Fàilte! (Welcome!)

Fàilte! (Welcome!)
This blog is the result of my ongoing research into the people, places and events that have shaped the Western Isles of Scotland and, in particular, the 'Siamese-twins' of Harris and Lewis.
My interest stems from the fact that my Grandfather was a Stornowegian and, until about four years ago, that was the sum total of my knowledge, both of him and of the land of his birth.
I cannot guarantee the accuracy of everything that I have written (not least because parts are, perhaps, pioneering) but I have done my best to check for any errors.
My family mainly lived along the shore of the Sound of Harris, from An-t-Ob and Srannda to Roghadal, but one family 'moved' to Direcleit in the Baighs...

©Copyright 2011 Peter Kerr All rights reserved

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Contempt, Sympathy and Romance - Krisztina Fenyo

I have been intending to write about Krisztina Fenyo’s book, Contempt, Sympathy and Romance, for several years and, in particular, to focus upon one particular nugget that it contains.

The book, subtitled Lowland Perceptions of the Highlands and the Clearances During the Famine Years, 1845-1855, is a scholarly (the book is essentially her PhD thesis of 1996) but extremely readable account of contemporary Scottish newspapers’ attitudes to Highlanders and Islanders during these turbulent and troubled years, attitudes which she categorises into the trio that gives her book its title.

However, it is a letter* written by Sir Charles Trevelyan in 1852 upon which I intend to focus, a letter in which he:

contemplated with satisfaction...the prospects of flights of Germans settling here in increasing number – an orderly, moral, industrious and frugal people, less foreign to us than the Irish or Scottish Celt, a congenial element which will readily assimilate with our body politic.” (Italics as in the quote in the book).

At this time Trevelyan was Chairman of the London Committee of the Highland and Island Emigration Society (HIES) which he co-founded with Sir John McNeill (** for links to previous pieces), publicly voicing the view that emigration benefited the emigrants themselves and was an economic necessity, but this quote clearly shows the racism underlying the removal of Gaels from Scotland. The Gaels weren’t being removed because of overpopulation but because they were deemed to be the wrong people to inhabit the Highlands and Islands!

Sir Charles Trevelyan’s ‘day job’ was Assistant Secretary to the Treasury and, in the climate of hostility to the Gael that Fenyo describes so brilliantly in her book, it is inconceivable that the attitude he so boldly elucidated in private wasn’t a core belief underlying his chairing of the HIES.

To have such a clear statement of an aim of ethnic-cleansing from such a senior civil servant in the mid-nineteenth Century is extraordinary but even today, as attempts are made to right the wrongs of the Clearances and repair the damage done, particularly in terms of Highlands and Islands depopulation, Gaelic language and culture remain under attack. 

I highly recommend reading Contempt, Sympathy and Romance and will end with these closing words from the book:

“In the mid-nineteenth Century, the Highland Gaels were viewed in many ways – from inferior race to picturesque and poetic heroes - but, with few exceptions, they were never seen as equal, fellow human beings.”

*Source: National Records of Scotland: HD4/2 Letterbook of HIES (2)
Trevelyan to Commissary-General Miller, 30 June 1852

**Sir John McNeill:

1 comment:

  1. But Trevelyan, of course had form, his role in the Irish Famine, though perhaps overdrawn by some historians, was certainly not one to be proud of. And here he is,still in post in 1852.

    Trevelyan's problem was an ability to convince himself that his decisions were based on the highest ethical principles and that opposition could only be based on stupidity or malice. An attitude not unknown of late