The Scottish Clearances by TM Devine

A history of the dispossessed…

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The Highland Clearances of the 19th century are one of the great factors in the Scottish psyche, a period which has left a legacy of bitterness against landlordism, and about which we can still become outraged, even while being proud of the Scottish Diaspora of which it formed a considerable part. The legend is that landowners and clan chiefs, in pursuit of profit, turned the land over to sheep and forcibly evicted the crofters who had traditionally eked out a precarious subsistence from their small portions of land. Some were driven to emigrate semi-voluntarily for economic reasons; some were forced into emigration by landowners who simply wanted to rid themselves of these inconvenient hindrances to “improved” land use. The story is made worse by the feelings of betrayal – the breaking of the bonds of kinship that were at the heart of the clan system.

Tom Devine doesn’t exactly aim to overturn the legend in this scholarly and convincing work. Rather, he sets out to expand and explain – to strip out the emotion and look more closely at the historical factors that led to the Clearances, and to give an accurate, and therefore more balanced, picture of what actually happened. He also seeks to answer the question of why the similar patterns of altered land use and emigration that took place in the rural Lowlands were neither as traumatic at the time, nor have the same emotional resonances today.

(The Corries lamenting the Clearances in Hush Hush)

He starts by looking at Highland society in the centuries prior to the Clearances, debunking some of the myths embedded in the later romanticisation of the clan system. For example, he points out that bonds of kinship weren’t as strong as we like to think, since warring clan chiefs regularly took territory from their opponents and inherited the occupants of the land as they did so. However, in return for their military service, the clan leaders were seen as having a responsibility to provide clan members with land. Rents were initially paid in kind, but over the years this gradually changed to cash transactions, so that eventually the relationship became more akin to landlord and tenant. Devine suggests, therefore, that the clan system had begun to decline long before the 19th century, helped on its way by the repressive measures various monarchs used against their unruly Highland subjects, culminating in the deliberate attempt to break the power of the clan chiefs following the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745.

Devine then discusses the similarities and differences between Lowland and Highland society. Geographical factors made the Lowlands more suitable for arable farming while the Highlands were largely given over to livestock farming. This led to longer leases in the Lowlands, which in turn meant that evictions could only happen more slowly. In the Highlands leases tended to be annual so that large numbers of people could be evicted in short spaces of time. Arable farming required more labour, especially in the early stages of improvement, giving more time for the rural population to adjust and to develop other marketable skills, such as the small cottage industries that grew up in Border villages around this time. The Lowlands had the further advantage of proximity to the towns which were beginning to grow in response to the industrial revolution, absorbing some of the excess population from the rural areas.

(The Emigrants – the statue at Helmsdale laments the Clearances while recognising our national pride in the achievements of the resulting Diaspora)

Devine also points to religion as a factor, with the Presbyterian church acting as a socially cohesive factor in the Lowlands, while in the Highlands their Episcopalian and Catholic religions were out of favour and seen as a focus for disloyalty and rebellion. There was also a level of racism involved that reduced the sympathy for Highlanders – Celts were seen as throw-backs, aborigines, lazy, while Anglo-Saxon Lowlanders were hard-working achievers. So, following the years of famines when Highlanders depended on various charities to survive, charitable impulses ran dry and there was a general feeling that ridding the country of these sub-standard parasites would be of benefit to the nation as a whole. (I’m glad to say that I think that particularly vile strand of racism doesn’t exist any more, though I feel there were still remnants of it around during my childhood).

(The Proclaimers comparing the Thatcherite industrial devastation of Scotland in the 1980s to the Clearances of a century and half earlier in Letter from America)

Even in the Highlands, though, Devine does a little to absolve the landlords of their reputation for callous greed. He makes the point that many of the hereditary chiefs by this time were in severe financial straits. Some had sold out to incomers, others had had to put their bankrupt estates in the hands of trustees, usually based in far-away Edinburgh and with a legal responsibility to return the land to profitability regardless of the human cost. He gives examples of how some landlords tried to mitigate the effects of the changes, with varying degrees of success. And he makes the point that a system that depends on small land-holdings only works as long as population numbers remain stable – if the population rises, as it began to do when healthcare and general conditions improved, then the system of subsistence crofting is bound to fail.

