Hunter, James: A Dance Called America

The proposer of “A Dance Called America” (1994) is well-versed in history. At Edinburgh University he read Scottish and American history. His interest in this particular book was sparked during a visit last summer to the US and eastern Canada, particularly Quebec and Nova Scotia (Quebec City, Cape Breton Island, Fortress Louisburg and Halifax). He read the book during his travels.

The author of this month’s book, James Hunter, is a Highlander by birth and residence, and has written a few books on Highland-related subjects. Our proposer gave a brief résumé of Hunter’s output and life. There are about 14 books.  “Last of the Free” is an excellent history of Scotland from the ‘Highland viewpoint’.  The author tends to view the Lowland Scots much in the same way as Lowland Scots view the English, i.e. aggressive centralisers. He is a well-kent face in the Highlands and formerly the Chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise.  One of our members recalled that in this role he had a major influence on the “Fresh Talent” proposal to encourage immigration into Scotland, and had a vision of the Highlands being repopulated.

This book is an account of those Highlanders who emigrated to North America. It complements another book we have been reading lately, the novel by Neil Gunn The Silver Darlings.

Our proposer donned his historian’s cap and reminded us of the context of Highland emigration. Until the Union of 1707 Scots were unable legally to go to England’s American colonies. Early Scots emigration did occur, to America (e.g. Georgia), but a trickle became a flood after the collapse of traditional clan system following the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

Outline of the chapters

Chapters 2 and 4 discuss the Highlanders who went to what became the US. Those who had supported the Stuarts in 1745 mainly supported King George in 1775. The author makes a parallel with the French Canadians who supported the British both in 1775 and 1812. Indeed many of the Highlanders who were on the losing side in the American Revolution made their way to the surviving British colonies in Canada.

Many of Highland descent remained in the USA. A diversion is the way the whites in the South, whether of Scottish descent or not, have emphasised their Celtic heritage. Celtic South has a long pedigree. Mark Twain said Walter Scott caused the War Between the States.  Now that overt racism is out, a lot of Southerners have hit on something to which blacks cannot belong. Tying Southern history into Scottish history enables an emphasis on the heroic and romantic elements without the politically incorrect baggage of slavery.

Chapter 3 deals with the Highlanders’ military contribution to the defeat of the French in Canada. General Wolfe’s infamous quote probably sums up the initial English view:    “They are hardy, intrepid and no great mischief if they fall.”   But the British Government needed troops able to operate in N America and the Highlanders fitted the bill, thus launching a military tradition. Clan tradition and solidarity has been a very important part of regimental esprit de corps.  The victory of the Highlanders in Canada elevated their reputation amongst the English and Lowland Scot for ever. Somehow, Scots now identified with the British Empire.

Chapter 5 deals with the emotive topic of the mass evictions/ clearances on Highland estates. The author’s analysis of the emotional and controversial subject of the Highland Clearances is balanced and persuasive. Our proposer had visited the Hector in Pictou, Nova Scotia, a replica of the ship that brought the first Highlanders to Nova Scotia in 1773. A good point made by the author is that conditions on the emigrant ships were no better than on slave ships. Indeed emigrants paid in advance. Money for slaves was paid on arrival, so some have argued there were better conditions on ships for slaves. He also makes the important point that Highlander emigrants in the 19th century were much poorer than their predecessors in the 18th century. Nonetheless, as he makes clear, the emigrants considered they were better off in Canada than in Scotland, in particular through being in charge of their own destinies. Even so, farming small crofts – whether in Scotland or Cape Breton – has not for many years provided an acceptable standard of living.

Chapter 6 deals with Cape Breton Island. Our proposer reported this as being a fascinating place, with many familiar Scottish surnames including his own. It has a Gaelic College and much Celtic music (and festivals). Signs are often in Gaelic. In the 1930s there were as many Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton as in Scotland, but the inexorable advance of English has much reduced the number (read Alistair Macleod’s great novel No Great Mischief).

 Chapter 7 deals with the fur trade and the exploration of Western Canada, and the Highlanders’ role in it. The North West Company was a Highland family business.

