The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition, 1745-1820.
Urban historians who lead busy lives may wish to know that they don't have to read this book. It is 99.9 percent urban history free. On the other hand, historians, of any stripe, who don't read The People of Glengarry will have missed quite a lot, for this is an original and valuable piece of work.
Marianne McLean has set out to study the remarkable series of group migrations that brought Scottish Highlanders from western Invreness to Glengarry County in Upper Canada between 1784 and 1815. Adhering to a view she shares with other current scholars of immigration and settlementthat it is possible to make sense of the development of settlement in the new world only if the nature of the old world society that provided the settlers is first understoodshe has adopted a three part approach. The early chapters examine in detail the changing society and economy of western Inverness between 1745 and 1800, a middle section deals with the emigrants themselves, including those who followed a more conventional chain migration pattern after 1815, and the final chapters describe the actual settlement of Glengarry County in which succeeding emigrant groups and kin groups "created a new Highland community."
Any discussion of emigration from the Highlands must confront the contentious question of whether those who left were voluntary emigrants or unwilling exiles. Dr. McLean manages to come down more or less in the middle of this debate. They were not evicted but left voluntarily, even against the wishes of their landlords, yet they believed that they had been forced to go because as "a proud and self reliant people" they could not accept the changed conditions they were faced with, which included grossly higher rents and the conversion of much land to sheep farming. This conclusion is not so wishy-washy as it may appear, and in reaching it Dr. McLean firmly disagrees with much that has been written by others. She rejects the view that emigration before 1815 was not a form of protest against economic change, that emigration can be attributed to population increase, that emigration was a way of avoiding a commercial economy and preserving a traditional society, or that clearances for sheep were irrelevant before 1815 and were merely "invented" by the emigrants as a rationalization of their decision to leave. The evidence on which this revisionist position is based is on the whole convincing, especially since it derives from a specific case study of actual people in their actual setting and not on the kind of generalized studies of population and emigration which have usually been done.
Dr. McLean has done about as much as anyone could to get at the conditions and motives of ordinary Highlanders. They were "noted for their intense conservatism" but made a "radical" decision. But she also rightly puts a good deal of stress on the crucial role of the "Highland gentlemen" who were the leaders, organizers and go-betweens for the emigrants, both in Scotland and in Upper Canada. Her view of these men is not romantic; they were decidedly self-interested, seeing a chance to rebuild their eroding fortunes, prestige and authority in a new land, something they were in fact quite successful in doing, at least for a couple of generations. Dr. McLean never explicitly says so, but the reader nonetheless gets the distinct impression that the successive group migrations (except for that of 1815) would probably not have happened at all without their initiative, and her explanatin for the absence of group migration after 1815 includes the fact that there simply weren't any gentlemen left "as individuals and as a class" in the Highlands. A cynic might suggest that some not so self reliant sheep had been led away by their shepherds.
This book fits well with the recent work of other historians of immigration in finding that immigration was family and kin based and was drawn from people of at least modest resources, though Glengarry seems to have been somewhat unusual in the way in which the immigrants continued to remain fixated on a single destination and the extent to which the chain of migrants was made up of groups, rahter than individual families. Such differences, from Irish migrants for instance, are not stressed in the book and while Dr. McLean notes that Glengarrians have always seen themselves as coming from a special place, she argues in her conclusion that Glengarry may in fact have been typical of Upper Canada as a whole since Highland characteristics" loyalty, defence of local interest and conservatism" were widely shared in the province. Widely shared to a degree perhaps, but one suspects that Upper Canadians in other areas and of other backgrounds (such as Americans and Lowland Scots) would have felt that Glengarrians had an excess of such virtues.
On one major subject which might have been assumed to be of some significance--religion--the book is curiously reticent. There are occasional references to priests and to the Roman Catholic church, but their role is treated, if at all, as a minor one, though surely the emigrant groups were not defined by family and region alone, but also by a shared faith. Nor is ther any suggestion of religious division within the Highland community; they are simply all assumed to have been Roman Catholic. How then are we to explain the fact that when the first reliable denominational census for Glengarry was taken in 1851, Catholics and Protestants were almost exactly equal in numbers in the county? Evidently there is a second "People of Glengarry" who remain to be given equally expert attention.
J. K. Johnson
Department of History
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|Publication:||Urban History Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1991|
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