Notes on the Scottish Genocide


In suggesting that the Highland and Lowland Clearances constituted colonial acts of genocide, the article The Scottish Genocide received some criticism, arguing that Scotland was neither colonised nor the victim of genocide. Let’s examine the evidence.

It would be an understatement to say that my article, The Scottish Genocide, published before the weekend on the Butterfly Rebellion blog, provoked a reaction. Within twenty-four hours it had been shared over three thousand times on one social media site, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive (so thanks for that). Yet as it was being shared, there erupted an intensely hostile response – mainly on Twitter – from users vehemently denying the history of genocide during the colonisation of Scotland. While the intention of the work wasn’t to provoke readers, but to shed some much needed light on an ugly past that has been deliberately obfuscated by our very ‘British’ education, the deniers did protest too much.

The Butterfly Rebellion Twitter account was privileged to be addressed by Jill Stephenson (“@2351onthelist”), Professor Emeritus of Classics, History, and Archaeology at Edinburgh University, very much leading the revisionist charge. Her position was consistent through the two-day long exchange (a polite way of putting “relentless trolling”) that Scotland does not “fit any definition of a colony,” and that the suggestion of colonisation and genocide was nothing but “SNP crap.” The purpose of these notes then is to lay out the historical facts of the Highland and Lowland Clearances against the current academic and legal understandings of both colonialism and genocide. This will be done in two parts, this, the first instalment, addressing the question of genocide in Scotland, and the second addressing the actuality of the English colonisation of Scotland.

It was to be expected that those eager to deny genocide would lean on its definition; what it means and what actions do and do not constitute an act of genocide. One Connor McConnell was the first to present the argument that the Clearances did not meet the conditions required to constitute genocide. His argument was:

You do realise there was no genocide involved, yes? Genocide is the deliberate killing of a group of people. The Highland Clearances involved forced emigration and depopulation. Your article clearly uses a different understanding of ‘genocide’ which goes far beyond the ordinary understanding of the word, and yet you don’t explain that in the article.
Connor McConnell, on Facebook

What we are seeing here is McConnell’s employment of a pretty standard debating tactic, in which the disputant questions the proposer’s understanding of the subject by questioning the correct use of the terms being used. In fairness to McConnell, his agreement that the Clearances were concerned with the “forced emigration and depopulation” of the Highlands and Lowlands concedes that this was at least an act of ethnic cleansing. He stops short, of course, at genocide. That would be a bridge too far, and his problem with this is that my “understanding of ‘genocide’ […] goes far beyond the ordinary understanding of the word.” We are fortunate, in that case, to have the definition of genocide as it is articulated in the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (December 1948) which says:

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such :
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

We shall accept this and only this definition of genocide, and from here begin to ask whether what happened in Scotland during the Clearances constitutes acts of genocide as defined by the Convention. Furthermore, we shall dispense with the facile suggestion that the Clearances predate the Convention and are therefore not subject to the prohibition. The background of the Convention was the Nazi genocide of the 1930s and 40s and was expressly intended to address historical crimes, depending not on mere written law, but on the universality of Natural Law in which certain acts are seen as so repugnant to reason that the conscience along serves to condemn the perpetrator.

As was pointed out in the article on the Butterfly Rebellion blog, those behind the removal of a “diseased and damaged part of our population (The Scotsman, 26 July 1851),” drove people from the land for reasons of imagined racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious superiority. The victims – and yes, they were victims – were singled out and targeted because those in authority deemed them to be inferior human beings. Being an academic specialist in the Third Reich and the socio-pathology of mass murder and genocide, one would have expected Professor Stephenson to recognise this “‘poisonous pedagogy’ which can often be shown to have afflicted the oppressor (McIntosh et al., The Scottish Highlands in colonial and psychodynamic perspective, 1994).”

Conditioned by the belief of the Gael’s racial and ethnic inferiority, in one example of a program being repeated right across the Highlands and Islands, the Duke of Sutherland forcefully evicted over 15,000 people from his land at a rate of over 2,000 families in a single day on one occasion. Many, due to hunger and the freezing weather, died on the same land on which their homes once stood. Prebble’s The Highland Clearances (1969), relying on first-hand accounts, underlines that the nature of the evictions were by “bayonet, truncheon or fire,” and that the landlords’ progress was indeed driven by ideas of the racial inferiority and impurity of the Gaelic tenants. At the very least such a historical reality meets the first three of the five conditions of genocide (bearing in mind the 1948 Convention stipulates that when “any” of the conditions are met genocide has been committed).

Allowing this to sit with the reader, the next instalment of these notes will focus on the question of responsibility. Was this simply the actions of Scots landlords acting as autonomous agents, or was this part of a wider and systematic process of colonisation? Again we shall look at the definition of colonialism and ask whether it relates to the realities in Scotland during the period of the Clearances.


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12 thoughts on “Notes on the Scottish Genocide

  1. The genocide started with the Stuart kings, not just Westminster.
    Their policy was to exterminate certain groups of Highlanders.
    Take for example the Plantations of Lewis where the policy was to exterminate the locals and take over the land.
    Not just remove them, but exterminate them.
    If that isn’t a genocidal policy, what is?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good to see you taking on board my previous comments regarding adding definitions to your work. You once again, however, make more or less the same flawed argument put forward in your previous blog post. You suggest that the Clearances are due predominantly to the belief that the Gaels were an inferior people. You support this by using, yet again, the same Scotsman quotation used in your previous post. The Clearances took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was only during the mid 19th century that the belief in the inferiority of the Gaels becomes evident. Even then, the evidence does not suggest that it was a widely held view. Indeed, apart from some statesmen and likely only three newspapers (of which The Scotsman was one) there is nothing indicating that it was a belief shared by many. Couple that with the fact that, as stated above, the timing does not match (with the Clearances predominantly happening before the development of this viewpoint) and you’re left with a rather weak and unfounded argument. I look forward to reading your next post. I assume you will be using the opportunity to place blame for the Clearances on the villainous English. In pre-empting that, I would just finally note that you briefly mention the role of the Duke of Sutherland in the Clearances. His works were carried out by a rather infamous character of the time – a Mr Patrick Sellar, who, wouldn’t you know, was a Scottish lawyer from Moray.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Conner – Thanks for taking the time to reply. You appear to have removed your original Facebook comment. I sincerely hope that you did not feel compelled to do this, as the purpose of this entire discussion is to make the discussion possible and open.

