Clearances across frontiers

11th July 1997 at 01:00
A touring exhibition of contemporary art which compares some of the experiences and responses of Highlanders who were driven from their homes in the Clearances and Native Americans who were also forced from their lands has been launched by Highland Council Arts.

River Deep Mountain High has already been seen at the St Fergus Gallery in Wick and the Swanson Gallery in Thurso, where people reacted enthusiastically to this mixed media show.

The exhibition features film, archive and contemporary photography, prints and music as well as a catalogue that includes essays and a short story examining the history and experience of displaced "tribal people" in the Highlands and America.

Among the 18 artists represented in the show are Susan Point from Coast Salish in British Columbia, whose ancestors were among the first Native Americans to be affected by European settlers. Gerry Gleason from Belfast sees parallels between the people of Northern Ireland and the beleaguered Plains Indians who engaged in "ghost dances" to bring their dead back to life. Will McLean, one of Scotland's outstanding contemporary artists, has recently been involved in a project to construct a series of cairns commemorating the history of land struggles on the Western Isles.

Emmi Whitehorse and Linda Lomahaftewa draw on their Navajo and Hopi backgrounds while Eoghann MacColl and Craig MacKay are similarly inspired by life in Inverness and Sutherland.

A short documentary film, also entitled River Deep Mountain High, gives a brief history of the Lubicon Cree tribe from Alberta, who maintained a traditional lifestyle until the Canadian government discovered oil and gas on their land in 1979.

Another film features the people of Skerray, described by Elliot Rudie in the catalogue as "frontier country" and "frontier people".

He writes: "In Scottish terms, the Skerray community is the farthest and darkest corner of that great reservation of the Caledonian psyche called 'The Highlands', an area of half-remembered myths and longings."

It is also the area where "displaced people were relocated during the height of the disastrous economic and ethnic 'improvements' known as the 'Sutherland Clearances' in the second and third decades of the 19th century."

However, in another essay, appropriately entitled "Making Whole the Broken Hoop", Skye-based historian James Hunter points out that many of Scotland's displaced Highlanders went off to America where they, in turn, ran native inhabitants off the land so they could recreate the Gaelic-speaking communities they had been forced to leave behind.

But a further twist to the story shows that some of the tribes who attempted to halt the takeover of their lands were led by chiefs such as Cuthbert Grant and Alexander McGillivary whose mothers had been Native Americans, their fathers Scottish fur traders.

Iona Gallery, Highland Folk Museum, Kingussie until July 19. Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, July 26-August 23

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