Myths cleared away;Arts;Television

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Na h-Eiltirich (The Emigrants). BBC2, Thursdays, 6.45pm

A new television series on the Highland Clearances, that most traumatic event in the history of Gaeldom, comes up with some myth-breaking findings. Na h-Eiltirich (The Emigrants), an eight-part documentary which opened last night (February 4) on BBC2 Scotland, is the most ambitious project ever undertaken by the station's Gaelic department, and goes out with English sub-titles.

But its pitch may surprise many Scots influenced by images of burning thatch, and of families driven down to the shore by merciless factors to be forced into exile aboard "coffin ships" during the 18th and 19th centuries.

There is no suggestion that such events didn't happen. However, this assiduously researched account points out that many Gaels were only too ready to uproot their families and look for a better life away from their homeland. Not all of the Gaels who took root in Canada, the United States, South America and New Zealand were unwilling "exiles". Far from it.

The first episode looked at the large numbers of Highlanders who settled in North Carolina - around 12,000 of them by the late 1770s. One-fifth of British emigrants to America in that period were Gaels.

They included Flora Macdonald, that central figure of the Highland Jacobite romance, and her husband Allan. But although their personal adventure in emigration did not end happily, many of their fellow Scots wrote home as soon as they were established, persuading relatives to follow them to this more fertile land "where there are no landlords either".

And many did. One thing that made the history of Scottish emigration in that period different from the English counterpart was that it was a family business. In England, typically, a young man would go overseas independently to look for advancement in the developing empire. But the Gaels would go abroad as families - children, parents and grandparents - to swamp the areas where they settled with burgeoning, Gaelic-speaking hordes.

So the tone is set for what the BBC calls "a provocative series". Producer Bill MacLeod says this will not be "a history of victims". In researching it, he used the Internet to contact descendants of the Highland Clearance families and what he found was not a Celtic twilight but a success story in which the emigrants took the Gaidhealtacht along with them to the New World.

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