      You are quite right that this ill opinion of the Gaelic Scots was not widely held, or at least there is a shortage of evidence for it being widespread. Nowhere do I suggest that it was the prevailing opinion then or now. What matters, and what is of most significance, is that it was the opinion of those in power – which it was. Moreover, as you admit yourself, the passage from the Scotsman merely underlines that it “becomes evident” in these sources. This would indicate that the opinion pre-dates the publication.

      Regarding the assumption of my hostility towards “the villainous English,” that it rather unnecessary. On the contrary I believe that “the English” were as much the victims of internal intra-group colonisation as the Gaelic and Lallans Scots were of inter-group colonisation. Those responsible were not “the English,” but the emerging English nation state.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello. I haven’t removed any Facebook comments – I believe others replied to the same thread as well, so I would assume it would have been another user.

    Regarding the comment about the anti-gaelic sentiment pre-dating the single source used, this brings me back to a point I made earlier. If you are going to suggest (as is, at the very least, implied in your post) that the sentiment was a key element in causing the Clearances, then you would need to put forward some evidence to show that the sentiment existed before the period in which the Clearances, for the most part, occurred. This simply isn’t included in your article. It cannot be included. It doesn’t exist.

    I had a quick scan over your follow up post. I would say a remark on your hostility towards the English is completely necessary. Quite frankly, you have made so many assumptions regarding the responsibility of the English without the use of any real evidence to found it (something I’ve come to see you have quite the talent for) that I can only assume it is a deep-seated anger or distrust towards the English which causes you to need the English to be the ones responsible for it. You appear to actively choose not to look to Scottish landlords (many of whom previously, or still did, identify as clan chiefs) as the people who actively initiated the Clearances.

    I’ll leave with just a final note. If a Professor of History from the University of Edinburgh calls your post ‘utter crap’, maybe, just maybe, it would be worthwhile distancing yourself from the intention that drives your interpretation of history, just for a little while, just to see if your historical account can actually stand on its own two feet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that personal assault Conner. It would seem that you have quite some investment in this yourself. I can’t now find your original post, and I am hoping that its absence to me is only a glitch.

      Of course, had you more than scanned my “utter crap” you would have seen that I do lay blame at the feet of the lairds and the landlords, but go further, with a great deal of academic evidence, to show their actions in the light of typical patters of British colonialism. You won’t see that, and I understand, because we are just not as smart. You do realise that that is how your beloved British establishment see you too? Loyalty, eh. An admirable quality in a slave.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Conner McConnell – who you are bearing a Gaelic-derived first and surname yourself – there was an anti-Gaelic attitude before the clearances, and it would behove you well to learn as much Gaelic as to be able to study the history of the Gael from the inside, instead of the altogether too common anglocentric point of view. As a starting point, you could read Michael Newton, A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001), as well as Krisztina Fenyõ, Contempt, Sympathy and Romance: Lowland Perception of the Highlands and the Clearances during the Famine Years, 1845-1855 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2000). Otherwise, you would belong to yon clientele best described as “fixed attitude(s), but no real idea of anything”: and are you not aware that James VI and I was very anti-Gaelic already to the point of paranoia on one hand and utter contempt on the other hand? That’s why he started the Ulster Plantation, and that’s why he set up the Statutes of Iona. Saying that, though, even James VI was not the first Scottish monarch of both Anglo-Norman and Gaelic origin to pursue anti-Gaelic policies – that were Malcolm Canmore (Calum a’ Chinn Mhòir) and his successors of the House of Dunkeld…

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I think it’s a bit unfair to consider what I wrote a personal assault. I didn’t agree that your post was ‘utter crap’ – in fact, I think I was quite considerate in putting forward my criticism of your position. I’m merely pointing out that if a Professor of History at Edinburgh University is using that type of language to describe it then it is at least worth considering the merits of that position free from your own personal biases. If what I wrote was, in fact, a personal assault, then it’s nice to see you take a leaf out of my book – touched a nerve perhaps?

    As for your ‘great deal of academic evidence’…I think your standards may be a little bit below what would typically be expected.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Academic standards below what would typically be expected?” …and that’s not getting personal? Yes, of course I have a position in this argument. I am by no means neutral, and nor do I pretend to be. Have a quick look over this history professor’s Twitter account and you will see that she is no less biased. I do apologise that you find my intelligence so far beneath that of your British masters. For all your hot air, it is interesting that you have presented no evidence at all to back up your superior British position. Carry on.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Not being an academic and not having the same knowledge of Scottish history as some contributers on this thread i would however like to comment in something Connor had a big bee in his bonnet about. He says that there is no proof of anti Gael feelings yet u presume that since they were the majority being forced frim there homes its pretty obvious they WERE thought of as inferior. I reckon he’s being rather pedantic in saying otherwise. Pontificate that there was no proof there was any bigotry against them but accept that they were all but wiped out? Really!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Willy Foulger: The first word that came to mind when I read your post I thought best not posted, but after some thought of inviting you to read the evidence, and study what is genocide, I decided it would be a waste of time and so I think that that one word reply is appropriate, so:

    Bollocks.

    Like

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