The recent Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission defines “cultural genocide [as] the destruction of those structures and practices that allow a group to continue as a group” (p.1). Just over 50 years ago John Prebble’s well-known work, The Highland Clearances concluded that the clearances of the Scottish highlands during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the clearance of the Chisholms in particular, had destroyed the structures and practices of the Scottish highland clan structure that had allowed the clans to exist. Just over 35 years ago the Canadian novelist, Linden MacIntyre, published an article on the 1979 visit of our 32nd Chief, Alistair Chisholm to the Antigonish Highland games, which pitied the Chisholms who had been “rejected and ejected” by the representatives of the highland clan system.
Even though there seems to have not been anything in the clearances of the Chisholms quite as horrific as the sexual abuse of native children in Canada’s residential schools, the issues around the destruction of a culture raises the important questions about cultural loss. Based on the definition in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Report can we consider the highland branch of the Chisholms to have been victims of a sort of cultural genocide?
Like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Prebble and MacIntyre have no doubt who was responsible for the victimization of the highlanders in general and the Chisholms in particular. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission attributes the victimization of the children of native people to the Euro-Christian Canadian society, while Prebble attributes the victimization of the Chisholms to the Scottish gentry with no pity.
More specifically, the Chisholms who were cleared were the victims of our 23rd chief, Alexander Chisholm of Chisholm, our 24th chief, William Chisholm of Chisholm and our 25th chief Alexander William Chisholm of Chisholm, who held their chieftainships from about 1780 until about 1820. According to Prebble, these chiefs and their agents evicted Chisholm families throughout the Strathglass region to transform the ancestral clan lands into sheep grazing pastures.
I firmly believe that John Prebble and Linden MacIntyre provide a seriously mistaken interpretation of why the Chisholms left our ancestral homeland in the Strathglass. Two important factors were changing Scotland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. First, the population of Scotland was increasing at a more rapid rate than it had over the previous 800 years. Second, the source of wealth creation in Scotland was changing from the land to industrial manufacturing. Neither of the these important changes in Scottish society could be accommodated within the feudalistic highland clan system, under the highland branch of the Chisholms were living.
Our ancestors were not the innocent victims of powerful and selfish chiefs and their agents. The chiefs were only the symbolic remnant of a pre-modern system that could not make facilitate the transition of our ancestors to the modern world. Our ancestors left the Scottish highlands because they wanted better life prospects for the increasing numbers of their children that the old feudalistic system of landholding that the Normans had brought to Britain could no longer provide.
Feudalism came to Britain with Norman families such as the Chisholms and it became an important aspect of society throughout all of Medieval Europe. Medieval means middle or between and it describes the period from by about 600 to the period beginning in 1500, or from the decline of the classical Greek and Roman civilizations of antiquity to the coming of the modern European society. Feudalistic arrangements lasted much longer in the highlands of Scotland because of the powerful clan system and the rugged terrain, which meant that much of the land was inaccessible. Indeed, it was only on November 28, 2004 that feudalism was formally terminated in Scotland by the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Act 2000.
In medieval society land in agricultural use was the major source of wealth creation in society. Feudalism facilitated the creation of agricultural wealth through its arrangements for holding land. In exchange for services provided to the Chief (especially military service) the Chief’s extended family or clan members could use land to produce the food that was necessary for life. Within medieval Scotland the Chisholms had become especially adept at the raising of and trading of cattle. This system could not provide opportunities for the significant population increase that began after 1750.
During the century from 1750 (right after the devastating defeat of the Highland clans at the battle of Culloden) to 1850 the population of Scotland doubled. Over the 70 year period from 1750 to 1820 improvements in Scottish gynecology reduced infant mortality from about 235 deaths of infants per 1,000 live births to about 164 deaths of infants.
In the century after 1750 Scotland’s population was growing at a rate that was about four times faster than the rate of population increase over the previous 800 years. The feudalistic highland clan system, under which the Chisholms in the highlands were then living, could not provide viable opportunities for the increasing number of Chisholms.
However, the industrialization that was occurring in the Scottish lowlands required a large labour force in concentrated areas that could readily absorb the substantial increase in the population. In addition, new land that could provide opportunities for the population increase throughout Scotland and in the highlands in particular was available for settlement in the new world, especially in Nova Scotia.
The industrial revolution that had begun in the late eighteenth century Scotland instigated a completely new source of wealth creation that made possible spectacular increases in wealth and prosperity for the country through its new industrial manufacturing enterprises. Machines, such as the steam engine, vastly expanded the productive output of Scotland. The steam engine (invented in Scotland) is still the most productive innovation of all recorded human history. Work that had required the labour of five men prior to the invention of the steam engine could now be done with the steam engine by one man. Creating wealth with machines instead of animals such as horses and unskilled labourers was quickly replacing land and agricultural production as the most important source of wealth creation in Scotland.
Feudalism could not accommodate the major change in the source of wealth creation within Scotland nor could it accommodate the significant rise in population that was occurring throughout Scotland at the same time, and even within our ancestral homelands. The increase in Scottish population growth was also making the divide in Scottish society between the growing industrial sector and the relatively stagnant highland feudalistic arrangements more pronounced.
The feudalistic division of land among families with payment for the land use being made in services could not provide anything for members of the suddenly larger Chisholm families throughout the highlands and within Strathglass in particular during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Within Alexander Mackenzie’s History of the Chisholms with Genealogies of the Principal Families of that Name, the Chisholm families that leave Scotland in the years after 1775 are usually large families with many children. In Chapter VII on the Clan Chisholm within D. J. Rankin’s History of County of Antigonish Nova Scotia there is an average of six children in all the Chisholm families that settled in Antigonish during the period of the highland clearances. My own great-great grandfather left Strathglass in 1843 with nine children and then settled in Brierly Brook of Antigonish County where his tenth child was born, who was my great grandfather.
These ancestors of ours were not the victims of cruel, powerful landed interests who were savagely exiled from their ancestral homelands. Instead, they responded to a increase in their numbers and a change in the way wealth was created in their ancestral homelands my migration. The inscription on the Clan Chisholm stone was firmly denies that is “ in grateful memory of our Chisholm Pioneers who left us a goodly inheritance” firmly denies that neither we nor our ancestors were victims.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is convinced that our Aboriginal people are victims. Nonetheless, their population increased from about 100,000 in 1900 to over 1 million in the early 2000s. Their share of the Canadian population has grown much, much faster than the rest of the Canadian population over the last 50 years. This population increase is putting severe pressure on the reserve land-holding arrangements and their ability to create sufficient wealth through hunting and fishing to sustain themselves. Like us, they are perhaps not so much innocent victims of a powerful, cruel settler culture as people being forced to adapt to increases in their numbers and their creation of wealth.