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Issue 16 - Moving forward in the Highlands

Scotland Magazine Issue 16
September 2004


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Moving forward in the Highlands

Roddy Martine talks...

There were 20 of us around the table at the Ballachulish Hotel in Lochaber. It was an eclectic mix which included five Highland councillors, among them Dr Michael Foxley, vice-convenor of Highland Council. Others present were: historian Iain Thornber, deputy lord lieutenant of Inverness-shire and trustee of the West Highland Museum; Charlotte Wright, acting chief executive of Lochaber Enterprise; Bob Steward, Highland Council’s chief archivist; John Hutchinson, Lochaber area manager and company secretary of the Knoydart Foundation and Nevis Partnership; Alistair MacDonald, founder of the Glencoe Heritage Trust, and his wife and co-director, Rosalin, a member of North Lorn Civic Trust; Rodney and Diane Allen of Clan Donald USA; Val Smith of Clan Cameron, Australia, and the charismatic Ted Cowan, professor of history at Glasgow University with his wife Lizanne. I publish this list only to illustrate the potency of our grouping.

We were there at the invitation of councillor Drew Macfarlane-Slack, and our brief was to discuss the remit of Highland 2007 – Gaidhealtachd, a celebration of Highland culture, past, present and future. The programme for what promises to be a truly remarkable year of celebration is currently being assembled by its project manager. Shona McMillan whom, should Scotland ever need a special envoy schooled in diplomacy, I would highly recommend.

Highlands is a vast and diverse region, and Lochaber is but a corner of it. Shona’s project is broken down into six cultural sectors – arts, science, heritage, sport, environment and the Gaelic language. The framework for 2007 is expected to encompass a string of community led events, all-Scotland attractions, and several international inducements aimed at encouraging the international diaspora to visit their ancestral homeland.

Not least among these latter initiatives will be the establishment of a clan/family research archive, but every now and then, it has to be accepted, you tend to run into a problem in the Highlands when you mention the word ‘clan’.

Dare I suggest it, but the resonance among those who today inhabit the Highland region, and those whose forebears left a century or more ago for the New World, is simply not the same. In certain Highland circles, indeed, the very mention of a clan chief appears to have reached paranoia proportions.

To be fair, I can understand the problem. Today’s Scottish politicians are rightly preoccupied with projecting a modern country which, whether they admit it or not, is largely influenced by transatlantic ideas.

However, when the majority of Americans, Australians and Canadians come to visit, what they want to find out about is not wind farm expertise, but the Scotland of old. In the Highlands that means the clans, and better still, if there exists a clan chief. Yet it seems that today’s generation of Highlanders, some who boast of generations behind them, and others more recently arrived from the South, have never forgiven the clan chiefs for the Highland Clearances, that extraordinarily ruthless 18th and 19th century example of management asset-stripping which has been manna from heaven for every radical Gael since the poet Allan Ramsay first penned Lochaber. No More.

As they say about the Massacre of Glencoe, Highlanders have long memories, but it is also true to say that resulting from the Clearances, a significantly greater number of those with Highland blood ended up in Virginia, the Carolinas, Cape Breton and North Island, New Zealand, than were left behind in Knoydart or Sutherland. What about their memories?

That is what Highland 2007 – Gaidheltachd has to address. Above all, a festival of the Highlands has to be all inclusive, embracing the Gaelic language, music and literature; sport, be it mountain bikes, shinty or tossing the caber; education, involving the young in developing an awareness of their own identity; the creation of jobs and the empowerment of local people to manage the land in the traditional way, but also to showcase that unique tribal grouping that has made such a significant contribution to the known world, the clans. A unique worldwide tribal grouping which means so much to so many as a symbol of their birthright.

For what other nation has such a legacy of tradition and goodwill to call upon? I make no excuses for the Clearances, but it should be remembered that not all of the clan chiefs took part in what, after all, was a Government-led strategy. If the diaspora can come to terms with this anomaly, then it is time for Highlanders to do so too.

When in 2007 the clansmen return from those distant lands, let there be Lochiel and Mac Cailein Mor, Macdonald and Clanranald, Macleod and Macdougall, Macneil and Maclean to welcome them.

And let Lochaber show the way!