A ruined home

The Clearances and the Commonweal

Many people don’t know early Scottish immigration to the British colonies in North America (which was huge, we’re the second largest ethnic group) was largely driven by the Clearances – campaigns of genocidal ethnic cleansing waged for profit by British ruling class between 1750 and 1860. These clearances were part of the enclosure movement, which happened across the UK, but were particularly brutal in Scotland.

The way clearances worked is that soldiers would surround a village in the middle of the night, light the thatch roofs of the homes on fire, and the terrified naked people fleeing their burning homes were rounded up at gunpoint. The land would then be repurposed to raise sheep whose wool was sold to the textile mills in England.

In the lowlands, many who fled the clearances were deported to the northern Irish settler state. In the Highlands it was common for soldiers to force-march the terrified dispossessed people directly to ships to North America and Australia. Nova Scotia has the largest Gaidhlig-language community outside Scotland, founded by highlanders who were sent this way. Others fled directly to North America after the battle of Culloden in 1746, and the following repression against the clans who had dared back a catholic king. It is no coincidence that more than 95% of the people with Scottish ancestry in the world today live outside of Scotland.

Many of the Scots Protestants who arrived in North Ireland became supporters of Irish home rule and were deeply involved in the early Irish Republican movement, forming the majority of the United Irishmen. When their rising was crushed in 1798, they were forced to North America. In fact, it was Protestant Scots-Irish supporters of Irish Independence who started the North American tradition of celebrating St. Patrick’s day as a celebration of Irish resistance and the fight for independence. There are several books worth of material about their experience being ripped from their homes, being sent to a settler state in northern Ireland, being forced to flee a second time after siding with the native Irish, and then ending up in North America. The ones who stayed were, almost by definition, the ones who backed British rule and the Protestant/Catholic sectarian divide in North Ireland was the result.

The bitter resentment at generations of oppression under English rule is one big reason why even though Scots were less than a third of the population of the 13 colonies, they were more than half the revolutionary army. Their country had been stolen from them, so they fought a war to create a new one… and were immediately betrayed. Being overwhelmingly tenant farmers meant that they weren’t allowed to vote, and the new federal government immediately acted to ease restrictions on the landowners who had reduced them to abject poverty. The so-called Whiskey rebellion of 1791 was an attempt to demand their rights. It was crushed. The only way to escape that abject poverty was to push west and conquer new land, taking it from native people. And so that’s exactly what they did. Scots Americans quickly became the bleeding edge of American expansion westward. Andrew Jackson is a classic example. He was the first Scots-Irish president and a lifelong supporter of Irish independence. He probably saw himself as a defender of liberty and freedom. But we all know about his crimes against Native Americans.

One of the things many people don’t understand about traumatized populations is that they often replicate the conditions of their own brutalization, with themselves on top. We see that in Israel right now as a traumatized nation of displaced people turned settlers wage a slow-motion genocide against the Palestinians. Social psychologists call this a “reaction formation.” Trauma feeds brutality.

As Scottish Americans spread west, the tactics of clearances were used consistently against native people. Not just by Scots of course – others adopted them enthusiastically. But while the Anglo ruling class profited off genocide and manifest destiny from east coast board rooms, it was scots and other assimilated white people who made manifest destiny a reality. The culture of american conservativism was forged in this monumental act of genocide.

To commit genocide, to kill people and steal their homes when you know that the same has been done to you requires killing part of yourself. Capitalism and empire didn’t just steal our homes and our homeland from us, it stole our empathy. It stole our humanity. Other groups have similar stories, but they aren’t mine to tell. I will say, however, that you cannot understand why so many working class white Americans are pathologically convinced everyone wants to take from them without understanding what has been taken.

I write a lot here about how we need to change the culture – not just the economy – to win liberation. And I see that clearly in my people. Scots in Scotland overwhelmingly lean left and have deeply rooted traditions of caring for each other – the ‘commonweal.’ Among some American scots, those traditional values of strong communities that look out for and defend each other still persist. For example we are overrepresented among teachers, social workers, and similar professions. But many of us seem to carry a sense of precariousness, the sense that everything could be ripped away at any moment. On some level, I believe that most of us can’t quite escape the sense that we don’t belong here. But where else can we go? Everyone we have is stolen. Everything that we should have had was stolen from us. The defensive hyper-patriotism of many Scots and Scots-Irish Americans feels like a reaction to this deep-rooted insecurity.

People often forget that trauma is inherited. Children of vets with PTSD usually display symptoms. And when you have an entire culture with PTSD, it changes the culture. The trauma of the clearances, being shipped halfway across the world and dropped penniless and friendless among strangers, of being told that the only way to have any degree of security or power was to become the oppressor, compounded by generations of inescapable poverty. Add to that the fact that Scots have been the backbone of the American military since the revolution, and you just compound the levels of trauma. The horrors of war, poverty, and exploitation over generations have changed our culture in fundamental ways.

Back to the clearances, these tactics of terror used to traumatize innocent people are still in use. Every time I see police raiding a homeless encampment at dawn and sending helpless people fleeing with only what they can carry, I see the clearances being replayed. I see my people in pain. And in a real way, being a Celt in America and reclaiming the identity in a meaningful way is understanding that all people who are suffering ARE my people – no matter their language, ancestry, or color.

If we ever want to get back to the commonweal, to a culture where the Clearances aren’t being replayed somewhere in America almost every night, we have to deal with that trauma. We have to reclaim our empathy, our humanity. We have to heal. We have to reclaim ourselves.

This goes much deeper than I can cover in a blog post, but there’s so much more history – none of which is taught in American public schools. Our history is deliberately hidden from us because (overwhelmingly Anglo) elites are terrified that if we knew who we really are, what was done to us, and why we’re even here on this continent; we’d turn against them & side with other oppressed people. And that’s why I keep bringing it up.