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: