Rambling and timid work from a first rate writer;Books

15th October 1999 at 01:00

Michael Russell is disappointed in a new history of the Highlands

If there is a seminal book in Scottish thinking about the Highlands and islands, it must surely by James Hunter's The Making of the Crofting Community.

That book laid bare, with unremitting detail and passionate advocacy, the true origins of the Highland landscape and the so-called Highland problem. It was published at a time when UK Governments were paying new attention to the Highlands and islands. And it came after initiatives that allowed great figures like the late Sir Robert Grieve to get to grips with how to restore hope and dynamism to an area seemingly in terminal decline.

James Hunter has been a major player in that movement, in his writing, his work for the Crofters Union, as head of Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise and now as chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise. His appointment to the last of these was a rare stroke of enlightened genius by New Labour. It was in sharp contrast to the succession of business placemen the Tories put in charge of Highland development.

It is therefore all the more surprising that in his latest book on Highland issues James Hunter should disappoint this reader and most reviewers - particularly given the ambitious sweep of what should be his most important book.

Perhaps the background to the book suggests one of the reasons. It was generously funded by his own Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The contents suggest that such funding has blunted the editorial process and allowed the enterprise chairman to get away with things that no mere author would, or should, be allowed.

The problem lies not in the thesis - that outside interference and government colonialism has blighted Highland history - but in the way the thesis is developed. Instead of a direct polemical narrative, there are constant excursions to the highways and byways of Highland life. There are far too many moments when the author steps out from his analysis to sit on a hillside and muse on what lies before him.

Given his achievements, it is hard to accuse James Hunter of lacking courage. But Last of the Free is timid and rambling at times, constantly edging off its author's main argument. And it is hedged about with such reservations as to all but invalidate the central thrust of its thinking.

That is a pity. I write this in my Argyll home, looking from my study window across Loch Riddon. I, and many like me, are sympathetic to Hunter's approach - and not least to his plea that the new Parliament give the maximum freedom of operation to the Highlands and islands.

Hunter is right to say in his concluding chapter that much good has been achieved in the Highlands and islands, and given the right circumstances much more will be accomplished. He is equally right to lay blame on the rest of the Scotland and the rest of the UK for the brutal treatment of the Highlands and islands and their people. And a full share of that blame should lie with the clan chieftains and landlords who were willing and well rewarded agents of distant governments from the seventeenth century onwards. But these conclusions are not new, despite the hype in his publisher's press release.

Understanding the past is a prerequisite to influencing the future. There is no shortage of present and past writing attempting to explain Highland history. But there is very little that does so with rigorous scholarship and indignant passion, and still less that seeks to construct a new future as a result of our knowledge of the past.

The combination of those factors has been Hunter's great strength. This book displays none of them consistently. I hope that Hunter can find again that form as a writer, scholar and activist that makes him of such importance to modern Scotland. There are occasional flashes of it in the pages of Last of the Free, not least in his spirited defence of those who come to settle in the Highlands and his reminder to any native prejudice that even the Gaels and Vikings were at one time white settlers. But the bright light that he has often shed on one of the remotest and ill treated, yet most vibrant and potentially successful, parts of Scotland is strangely dimmed here.

Michael Russell is the SNP's parliamentary business manager

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