Listening to the past... Nov 15, 2006 9:45:05 GMT -5
Post by on Nov 15, 2006 9:45:05 GMT -5
“Thou are working thy own ruin, believe me, fellow, for if thou does any more work, thou will regret it when it is too late. Take my word, fellow, drop working in my house, for if thou does not, mark my word, fellow, if thou takes another shovelful, mark my work thou will have six of thy cattle dying in thy corn-yard at one time. And if thou goes on doing any more work, fellow - mark my word, fellow, thou will then have six funerals from the house, fellow; does thou mark my words, good day, fellow.”“
In 1911, it was reported that a farmer had begun to dig into a prehistoric mound, only to be interrupted by ‘an old, grey-whiskered man dressed in an old, gray, tattered suit of clothes’ who whispered dread consequences if he did not desist” ~ Alastair Moffat, Before Scotland
Little by little, even as the Church made its way into the hills and glens of Scotland, the wonder tales of Gods and Goddesses began to change. The tale of Angus-Ever-Young and Bride is a good example. Once, Beira was thought the Queen of Winter and in complete control of the elements. Only Bride and Angus could overtake her in Springtime. Once the Church took hold, such beliefs were consigned to folk tales and Bride became a Saint, the same fate of Brigid in Ireland. Such pagan beliefs were no longer considered acceptable by the Church, unless the deities, too, were converted. Even so, these tales are still told in the Highlands.
There was, at the same time, a slow and steady path toward Scotland’s complete annexation by England and it is this that changed the Celtic culture in Scotland forever. Those living in the lowlands of Scotland were closer in distance and thinking to their English neighbors. By the 18th century, they had forgone the pastoral and simplistic lifestyle of the highland clans for a more ‘Anglicized’ way of life.
England’s hold on the Scots, particularly the highlanders, was a tenuous one at best from the beginning. Independent, Gaelic-speaking and fiercely loyal to their clans and lairds, the highlanders were seen as slovenly, lazy and dishonorable by the English and the lowland Scots loyal to the English crown. Still, England had a difficult time subduing the rebellions, resulting in the final uprising of 1746. A final stand was made on the Field of Culloden on April 16, Bonnie Prince Charlie fled and it was the highlanders who were defeated at Culloden.
Following Culloden, where 1,200 highlanders were killed, those still living were executed on the field, jailed for treason or sent into slavery. Following the battle, the English government seized the lands of the Highland rebels and passed the Act of Proscription, banning the wearing of the clans’ tartans, the playing of bagpipes, the right to bear arms, any gathering of Highland people and the teaching of the Gaelic language. The Celtic culture and way of life was to be exterminated. This period has become known as the ‘time of gray’, because the traditional colors of the clans were forbidden.
In addition to the Proscription, a provision was offered that the tartan could be worn by joining Scottish regiments of the British Army. Given that those who did not submit to the Proscription would forfeit their lands, there was little choice in the matter. As Steve Blamires states in “The Highland Clearances – An introduction”, “this was the final nail in the coffin of the clan system and way of life.” It was not, however, the end of the burial.
In his book, 'The Making of the Crofting Community', J. Hunter wrote, “Many chiefs were as at home in Edinburgh or Paris as they were in the Highlands, and French and English rolled off their tongue as easily as – perhaps more easily than – Gaelic. While away from his clan moreover the typical chief, conscious since childhood of his immensely aristocratic status in the Highland society whence he came, felt obligated to emulate or even surpass, the lifestyle of the courtiers and nobles with whom he mingled. And it was at this point that the 18thcentury chief’s two roles came into irreconcilable conflict with one another.” How would he reconcile his need for more money with his role as chief to a clan who could not provide the funds?
With the Act of Proscription repealed in 1782, little changed for the highlander clans. Many were illiterate, clan chiefs were absentee landlords and Gaelic had not been taught for a generation; as it was now considered by many to be for the inferior classes. Was this the end of the Celtic culture and the speaking of Gaelic in Scotland? This was not even the end of the tragedies She faced.
Because the demand for wool had risen suddenly, landlords now found a means to raise the funds they needed. Simply, they could replace their tenant farmers with sheep. According to Blamires, “On average, one shepherd took up as much land as had been worked by 12-16 families (roughly 80 people)… In 1800, there had been 355,700 indigenous Highland sheep farmed in Argyllshire, Inverness, Caithness and Sutherland. By 1880 the number had risen to over 2 million, nearly all of them imported hybrid Cheviots.”
