At the end of the 18th century, wealthy landlords, both Scottish and English, looked upon the indigenous peoples of the Scottish Highlands and saw a backward, rustic, simple society of barefoot laborers eking out a rudimentary existence on small plots called crofts.
These crofters utilized enough land to provide for themselves and their immediate communities with very limited export of cattle. Most were Gaelic speakers. Most did not have the English language and even worse (in the landlords’ eyes), most were Catholics. To the civilized outsiders, these people were heathens. In the opinion of their betters, they required improvement.
Of course, these people didn’t ask for improvement. In fact, unseen to the outsider who had no eyes to see it, Highland culture was extraordinarily sophisticated and rich in tradition. For a thousand years, the deep knowledge of the clans was captured and transferred across generations by bards held in the highest esteem. These ancient stories, crafted in prose, poetry and song were reinterpreted by successive poets and singers, many of which were already in print by the turn of the century and many more of which have been discovered since.
The Irish playwright Brian Friel has given us a window into this world in his deeply moving and exquisitely fragile masterpiece, “Translations.” His play is set at about the same time, during the Napoleonic Wars, depicting the depredations inflicted upon the Irish inhabiting the most western Celtic fringe of Ireland — a place, like the Scottish Highlands, where English was rarely spoken and the people therefore seen as primitives by those who did not know or care to know about them or their culture.
One can spend days poring over the high-minded justifications written and published by landlords, their minions, their lawyers, their estate agents, their “factors,” their sheriffs and their clergy-for-hire.
The message, in all its permutations, in all its legalistic and religious variations was this: “You people are living in misery, squalor, poverty and ignorance. It is our mission to save you. We will improve your lives.” Then, with one hand controlling the law and the other the banks, they proceeded to do just that. And the improvement was brutal.
Between the last decade of the 18th century and the hundred years that followed, nearly the entire population of the Scottish Highlands was forcibly cleared from the land to make room for sheep. This was the real reason the lives of these backward people needed improving: Money, lots and lots of it.
The cost of wool had been steadily climbing from the middle of the 18th century, spurred by Europe’s population explosion and exacerbated by continental wars that disrupted trade. Herds of grazing sheep need massive amounts of open land.
By the end of the 18th century, the open land in England and the lowlands of Scotland had already reached their carrying capacity for the grazing of sheep. The only place left was the Highlands. The people were in the way. They had to be moved out in the name of progress.
Progress was all the rage in Enlightenment Scotland, which created the perfect storm for the primitives who stood in its path. Their lives were “improved” by clearing them off their ancestral lands, relocating entire villages to the coast to learn how to fish (which they had never before done) or to the big cities of Glasgow or Manchester (where they would become Karl Marx’s proletarian factory workers) or to emigrant ships bound for North America. Many perished at sea.
The people at the top of this particular food chain, the Duke of Sutherland and his royal cronies, were among the very richest people in Europe. Right beneath the surface of their sanctimonious church-endorsed, government-backed plans for the improvement and resettlement of the Highland clans was the prospect of vast profits. Once the barefoot Celts boarded the wooden ships and set sail across the Atlantic, their “improvement” a fait accompli, the sheep poured in and the bank accounts swelled.
By coincidence, I’ve been preparing a motion-picture set among these very events, based on the powerful novel “Consider the Lilies” by Iain Crighton Smith. This is why it was that I immediately recognized these words when I saw them in print in the Sunday Washington Post on June 8:
“This tiny town . . . was literally going in the opposite direction . . . It was hollow . . . it was vacant . . . it was empty . . . there was no pulse.”
And just like the propagandists of the 18th century, who used almost identical language, behind the high-minded rhetoric of improvement is always the price of wool.