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How far can you trust documents?

All history-writing, certainly all history-writing dealing with events before the twentieth century, is based on documents. From the late nineteenth century onwards there are many more aids – sound-recordings, films and so on – but for events before these new inventions, historians have to depend on written documents. But to say written documents are invaluable is not the same as to say that they are infallible. Anyone reading a document from 200 or 300 years ago should have the same arm’s-length approach which (for example) anyone reading a political party’s manifesto now ought to have. Here are some examples where eminent historians have failed to observe this (surely) elementary rule.

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What is a Clearance?

I think I ought to define “clearance” – I should say what I mean by the word, since some writers apparently mean something different. A “clearance” was what it was called when a landlord cleared all his small tenants off all the good land on his estate. Sometimes he then tried to encourage or even organize their removal to the Lowlands or overseas – especially after the potato famine which began in 1845, since he was afraid he might have to pay a poor rate to support the paupers he had created – but in the “clearances” between the 1740s and the 1830s a clearing landlord often tried to keep on his estate the people he had evicted.

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The Highlanders – Catholic or Protestant?

Everyone writing history, or what is claimed to be history, presumably believes that he or she is writing the truth. Even people churning out what is basically propaganda for this or that set of rulers (democratic or dictatorial) have probably convinced themselves that what they write is true. So when I find it necessary to disagree with what others have written about the Highland clearances, and to allege that they have got their facts wrong, it is broaching a very profound question: not merely whether an account of what happened in the Highlands in 1700 to 1900 is accurate or not, but whether any account of history can be trusted – whether historians are keeping to this basic necessity of all history, or not.

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Where are the Highlands?

In my last blog I said something about how important it is to define your terms before having any discussion: otherwise you may find that disagreements have been caused not by any actual differences, but because the people in the discussion were simply talking about different things. So if we are going to disagree about the population figures in the Highlands, it is essential first to be completely sure that we are all talking about the same “Highlands”. As I say elsewhere, many observers have avoided saying where the Highlands are; many others have given sharply divergent definitions, for example leaving out large swathes of the southern Highlands, or on the contrary taking in large areas to the east of the Gaelic area, or indeed far to the north of it. When I began studying the history of the Highland clearances, I decided that an essential first step was to decide where the Highlands were. I therefore spent a long time on this preliminary problem, and (rightly or wrongly) I came up with the following definition. (This demarcation is given in terms of the old Scottish counties. When in 1974 the upheaval took place which abolished the old counties, a completely new structure was substituted: and this new disposition was itself revised a few years later, in 1996. How long the present arrangement will last no one can tell.)

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The “population explosion” in the Highlands

According to the standard account of Highland history, there was a “unparalleled, prodigious, stupendous” etc “population explosion” in the Highlands either from 1750 to 1800, or from 1750 to 1850).1   I am reluctant to keep emphasizing how much I disagree with many of those who have written about the Highlands, because I realize I must sound like one of those people who buttonhole you, and explain that human beings have never landed on the moon (the television coverage was faked), or that the twin towers atrocity in 2001 was done by the Americans themselves, or that they have just been for a trip in a flying saucer.   However, it must be done – here are the facts and figures, and anyone who disagrees is welcome to try and pick holes in my arguments.   A further preliminary point is this – unfortunately, any normal person who wants to discuss what happened in history has as a rule to accept what all the history books assert.   If I’m interested in the Battle of Bannockburn, which all the textbooks say happened in 1314, I have to accept that: I can’t spend months looking out all the contemporary evidence from witnesses, or chroniclers, or official documents.   In the same way, if all the books insist (which they do) that there was this extraordinary leap in the Highland population in the second half of the 18th century (or 1750-1850), then how is any ordinary reader, with his life to live, going to check up on it?   So it is not surprising that people have accepted this allegation of an enormous population increase in the Highlands.