Unsettling Thoughts

Photograph Source: Joey Gannon – CC BY-SA 2.0

The sky was low and wet this morning. Such is life on the Northern Atlantic coastal plain. In a misty period between the showers I dug carrots and picked green beans from ravaged plants the deer had browsed a few weeks ago. The picking was slow and (with dispossession in the news) my mind turned to the Isle of Rum. My great-grandmother Julia MacLean’s family hailed from that island —— one of the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. They were swept away in what were called the “clearances” of the 19th century when landlords (“lairds”) depopulated real estate they owned in pursuit of more profitable ways to utilize their holdings. Eight thousand blackface sheep replaced the MacLeans, MacQuarries, McDonalds and the rest on Rum.

Their village of Giurdil on the northwest side of the island was windswept and treeless thanks to long-ago farming attempts on thin soil. The rude dwellings  were called “black cottages” built of loose  stone. The tenants/serfs were useful and profitable mainly during the Napoleonic Wars when they could be put to work gathering kelp on the island’s beaches: The potash from the seaweed being needed for gunpowder. The gunpowder was needed to more efficiently pursue industrial murder and mangling on a grand scale. Some things never change (apparently). Previously the mountains of Rum were a destination for stone-age foragers who valued the quality of rock there for their tools and weapons.

Wikipedia reports, “ In keeping with the Highland Clearances that had swept Scotland since the 1750s, in 1825 the inhabitants of Rum (then numbering some 450 people) were given a year’s notice to quit. The inhabitants of Rum had been tenant farmers, paying rent to the laird; they owned neither the land they worked, nor the houses in which they lived.” About 300 of these were put on two ships in 1826 and sent to Nova Scotia. The remainder followed the next year.

“In 1827, when giving evidence to a government select committee on emigration, an agent of the laird was asked, ‘And were the people willing to go? : ‘Some of them,’ came the reply, ‘Others were not very willing. They did not like to leave the land of their ancestors.’ Years later an eyewitness, a local shepherd was more florid ….: ‘The people of the island were carried off in one mass, forever, from the sea-girt spot where they were born and bred…. The wild outcries of the men and the heartbreaking wails of the women and children  filled all the air between the mountains and the shore of the bay.’” (Wikipedia)

The ships carried the displaced to Nova Scotia, many to the area around Port Hastings, near the Strait of Canso. There they were ceded land by the Crown. Much like in the American west, these new “settlers,” backed by the force of an empire were to create “facts-on-the-ground” in what had been home to the indigenous “First Nations” of Canada. It was hardly “A land without people, for a people without a land.”

Through a series of 18th century Indian wars/ French and Indian Wars, Nova Scotia (New Scotland) had been “made safe(er)” for Scottish “settlers”——largely a population surplus to the wants and needs of the Highland lairds.

“When the first immigrants arrived at the Straight of Canso… the district was all well-wooded, and good hunting ground for its Mic-Mac (Mi’kmaq) inhabitants….. To clear the land and bring it to a respectable state of cultivation, and at the same time to erect more comfortable dwellings and more suitable barns…. called for an amount of labor and toil which the present generation cannot well understand.” So says Electric Scotland’s History of Inverness County. It notes the “courage” and “bravery” of the dispossessed Scots, without mentioning the Mic-Macs and ….. “tensions” between them and the castaway Scots intent on clearing the formerly “well-wooded hunting grounds“ which had supported the Indigenous for thousands of years.


Yes dear reader, it’s an old story in Canada, the USA, South Africa, Israel and other “settler states.”   Quoting Wikipedia again: “Settler colonialism occurs when colonizers invade and occupy territory to permanently replace the existing society… (It) is a form of exogenous domination typically organized by or supported by an imperial authority. Settler colonialism contrasts with exploitation colonialism which entails an economic policy of conquering territory to exploit its population as cheap or free labor and its natural resources as raw material. In this way settler colonialism lasts forever…..”

Certainly that’s the implacable design in settler states generally—— today’s Israel/ Palestine in particular….

And it takes one to know one.

Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: rerhames@gmail.com