John Prebble - The Highland Clearances (1963)
- Tim Abrahams
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Although born in Middlesex, John Prebble grew up in Sutherland, a town in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. It was amongst the descendants of Scottish emigrants – offspring of the crofters who had been forced to leave the Highlands by landlords intent on using land for sheep farming – that he first drank in Scotland's history. In his autobiography he describes his primary school teacher Miss Campbell: 'Although [she] had never been to Scotland, she spoke of it with an intense pride … telling us about that far land of mist and mountain [which] was in so great a contrast to the familiar world about us, the wide and treeless prairie.'
Through his RAF service during World War II and a subsequent spell as a journalist, he went where Miss Campbell had not. His relationship with Scotland grew through a sense of injustice at a mythical world lost. For although The Highland Clearances is packed with superb characterisation and finely wrought dramatic moments (Prebble wrote the screenplay for Zulu around the same time), his indignation overtakes his dedication to the truth. 'He was coal and wool joined by a stately hyphen and ennobled by five coronets,' writes Prebble of George Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland, before casting him as a villain.
That Sutherland paid people to clear his lands is true, but as later historians such as Eric Richards have shown, Sutherland's wife, a native Scot, was the prime mover in the area's 'improvement'. Writing in his autobiography, published in 1993, Prebble excused himself and explains why his book has an enduring appeal. 'I wish I had been able to read [Richard's history] 30 years ago when I was writing my own and when to my knowledge, no academic was taking an interest in the Clearances, systematic or cinematic.'
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