The Highland Clearances… coming to a suburb near you?

After promising a weekly blog, I posted on two successive Fridays, then skipped two Fridays and did a Monday. I started this one resolved to miss only one week, assuming I posted it by Friday, August 26th. Then I realized that I needed to do a lot of background research to write this piece, and that was not a realistic date. I did another review in the meantime, and now, here’s the piece I intended to run. Hopefully I’ll be back on a weekly track through the Fall.

I missed a few postings because I went to Scotland. It was an eight-day trip. We left on a Thursday, on a 10 PM flight. Which meant getting to Dulles International by 7 PM. Which meant leaving home about 5:30. We rolled in the door of our house a little after 7:30 PM the following Thursday.

But this isn’t a travelogue. I’m writing about one particular part of our trip, and how it got me thinking. What better part of a trip is there?

On the morning of the Glencoe Massacre, villagers, forewarned of the attack, crossed this treacherous mountain pass in search of a safe haven.

We went to the Highlands by bus from Edinburgh, ostensibly to see Loch Ness. Our guide for the charter was Rose, a Scottish National Storyteller (a seanchaidh, in Scottish Gaelic. The Internet disagrees, but she pronounced her calling “Sen.uh.shee”). It’s a prestigious title. I believe Rose said there are less than 100 of them. She has interned for 20 years, has just finished her 20 years of practice, and will now mentor for 20 years.

Rose took us through the highlands and told us stories of the locations we passed, in particular which Harry Potter films and which episodes of Outlander had incorporated them. She told us of the Glencoe massacre, when King William had ordered an entire village slain in revenge against a clan chief who had not sworn him an oath of fealty. Only the chief had sworn such an oath, a fact conveniently un-learned so that a village could be slain and an example made.

Dick move, Bill. And you know I’m an American, and we’re hot to rename things right now. That college a few miles south of me named after you and your queen? Maybe I should demand that it be renamed for someone who isn’t a mass murderer.

We passed the castle where Mary, Queen of Scots was born (and where Jamie was held in Wentworth Prison in Outlander), we passed Castle Doune, where much of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed. (Likewise Jamie’s ancestral home in Outlander.) We also passed near, I later realized, the estate where Monarch of the Glen, one of my favorite BBC TV series, was filmed. But Rose did not point it out, because I was the only passenger who shouted, “Aye,” when she polled the passengers on their favorite shows and movies filmed in the Highlands.

But the location that got me thinking was not a castle, nor a loch (lake) so deep that it might, in fact, hide a sea creature thought extinct for millennia. It was a bunch of hills covered in scrabby pine trees and sheep.

Rose told us about The Clearances, a program carried out by the bloody English (her words) from 1748 until 1856. The English government, which controlled Scotland, cleared these spaces of both people and trees, leaving them unfit to do anything but feed sheep, damaging the environment and resulting in what Rose said was, in fact, ethnic cleansing. I thought she said that the population of Scotland dwindled over about a hundred years from 50 million to 5 million. Maybe she didn’t say that. In any event, one of us was mistaken. The estimated loss of population was 150,000, and that was a loss to the Highlands, not to all of Scotland. In fact, Scotland’s overall population is shown to have increased during this time. A lot of that number moved to the coastal areas and later took up kelp farming.

Why did they leave? It’s pretty complicated, but, basically, the Crown ended the traditional Scottish clan system and flattened feudalism so that every citizen owed allegiance, not to the clan chief, but to the King. The tenants and sub-tenants thus became a less valuable asset to the lairds, who now owed far greater taxes to the Crown. So, not only did rents go up, but it was found to be more profitable to keep sheep on the land than tenants. Houses were literally set afire to clear out people and create grazing room. Millions of acres and tens of thousands of crofters were “cleared” in the 18-teens alone.

I was struck by the parallels to the Reconstruction Era in America. Although plantation owners may have dealt more harshly with African-descended slaves, they were just as dependent on the people who occupied their land for their livelihood. That system was likewise ended by decree from a (to the Confederates) foreign government, and the former valuable assets were driven off and left in poverty. Yes, they were technically freed as well, but history says it took a long time for many of them to reap the benefits of freedom, and some would argue a lot of their descendants still have not.

Because of the Clearances, Scotland was mired in poverty, unemployment and economic and social ruin.

But what really got me thinking was that Rose said that two things saved Scotland and built it up to the much stronger state in which it exists today. Those two things were socialism and the Enlightenment.

Now, I had to pause when she said that. I had, until that moment, considered principles of socialism and the philosophy of the Enlightenment to be mutually exclusive.

Socialism, after all, is a collectivist system, in which a theoretical entity called “society” owns property and the means of production, and individual people are provided for by society. The plus of socialism, I think its proponents would argue, is that it is inherently compassionate. Socialists care about people and believe that ensuring that every person has a minimum standard of living is the primary task of government.

But, as it is collectivist, I would say that socialism devalues people. That is, it devalues the individual. It cares about people as a concept, not as, well, people. It denies them or limits for them the opportunity to own property and profit by their labors. It reserves the right to determine when you have “enough” of anything. Some would say, and I’m one of them, that it has turned our public schools from places of education to centers for social change.

