It was not always so empty. I have been accompanied by John Prebble's mournful account (1961) of the Highland Clearances. It is a depressing story of the triumph of economics over common humanity. This landscape was once the home of many thousands of people in small communities who scraped a poor but adequate living from the land of their chiefs. The book is an exhaustive account of how this ceased to be and the people replaced by sheep. It becomes painfully repetitious as the events of the Clearances in Ross-shire in 1792 are simply reiterated in different parts of the Highlands over the next seventy years in a pattern of greed, eviction, protest and famine or emigration. I don't propose to recite the details here as the outline is well known, but simply to note what strike me as the principal lessons .
The main beneficiaries of the Clearances were the great clan chiefs; the victims, in hundreds of thousands, their own followers. The chiefs were largely abetted by the ministers of the church. In other words, the people were betrayed by those to whom they were most entitled to look for protection.. In Sutherland for example, the clearance was for the benefit of the Countess of Sutherland and her English husband. She was her people's Ban Mhorair Chataibh, the Great Lady, but there is no evidence that she made any effort to restrain her husband's plans, or the machinations of his sanctimonious factor, James Loch. The noble couple, amongst the richest in Britain, lived among the social whirl of London, and rarely came to their distant holdings; and on the few occasions they did so were surrounded by placemen happy to tell them what they wanted to hear about the fate of their people.
But the particular irony of this, and its pertinence to this blog, is that the Clearances took place at a time when a new Scottish identity was being forged after the wreckage of Culloden. Thanks in no small part to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the middle and upper class wrapped themselves in tartan, summoned up the pipers and conjured a heritage for themselves which in the Highlands was being eviscerated at that very moment. For the noble Scotty Soldier who wandered far away in Kenneth McKellar's sentimental song did so because he had no choice if his family were not to be evicted or starved, and he frequently returned home to find that had happened anyway.
How did it come to pass that out of this brutal cataclysm the Scots built a romantic and unique identity? Because those who suffered most died or were driven out, and the loyalty bred over generations was used to blind or blackmail those who remained. Once again the working people were led to buy a pup because it was wrapped in a flag. From the Chuch and King riots of the 1790's in England to the sacrifices of all nations on the Western Front, to the apotheosis of Thatcher after the Falklands, there is nothing a politician likes better than to flourish the patriotic card. And Mrs May will do it again on 8th June.
Of course, Scottish identity may mean something different now (if a mere Welshman can speak to this subject). As we found at the last election, it means not only the kilt and football, but a commitment to communitarian and internationalist values, brought about in great part by the struggles of the industrial revolution. The current signs are that this may be dented in the next month, but hopefully not broken.
And the next great lesson of the Clearances? The justifications men give themselves for evil-doing. The first thing to remember if you wish to oppress a person or a people is to despise them for their supposed moral failings. The Highlanders were too backward, too profligate, too lazy, to be allowed to continue as they were. Like those today on Housing Benefit or Job Seeker's Allowance, they had it coming. And this was the view of their notional leaders, be it remembered. The destruction of their communities and way of life had its basis in moral superiority.
But then there was the economics. For as in most revolutions, there was, let it be admitted, a good economic case for change. Sheep on the land made five times more money than people, so the market demanded it. (GNP too, though the eighteenth century would not have expressed it thus.) No matter that it made the rich richer and the multitudinous poor poorer. And I hear a voice from the 1980's saying There is no alternative. Well there was, and is: to make those who benefit by change pay fairly towards it. Those turned off their ancestral lands were given plots, if they were lucky, where they could till a few potatoes in the seaweed. If that didn't satisfy, then it was Canada or the Army. For latter-day mining communities, there has been Incapacity Benefit and drug abuse. And now due to globalisation, we have fat cats at home and for the rest the biggest drop in real incomes for over seventy years.
But hey, cheer up, we can all be British and in this together!