This is only a brief flavour of what is covered in the book. It’s very well written and all the points are clearly explained, so that it’s easily accessible to the general reader, but it also has plenty of tables of facts and figures for those who are looking at it more academically. I have a reasonable familiarity with Scottish history of this period but still learned a great deal and appreciated the comparisons between the two very different societies which make up our small country. I also found it put the period into context with events happening elsewhere in Britain and the western world. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Scottish history.

Sir Tom Devine

But I’d go further, and say that it’s a real insight into how societies react to major changes in economic circumstances, relevant to many of those communities currently being hit by the advances from the industrial 20th century to the technological 21st. The comparisons between the impacts on the Lowlands and the Highlands of changes in land use and economic systems surely have lessons we can learn about how such changes can be managed to minimise the trauma for the people caught up in these often unavoidable shifts.

So I’m not ready to let go of my bitterness completely nor to entirely forgive, but I have a fuller understanding now of the historical forces behind the events, and that can only be a good thing.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane.

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Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

“…however improbable, must be the truth…”

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In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

Quite often with this kind of book I avoid mentioning the eventual outcome as, even though it’s a true crime, it can be fun for people who don’t know the story to read it as a kind of suspense thriller. However, Fox reveals all in her introductory chapter, so I shall say now that Slater’s conviction was finally quashed, but not until he had spent nearly twenty years in Peterhead, Scotland’s most notorious prison. As the book shows, there is no doubt about his innocence, and Fox makes no attempt to pin the crime on the real culprit – that’s not her purpose. Instead, she uses the case to examine the social factors that led to the false conviction, together with the state of the science of detection and ACD’s influence on it.

Fox starts with a description of the murder and the vague and contradictory eyewitness accounts of a man, or perhaps two men, seen near the scene. The police were immediately under pressure to find the murderer, so they were delighted when they were told that Slater had pawned a brooch similar to the one which had been stolen. Slater was perfect as a villain – German, Jewish, a man who made his living from gambling and who lived with a woman suspected of loose morals, possibly a prostitute. So even although they quickly discovered that the brooch he had pawned was not the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist, they decided not to let this little fact get in the way. Instead, they carefully selected all evidence that made Slater look guilty and suppressed anything that proved his innocence – and there was plenty, including an eyewitness account from a respectable neighbour who saw him elsewhere at the time.

Fox discusses the growing anti-Semitism of the period in Scotland, and the more general fear of foreigners. While Scotland hadn’t been quite as anti-Semitic as England in the past, massively increased immigration was leading to an upsurge, especially since many of the Jews arriving were poor, thus existing on the margins. They became associated in the public mind with crime. Also, new modes of transport and the requirements of an industrialised economy meant that people were more mobile than in the past, so that people didn’t necessarily know who their neighbours were, leading to a kind of fear of the stranger. So Slater was an ideal scapegoat, given that the police had no idea of the identity of the real murderer.

Conan Doyle became interested in the case early on. Fox runs through those parts of his biography that are relevant to him becoming a kind of consultant on cases of wrongful conviction, such as his early exposure to the work of Dr Joseph Bell, the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes. Much of this was already known to me, but Fox keeps it tightly focused so that it never feels like padding. She coins the phrase “diagnostic imagination” to describe ACD’s methods, suggesting that his early medical training of conjecturing from symptom back to diagnosis was the basis for his technique of what we would now think of as forensic detection – using physical clues to work backwards to the crime. Fox discusses very interestingly how at this period the pseudoscience of “criminal anthropology” was still influencing detection in Scotland and elsewhere: a belief that one could determine criminal tendencies by certain physical hallmarks – a system “that sought to cloak racial, ethnic and class stereotypes in turn-of-the-20th-century scientific garb”. This was giving way to the more forensic methods promoted by ACD, but not quickly enough to save Slater.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fox continues the stories of both men turn and turn about, along the way providing a pretty damning indictment of the Scottish police and criminal justice system of the time. She personalises it by allowing us to read some of Slater’s correspondence with his loving parents and family, some of which is quite moving as they gradually age and his expectations of ever seeing them again grow fainter. During the war, no communication was allowed with Germany, so for years he went with no news of family at all. He wasn’t a particularly pleasant man, Slater, but the punishment he underwent for a crime of which he was innocent was cruel indeed.

