Thursday, June 23, 2005

"Clearance denial"

Michael Fry, the right-wing Scottish historian was on Newsnight Scotland last night defending his thesis that much of the brutal history of the Highland Clearances has been exaggerated. He argues that much of the mythology stems from the seminal text by John Prebble , which he says, "caught a turn in Scottish psychology":
"Scotland was changing in its own mind from being a victor-nation, which had made a success of modernity, into a victim-nation, the hapless plaything of alien forces beyond its control. What better example than the Highlands, their fate foreshadowing the doom of the whole country? There a rich way of life had been destroyed to the cultural and material ruin of a noble race."
I'm not an expert on this period by any means and Fry's book hasn't come out yet but I think I'm unlikely to agree with it. While Fry is right to suggest that the idea of a uniformly brutal wave of evictions from the Highlands belongs to a mythology of moustache-twirling baddies, it is undoubtedly true that some were. Tom Devine is surely right to consider Fry's comparison of the Clearances with Glasgow's 1960s slum-clearance programme as "simple causitry".

Nevertheless, I was astonished that a distinguished historian like Prof. Devine went on to suggest the following:
"Devine...believes the Tory polemicist's contribution to the clearances could have far-reaching consequences.

"When the two extremes come together, such as the people who wanted the Duke of Sutherland monument destroyed, and figures such as Fry, you can see the possibility of a war that would make the debate on sectarianism tame by comparison," he says.
The idea that this sort of debate could ignite passions on the scale of an old firm game could be interpreted as a perverse form of optimism; Prof. Devine understands perfectly well that sectarianism isn't exactly fuelled by a good grasp of history on either side of the fence.

I confess I was surprised to learn that the composer James McMillan had come to Fry's defence because although I'm sure it's unfair of me, I never thought of him as having a particularly subtle take on Scottish history (he once described Scotland as "Belfast without the guns"; makes a valid point but a wild exaggeration, nonetheless). But in defending Fry, McMillan was making a righteous stand against some of the ludicrous attacks on him. In particular, McMillan singled-out the rather nasty Brian Wilson for his idiotic expression "Clearance Denial". Just in case the link with Holocaust denial wasn't obvious, Wilson also specifically mentions David Irving. McMillan went on:
"Fry's views represent a refreshing, revisionist challenge to the tired and hoary old myths so beloved of the complacent, self-obsessed Scottish Establishment.

"Fry deserves our encouragement and thirsty curiosity rather than an archetypically Scottish witch hunt with its attendant and predictable immaturity and hysteria."

He added: "The reaction to Fry's views has exposed a tyrannical intellectual agenda in Scotland which shames many of our academics. Fry has, worryingly, pointed to the effect that low academic standards are now having on Scottish Executive policy."

Scotland's academic community also receives the full force of MacMillan's anger. In particular, Professor Tom Devine is accused of attempting to ward off Fry by appealing to the "fear factor" in describing the Clearances as "potentially even more divisive than sectarianism".
The key point is in the first sentence: it's not that Fry is right (although please bear in mind that this book isn't even out yet); it's that this kind of debate is refreshing. And who doesn't agree that Scots academia could do with being refreshed?

Depressingly, no other Scottish historian was willing to give Mr. Fry the courtesy of rational disagreement on the programme last night - leaving the redoubtable Mike Russell to do the job instead. Mr. Russell accused Fry of trivialising the suffering of those who had to flee the Highlands and I would say that if the Glasgow slum-clearance comparison is a fair representation of Fry's book, then he's absolutely right. But I'll wait to read it for myself. And in the meantime, the charge of trivialising history more appropriately lies at the door of those who coined this ridiculous phrase, "Clearance denial".

This isn't, I have to say, the first time when people who aren't any kind of historians have slandered real historians. Enough witch-hunting, already...

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