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.