|| Sat 15 Oct 2005
Scottish Exodus: Travels Among a Worldwide Clan
by James Hunter
Mainstream Publishing, Edinburgh, 414 pages, £17.99
|Special signed/numbered copies with the ACMS Special Edition dustjacket are available from the ACMS. Contact ACMS merchandising for more information.
Thirty years ago the writer and broadcaster, Derek Cooper, whose maternal family is from Skye and Lewis, wrote of meeting at a dinner in London "a Macdonald from California whose grandparents had left Skye at the turn of the century".
"He owned two banks," said Cooper, "a racing schooner, a house in La Jolla by the sea and a flat in Switzerland. He told me he'd been back to Skye for the first time that year, trying to trace some vestige of his Hebridean connection. 'What a fine and truly wonderful life they must have lived, my grandparents,' he said, 'very simple but very profound. They had their peat at the door, their cow, their fish from the sea. How often I envy them.' And surprisingly he actually meant it.
"I told him about the malnutrition in Skye at the end of the century, the crops that failed, the daily attrition of poverty, but I could see he was not convinced. It was scenically a beautiful place and therefore his grandparents must have enjoyed a 'beautiful' life."
There are two stereotypes on display in that passage. One is the naive American clansman. The other is the exasperated response of the UK native to the exile's pipe-dream. We do not know how to handle them, these La Jolla Macdonalds with their family banks and their racing schooners, and their Clan Society memberships and dress kilts and alarming deference to the direct descendants of the very "chieftains" whose grandparents forced their grandparents into hunger, disease and emigration.
If there is an expressed purpose to Jim Hunter's Scottish Exodus, it is to bridge that chasm of misunderstanding - from this side of the Atlantic.
Dr Hunter, who as the author of The Making of the Crofting Community and A Dance Called America is better equipped than most to detail the mostly squalid reasons why Highland Scots went overseas in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, accepted an invitation from the American president of the international Associated Clan MacLeod Societies to write a book which was originally to have been titled The MacLeods: The Migration of a Clan.
As this commission plainly called upon Hunter to visit virtually all of North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and much of Europe, some sponsorship has been involved. And with this comes the faint hint of possible compromise, of which the author is well aware - he takes pains to let us know that Clan MacLeod has not vetted his manuscript. Whoever paid the airfares, he has worked as a free agent. Let us try to avoid churlish references to pipers and tunes.
This is, nonetheless, inevitably a clan history. But it is a clan history written by Jim Hunter, which makes it almost certainly the best clan history in the genre. Whatever your surname or origins, Scottish Exodus is a compelling, thoughtful, witty and beautifully written book. It is Hunter's best for at least a decade.
Its qualities derive not only from his historical qualifications, but from his sensible decision to write Scottish Exodus in the first person, and to make it as much a travelogue as a scholarly thesis. Hunter does not have to be subsidised to want to know more about the Highland diaspora, and having met them, to want even more desperately to introduce them to us back at home.
They are a varied bunch, those MacLeods. They are not all in La Jolla, Cape Breton and New South Wales. Some of the most intriguing episodes in Scottish Exodus take Hunter to Poland to meet the Machlejds and to France to dine (on "a Lorraine delicacy consisting of the fatty flesh stripped from a calf's head") with the Maclots.
Those members of the Association Française du Clan MacLeod are not the descendants of Clearance victims. They go back a lot further than that. They, and their Polish cousins, are rather the offspring of medieval mercenaries. And in Lorraine, it seems, the blood is no longer all that strong and the heart no longer Highland. Michel Maclot does not suffer from any tartan delusions. He does not, in fact, consider himself to be in any sense Scottish - "my ancestors have been French for more than 500 years".
Fortified by fatty strips of calf's head flesh, Hunter is prompted to ask Monsieur Maclot the logical question: If you're so indivisibly French, what's with all this Association du Clan MacLeod business? The answer, delivered with beautiful Gallic asperity, is that Clan MacLeod "has ceased to belong exclusively to Scots".
Well, fair enough, and I suppose we knew that already, and should we really be too bothered about the 21st century "ownership" of Clan MacLeod? In this wide and spreading diaspora the surname, handed down through the married male line, is far more persistent than any residual thin strands of Scottish Gaelic DNA, which recede yet further with each inevitable extra-clan coupling in Seattle, Verdun and Sydney.
Hunter is least successful when trying to convince us that this Highland DNA might still be readily apparent - in the "Hebridean" facial features of a woman in Texas, in the Clan Society trick of reeling off one's ancestors' first names, or in the fact that the people of Prince Edward Island refer to PEI as "the island", as do the people of Skye to their home - and the people of the Isles of Wight, Jersey, Yell and Antigua, I have no doubt, to theirs.
Genes can be dangerous things. It's not their fault, but genes have been enlisted by some of the worst people in recent times to advance their social theories. Some of them are still to be found in the southern United States, where a white-supremacist group known as the neo-Confederates derives solace and pseudo-authority from their supposed links with Celtic Scotland. It was not an accident that Tartan Day in the USA was established by the Mississippi senator Trent Lott, shortly before Lott was sacked as Republican Congressional leader by George W Bush for making an indiscreet racist speech in the presence of a tape recorder.
At this point it is traditional to say that one is quite sure that none of the MacLeods (or Maclots or Machlejds) encountered by Hunter during his travels is guilty of such dangerous genetic obsessions. I wish we could be. Some things are just too serious to ignore, and the 20th-century perversion of "clan" into "klan" is one of them. It didn't happen in Scotland, but it did in Tennessee and Mississippi, and even if the use of a Scottish ordinary noun as well as a Scottish proper name is no longer the exclusive concern of Scots, Scots do have the right to ask what happened to it, and why.
"We're still who we always were," a Clan MacLeod Society member in North Carolina tells Hunter, meaning that he or she is still the same as their MacLeod antecedent who migrated to British America in the 18th century.
The only sensible, logical answer to that is: No, you're not. Not in any regard worth considering. Not in culture, language, health, diet, upbringing, possessions, occupation, clothing, hobbies, literacy, expectation, income, civil and political rights, not in your past, your present or your future. Your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was a different person in an entirely different world. She would laugh to hear you say that you were similar, let alone identical.
But if this sparkling book tells us anything, it tells us that the global cottage industry of Scottish clan societies is neither sensible nor logical. They have been based partly on a romantic fiction, on an invented past. Laced into this, however, there are and always have been threads of a true diasporan identity.
This identity is most appealing when it accepts that history has done its inexorable work, that life in 19th-century Skye was less attractive than is life in modern California, and that they - we - never really want to go back. The fleeting, engaging, argumentative presence of Jim Hunter in the worldwide web of MacLeod societies will have done much to bring them up to scratch. His book should do even more.