PAULINE MACKAY: To what extent do modern authors reinforce or, indeed, challenge ideas of clanship and Highland culture depicted in literature of the romantic and modern periods? What themes and preoccupations emerge in creative literature in response to the social, economic, and cultural impact of the Highland Clearances? We will consider representations of clanship and its associated culture in 20th-century Scottish literature and drama. Published in 1934, Neil Gunn’s novel, Butcher’s Broom, describes the tragedy of the Clearances in Sutherland on the Scottish mainland.
The title refers to the destruction of the clan system and the brutal treatment of Highland communities in the wake of the Jacobite uprisings, their society and culture irrevocably impaired by the Duke of Cumberland forces, the duke being the butcher obliquely referred to in Gunn’s title. The novel is a scathing treatment of the social unrest that followed the decline of this clan system and paints an ultimately bleak picture of a displaced and unstable Highland community. The Clearances also form the backdrop to Gunn’s follow-up, The Silver Darlings, published in 1941.
The message in this novel, arguably, is one of hope and regeneration, where communities cleared from the lands to eke out a living on the coast and by fishing come to terms with the loss of their cultivated inland crofts. We see in The Silver Darlings a new generation which retains the hardiness of its predecessors and demonstrates its strong adaptability to take advantage of the herring fishing industry in the 19th century. In the poem “Hallaig,” first published in 1954, the celebrated Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean provides a subtle and imaginative response to the impact of the Highland Clearances upon his native island, Raasay.
For Maclean, the deserted township of Hallaig appears as “the Sabbath of the dead, where the people are frequenting, every single generation gone.” Maclean’s imagery at once captures the desolation of the settlement while infusing it with the memory of its former inhabitants, their history bound up with their names, the names of local families, of clans. “They are still in Hallaig, Macleans and Macleods, all who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim. The dead have been seen alive.” John McGrath’s influential and controversial play, The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil,
was the first production of the Scottish 7:84 Theatre Company, known for its socialist and nationalist political agenda. The name derives from the contemporary calculation that 7% of the population owns 84% of the United Kingdom’s wealth. An example of agitprop theatre, the play sought to highlight the exploitation of the Scottish Highlands and the decline of Highland culture overtime by focusing on the Highland Clearances, the Victorian deer hunting culture, and the extraction of North Sea oil in the 20th century, the latter directed by the outside force of large American corporations.
The drama plays satirically upon the notion of the noble savage, while seeking to recreate an authentic sense of Highland community and culture seen in the inclusion of song in both Gaelic and English, storytelling, and by involving the audience in a form of ceilidh. Romantic ideals and sentimentalism are present but intentionally punctured by the intrusion of facts and statistics that convey the brutal and tragic reality of the Clearances and of the spoliation generally of Highland culture.
Significantly, 7:84 toured McGrath’s play to great acclaim around community centres and theatres across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the very communities most affected by the historical events with which it is concerned. We should be aware then of the way in which 20th-century literature addresses the concept of cultural decline alongside that of change, adjustments, and, ultimately, progress, for better or worse. When we scrutinise representations of clanship and the Highlander, we might also identify a shift in focus pertaining to gender. 20th-century literature is replete with strong and enduring female characters, anchored to the land, the cornerstones of their communities, and just as impassioned and militant as men in their response to social injustice.
Ultimately, we might consider that 20th-century literature is more concerned with realism in its representation of Highland history and culture. It also encourages readers to recognise and celebrate all that remains.