If Sir Tom Devine hadn’t chosen to be a historian, he’d have made a great historical novelist. That choice may have been a loss to literature, but The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed, is worth it. The scope of this book – the Lowlands, the Highlands and the diaspora from the 17th century to the 20th – is impressive, and the detail and depth of knowledge displayed are remarkable – but what’s truly amazing about it is how damn readable it is.
To someone with a passing familiarity with Scottish history, the word “Clearances” conjures up two things: transported Jacobites and sheep. Emotionally moving images showing families cast adrift, in motion toward an unknown place, are common.
Less common is a close look at what moved them. In reality, the forces and influences that separated thousands of Scots from the land that gave them both sustenance and identity were varied and complex. In many instances, departures were voluntary and economically motivated, rather than being at the direct instigation of a hostile government or hard-hearted landlords who thought their lands better sheepled than peopled.
Devine explains the slow decay of the clan system as a matter of agrarian development and industrial revolution (aided by the occasional famine and religious persecution) as much as of government oppression, and shepherds us through the gradual parting of the poorest citizens from the land that was their only sustenance, and from the mythic soil in which their emotions were rooted. And this is the real strength of the book. His scholarship is ironclad, but the hard evidence of tables, figures and a 29-page bibliography is balanced by the letters, poems, songs and bits of the stories that let the people of the past speak for themselves.
In part, this is a demonstration of Devine’s novelistic skills. He changes focus often, drawing the reader back to appreciate the overview of encroaching forces such as enclosure or social climbing by landholders, then zooming in to see the close-up effects of those forces on individuals, allowing us both to understand and to empathise.
He has a deft hand with detail, too. One is always spoilt for choice when it comes to the details of Scottish history, but Devine has an eye for the human moment that encapsulates and illustrates a situation or a point. The book has a brief section of literal illustrations – photographs, paintings and drawings – but Devine also draws his detail from ballads, paintings and novels, as with this brief quotation from Annals of the Parish, an 1821 novel by John Galt. Here we see the Rev Micah Balwhidder, appointed to a parish by a local patron, approach his new church for the first time:
"When we got to the kirk door, it was found to be nailed up, so as by no possibility to be opened. The sergeant of the soldiers wanted to break it, but I was afraid that the heritors [landowners] would grudge and complain of the expense of a new door, and I supplicated him to let it be as it was. We were, therefore, obligated to go in by a window, and the crowd followed us making the most unreverent manner, making the Lord’s house like an inn on a fair day with all their grievous yellyhooing."
The book’s readability depends in good part on a deft separation of the very scholarly substance: “Table 4 number of cattle driven across the Border to England, 1665-91 [...] Table 17 Summonses of Removal in kelp parishes” versus the poetry and politics, such as “Lamentation of the People of Galloway by the Pairking Lairds” by James Charters of the Kirkland of Dalry, which reads in part:
A generation like to this
Did never man behold,
I mean over great and mighty men
Who covetous are of gold.
Solomon could not well approve
The practice of their lives
To oppress and to keep down the poor,
Their actions cut like knives.
Speaking as an outside observer, this seems to me a uniquely Scottish point of view: the matter-of-fact mingling of the pragmatic and the poetic, treating neither one as more important than the other. The book is filled with fascinating insight into the decay of the clan system and the migration of people, backed up with plenty of data to support its conclusions – but it also explores the mythos of hereditary attachment to both clan and land. The reality was often spurious, but firmly anchored in belief. And is a bond any less strong for being one of emotion rather than of genetics?
One of the most moving themes is the gradual breaking of those emotional bonds – but only to a point. The people left, but they took their sense of a land-based identity with them, and it was the portability of such things as songs and poems that enabled the Scottish emigrants not only to keep their culture, but to reseed it in new soil.