Peebles, people were replaced by sheep farms, villages disappeared, yet there were no recorded protests. Why? Because many of the dispossessed moved to the towns that expanded with the textile industries, and found jobs there. In the west, in Galloway, in the 1720s there were several large protests as land was enclosed by the large landowners and locals levelled the stone enclosures. The protesters thought that enclosure was part of a Jacobite plot! (There was very little sympathy for the Jacobite cause in those regions).
A small number of landlords owned vast tracts of Scotland. A far higher proportion of people owned land in England, and the Scottish situation resulted from feudal tenure imposed centuries previously. The same small number of people held political power. Primogeniture ensured that territorial fragmentation did not happen as it did in Europe. Unlike in Europe where peasant proprietorship was widespread, farmers held land at the discretion of the landlords, and the ‘tack’ alone gave legal access to the land.
Landowners were very powerful, and through the Patronage Act of 1712 even had the right to appoint to vacant church offices. Often, the very same people were at the forefront of industrialisation. They saw themselves as improvers, as founders of industrial villages, and partners in industrial initiatives such as mines, roads, canals and the development of banks. Generally speaking, Devine writes that living standards were slightly improving for poorer people in Scotland between the 1780s and 1800s, which was different from most other parts of the UK and Europe. Scotland also contributed disproportionally to the military conflicts of the times in terms of numbers of soldiers and seamen, and this provided another opportunity for employment.
Things were changing for the landlords, however. The Napoleonic Wars meant that loans and credit were more difficult to obtain, as available funds were diverted to the higher returns offered from government bonds issued to pay for the wars. At the same time, household expenses were increasing as numerous landlords built and maintained properties in the enlarged cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and income from Highland estates did not compare with income from estates further south. A surprisingly large number of estates were in debt, a very large proportion of estates changed hands in the 1820s and 1830s, and this removed previous ties between the traditional owners and the traditional occupiers of the land. The new owners were often trustees for the creditors, affluent merchants, bankers and lawyers who wanted a reasonable return on their investments.
Changing to pastoral husbandry offered much better returns, but of course this resulted in considerable social upheaval.
There was nothing new about clearing people off the land, and although this may seem distasteful to modern readers, the general opinion was that the land, the economy and the overall situation would be improved. Often it was the largest landowners who were the most sympathetic towards the people they were moving, as they were the people with enough resources to offer alternative employment in other ventures.
Motivation for change also arose from increased demand from growing urban centres as a result of industrialisation. People in the towns needed to be fed and food production levels needed to be increased to satisfy demand. Devine quotes Lord Kames in 1815 “…there never were greater agricultural improvements carried on in any country than there have been in Scotland during the last thirty years.” Urbanisation in Scotland was the fastest in Europe. In addition, by converting to sheep, rentals could increase by up to five times. Devine adds, “Commercial forces were now so overwhelming that radical social change in Gaeldom seemed inevitable.”
The optimism and patriotic desire for improvement were expressed in the Scottish Enlightenment by the better educated Traditional methods of estate management were condemned as irrational and inefficient. What Scotland needed, such commentators decided, was modernisation and efficiencies along the lines of improvements made in the Lowlands.
Other important factors include that long before 1815, at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, large tracts of cheap land became available in North America. Positive publicity attracted many, who could travel on ships landing cargos from North America at Glasgow. Between 90,000 and 100,000 Scots took this route between 1700 and 1815, from all parts of the country. The majority were farmers and artisans rather than the poor.
So, in the period before clearances in the Highlands, a lot of things were happening. Land and farming methods were being improved, with new land being taken into cultivation of one kind or another. There was movement of people to the cities and towns, people were emigrating to seek new opportunities abroad, industrialisation was rapidly taking place, old links with the land were being broken, and cottars were disappearing from the Lowlands, having been evicted from their holdings, and were becoming a landless wage-earning labour force with more regular employment than before.
Landlessness in relation to overall population was greater in the Lowlands after the clearances in those parts than in the Highlands. When the Napoleonic Wars ended there were economic slumps and then protests in England and the Highlands, but not in the Lowlands. They were relatively insulated from hardship by the long-hire system, there being various reasons why long-hire was used in the Lowlands rather than casual labour as elsewhere. In England, there were the Captain Swing riots of 1830-31 with 19 rioters being executed and 505 being transported to Australia. In the Highlands, however, population growth and a decline in economic activities meant that sheep farming was one of the few ways to profit and survive. Landlords considered ways to reduce the surplus population.
