Guest of Honour Prof James Hunter
Jim Hunter is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. The author of thirteen books about the Highlands and about the area’s worldwide diaspora, he’s also been active in the public life of the area. In the 1980s he was director of the Scottish Crofters Union, now the Scottish Crofting Federation. Later he served for six years as chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Jim’s most recent book, Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances, is published by Birlinn and was Saltire Society history book of the year for 2016. His first book, The Making of the Crofting Community, described by a contributor to Scottish Historical Review as ‘one of the most significant books of its generation’, has been in print for more than 40 years. His other books include A Dance Called America: The Scottish Highlands, the United States and Canada (1994), Last of the Free: A History of the Highlands and Islands (1999), Scottish Exodus: Travels Among a Worldwide Clan (2005) and, From the Low Tide of the Sea to the Highest Mountain Tops (2012), an account of the development of community ownership in the Highlands and Island. Professor Hunter was made a CBE in 2001. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2007.
Jim's inaugural book appeared as a hardback selling for £10 in 1976, and talking to an audience in Skye he was congratulated for being the first man to have made any money out of crofting! During his upbringing in Argyll it was his grandfather who had first made him aware of what had happened to the Highlands and how Highlanders felt about their past. The academic take given to him while studying history at Aberdeen did not connect in him with the sense that he picked up in Highland localities of how people thought about their heritage including the heroic struggles of the Highland Land League, and he was reminded of Karl Marx's dictum that while academics might study the world, the point was to change it.
Whole generations had been taught to think that their inheritance starting with the Gaelic language was second-rate, and if diminished self-esteem translates into low self-confidence there is undoubtedly a link with economic and social development. “If you want to get on, you have to get out” became the outlook, and turning round the Highlands is about making people feel better about themselves. The Saltire Society too is in the business of taking Scottish culture more seriously, and that is what is needed to overcome the tendency in some quarters to run down the Highlands and Scotland.
Journalism fired Jim's opportunities to write about the history of the Highlands. A Dance Called America recalls Boswell and Johnson attending a ceilidh in Sleat where the plans of one or two to emigrate seemed to be a contagion that was spreading to the whole room. Mainstream's Bill Campbell was dubious about his desire to write on what happened to the emigres, but this took Jim to North Carolina and then western Montana where he ended up in a reservation whose tribal elder Charlie MacDonald's ancestor had left Wester Ross in 1830 and told him that they were happy to call themselves American Indians since they had more to worry about than Christopher Columbus getting lost!
Edward Thompson wrote about the industrial revolution from the perspective of the workforce, rescuing them from the condescension of posterity, and it was in such a spirit that Jim wanted to explore the Sutherland Clearances. His last job was setting up the Centre for History of the University of the Highlands and Islands at Dornoch, where he started off as the sole member of staff but now there are eight with students around the world with a published PhD about eighteenth-century Badenoch. He was helped financially by Dennis MacLeod, from a family cleared from the Strath of Kildonan who made his money mining in Vancouver Island and gave a generous donation of £330k to get the Centre off the ground.
In Set Adrift Upon the World, Jim tells the history of the Clearances as it occurred on the ground. Jessie Ross's daughter died of whooping cough a few weeks after her family were evicted from its croft, but her husband wrote angrily to the Marquess of Stafford about the family’s clearance and after efforts to discredit them led to a nervous breakdown a son was born whom (in behaviour reminiscent of Orwell's Winston Smith falling in love with the dictator) he named after the Marquess! John Sutherland a tenant in the Strath of Kildonan made ends meet from cattle and illicit distilling, and was steeped in the Fenian sagas which he could recite from memory for several hours. In 1813 he and his family left for Canada, having to winter at Churchill on Hudson Bay where he died and is commemorated by a boulder : the rest of the family reached what is now Winnipeg, where there is a locality called Kildonan.
A lawyer from Elgin, the villainous Patrick Sellar was also a superb agriculturalist in the rearing of sheep for their wool, which is now worthless but was then the main cash crop. Women were to the fore in any riots, egging their men on to resist the Clearances which were planned in person by the Countess - who called them Improvements - in Sutherland during her summer visits to Dunrobin from where she wrote letters which have survived to her ailing husband in London. Reading them, Jim found that he was becoming rather fond of her!
Up the Strath of Brora past the loch of that name are the remains of a township burned in 1819 which still carry a melancholy air, as though this had been an Act of God. Being unimpressed by academic writing, Jim found that there was no substitute to going and taking a look at places like Strathy Point to where crofters were relocated, truly a blasted heath compared with the land from which they had been cleared. Simon Schama days that an understanding of history comes not only from reading archives but also from the archives of one's feet, and even on his honeymoon Jim took in the scenes of crofters' riots in the Western Isles. In December 2013 he and Evelyn went to Hudson Bay where the crofters had landed and found the temperature at minus 35 centigrade, with the polar bears out on the ice. The Highlands have done well out of population growth in recent years supported by EU investment which with Brexit is now at risk, but Jim looks to the continuance of land reform which curiously has often been championed by the political right.