Celtic Life International looks to Highlanders

The latest edition of Celtic Life International is turning up at newsstands around the world. It features an excerpt from my forthcoming book Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, which is now available for pre-order. The excerpt begins like so:

In his bestsellers How
the Scots Invented Canada
and Celtic
, Ken McGoogan wrote about how, in the 18th and 19th
centuries, Scotland (and Ireland) sent Canada numerous talented, high-energy
figures who led the way in forging a nation. In his forthcoming book,
Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of
Ken turns to the common people, and particularly to those who came
to Canada as a result of the Highland Clearances. He tells the story of those
forgotten Scots who, frequently betrayed by their own chieftains and evicted
from their ancestral lands, found themselves battling hardship, hunger, and
hostility in a New World they could scarcely have imagined . . . .

Chapter 3: The Old Way of Life

In the Celtic tradition, “Thin Places”
are sites where the natural and spiritual worlds meet and intermingle,
separated by the merest veil. The ancient Celts would visit these sacred sites,
among them Stonehenge in England and the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, to
experience the presence of their gods. For avowedly secular types, the concept
works better historically. I think of t
he reconstructed Gaelic village in the Highland Folk Museum 45
miles south of Inverness, where you can wander in and out of blackhouses and
see people at work in the clothing and spirit of another time.
same goes for
Auchindrain Township,
six miles south of Inverary.
It is the only stone-built settlement to
survive essentially unaltered from among hundreds that existed before the Highland
Clearances. And what of the
Gearrannan Blackhouse Village at a beautiful
waterside location on the Isle of Lewis?

All three
of those sites provide
a sense of how most Highlanders lived in the
decades before and after the mid-1700s, when the Battle of Culloden marked the
beginning of the end for the Old Order.
Political and military historians of the Middle Ages focus on
kings and aristocrats and the battles they fought, won, or lost. But most
Highlanders were farmers who stayed home in small townships made up of extended

They lived in “blackhouses,’ so-designated because they were dark,
windowless, and blackened by peat-fire smoke. 
The term distinguishes them from the “white houses” which came later and
introduced such amenities as windows and toilets. In Thatched Houses, author Colin Sinclair identifies three types of blackhouses
according to their roof styles. The Hebridean has four walls of the same height
and a ledge running around the edge of the roof. The Skye has four similar
walls but no ledge: the thatch runs over the edge. And the Dailriadic has a
Skye-style roof but pointed walls at two opposite ends providing for a pitched

The common features among these three types tell us more about how
people lived. Besides their thatched roofs and walls made of stone or peat
slabs, blackhouses were usually oblong and divided into three compartments. You
would enter the house through a flimsy door that opens into the byre or
cow-house that forms one of the two end compartments. You would see two small
black cows reclining on a bed of straw. But the place stinks of cow dung and
chicken droppings so why tarry? You turn right and, through an opening or pass
door, step through an internal wall into the main apartment. The third
compartment is straight ahead, divided from this room by a wooden partition
containing another pass door covered with a blanket.

You can’t help but notice the smoke, which gets thicker higher up,
and you crouch to avoid the worst of it. The smoke curls upwards from a peat
fire which sits on a stone slab in the middle of this dirt-floor apartment. It
drifts eventually through a hole in the thatch located off-centre so that heavy
rains do not douse the flames. A three-legged iron pot hangs over the fire from
a chain attached to a beam in the roof. You sit down on a bench that occupies a
side wall and notice a dresser neatly displaying rows of plates. Beneath it
sits a washtub and beside it a wooden bucket.

Welcome to the house of the Gael in the Old Highlands. It allows
for conversation and conviviality around the glowing peat fire, but mainly it
provides shelter from the storm – though the roof of the blackhouse is not
water tight. In rainy weather, heavy drops of inky black water make their way
through the thatch. This happens often enough that people have a name for those
falling droplets: snighe.

When weather permits, not surprisingly, the common folk spend most of
their time outdoors. They tend their crops and their cattle.
When James Boswell passed this way with Dr. Samuel Johnson in
1773, he wrote, “we had not rooms that we could command, for the good people
here had no notion that a man could have any occasion but a mere sleeping

(To read the rest of this excerpt, pick up the June issue of Celtic Life International. The book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, is now available for pre-order.)

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