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By Jason Michael
When we talk about the Highland Clearances there is something about the word ‘Genocide’ that drives British nationalists in Scotland demented. I have been wondering why it has such an effect on them.
Back in May 2016 I published an article on the Butterfly Rebellion website dealing with the Clearances – na Fuadaichean nan Gàidheal, making the case that this was an act of genocide perpetrated by Britain on the Gaels of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Almost two years on that article has been shared on social media almost ten thousand times and has gone viral and done the rounds a number of times since it was first published. The response to it has been phenomenal, if insanely polarising. On the one hand there are those who have welcomed it with open arms; either agreeing with its conclusion or voicing their outrage at never having been taught this dark chapter of our country’s history at school. Then, on the other hand, there are those who have been enraged by it; responding in venomous spits because someone had the audacity to write such “rubbish.”
It’s a wonderful feeling to know your readers have appreciated what you have written, that they have gotten something out of your work. Not being the most confident in my own abilities, praise can be quite frightening – but it’s wonderful nonetheless. Criticism is much harder to take. Bearing in mind that in a sense your written work becomes your baby, reading others criticise it can be very disheartening. This piece on the Clearances didn’t really get criticism from its detractors. It was subjected to scathing ridicule, mocking, and an almost relentless barrage of bile and deeply personal attacks. For writing it I was even called a “zoomer” and a “retard.”
Zeebeving (@zeebeving) February 13, 2018
Many of these comments came from people in the Scottish media. James McEnaney, an English lecturer and writer at Common Space who describes himself as having an interest in the representation of conflict in literature – ironically enough, was one of them. Yet this reaction strikes me as odd. We often read badly written or poorly researched material and things with which we profoundly disagree. When we do we either ignore it or make some reasonable effort to engage with the author to correct it. There has been none of that. Criticism of “The Scottish Genocide” has gone straight to handbags at dawn, and this I find utterly fascinating.
It closes with the words, “A colony we were, a colony we are, and the screams of denial are the shrill rale of the thoroughly colonised mind,” and I am now certain – without having fully realised it at the time – that this is precisely what lies at the heart of the rage the article provokes. To suggest that Scotland was the weak and defenceless victim of British imperial expansion, that our people were deemed racially inferior and subjected to a cull, jars the servile imagination of the Scottish unionist. Surely, it asks, the master could not have done this to us? It is an idea so repugnant to the mentally colonised that it must be rejected. “Genocide” cannot enter into the lexicon of our national memory, and – by England’s god – it can’t be written into the history books.
Fortunately for them it’s not in our history books. The vanquished don’t write history. Yet the facts remain, and we can describe events in the Highlands and Islands that amount to genocide – but we are denied its language. That would be a step too far.
I have been called every name under the sun for daring to use this word, and I use it for good reason. What happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Scotland was genocide – properly defined. On the 12 January 1951 the 1948 United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide came into force. With regard to the history of the Clearances Article II of the Convention makes for rather interesting reading:
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.
Not all, but “any of the following:” Killing members of the group? Check. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group? Check. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part? Check. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group? Check. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group? Check again. That’s a full house!
The Convention arose from the crimes of the Nazis, and so it is natural that many will confuse genocide with the specific methods employed by them – mass murder and an extermination programme, but genocide is rightly defined in international law more broadly. There were no death centres in Scotland, but there was a wholesale and systematic genocide.
When this Convention was pointed out to one person who made it his mission to continually inform me of my intellectual deficiency his answer was astounding. In fact his answer was quite typical. “The vast majority of people would not be comfortable using the term genocide,” he wrote, “it may well be ‘technically’ covered by the UN article. That does not however mean it is an appropriate or applicable term to use.” His argument, like so many others, was based on the idea that it was ethnic cleansing and not genocide; as though somehow ethnic cleansing was so much better – as though it was a good thing. Yet in making this ludicrous point he conceded that the criteria for genocide had been legally and “technically” met – by no less an institution than the United Nations in the immediate aftermath of the holocaust – and yet it was somehow not “appropriate” to describe the Clearances as such because “people would not be comfortable using the term.”
This is it: We are not permitted the language of genocide – legally and technically precise as it is – because it makes certain people uncomfortable. That’s the seat of all the anger and vitriol right there: That Britain did this to Gaelic Scotland is discomforting, it tears from Britishness the fraudulence of benign and beneficial patronage and lays bare its naked and vicious and murderous ethno-nationalist imperialism. One simply cannot have the comfort of being “British and Scottish” and accept as historical fact that Britain did this and still does this. It forces us to acknowledge that once we were too weak to defend ourselves from such violence, that we were victims – and some cannot and will not accept this painful and humiliating truth of weakness and victimhood. They prefer to live in the fiction that they are true heroic north Britons – the winners of history.
Accepting our weakness and the abject shame of our historical defencelessness – including our willingness to be the Hilfswilligen of our killers – is not easy. It is not comfortable. It forces us to face what is most certainly our most primal national collective trauma. Yet the prospect of us accepting this and beginning the process of coming to terms with it terrifies Britain. The moment a person sees it for what it truly was they can no longer be British. Our entanglement to our abuser ends the moment we begin to remember. No wonder that article drives people crazy.