- Title: Flight of the Highlanders
- Author: Ken McGoogan
- Genre: Non-fiction
- Publisher: HarperCollins Canada
- Pages: 368
How much Scottish/Canadian history is enough? For enthusiasts of it, as for enthusiasts of Scotch whisky, there is never enough. With this volume, genial author Ken McGoogan takes his third run at Scots history. First came How the Scots Invented Canada in 2010, followed by Celtic Lightning: How the Scots and the Irish Created a Canadian Nation, in 2015. A popular historian in the Pierre Berton model (he once won the Pierre Berton Award), McGoogan is like a tour guide to his material, ever engaging and with an eye for descriptive detail.
So why has McGoogan come at the story again? He writes that the Highland Scots who were driven off their traditional lands should be looked at through the lens of history as refugees, and he goes a long way toward supporting this thesis by his demonstration of what they suffered.
He starts with the misbegotten Battle of Culloden in 1746, when the British army beat Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” in his challenge to the throne. The army then went on to savage the highlands, killing wounded soldiers and visiting misery upon all the losers. Subsequent legislation stripped the highland chiefs of their much of their power and in effect broke a social bond between landlord “owners” and tenant cottars (farmers).
Over the next century in various waves, landlords brutally drove off tens of thousands of cottars in order to clear the land for sheep, which returned higher profit. McGoogan illuminates this general history with many individual stories. For example, in 1853 we are told the “tough-minded” widow Josephine Macdonell wanted to ship her tenants to Australia or Canada. She had the houses of the unwilling destroyed to the wailing of women and children. Some hid out, but the marauders came back again and again. A certain Mrs. Mackinnon, pregnant, gave birth prematurely, and old Archibald MacIsaac could find shelter nowhere but by a ditch.
The cruel vignette summarized above is repeated again and again in variations this book: a woman is clubbed to death; another is kicked in the face with hobnailed boots. We have a welter of names and dates and atrocities great and small, as gangs of constables or toughs of various kinds perform the savage deeds for the landlords. So many abuses are detailed that the mind reels somewhere between sympathy and despair.
McGoogan walks us through all this as he visits many of the places he describes. He explains the lost old culture of life in “blackhouses” (because of the peat fires burned inside) and village and farm life. He explains the occupation of gathering kelp, a cold and badly paid type of work that impoverished highlanders undertook for want of anything better. He shows us photographs of himself or his wife standing beside cairns and ruins that mark the melancholy loss of a “better” rural order destroyed by some version of capitalism. Through much of the book, McGoogan not only admires the old ways of life but quotes some old-fashioned language as well, as the highlanders are “brave-hearted” or “indomitable” while landlords show “callous indifference.”
The stories become more pointed after these dispossessed highlanders come to Canada in their terrible “coffin ships.” Some had gone first to the United States, but they tended to be Loyalists, so they might find themselves driven off the land in the U.S. in a fashion similar to what happened to them in the highlands.
Many settled, unsurprisingly, on Cape Breton Island in the new Scotland of Nova Scotia, but the land was poor there and it was difficult to make a living until much later, with the discovery of the coal mines, which gave employment for better or worse.
Some settled in Southern Ontario, where Colonel Thomas Talbot established a settlement that sounds as if it was rather successful. Talbot himself played fast and loose with records and taxes, acting high-handedly in a way that was permissible when his friends, the old Family Compact, ruled Upper Canada. Far worse was the settlement run by Archibald McNab up by the Ottawa River. There the despot pretended he owned all the land himself rather than held it for settlement, and he acted like a vindictive tyrant until he was finally driven away.
The third example of settlement is a tragic one because the highlanders moved to the Red River settlement, which put them into conflict with the Métis and the Indigenous people who were already there. Tensions escalated until 1816 when 20 died in what some called the Seven Oaks Massacre and others La Victoire de la Grenouillère.
Just as not everyone is an enthusiast for Scotch whisky, so not everyone will crave all the detail about the Scots in this book, but it is a volume that rewards dipping into, preferably before a fire with a glass in hand. McGoogan is an amiable companion to have with you there.
Antanas Sileika’s most recent novel is called Provisionally Yours.
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