To me, the land of my father’s ancestors; Suaineart (Sunart) – one of the most picturesque, idyllic regions in the Scottish Highlands has always been a place of mystique with a deep memory of shared ancestors and an extensive folklore. I have always held its native elders; my people, with much reverence and have made a concerted effort over the years to glean whatever information I could from these characters with whom I have such an affinity.
Amongst the stories I have picked up over the years are those of a greedy landed elite who were never hesitant to put their own financial gain and social standing within the British Imperial program in front of the welfare of the indigenous tenantry who were considered to be an inferior class of human. Their attachment to the ‘barbaric’, ‘backward’, ‘uncouth’ and ‘inferior’ Gaelic language and its culture defined them as something ‘other’, something ‘primitive’.
Improvement and education would of course include replacing their ‘backward’ tongue with that of progress, capital and Empire; the language of the English. This was often a brutal process whereby corporal punishment was issued to children who, attending school for the first time and having no previous grasp of the English language were often beaten. A process which continued up until only one generation ago. In fact my good friend Eòghann Beag who is just a little younger than myself can testify to his father having been subjected to this brutality all of around 50 years ago.
Think about that.. The brutalisation of an infant child as a response to their uttering of a single phrase in their native language.
Those teachers who dealt out this punishment however, were not landed elite upper class English as some would have us believe. These people were more often than not, born and raised as a certain class of Scot. Similarly, the landed gentry, as in the case of North Argyll were also of Scottish stock; the Riddell family who came to Sunart during the aftermath of the last rising against the Anglo-power base of Hanovarian Britain under the leadership of Teàrlach Òg Stiùbhart in 1745.
My own ancestors were amongst those who survived on the tiny crofts of Ath na h-Eilde and am Meinn (Scotstoun) in Strontian and they also toiled in the bowels of the earth in the lead mines of Coire an t-Sìth and beyond to try and keep their families fed. When Lady Riddell of Ardnamurchan realised she could see the crofter’s of lower Ath na h-Eilde and their unsightly small holdings from the window of her great house she ordered them to be removed.
This was only a small part of what was going on throughout the area. In Morvern, over the other side of Loch Sunart, whole townships were being cleared of their people to make way for the great sheep as the notorious Patrick Sellar set roofs to the flame filling leaky ships bound for the colonies with unwanted tenantry.
Perhaps on an even darker note, if one stands out in front of the Taigh Lunainneach (the Strontian Hotel) – there can be seen a stone sticking out of the ground with an iron hook protruding from the top. I was informed that this stone Clach a’ Pheanas (stone of punishment) is where restless natives who didn’t tow the line were chained up and flogged by their masters. I often wonder if any of my own ancestors were amongst those whose backs were scarred in this hell of oppression.
Some will say this was cruelty imposed by Scots on fellow Scots. However I contend that the question at hand is one of class and a different sense of nationhood. A native Gaelic peasantry with deep ties of kinship and loyalty to each other and their land being controlled, manipulated and often brutalised by an elite. An elite whose allegiances lay with the British establishment and its exploitation of not only their own tenantry, but the many colonised peoples of the world.
Many of this elite, like the Malcolms of Poltalloch for example made their fortune through the appalling inhuman philosophy that held the white race to be superior, earning the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds in today’s money for themselves through the slave trade. Coincidentally this same family held shares in the slate quarries of Ballachulish where in the mid 19th century, my ancestors were also being worked to the bone in inhumane conditions.
I often wonder why the British education system still won’t teach children that the Empire was founded on the slave trade and the brutalisation of indigenous peoples both here and in the colonies worldwide. Would unionism have such a hold in this part of the highlands if people were made aware of the fact that the many of the commanders who led the Hanovarian forces and killed off the cream of the highlands at Culloden went on to have leading roles in the expansion of the empire?
