Highland Fling

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Clans and Chiefs by Ian Grimble
    Blond and Briggs, 267 pp, £10.95, December 1980, ISBN 0 85634 111 8

A book containing no reference apparatus and no bibliography is not claiming to be a work of scholarship in any of the usual senses. Carefully and spiritedly done, the interpretation and presentation of history for the general public is entirely respectable. But what we have here is neither careful nor spirited. That Dr Grimble has read, unevenly, but in places deeply, if without system or critical faculty, is shown by confused echoes of other people’s research. It is implied that he feels deeply about the wrongs experienced by Highland society over the centuries, but the extreme selectivity with which such wrongs are put forward for consideration makes it difficult to take the sentiment seriously. Fragments of various stories are put together to give a picture of a coherent, cultivated and gallant society which has never questioned the aristocratic dominance of its chiefs and which has been entirely sinned against by those beyond its borders. The important questions which historians ask about Highland society are ignored.

The book divides the figures of Highland history into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Low-landers, especially the kings of Scotland, are all ‘baddies’. So are the chiefly lines of the clans Campbell and Gordon – ‘bad’ because they were successful in seizing land and power from others. The Mackenzies, as imperialist in their great days as the Campbells, are allowed to be ‘goodies’, perhaps because of the mess they made of things in the 18th century, but also because of the opportunity for anecdotage provided by the Brahan seer. And presumably because Gordon is too widespread a surname to be totally denounced (it would discourage too many possible purchasers), there has to be a ‘goody’ strain of Gordon, the house of Haddo. Tourist Gordons can be expected to be hazy about their own descent and can identify with this instead of having to pick up the tag of ‘hereditary kleptomania’ which Dr Grimble attaches to the house of Huntly. Snobbery is encouraged by the implicit acceptance of the view that all the bearers of a name descend from eponymous heroes. This claim is made explicit for the MacLeods, but is left open for others. To heap up the gratification of snobbery, Dr Grimble does some simple arithmetic on the number of ancestors as family trees go back and states that ‘there is only a slim chance that any Scot does not possess more Stewart blood than the Queen.’ By the same appeal all Englishmen should insert King Alfred into their family tree. A further refinement of snobbery offered here is that of antiquity of language. The fact that Scottish Gaelic carries some archaic features is enlarged to give a picture of a static language, possessed of ‘the oldest literature in Europe after those of Greece and Rome’, a tongue in which literature was preserved unchanged by oral transmission, so that the Gaels of the early modern era could understand the works of their historic antiquity. As a mere historian I cannot pretend to be able to listen in to the oral transmission of earlier centuries, but written materials in Scottish Gaelic, which do not go back behind the 13th century, would not have been readily intelligible five centuries later to the small minority in the Highlands who could read. One European language did remain petrified over the centuries (except for its vowel sounds): Icelandic. This tongue did provide a direct route to a great literature – the Sagas – but it is the quality of the literature, not the degree of archaism, of which Icelanders can be proud. The surviving scraps of Scottish Gaelic are not comparable in quantity or quality.

The main theme of this book appears to be a grudging and sneering list of the wrongs done to Highland society by the outside world. Any institution that Dr Grimble presumes existed in, say, eighth-century Gaeldom should, he feels, have been left to survive as the basis of modern law. Because the succession of Malcolm Canmore altered the ancient and extremely unpeaceful system of royal succession by tanists, all the kings of Scotland from Canmore on, except for Donald Ban, are treated as usurpers. Worse, they can be seen as culturally foreign. ‘Since the time of Canmore,’ says one of Dr Grimble’s sillier sentences,‘the royal regime in Scotland has been neither more nor less English than that of London.’ A simple-minded belief that Scottish law is to be identified with what existed before Canmore, and English intrusion as everything that has prevailed since, enables him to decide between rival claims not only to the throne but to the various clan lands. The Gordons cannot be regarded as true chiefs because they pursued policies damaging to the Highlands. So Gordon titles are labelled ‘bogus’ in contrast to those of their rivals – for instance, the Mackays, whose titles are called ‘true’. Before assenting to such ready-made solutions to ancient legal issues the reader should remember Talleyrand’s smooth definition of ‘a traitor’ as ‘a matter of dates’, or Whately’s distinction between orthodoxy and heresy as ‘my doxy’ and ‘your doxy’.

The chiefs owned their lands, Dr Grimble seems to think, by male inheritance from some first ‘rightful’ settler. They and their culture were ‘Celtic’ because the word ‘Celtic’ is moved from its usual linguistic meaning to an ethnic one. At some points these mysterious Celts, Indo-Europeans presumably, and therefore incomers, are referred to as ‘aboriginal’ settlers, but that may be just part of the general inexactitude in the use of words.

Connoisseurs of phoney history will find a rich selection of different types here. There are some statements well-known to be false, such as the assertion that the Scots at the time of Bannockburn had no specimens of the big war horse capable of carrying an armoured knight. More often there are assertions which cannot be proved to be untrue but which no historian would accept without new evidence: an example of this is the claim, doubtless flattering to islanders, that the Book of Kells was written in Iona. Then there are basic historical misunderstandings. The author systematically refers to the Covenanters as ‘the Calvinists’ as if no one who opposed them held by Calvinism. An unusual scale of priorities is suggested by the description of the proposal made by Gordon of Gordonstoun that Highland dress be prohibited as one of ‘genocide’. An imaginatively anachronistic view of society is opened up by a sentence on James IV: ‘he would surely have listened sympathetically if the deposed Lord of the Isles had suggested the creation of a centre of Gaelic studies at any of Scotland’s three universities.’ There might with equal appropriateness have been departments of sociology and human genetics. And for historical reasoning, here is Dr Grimble on the settlement of Strathnaver: ‘it cannot be proved that the Mackays of Strathnaver came from Moray, but they must have come from somewhere, while the royal clan of Moray ... must have gone somewhere.’

Nowhere does this book attempt to answer the really interesting and important questions of Highland history. Because Dr Grimble, without any evidence, takes the clan as an institution back into the dark ages, he does not pay any serious attention to the when and why of its development. In fact, he never defines the institution, leaving the term available for surname groups in various parts of Scotland.He does not note the unusual nature of the Scottish emphasis on a structure of kin links on the male side only. He never asks when the lands occupied by a kinship group, or a clan, became in law the property of the chief: and by implying that the clan had been graciously allowed to settle on lands rightfully owned by its father figure, the chief, he inverts the probable sequence. He does not raise the questions appropriate to the appalling bloodthirsty disorder of the 16th century and early 17th century. Was this the result of the destruction of the Lordship of the Isles, or of population pressure? Or was it the result of religious divergence? The gap in an effective priesthood after the legal abolition of the old Church is given as the explanation for ‘the re-emergence of the witch cult’, but not for any more likely dislocation. Again, since Dr Grimble does not look carefully at the relationship between Highlands and Lowlands before the Reformation, he is unable to note its deterioration in the 17th century, when both cultures became hostile to the other. Nor does he try to locate the period when Highland population began to outrun subsistence. By taking as of general import a single late 18th-century comment on a particular harvest he denies that this ever happened. He does not, therefore, note that population growth was faster in the Highlands.

Why are so many of the books on Highland history so bad? For a society with great traditions of learning, and possessed of a powerful literary culture which has withstood economic disaster and religious extremist pressure, the history offered has been, so often, deplorable in its standards. It is not the least among the assaults on Highland culture.