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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.”

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.”

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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.

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The Clearances


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18 thoughts on “Clearance: Britain’s Guilt-Ridden Denial

  1. McEnaney does not deserve your consideration. I have rarely met anyone so ill informed yet supremely, unshakeably confident in his own judgement of, well, of everything really. It is no accident the that for generations, Scottish History has been taught badly, when it’s taught at all. It has been a systematic and deliberate act to suppress Scottish identity. Until we fully understand our history, how can we possibly know where we’re going and why we need to get there?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Excellent piece, thank you. I can’t find anything to disagree with there. I learned about the clearances from my mother (I had Scottish/English parents) as I had no idea from my “history” lessons at school. In the following 40+ years I have read many books and articles on that period in our history and it convinced me that you are quite right in stating that the British-Scots (“Proud Scot, but …”) can’t deal with the truth about the Westminster Establishment they consider more important than their own country.

    It’s coming yet, for a’ that!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Identifying with and accepting, sometimes participating in and reinforcing, the oppressive behaviour of a dominant group over the group you belong to is a feature of Internalised oppression (as well as Stockholm Syndrome). The extremity of some reactions to being confronted with the reality of that oppressive behaviour (e.g. The Clearances being a form of Genocide) is indicative of this, the strong and sometimes abusive denials being a form of Cognitive Dissonance. In my opinion this helps to explain the reactions described above, in fact it helps to explain the reactions of British Nationalists in Scotland to many other issues too, Gaelic and Scots language issues being another example. It is essentially an ingrained intergenerational form of self-hatred that has its roots in historical events like The Clearances.

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  4. Both articles are cracking reads which spark some disjointed thoughts:

    I realise that until very recently I had not thought in terms of the Clearances as genocide or ethnic cleansing (terms which are completely synonymous to me) but now there are no other words I can use to describe what happened. I had the unusual upbringing of growing up in a former colony so learned all my Scottish history at home rather than at school so I’ve always knew of the Clearances (not least because some of my ancestors were cleared & ended up in the colonies, though it isn’t quite as straight forward as that; history rarely is).

    My dad used to say that the English practiced colonialism the Scots then exported it.

    I was just struck by the comparison of Scots participating in the evils of the British Empire (I currently live 200m from the grave one of Scotland’s richest ever men, ‘Colonel’ William McDowall, sugar merchant – aka slave plantation owner, former slave overseer, owner of slave ships) & the Jews who served as sonderkommando in the Nazi death camps. I write that not in judgement against people placed in impossible situations & faced with horrendous decisions but with the honesty that says my ancestors, while wronged themselves, in turn wronged other colonised peoples around the world, even if only by their very presence in places like Ireland, Canada & New Zealand.

    Scotland struggles you accept its past, whether it is the Clearances, our people’s genocide of others worldwide, our active involvement in the enslavement of African people or the wars of the 20th & 21st centuries. All very uncomfortable thoughts for too many.

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  5. I’m an American, of Scottish descent. I have known my whole life long that the ONLY word that truthfully describes what the British did is genocide. Don’t like it? Find it uncomfortable? Too damn bad. Face the truth like adults.

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  6. Well argued, as the descendent of victims, today’s result is a diaspora to north and south America, África, Australasia and Europe. If they sought to destroy us, they FAILED. We simply discovered our strength and adaptability.

    What didn’t kill us, made us stronger, as independence will show.

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  7. The brutal evictions were genocide as no thought was given to the welfare of the people being evicted from the land that had been their homes for many a year. The term ethic cleansing could apply to the encouragement given to populate the “ colonies” although this was equally brutal, splitting families and communities apart. It is an uncomfortable subject because the upper echelons of the Scottish people turned a blind eye to what was happening in the Highlands. I,like most of my generation, was not educated about this horrific chapter in our history even although I live with the ruins of the dwellings a short walk from my home. As my Father used to say “the past is the past and nothing we can do about it” but it should be acknowledged as genocide of the people of the time.

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  8. Not to make comparisons, have you read about the Lowland Clearances, which took place before the Highland version? It is several year since I read this book, so I can’t provide quotes, but have a look at The Lowland Clearances by Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell, published by Birlinn.

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  9. Having a thirst for history can be uncomfortable at times. I’ve read a number of books on both the clearances and the lives of these poor people in America. I have no problem labelling it Genocide and would like to thank you for your excellent, well researched articles.

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  10. I can’t argue with the UN definition, nor the qualification of the Ghàidhealtachd in both Scotland and Ireland,as the target culture, when it’s applied retrospectively. The discomfort stems from Scottish complicity, both in the clearances at home, and the in numerous excesses of empire abroad. As alluded to in some comments already, Scots were amongst the most feared and despised servants of empire.

    We revelled in cruelty. We took pride in our merciless rout of other cultures, and ruthless pursuit of wealth. We continue in an affection for “hard man” culture in our national psyche. Modern Scots are no more the victims of genocide than Modern Germans, or European Americans.

    What remains a travesty, and a tragedy, is that the entire, sorry, awful history of what we Scots did to our own minorities and then to millions across the world, is not taught better in schools. Until we have that education, make peace with our past, and look independently to our future, a propensity to violence, cruelty, alcohol, and sectarian, melancholic appeals to “what we suffered” as an excuse, will surely continue.

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  11. If history had been taught with accuracy we would have been independent a long time ago, what did our history teachers do to us. I am 59 years old and do not recall any teacher history or otherwise teach with any accuracy the true Scottish history.

    Liked by 1 person

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