What if it was common knowledge that the commander who burned, looted and destroyed a whole way of life here in my home village of North Ballachulish (himself an Englishman) later went on to be celebrated for his role in the ethnic cleansing of the native population of Nova Scotia, Canada, offering a sizeable sum to anyone who could provide him with a native ‘scalp’.
Step forward a couple of hundred years to 2017 and the collective memory of the injustices experienced in Sunart seem to have all but disappeared. The program of cultural colonisation and the dispersal of the native people seems to have been a success.. Almost.
I recently attended, along with a talented piper and fluent Gaelic speaker; a relative of my own on the Skye side of my family – a ‘young farmers dance’ – having spent most of the afternoon calling in on friends in the area. Despite everything that has happened, Sron an t-Sìtheinn still boasts a handful of native Gaelic speakers who I am fortunate enough to have become good friends with over the years.
Also attending the dance however, were one or two lads who I have come to know over the years whose commitment and love for their fellow highlanders seems somewhat lacking (at least with a drink on board). In what, in fairness could be considered, ‘a bit of banter’ – I was accosted by one or two of these individuals for being ‘an SNP fanatic’ and a ‘Sturgeon lover’. I am prompted to note the sexist connotation of this particular phrase. God forbid a working class Scottish woman should have any say over the affairs of this country, never mind assert herself as a stateswoman of some note.
What I also found disturbing about this attempt at abusive banter was a stench of religious bigotry and I do believe this is the main catalyst for a strong anti-nationalist sentiment. The stink of attachment to football related sectarianism seeps through at every alcohol fuelled attempt at abuse here and considering the setting coupled with my own ancestral background within it, something seemed not quite right.
The truth is that the Tory party and Scottish Unionism in this part of the highlands represents to me, the remnant of an horrific chapter of man’s inhumanity to man. An attitude of unquestioning obedience to a ruling class who are more capable of controlling the affairs of this land and its people than its ‘backward’ natives.
Having spent my latter formative years living in Iochdar on the Island of South Uist, I have most certainly experienced a good old post cèilidh scrap or three and enjoy a bit of old style highland banter (as long as it doesn’t go over the score). But what disturbed me this time was that the numbskulls were targeting those in favour of Scottish Independance.
This is not an isolated event either. Throughout the past year I have been subjected to similar jargon most of which is repeated, parrot fashion straight from the pages of the unionist Scottish press. Every time I enter a discussion regarding Scottish independence with a staunch unionist the interaction becomes one that is intrinsically abusive. Hatred for individual politicians from the SNP gets spouted towards me and accusations of being racist and anti-English abound. Lack of trust, division and dare I say it, pure snobbery have started to become more evident and I have to say, I’m glad I am able to rise above it all and blast out a few tunes on the pipes rather than get involved in any kind of alcohol fuelled altercation.
Why the division? Why the lack of trust? Let’s have some faith in each other and our own abilities and quit turning to a system that has successively exploited this land and its people for hundreds of years for leadership. Do we really despise each other that much?
You don’t like Sturgeon? You don’t like Salmond? You believe the gutter press horror stories that come from our English owned newspapers? Fine.
But consider this. Once we get independence we can start to make a move towards working together instead of constantly criticising and accusing each other. Never before has the concept of ‘Divide and Conquer’ had such a direct impact upon my own life and it has become more prominent as the months and years go on.
This is the land of na Fianntaichean (the Fenians), of Fionn MacCumhail, of the clans, of our warrior ancestors. Of a people who brought Britain with its Imperial project of exploitation and oppression to its knees; from the rising of 1745 through to the land agitation movement of the 19th century. The land of a people whose respect and sense of ‘dùthchas’ – our belonging to each other and to the land was paramount in our everyday thinking.
Rise above the division and have some faith in each other and our own abilities as a people; as Gaels, as Scots, as members of the human race to make a better future for ourselves and the generations to come.
Reject the division, because at the end of the day, despite everything we have been through over the centuries it is this division and contempt that could actually finally destroy our integrity as a people.