Thursday, 3 June 2010

Reader review: The Highland Clans

Clare O’Brien reviews The Highland Clans by Alistair Moffatt.

By Clare O’Brien,

This excellent little book serves as an ideal introduction to the history of the Scottish Highlands and its clans. It addresses every important episode with poetic sensitivity and imagination, whilst never indulging in the kind of crass chocolate-box sentimentality that too often obscures the real story of the region.

Alistair Moffatt is also the author of Before Scotland, which explores the country’s geology and early settlement up to the end of Pictish supremacy in the 9th century. He covers a little of the same ground here, describing the emergence of the Highland landscape from under the vast snow spheres of the last Ice Age as the retreating glaciers carved out the familiar mountains, sea-lochs and rivers.

To an extent, Moffatt begins his history of the Highland clans at the end – with the rout of the Jacobites, who sought to restore the Stuart dynasty, at the battle of Culloden in April 1746. In a passage of great compassion and poetic power, he describes how the doomed clansmen summoned ‘the army of the dead’, evoking their lineage and the lands from which they had sprung to give strength to their purpose.

‘...the clansmen had stood quietly in their ranks and remembered who they were
and why they had come with the Prince to fight. Many men recited their
genealogy: Is mise mac Domhnaill, mac Iain, mac Iain Ruadh...... they needed to
remember them, to summon up all the memory of their people, all of their ancient
prowess, to come to the moor to fight beside them.’

Moffatt then retraces the long slow story which culminated in the destruction of the clan-based way of life, from the earliest Celtic settlers through resistance to Roman rule, to the so-called golden age of Somerled’s leadership of the Scottish Isles in the 12th century, and the Lords of the Isles, the nobles who descended from a series of mixed blood Viking/Gaelic leaders of the west coast and islands of Scotland in the Middle Ages.

The book provides some fascinating insights into the culture of the Highland clans. The early 17th-century bardic song which celebrates the drinking of a fallen warrior’s blood to preserve his spirit for generations to come, for example, must have seemed barbaric to an outside world fast placing its trust in Enlightenment philosophy and Renaissance politics. The author carefully charts the ascendancy of clan culture and its numerous internal rivalries, highlighting examples of English opportunism battening onto old feuds. One such example was William of Orange’s tacit support for the Massacre of Glencoe in February 1692 in an attempt to humble the pride of the ‘savages’ in the north.

The second part of the book, which traces the disintegration of the society that Moffatt described with such elegiac power, is particularly poignant. The familiar story of the evictions, clearances and political and cultural oppression suffered by the remnants of the clans in the aftermath of the battle of Culloden is movingly but simply told. One also senses a simmering anger in the author’s analysis of the bowdlerisation of Highland culture in the Victorian era, once the genuine threat from its people had been extinguished.

The book ends with an account of the diaspora, describing the territories settled by the Highlanders as well as how they later fought alongside the armies of their historical foes. Highlanders provided staunch cannon fodder in numerous colonial wars. Horrified by republicanism and unshakeable in their loyalty to notions of kingship, former Jacobite exiles from Skye and the west Highlands also fought for the Hanoverian monarchy in the American war of independence.

Throughout the book, Moffatt writes with his customary understanding of the power of landscape to shape human history, as well as a strong instinct for a good story, concisely but sensitively told.

Clare O'Brien is a retired teacher of History and English. She now works as a freelance writer.

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