But Rose, speaking for her home country, said, “We like a little socialism with our politics.”

My personal observation is that, in Scotland’s case, socialism seems to be largely characterized by a national health care system (with which I have no experience) and strong control of public services like transportation and trash collection by labor unions. Those I did experience. The streets of Edinburgh were filled with uncollected trash bags due to a strike, and the tram did not run to the airport the day we left, for the same reason. Evidence that socialism in Scotland is not anti-private property is the fact that there is still a lot of land dominated by large homes, small hotels, and villages alive with commerce.

And the Enlightenment? It was about individual liberty and religious tolerance and the questioning of orthodoxy, the rejection of absolute monarch, the use of the scientific method, and the improvement of society at large. It’s considered, at least by Wikipedia, the root philosophy of liberalism (no relation to the people we call “liberals” today). The principles of the Enlightenment, which advised the founding of the United States, live on to this day.

The Western Enlightenment is considered to have ended in 1804 with the death of Immanuel Kant—well before The Clearances were over. But the Scottish Enlightenment extended well into the 19th Century, resulting in a network of parish schools and five universities, the philosophy of Utilitarianism, and Scottish Common Sense Realism. Also, Rose told us, it led to feeding the hungry, finding jobs, fixing up buildings, and building more housing.

So why do I consider the socialism and the Enlightenment to be on differing ends of the philosophical spectrum? Well, largely because I’ve read condemnation of Enlightenment values in articles written by people I considered to be socialists. Okay, okay, I know. When people like me say, “socialist,” a lot of you hear echoes of Joe McCarthy. Conservatives and libertarians overuse the word to mean, “anyone we disagree with.” You know, the way progressives use “fascist.”

I don’t want to fall into that trap, so I looked for documentation of people on the political left who criticize or reject Enlightenment values. I found the granddaddy of them all in the late Max Horkheimer. Horkheimer is one of the founders of Critical Theory, which spawned modern Critical Race theory. And, yes, Critical Race Theory is another term that the right is accused of over-using as an umbrella term. But facts are facts. Horkheimer was influenced by socialism, he helped parent CRT, and he did have some pretty unpleasant things to say about the Enlightenment.

His discipline’s socialist leanings are confirmed by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“‘Critical Theory’ in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School.” The same source goes on to document his collectivist bent: “The freedom of real individuals can only be thought of in a holistic way, ‘in the resultant web of relationships with the social totality and with nature.’”

As to the Enlightenment, he wrote a whole book on the subject, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, arguing essentially that it was Enlightenment values of progress and education which set Western ideals on a philosophical pinnacle, convincing the bulk of the world’s population that Westerners were superior to everyone else, and thus making racism a keystone in all that was subsequently built. Even rationality and the scientific method were tools of racism and oppression, rather than instruments of liberation and the improvement of the human condition. Modern pundits follow directly in his footsteps, as evidenced in articles by Peter Harrison, Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland, and Jamelle Bouie, columnist for The New York Times and chief political correspondent for

Socialism may be distinct from CRT, but they are intellectual siblings. It was, therefore, refreshing to hear Rose, who approves of socialism in her country, speak of the benefits of the Enlightenment, and how a commitment to reason, rationality, science, education and individual freedom brought relief of suffering to countless Scottish citizens during a desperate time.

I won’t outright disagree with her about whether socialism does or does not work in her country. I will say that I don’t think what works in the homogenous culture of Scotland will work in the huge, diverse collection of races, religions, political philosophies and just plan rugged individuals we have in the United States. I will also say that, when the king’s policy causes people to be thrown out of their homes to benefit a fortunate few, that is not my definition of capitalism. I would call that crony capitalism, and it is alive and well in the United States.

In my own Howard County, we are going through an election in which the incumbent is accused of making back-room deals to sell public property like Old Ellicott City’s historic courthouse to deep-pocketed friends. Indeed, this same incumbent, who strongly backed campaign finance reform, and helped develop a system whereby a candidate could receive substantial funding from the County if he or she agreed to take no more than $250 from any donor, and to take no money from corporations of political entities, has declined to participate in this reformed system. Instead, he has taken in excess of $600,000 from developers and special interests. All the while, his political mentors are invested in corporations which are turning Jim Rouse’s planned community of Columbia into just another high-density, high-crime, but most of all high-dollar investment opportunity for the oligarchy.

To this crew, as to the kings and lairds who cleared the Highlands, people are valuable assets only if they deliver power. In Scotland, people brought military might to the clans. In Howard County, people bring their votes to our new feudal chiefs, and they are only valuable as long as they do. But as long as they do, and do so in ignorance, they increase the chance that Howard County’s formerly rural lands may soon be fit for not much more than grazing sheep.

In case you were wondering, the incumbent of whom I speak is Calvin Ball. If you vote for him, you are, to me, the philosophical and moral heir of King William.

And that’s what I thought about, looking at some of the less beautiful parts of Scotland’s beautiful Highlands.

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