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. The narrative that we were “voluntary” immigrants is false. 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 lowlanders who arrived in North Ireland became supporters of Irish home rule, and the early Irish Republican movement included large numbers of these Scots-Irish protestants. When the United Irishmen were crushed in 1798, many of them fled 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. There’s also added complexity because later waves of Scots Irish immigration were mostly people who’s ancestors had NOT sided with the Irish and arrived already deeply indoctrinated into a white protestant-supremacist mindset.

Most Americans miss these ethnic dimensions to our history because we’re taught to lump all white people together. This is intentional, and obscures the fact that TO THIS DAY there are massive class divides between “white” ethnic groups. In point of fact, cultural taboos on marriage across religions and the fact that most American churches are actually ethnic churches (Presbyterians are Scots, Lutherans Germans, etc) meant that inter-ethnic marriage was relatively rare up until the 1950’s in America. And while whiteness has clearly conferred some privileges, the idea that assimilation opens the way to economic mobility is largely false. As of at least 2004, Scottish and Irish Americans are closer to Latinos than we are to Anglos when it comes to economic status. You won’t find articles about that fact, but I’ve crunched the census numbers myself. The data is all there, hiding in plain sight. So there are clearly distinct ethnic experiences for the various “white” groups across American history. I’d argue that it’s impossible to understand American history without investigating these ethnic histories.

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.

In North Ireland and America both, our trauma was weaponized by the Anglo-American ruling class and many dispossessed Scots enthusiastically participated in settler states that dispossessed native people. In colonial America, penniless Scots were pushed to the margins, became sharecroppers, and were told that the only way they’d ever have any security or land was by taking it from native people. And so that’s exactly what they did. Anglo landowners had the 13 colonies locked up tight, the only chance to not be utterly vulnerable was to push west. And so, from the Revolution on, Scots became the bleeding edge of American expansion westward. And while many intermarried with native Americans – most modern Scottish Americans have at least some native ancestry as well – they also committed atrocities. 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.

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.’ In one sense those traditional values of strong communities that look out for and defend each other still persist in North America. For example we are overrepresented among teachers, social workers, and similar professions – but the borders have been hardened.  We seem to carry a sense of precariousness with us. On some level, I believe that most of us know that what was done to native people was wrong and can’t quite escape the sense that in a fundamental way we don’t belong here. But where else can we go? The defensive hyper-patriotism of many Scots and Scots-Irish Americans feels like a reaction to this deep-rooted insecurity.

The sense that we are never safe, never secure, is deeply embedded into our culture here in America. People often forget is 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.

And so 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. Even today, Scots Irish Americans are the core demographic of the Republican party and some of the most vehemently outspoken opponents of immigration and social programs – the complete opposite of Scots in Scotland.

To commit genocide, to kill people and steal their homes when you know that the same has been done to you… it 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.

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 that identity that has been stolen 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.