Highland Hearts

V.G. Kiernan

  • On the Crofters’ Trail: In Search of the Clearance Highlanders by David Craig
    Cape, 358 pp, £14.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 224 02750 6

‘Just inside the fir-dusk a hollow oblong of stones now showed, brown and damp with that stupefied or browbeaten look of an abandoned croft-house ... Here was Unnimore.’ Here, too, was David Craig, groping through a wilderness in Morvern in search of a long-abandoned hamlet; his treasure-trove the remains of eight little houses, their stones covered with ‘whiskery grey lichens’. A hundred pages on, our intrepid explorer is being driven across the shingle of Hudson Bay by ‘a sturdy black-eyed woman of Highland Cree descent’, in a three-wheeler with a rifle aboard in case of polar bears, on the track of a lost settlement of folk cleared from Kildonan. His reward this time is a crumbling gravestone, with a name and a date – 1813 – still legible, probably the furthest-north relic left by any exiled Highlander.

This is a rambling book, in the best of both senses. It is wayward, discursive, sharing the true incoherence of history – that of the poor, at any rate. Its author’s simple tactic was to ‘follow the grapevine’, moving about and looking up new informants whose names the last ones gave him. He does not neglect published sources, or documents or old letters, but essentially his work is a fine example of oral history, records of the past gathered from the lips of men and women. There is much to be learned from it about this method – what it can do to supplement our knowledge, and the blanks and infirmities it suffers from. Much has been written on the same subject; best-known among recent works is John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances. Craig is concerned not so much with the Clearances in themselves as with the sort of memories of them that have lingered among later generations.

He is from Aberdeen, and has no Gaelic beyond what he picks up by the wayside. But Aberdeen is not far from the mountains, and he seems close enough in imagination to their now scattered offspring to be able to enter into their experiences. He has come to feel that in delving into these he has really been ‘rebuilding, in fantasy, a homely nest’, re-entering a corner of his own, left behind since boyhood. All through the book there is a vital awareness of how a community, a neighbourhood, is needed for the carrying-on of a tradition.

He is a literary man by trade, rather than a historian. His ordinary style is easygoing, but blossoms into phraseology when there is something vivid to be described, whether in nature or mankind. A ‘translucency of light over the sea’ blends with ‘that singular welcoming and softening of the atmosphere which never leaves a settlement’. Cormorants call up an image of ‘black crucifixes fleeing along the ice-green tunnels of the breakers’. The genteel type of newcomers on the ‘g-and-t island’ of Mull suggest ‘living waxworks representing a past stage of the upper-middle class ...’ There are photographs to reinforce such visual impressions. Here and there readers may come on some puzzling terms. They will only gradually discover that a ‘lazybed’ is a trench for planting potatoes in. Agon is a good Greek word, but scarcely an English one.

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