Margalit Fox
Photo: Ivan Farkas

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. All the stuff about Glasgow – the class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture – feels authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that I think true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy – highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Profile Books.

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John Knox by Jane Dawson

john knoxGod’s Watchman…

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In Scotland, John Knox is thought of as a misogynistic, hellfire-and-damnation preaching, old killjoy, who is responsible for the fairly joyless version of Protestantism that has blighted our country for hundreds of years. Well, that’s how I think of him anyway! Father of the Scottish Reformation, he is notorious for being the author of ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’. In this new biography, Jane Dawson sets out, not so much to overturn this impression of Knox, but to show that there was more to him than this. She tells us that new material has recently been uncovered amongst the papers of Christopher Goodman, a fellow Reformed preacher and long-term friend of Knox. This material, she suggests, throws a different light on his personality, while changing some of the facts known about his life.

Dawson writes very well, with no unnecessary academic jargon, making the book an enjoyable read. In structure, it’s a straightforward biography following a linear timeline. Not having read any previous biographies of Knox, I’m not in a position to comment on whether the new material makes a significant difference to what was already known about him, but I certainly found that I learned a good deal, not just about Knox, but about the history of the Reformation in Scotland, England and Europe.

Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House by Thomas Hutchison Peddie
Knox dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House
by Thomas Hutchison Peddie

Starting with his childhood, Dawson takes us through Knox’s early career as a priest within the Catholic Church and, as she does at all points, sets his story well within the context of the period. She discusses the importance of the Church in medieval society and gives the reader an overview of the political situation in Scotland and England at the time of the ‘Rough Wooing’, when Henry VIII was using military might to try to force a marriage between his son and the infant queen of Scotland. The legend, of course, is that the Scots and English were sworn enemies, but Dawson shows how those Scots who were moving towards Protestantism, including Knox, were in fact keen for an alliance with England, perhaps even a union. Therefore when France pitched in to keep Scotland Catholic, Knox found himself on the wrong side, and began an exile that would take him first to England and later to Geneva, becoming heavily involved in the development of Reformed religion in both locations.

Dawson suggests that these experiences influenced Knox deeply. He had been a disciple of George Wishart, martyred for his beliefs under Mary of Guise, Regent of Scotland, and on more than one occasion came close to achieving martyrdom himself. His hatred of Mary Tudor’s bloody persecution of English Protestants led him to expect the same in Scotland when the young Mary Stuart came to her throne. (I have to admit that if I’d had to deal with the three Marys, I might have become a misogynist myself.) It was around this time that Knox blew his First Blast, basing his case on the authority of the Old Testament, to declare that women were not fit to be rulers and should be opposed, even deposed if necessary. He had been warned by Calvin not to do this but, as always, Knox’s belief in his own unarguable rightness led him to disregard this advice.

Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman
Knox haranguing Mary Queen of Scots by Robert Inerarity Herdman

Big mistake as it turned out, since Mary Tudor’s death brought Protestant Elizabeth to the throne. Thinking that he could now return to England to continue developing the Reformed Church there, Knox discovered to his surprise that for some odd reason Elizabeth had taken offence over the First Blast. It would have been a bit hard at that point for Knox to explain that it was only Catholic women who weren’t suited to rule, but anyway Dawson didn’t convince me that Knox’s First Blast was more political than misogynistic. Dawson suggests that the fact that he had many staunch female friends and supporters throughout his life, and loved both his wives, in some way refutes the accusation of misogyny. I tend to disagree – many people like cats but they don’t necessarily consider them equals. Perhaps it’s a semantic debate – perhaps he should be described as a sexist old killjoy instead.

Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva Photo credit: Histoire
Detail of John Knox in Edinburgh at the Reformation Wall in Geneva
Photo credit: Histoire

Having blown his chances in England, Knox answered the call to return to Scotland, where he became embroiled in the Wars of the Congregation. For a brief period after this, he was able to set the Scottish Church up to run along the Reformed lines he had been planning for years, and he believed that by accepting this the Scottish people had made a covenant with God. But he soon became disillusioned when many prominent Protestants upheld Mary’s right to rule and even to attend Catholic Mass. During the long years of ups and downs that followed, he never ceased to preach and prophesy, and never changed his core beliefs regardless of pressure and threats, which I suppose makes him admirable if not particularly likeable. In his later years, he suffered from repeated bouts of depression, believing that the covenant had been broken and that retribution would surely follow. Not against him, obviously – just his (and therefore God’s) enemies. He saw himself as God’s Watchman, constantly striving to prevent deviation from the forms of worship he believed the Bible specified, thumping his pulpit and prophesying doom on all who strayed.

Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.
Dr Jane Dawson FRSE John Laing Professor of Reformation History. Photographed with the statue of John Knox in the Quad at the School of Divinity, Edinburgh.

My superficial overview doesn’t do full justice to Dawson’s book. She sheds a great deal of light on this complex and important figure, showing in depth how his interpretation of the Bible influenced every aspect of his life. She also widens the subject out to put the Scottish Reformation into context with the Protestant movement throughout Europe, showing how, despite some internal differences, there was an attempt to unify the theology and forms of worship of the fledgling religion. And she goes on to show how local circumstances led to variations in the practices of Reformed churches in different nations. Though I knew most of the historical ‘facts’ already, I certainly have a better understanding of the man, and of the Church he was so instrumental in creating. And while I can’t say I like him much better than I did, I at least accept that he acted always in conformance with his beliefs. An excellent biography and history combined – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

‘A man’s a man for a’ that’

 

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the scottish enlightenmentAlthough there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As with Herman’s more recent book, The Cave and the Light, this is a hugely readable and enjoyable history – Herman writes in a way that makes his books very accessible to non-academic readers.

Starting in the century or so before the Enlightenment period, Herman explains the various factors that led to the Union of 1707. He shows the stranglehold that the Kirk had on Scottish society, but that out of this grew the idea of man as a free individual – that monarchs were not absolute and that tyrannies could and should be challenged. He gives the Kirk the credit for the idea that education should be for all, making Scotland one of the most literate societies in the world, with an appetite for books other than the Bible. And he explains very clearly the impact of the Darien scheme on both the financial state of Scotland and on its self-confidence as a nation. In Herman’s view, the Union was a resoundingly positive development for Scotland, despite its unpopularity amongst ordinary people, since it opened up opportunities and access to the rest of the world via the rapidly developing British Empire, hence revolutionising Scotland both economically and culturally.

Francis Hutcheson
Francis Hutcheson

In the next couple of chapters, Herman deals in some depth with two of the earliest and most influential figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hutcheson and Kames, showing how their ideas developed, where they contrasted and overlapped, and the influence that each had on those thinkers who followed them. He highlights Hutcheson as the altruist, the first liberal, who developed the idea of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ with man as a free individual choosing to work together for the common good. Kames is portrayed more as a hard-nosed realist (cynic?) believing that societies come together primarily to provide protection for their property from external threats. In these chapters, Herman also shows the beginnings of what we would now call the ‘social sciences’ – the scientific study of human society and social relationships.

Lord Kames
Lord Kames

The rest of the first section of the book is taken up with a wide-ranging history of eighteenth century Scotland. Herman discusses the reasons behind the Jacobite rebellions, showing that the divide was much more complex than the simplistic picture of Scotland v England, so beloved of nationalists and film-makers alike. He discusses the clan culture of the Highlands in some depth, stripping away much of the romanticism that has built up over it in the intervening years. He shows how Lowland Scotland, what we would now think of as the Central Belt, was much more in tune with its English partners, particularly as the two main cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh began to reap major economic benefits from access to the Empire. Throughout these chapters, he continues to show how Enlightenment thinking was developing via such huge figures as Hume and Smith, and influencing not just Scottish society, but attracting students from the UK and Europe to study at Scottish universities.

