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Tuesday 5 November 2013

“The Highlands” is the authentic voice

Reproduced in full is a review from The Scotsman by Farquhar Macintosh of Calum Maclean’s The Highlands (1959):
At first sight this volume might appear to the casual observer as no more than another picture book about the Highlands. But closer scrutiny soon reveals that it is a picture book with a difference. Its author, Calum Maclean, is not another outsider with a little knowledge but an informed and intelligent native. This it is that makes the book distinctive and its publication an event.
Few areas have suffered so much as the Highlands at the hands of their interpreters. Travel writes like Pennant and MacCulloch could find little that was right, and the romantic writers who followed them could find little that was wrong. But the picture which they presented, of ruined homesteads and ruined castles, of picturesque but bracken-covered landscapes, of fairies in the glen and water-horses in the tarn, created an illusion difficult to dispel. Even if it were true, it would be wrong to conclude that the area which it purports to portray has no real, present-day significance. As Alastair M Dunnett has put it in his “Quest by Canoe”, “it would be as valid to assume form the ruined Parthenon that ancient Athens boasted nothing better than a roofless culture.”
Faithful picture
Formal historians have been scarcely more enlightened. Lacking a knowledge of Gaelic and a real understanding of the people who spoke it, they have helped to perpetuate the legend that “Highland” and “barbaric” are somehow synonymous; and even yet, as Mr Maclean asserts, this insinuation has not been entirely erased from the official text-books in the Scottish schools. Every reason, therefore, to welcome a book of this kind by a Gaelic-speaking Highlander equipped for the purpose.
True, it may have the odd omission and the occasional inaccuracy, but the overall picture is faithful and true. Here is one who speaks with authority and not as the scribes.
Mr Maclean, who was born on Raasay, is on the staff of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, and he brings to his task the learning and training of a student of folk culture. His primary concern is, therefore, cultural: he concentrates not so much on people as on people, and on the traditions and way of life that they have come to foster and develop.
In an admirable introduction and in the chapters which follow, the reader gets an authentic account of the storied past, the uncertain present, and still more doubtful future. Here one may meet with so much that is absent from our modern city, with plain living and high thinking, and with that independence of mind and spirit whose replacement by a servile, standardised mass mentality Smuts once saw as the greatest human menace of our time.
The book in fact, is largely written in terms of individuals, the self-taught singers, players and story-tellers who, unable to stereotype their art by reading or writing, have ripened it in the memory and given it a wonderful spontaneity and a timeless appeal.
Religion also occupies an important place; and the economic background has indeed not been overlooked. In this respect indeed, the book is at once a condemnation and a challenge: a condemnation of past wrongs and present neglect, and a challenge to authority to act now ere it is too late. For one thing is certain: the Highland cannot, by their own efforts, fit into a complex industrial State; and the State has not hitherto cared enough to find a place for them.
Losing battle
It is not surprising, therefore, that the dominant impression one gets from this book is that the way of life which it describes is fighting a losing battle almost everywhere against the social and economic forces of the day. I agree with the author’s strictures on the system of education and about the need to give Gaelic a prominent place in the curriculum; but unless the economic problem is satisfactorily solved the culture is doomed.
Basically this means the rehabilitation of crofting agriculture, because on its preservation and promotion as a dignified and rewarding way of life depends the preservation of the language and the distinctive culture associated with it. But only good land will make good crofts, and until the present  Commission has been given power and resources to acquire and resettle the rich inland straths which saw wholesale evictions at the time of the Clearances it will not succeed in its task.
One is grateful to Mr Maclean and his publishers for this attractive volume, with its magnificent photographs, and one hopes it will reach the large public which it deserves. If it does it should help to bring to the Highlands a more enlightened visitor, who will respect their traditions and the susceptibilities of their people.
Farquhar Macintosh, ‘“The Highlands” is the authentic voice’, The Scotsman (23 April 1959), p. 8
The “Forty-five” Monument at Glenfinnan by Noel Habgood reproduced from the first edition of The Highlands. The monument was erected in 1815 by Alexander MacDonald of Glenaladale to commemorate the Jacobite Rising of 1745

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