A Dance Called America, by James Hunter

An awful lot of my thinking has been dominated by a book I was given before Christmas: ‘A Dance Called America’ by James Hunter.  It is not a fast read, but it is a very gripping read.  It describes the pattern of emigration from the Highlands of Scotland to America and Canada from the early 18th Century to the late 19th Century.  It describes how earlier emigrants were of the tacksman class, ie they tended to have some status within the clan system; they were leaders and organisers within their communities and had sufficient means to pay for their passage and become established in the new colonies.  

Later waves of emigrants were in a much worse situation, having been forcibly cleared from land where their forbears had lived for hundreds of years as a consequence of the movement of larger estates to sheepfarming which was more profitable.  By the time these people had suffered the consequencies of several years of potato crop failure, and extreme poverty and then eviction many arrived in the new colonies destitute, starving and in very poor health. 

Hunter’s book details the experiences of people prior to emigrating, the journeys, and their subsequent experiences setting up home in the new continent.   The book contains masses of  first hand material; he has visited all the sites mentioned on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are copious quantities of extracts from correspondence of the period.  Totally fascinating, stories of triumph and success for some, but also for others horrifying and terribly sad.  Descriptions of some of the worst experiences of the clearences have clear resonances of current day atrocities of ethnic cleansing we read about on the news: descriptions of people starving, living off shellfish on the beach after being cleared off land they tenanted and then subsequent potato crop failures.  The description of the poor highlanders by some of the men sent to remove them are awful, referring to them as brutish savages, not much better than animals.  Hunter’s descriptions also make the point that many of the Highlanders who had been driven off their own land did not hold back from owning and using slaves in the new territiories, nor from driving Native American Indians off from their land, despite their own experiences of dispossession in Scotland.

In the West Highland Museum there is a folder of information and notes about this period, with a copy of the passenger list from one of the vessels transporting the emigrants.  The reasons for travel and number of children on board are strikingly poignant.


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