Partial Book Review: Set Adrift Upon the World, James Hunter (2015)

Paused May 2021

history, colonialism, British imperialism, land theft, forced resettlement, diaspora, Canada, Scotland

I did not finish this book because it wasn’t my copy, and my holiday ended and I had to give the book back before I finished it, so I don’t feel I can write a whole review. I read it because of a personal interest as well as an academic one. I am half Scottish and that half of the family likely originated in, and was once cleared from, Sutherland – I say likely because history doesn’t spend much time recording the voices and movements of the oppressed, and because it’s just an informed guess based on surnames and records. My aunt could tell you more about it than me.

My academic interest is in the construction of indigeneity, and history of ‘internal’ colonialism, in Northern Europe. I put internal in quotation marks because of the idea that colonialism is something that Europeans do outside of Europe, rather than acknowledging that much of what we now unquestioningly accept as Europe was once colonised in much that same way as the lands of North America were. This contributes to the invisibility of Indigeneity in the sense of Sámi erasure in the service of Norway’s renewable energy image, and the derision towards dreams of Scottish independence.

This book sheds a great deal of light on the minutia of how the Sutherland clearances came about and the lasting impacts they had on the Scottish people and landscape. I appreciated that Hunter dedicated his efforts towards the recovery of stories told in the voices of those directly impacted by clearances, and that he avoided stark divisions between oppressor/oppressed, English/Scottish, rich/poor and urban/rural. He lays out how the actions of wealthy and power-hungry individuals at the dawn of the 19th century left Sutherland barren and unpopulated today. That history is an important one when we recall that for many, Scotland’s barren emptiness is considered ‘wild’ when it is in fact very much the product of human activity. Just as Braiding Sweetgrass, this book tells the story of ambitious capitalist settlers who thought they knew more than the local people they sought to unseat; thought they knew better how to eke the most out of land without thinking of reciprocity; thought their ideas and needs were so superior to those they found that they largely didn’t even care to learn the languages of the dispossessed.

I could go on but really, I didn’t finish the book so I also won’t finish the review. Suffice to say that anyone who wants to learn about the history of the United Kingdom should read this book. If we talk about the legacy of British colonialism across the globe, let us not forget British colonialism in Scotland as well.

What follows is a story. It is the story of how, in the space of seven or eight years in the early nineteenth century, the interior of a large Scottish county was forcibly depopulated. This was accomplished by turning thousands of people out of their homes. Those homes, most of them in long-settled locations, were then destroyed.

Nothing like this – certainly nothing so organised and on such a scale – had taken place in Britain before. Nothing quite like it would take place again. It was an extraordinary episode.

What was destroyed by the Marquis and Marchioness of Stafford, by Patrick Sellar, William Young and James Loch, then, was not simply a set of farming townships. Also eradicated was a way of life that has sustained a complex body of belief, ideas and tradition through as many as 2,000 years.

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