TAC 48 Index
Birlinn, 2000, 200pp, ISBN 1 84158 019 8, £7.99
AT LAST YEAR'S Independence Day celebrations at Inverie, I suggested to Dave Smith of Airor that somebody should write a history of Knoydart. I hastened to add that it wouldn't be me; it needed someone connected with the community. Denis Rixson teaches at Mallaig High School and has already written a booklet on the depopulation of the peninsula (Knoydart: 1750-1894), so he's well qualified. In this latest work he presents a more detailed account of the area - the Pictish, Norse and Gaelic influences - and suggests some conclusions as to its future. It may be of only peripheral interest to TACites, but I've always found that a background knowledge of its history helped me to better appreciate an area.
The book is a hard-eyed look at life in general, and some people in particular. Nobody writing a history can be truly objective, but Rixson comes very close. He dismisses any romantic views of the clan system, and of Highland life in general, so this is not a book for simple-lifers or misty-eyed neo-Jacobites. (Good - hard-eyed Ed.) Knoydart men had earned a bad reputation as savage thieves long before the repression of the post-Culloden era. Coll Macdonald of Barrisdale, in particular, seems to have been an incorrigible rogue who practised blackmail as a way of life.
Even from earliest times, Knoydart can never have been really prosperous, so it's strange that it actually became over-populated in the late 18th century. People have migrated throughout the centuries, either by choice or by desperation, and this should have ensured that population size remained fairly constant. Unfortunately, those who left by choice were usually those with capital or skills. It was on those left behind that the Macdonnell clearances fell most heavily.
Surprisingly, Rixson ends the factual history immediately after the land raid of 1948. Nothing is said about the half-century since then. To me, these are the most interesting times, even by the Chinese definition of the term. I would have liked Rixson's views on Philip Rhodes, who split up the old 55000-acre estate and helped bring about the present state of affairs by enabling purchase of smaller areas. The scandal of the Titaghur/KPL years is not mentioned at all. Perhaps there's scope for a book on those years alone?
Rixson rightly concludes that there is no real future in agriculture on Knoydart. When farmers in the good lands of Perthshire find it hard to make a reasonable living, it's doubtful if the thin sour soil of Knoydart could provide even subsistence farming. I hope he is being deliberately provocative when he suggests that perhaps the best that can be done is "...public subsidy; allowing the rich and charitable to have holiday homes; tree-planting; and cosseting wildlife". As he says, "The old history of Knoydart is over".
Now there's a chance for the people of Knoydart to start a new history, beginning from March 1999. Knoydart - A history is a worthwhile aid to understanding the past so that we can plan for the future.
TAC 48 Index