Sheep farming undermined the basis of the old economy, and provided much greater and more reliable returns than small tenant rent payers. So the Highland Clearances started. Between 1807 and 1821 several thousand were cleared in Sutherland to tiny crofts on the east coast. The idea was to enable some cultivation but not enough that people would not need to also work in fisheries and other industries. As we know, there was sometimes brutality. For example, Patrick Sellar was indicted, and there were various riots. In Sutherland, there was enforced relocation on a larger scale. Despite these processes, the overall population of the Highlands and Islands continued to rise.
Devine looks at clearances in various parts of the Highlands and finds that they varied considerably in character. Some left tenants intact but removed cottars, some cleared whole areas gradually, some more quickly, some people were given the ‘choice’ of assisted emigration and some were not. Usually, it was the poorest people who were cleared. Although they had no legal claim to the land, many of those cleared felt that they had been betrayed and that the process of duthchas had been ignored.
At exactly the wrong time, the kelp industry failed for various reasons, fishing did not develop to the extent anticipated, and there were fewer opportunities for military service after 1815. A few years after Culloden, service in Highland regiments for the Hanoverian crown had been a major source of employment. Devine writes, “Gaels [partook in] the same techniques of total war employed by ‘Butcher’ Cumberland’s men after Culloden in genocidal campaigns against the Indian nations between 1760 and 1764.” It should be noted, however, that landlords often benefitted from military recruitment, through bounties, etc, and that local allotment for service could cause future problems with respect to sub-division of lets. On the other hand, those servicemen who were granted land in North America after service acted as a magnet for further emigrants.
The Sutherland clearances are famous. Devine writes that of 3,331 people cleared in 1819, at least 70% were relocated in Sutherland. “…some landlords became associated with policies which indirectly inhibited migration rather than promoted it, the very opposite of the stereotype in popular literature.” This included tolerance of unpaid rents and providing grain in hard times.
Then in 1836-7 the potato and grain crops partially failed, resulting in over 100,000 distressed people, especially in Skye and the Outer Hebrides, the situation accentuated by population increase over the previous decades. This was a portent of things to come. The establishment of the Free Church in 1843 arose partially as a result of resentment of interference by the landed class.
Three years later the potato crop failed and blight continued for several years. There was hardship and suffering, but nothing like what was experienced in Ireland. Unlike in Ireland, many of the new(ish) owners of the land had financial resources to provide temporary relief and assistance, though not all did so. But in 1848 there was a general recession, the price gained for black cattle fell, thousands could not pay their rents, the price of sheep rose, more clearances resulted, with many of the most extreme cases being on bankrupt estates that were now being managed by trustees. For a while, considerable relief was provided by charitable organisations. The Emigration Advances Act of 1851 triggered an increase in eviction and emigration, especially from those areas affected by the potato blight. The poorest, the cottars, and those in most rent arrears were targetted.
Many cases were harrowing, and Devine details what happened in Shiaba on Mull, when a whole community which had not failed to pay its rent for sixty years was uprooted from the Duke of Argyll’s land and replaced by a farmer from Islay. In Tiree an entire impoverished and starving community, their problems accentuated by repeated subdivision of land, was forced to emigrate with the landlord paying costs of transportation. Devine writes that “In large part it was the clearances of the later famine period that marked the experience of the western Highlands and Islands as different from the history of dispossession in the rest of Scotland.”
By the late 1850s the process had largely ended. Returns on black cattle had increased, fishing became more profitable, and temporary employment elsewhere in Scotland all enabled the growth of a monetary economy. Also, there were fewer mouths to feed than there would have been without emigration. Prevention of sub-division of rented land meant that many people left the Highlands.
The late 19th century saw a large amount of emigration, facilitated by better and faster transport, and availability of land in North America, and as Devine writes, “…many more Gaels left the Highlands for overseas after mass clearances had come to an end in the later 1850s than during the era of the great removals…” Unlike other rural parts of Scotland, there was less migration to the cities.
Devine ends with a brief introduction to the ‘Crofters War‘ and further change in the 1880s with the Napier Commission and legislation which reduced the power of landlords.
Devine does not give one chronological account of Scottish Clearances but rather has chapters on dispossession in the Borders, clearances in the Highlands, the transformation of landlordism, the disappearance of cottars, and so on.
I enjoy the way that Devine places everything into context and includes salient facts. He clearly shows that the numpties who reckon that the clearances were merely some anti-Gael process, or that they were always undertaken by heartless rich capitalists have got their history wrong. If you want to wallow in victimhood and make incongruous connections with modern Scottish politics (as, unfortunately, many do) then this book is not for you, but if you want to understand the Scottish Clearances, then read Devine’s scholarly work.