Adam Smith & David Hume
Adam Smith & David Hume

The second half of the book is largely devoted to showing how the Scottish Diaspora, forced and voluntary, meant that Scottish ideas were disseminated throughout the Empire, particularly to the white English-speaking Dominions. From educators to scientists and engineers, Herman’s position is that Scots were responsible for the birth of what we would now think of as ‘modernity’. Being an American, Herman lays particular emphasis on what he sees as the huge contribution Scots and Scottish ideas made to the founding and Constitution of the US, physically, politically and intellectually. He shows how, in his opinion, the inbuilt ‘gridlock’ of the American political system rose specifically out of Scottish Enlightenment ideas, to provide protection for individuals and communities from the power of an overweening government. He explains the huge influence that Scots had in creating and developing the early American system of education and universities such as Princeton. And, of course, he credits the great Scottish economists with the creation of the capitalist system he so clearly admires.

Arthur Herman
Arthur Herman

While I found this a most informative and enjoyable read (who doesn’t enjoy having their national ego stroked?), I did feel that at points, particularly in the latter half of the book, Herman was stretching his argument a bit. I would be the last person to belittle the huge contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers; or of the Scottish engineers, scientists, writers, religious leaders and statesmen who spread the Enlightenment ideas throughout the colonies and dominions of the Empire. But sometimes Herman gives the distinct impression that the Scots are really the only people who have ever done anything – the rest of the world seems to have rather passively sat back and let the Scots get on with it. (And frankly I’m not sure if I want to be held responsible for America!) If a man of another nationality is credited with something, Herman trawls his background to give him a Scottish connection – he studied at a Scottish University or his grandfather came from just over the English border so was nearly Scottish or his grandmother once ate haggis. (OK, I might have exaggerated that last one a little.)

But with that small reservation aside, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants a clearer understanding of the history of this period, both as it affected Scotland and the wider world. And, in this year of the Scottish Independence referendum, a useful reminder of the reasons behind the Union and the early economic benefits of it, providing food for thought for either camp as to whether those reasons and benefits are still relevant today.

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My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots by John Guy

A sympathetic portrait…

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my heart is my ownHaving thoroughly enjoyed Guy’s biography of Thomas Becket, I had high expectations of this book, which Guy more than fulfilled. A meticulous historian who prides himself on stripping back the layers of accepted history by returning to and re-evaluating the original sources, Guy also has the skill of a true storyteller. For a non-historian like myself, it is this skill that makes his books so readable, that makes his characters emerge as rounded human beings with strengths, weaknesses and emotions.

A very sympathetic portrait, this – Guy goes into Mary’s French upbringing and education in some depth to provide support for his view of her as a strong, intelligent and ingenious woman, well prepared by her Guise relatives to take on the role of Queen. It is particularly interesting to contrast Mary’s education and preparation for monarchy with that of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth, described in Guy’s most recent book The Children of Henry VIII.

John Guy
John Guy

He fills in the background to Mary’s reign well, giving a clear picture of the divisions and ever-shifting factionalism in the Scotland of her time. At points it seems almost as if Guy himself had fallen a little in love with this woman whom he describes as ‘glamorous, intelligent, gregarious, vivacious, kind, loyal to her supporters and friends’. He works hard to clear Mary from any remaining suspicion of her involvement in Darnley’s murder and convinced this reader, at least. Guy doesn’t gloss over the unpalatable truth that Mary’s misguided relationship with Bothwell to a large degree brought about her own destruction. However he explains convincingly how Mary’s usual good judgement and ingenuity may have been affected by the events following Darnley’s death.

Overall this is not only a scholarly, well-researched book, but also a hugely enjoyable one. In my review of Guy’s Becket I said ‘For a non-historian, this is exactly how history should be presented – assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way.‘ Guy has done exactly that again. An excellent read – highly recommended.

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