In Gaelic, the word ‘clan’ means ‘family.’ The chieftain was seen as a father, protector and provider for his clan. Now, however, they held the legal right to evict. They had the right to oversee who got married and who did not, sometimes a very effective way of paring down tenants. While the landlords of the day called these acts “The Improvements”, history records them as “The Clearances.”
It is a long, detailed and troubling account to study the acts of The Clearances. This is not England alone pitted against Scotland. That would have been terrible enough. But, these chieftains and lairds were some of Her own as well, using barbaric and cruel methods to rid the land of its people. Even the Church of Scotland participated, telling those evicted it was God’s Will. When the people formed the Free Church of Scotland, they were then forbidden to give a minister of said church shelter or refreshment. And, they were expressly forbidden from building Free Churches on their new lands. (see the Blamires article). Some cleared Highlanders were even sold into slavery in the United States, with the money filling Church pockets.
When wool prices fell, deer replaced sheep as the bounty of the Highlands. Hunting was in favor with the royal court, while starving tenants could not hunt a single one. This, while the court of Queen Victoria began the romanticization of Highland culture. New passions such as Highland Games and Highland dancing became popular pasttimes among the wealthy English, along with the charming images of fairies and druids that persist to this day.
Bound and tossed onto ships, homes burned so they could not return, these stories are a horrible reminder of the extent of one man’s cruelty against another. Nature, too, did her share. A famine struck in 1836. Those who were lucky enough to claim Relief from their parish ministers were told the following year that amount much then be added to due rents. Then, in 1846-1847, the potato blight so infamous for the emigration of the Irish to America also struck Scotland. It was suggested by one man of the cloth that nothing should be done as this was “God’s pleasure” and had been place on the Highlanders because of “their sin.” (Blasmire).
People left the Highlands for the cities and distant lands, as always happens at such times. They took their culture with them but it was a culture much changed by the years of oppression they’d suffered. Few even knew the language of their ancestors. What would become of the Celtic culture as a result?
Even in the last few decades, there are signs of a continuing oppression of the Celtic culture in the Highlands. In 1976, crofters (tenants) were given the right to purchase their croft, at 15 times their controlled rent fee. In 1991, they were given the right to plant trees on their land. And, in 1993, on the Isle of Arran, two farmers were evicted to make room for more deer. A Sheik from Dubai, that same year, charged tenants with poaching, in order that their homes could be bulldozed. To this day, the story of The Clearances is not taught in schools, even in the Highlands.
In tracing the history of the Celts in Scotland, I am reminded of the Native Americans. As it is said, history is written by those who win and so it was here. Only in the 1970’s, did the Native Americans begin to have their history with the white settlers told from a more realistic perspective. Even as they kept every treaty they ever made and even as the white man broke every one of those same treaties, the Native Americans began to disappear from their native lands. The government, distant and detached, took away their clothing, their music, their lands, their culture and their very language. What the government could not kill, they suffocated. What they could not destroy, they demonized.
I was also amazed at the similarities between the Native American cultures and that of the Celts. Honoring the ancestors, not owning the land one lives upon, tribal (clan) communities, and the very hospitality that was the downfall of a proud people. After all, Blasmire points out, “…so strong was the tradition of hospitality amongst these gentle people that it was not unknown for the family about to be turned out and have their house destroyed to offer the Clearance gangs refreshment before they started their work.”
So strong a tradition in so gentle a people… surely, that cannot be forever destroyed. The history of the Celts in Scotland is, even today, being written. There are, today, movements beginning to bring the culture back where it belongs. She is slowly winning Her independence from England. Discussions, essays, books and websites are bringing not only the past to light but offering opportunities to learn the Gaelic languages and, in turn, to study the culture that surrounds them.
No one culprit can be blamed for the near-annihilation of the Celtic culture and Gaelic language in Scotland. Her lowland families abandoned such ways long ago. England played Her bloody part. Even some Highland chiefs and the Church had a hand in it. Emigration and assimilation into other cultures continues. A culture and language which flourished for more than two thousand years was undone in less than three hundred.
I began this essay with the intent to learn a timeline of events of a land I thought I knew. Instead, I found a vibrant culture I never really understood, supported by a language I wish desperately to learn. I thought I knew the Scotland of my romantic dreams and, I confess, I still love a man in a kilt. But, now, I hear Her heart beat a bit faster when the bagpipes wail, right along with mine.
While the proud people of Scotland would certainly not have called themselves ‘Celtic’, it may be the very modern Celtic movement that leads to the rebirth of Gaelic and the culture it supported. Perhaps its time we listened to the past…in order to preserve the future.