 Chapter 8 deals with the Sutherland clearance in Kildonan, and how many of the cleared Highlanders went to the Red River from Thurso via Hudsons Bay.  Others of course stayed in Sutherland, and turned to herring fishing.

 Chapter 9 describes the contribution of various Scots (in particular John Macdonald) in the bringing together of the various provinces within Canada to form a Federation. Undoubtedly this was motivated in part by the fear of USA territorial ambitions. The Canadian Pacific railway was vital to the Canadian national identity. Highlanders made an immense contribution to it.  Whereas it would be a wild exaggeration to claim Canada as a Scottish Highland creation, they certainly played an important role. Perhaps as the author is writing about the Highlanders’ contribution, a somewhat unbalanced picture emerged.

 What we discussed

The title of the book is strange. It comes from James Boswell’s Journal of 1773. He describes a whirling dance coming from Skye, presumably invented to represent the emigration to America. They call the dance, America. Later, in the 1980s, the Celtic rock band from Skye wrote the song Dance called America.

The landlords came
The peasant trials
To sacrifice of men
Through the past and that quite darkly
The presence once again
In the name of capital
Improvers, it’s a name
The hidden truths
The hidden lies
That once nailed you
To the pain

Not all of us are as familiar with Scottish history as our proposer!

One of our members, unable to attend, sent an enthusiastic set of comments: “I found almost all of it riveting. The militias in the US in the eighteenth century were of course particularly absorbing for me given my military history interests”.

But some of us thought the book was ‘heavy going’, with so many clan names, place-names and dates. We would have liked a few maps (Scotland and N America) to show where the places were. Perhaps some statistics on the numbers emigrating could have been given. One of our members complained of having to use Wikipedia to follow the narrative. It was in that encyclopaedia that I found the following remarkable factoid:

 “According to the 2001 Census of Canada, the number of Canadians claiming full or partial Scottish descent is 5,219,850 ”.

That is about the same as Scotland’s own population, and hugely more than the present-day Highland population. Of course, there are Highland diaspora all over the world, and plenty in the USA. But can we be given some data?  Or perhaps a Table to show the chronology? Other books about Scottish history have been more helpful in this regard  (Prebble’s Highland Clearances, Smout’s History of the Scottish People).

Probably, one needs to be a Highlander oneself or a historian from the Lowlands to enjoy this book without ‘further study’. If, like your humble scribe, you are English (!) then this book is an uphill struggle, although one undoubtedly learns a lot, and in the end it is a satisfying read. But Prebble and Smout write for audiences anywhere.

We discussed the Highland Clearances at some length. We English (of whom I was the only representative this month), may well be ‘aggressive centralisers’ and we do feel a little uncomfortable discussing the sins of our forefathers, especially in Scottish or Irish company. Interestingly, I found my Scottish friends (Lowlanders all, I think) also sensitive on matters to do with the Clearances.

In his enthusiasm for all things Highlander, we thought Hunter had not always been fair to Lowlanders and the English. Our member who could not be with us expressed it thus:

The Glencoe massacre was portrayed as English imperialism rather than yet

another internecine clan horror – in his world Highlanders don’t slaughter

each other. He applauds Highlanders finding jobs for their nephews and

cousins as admirable clan solidarity, while others might see this as nepotism (which I can vouch is rife to this day in the Gaelic speaking world). However, it was in his favour that his more sentimental or emotional points were generally then qualified by a more rational appraisal”.

It is difficult to imagine the living conditions in the Highlands at the time when the Scottish Enlightenment was in full swing in the Lowlands, and the Industrial Revolution was well underway throughout Europe. These huge cultural and social movements had touched the Highlands only inasmuch as they created demand for product such as herrings and kelp, and then sheep.

Prebble’s book may have exaggerated the level of oppression associated with the Clearances, with its focus on the ‘Year of the Burnings’ (1814) and the single incident at Strathnaver in which Patrick Sellar the factor to the Sutherland family torched dwellings, sometimes whilst people were still inside them. It rapidly became a cause célèbre partly because of the literary skill of one Donald Macleod, a stonemaker from Strathnaver, who later emigrated to Canada and wrote passionately about the incident. The author confronts us with these words, written by Richard Hugo an American poet who lived in Uig for a few months:

Lord, it took no more than a wave of a glove,

A nod of the head over tea. People were torn from their crofts

And herded aboard, their land turned over to sheep.

They sailed. They wept.

The sea said nothing and said I’ll get even.

Their last look at Skye lasted one hour. Then fog.

But clearances were not confined to Scotland. They occurred earlier in England during the British Agricultural Revolution. And much of all social change during the Industrial Revolution has the same ingredients: a nod of the head, people losing livelihoods, violence, long-lasting resentment and then sadness.

It is impossible to visit the Highlands today without being struck by a sense of melancholy.

Before the Clearances, however, life in the Highlands was no bed of roses. It should be kept in mind that the climate and soils of the Highlands are marginal for agriculture. The growing season is short and unreliable. Moreover, the period covered by the book was especially cold and stormy. A succession of bad harvests may well have been a factor forcing people to flee to the coast where kelp and herring could provide a livelihood, as portrayed in Neil Gunn’s novel, The Silver Darlings.  During the so-called Little Ice Age (from about 1550 to 1850) the temperatures of the Northern Hemisphere were about a degree colder than in the late 19th Century (hence ice skating and curling were popular sports in Scotland, and Ice Fairs were held annually on the Thames). The year 1816 is known as ‘the year without a summer’ and sometimes ‘Poverty Year’ – this occurred in the midst of the second phase of the Clearances and must have exacerbated the hardship and misery.

We digressed into a discussion of how to pronounce the word Gaelic, as in the language. You should definitely pronounce it ‘Gallic’ for the Scottish version of the language, and ‘Gaellic’ for the Irish form. No-one told the editors of my Longman’s Dictionary (i-pad edition with sound).

We learn from Hunter’s book that the more fortunate emigrants who had survived the transatlantic journey were more or less dumped on Canadian soil, and had to build their own shelters and attempt to grow crops. Winter was damn cold in Canada too. Many starved when their first crops failed. This is hardship on a scale far beyond the experience of our generation. One imagines that a high degree of selection must have occurred, a human example of the Survival of the Fittest.  Certainly those who survived did well, keeping up the Highland traditions of music, bagpipes, shinty and curling. Bonspiels today are nearly as important in parts of Canada as the Olympics elsewhere!

Given this enthusiasm for all things Scottish, one might expect a few of the successful Scottish Americans to send money home. A few have. Andrew Carnegie emigrated to the United States with his parents in 1848 and made a fortune in steel. He was a scholar and philanthropist who gave much back to Scotland (and England).  Not all have been as generous as Carnegie. Donald Trump’s wealth is said to exceed 3 billion dollars. His mother was born on the Isle of Lewis. Hasn’t he done well, a real-estate magnate and owner of the Miss Universe Organisation?  Rupert Murdoch, the Australian newspaper owner of Scottish descent is no philanthropist either. The descendants of William Cargill, a sea captain from Orkney, amassed immense wealth from the family agro-business; in recent times Margaret Cargill became known as a major philanthropist. Scottish-American business woman Mary Maxwell Gates helped her clever son, Bill Gates, get started. Blame Bill for all those bugs in Microsoft Word if you like, but salute him please for the good works he has done thorough the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A complete list of Scottish-Americans is lacking in this book. The author might have made a bit more of this. Again, I had to do my own research! 30-40 million Americans claim Scottish descent.  Scots are certainly well-represented in a roll-call of American presidents (there are 23 of them, including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon), famous astronauts (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin), food magnates (Campbell’s soups, MacDonald’s fast-food, the secretive Cargill family), car-makers (David Dunbar Buik), musicians (Elvis, Bill Munro, and John Baez’s mum came from Edinburgh) and even Uncle Sam himself is supposed to be the son of a nice young couple from Greenock.   For further details of the widespread influence of Scottish people in the USA, possible not entirely without a Scottish bias, be amused by this:

The Scottish Government organised Homecoming Scotland in 2009 to attract talent and money back home. However, it was reported to have been a financial failure.

The night was drawing on, and as we gathered up our belongings to go, our host suddenly remembered the special treat he had waiting for us. He produced a bottle of Cape Breton Malt Whisky. It was like a Speyside, not as good as a Dalwhinnie but pretty decent.