Links between Scotland and the New World are stronger than our

connections with England, says James Hunter in a new book on the


LAST night the Highland historian Dr James Hunter's latest book, A

Dance Called America, was launched in Edinburgh. It is a book that

should be read by everyone of Highland descent and by any Scot who has

more than a passing interest in his or her sense of nationality.

Its title is that of a Runrig song which in turn was based on the

entry of Saturday, October 2, 1773, in James Boswell's Journal of a Tour

to the Hebrides: ''In the evening the company danced as usual. We

performed, with much activity, a dance which, I suppose, the emigration

from Skye has occasioned. They call it America. Each of the couples,

after the common involutions and evolutions, successively whirls round

in a circle, till all are in motion; and the dance seems intended to

show how emigration catches, till a whole neighbourhood is set afloat.''

Boswell and Dr Johnson witnessed this dance in a house in the Sleat

area of Skye. Boswell's is the only reference we have, serving to

underline just how incomplete has been our knowledge of the massive

emigrations from the Highlands and Islands in the eighteenth and even

nineteenth centuries.

Jim Hunter has addressed that in this, his most serious and ambitious

history since he published his seminal work The Making of the Crofting

Community in 1976. That book was the first successful attempt to

support, in an academically reputable way, the sad oral tradition of

nineteenth-century Highland history, which had been dismissed by so many

established academic historians.

Since then Hunter has continued to write on the Highlands, but he has

also been prepared to contribute a little more.

He was the founding director of the Scottish Crofters Union; he was

appointed as a board member of Highlands and Islands Enterprise; he is

vice-chairman of the North West Regional Board of Scottish Natural

Heritage; he is a member of the John Muir Trust; and most recently was

the founding director of Barail, the Centre for Highlands and Islands

Policy Studies.

The last-named body is not quite as grand as it sounds. Rather it is a

group of people living and working in the Highlands and Islands who are

tired of Highland policy being shaped and determined anywhere but in the

Highlands. But Barail's activities epitomise what seems to drive this

quiet man from Duror, a determination that there will be something

meaningful in the twenty-first century for the Highland people and their


None who know Jim Hunter and the depth of his commitment to his own

people, past and present, will be surprised that he finally decided to

follow them across the Atlantic. With the old Jacobites to North

Carolina and Georgia, there to fight for the same British Crown which a

few years before they were trying to overthrow; with the Fraser

Highlanders to fight the French and Indian War that was to inspire James

Fenimore Cooper; with Wolfe to Quebec; with Archibald MacDonald of

Glencoe leading his small band from Kildonan (including John

Diefenbaker's great-grandfather) from Hudson Bay down the prairies; with

the fur trappers; and the explorers.

But always back and forward across the Atlantic to see the Uist men

chased by police with dogs determined to get them on the emigrant ships;

the Act of Parliament making it difficult for earlier islanders to leave

while the kelp industry was still making money from the landlords; and

to see the people dying in the stinking holds of the unseaworthy timber

ships carrying Gaels to Canada rather than ballast. Hunter's anger is

almost tangible, but always controlled by disciplined scholarship.

The real achievement of A Dance Called America, however, is its deep

insight into emigrants' feelings for their home. Most in Scotland assume

that the subsequent comparative economic success of the emigrants was to

be based on foundations of chronic homesickness and melancholy;

generations looking back eastwards to the land they had left.

This is not what Hunter found. There was pain at leaving, a deep pain,

but the majority would have identified with John MacCorkindale's Gaelic

song, Oran le seann Ileach (Song of old Islayman), about his new life in

Ontario: ''This is a free land for people who suffered extortion in the

country they left. They are free from the summons of agents and from the

landlord's arrogance; from every factor and bailie who used to harrass

them and bring the roof down on their heads.''

This surprised Hunter himself, as he told The Herald at his home in

the crofting township of Borve on Skye last week: ''In writing the book

one thing that comes through very, very strongly in the Gaelic songs,

was this huge sense of liberation, of discovering freedom, that

Highlanders had when they got to North America.

''I hadn't appreciated just how strong that was, and today how much

that means to people of Highland extraction and how strongly they

identify with the US and Canada, and the localities they settle, be it

Glengarry County in Ontario or Cape Breton island or whatever. I don't

think we appreciate this. There tends to be this self-gratifying view

taken in Scotland that these people just wish they had never left.

''Their Highland roots are enormously important to them, but what they

are celebrating at the Glengarry Highland Games and similar festivals is

the profound sense of community generated over the last 200 years in

North America. They are celebrating the fact of being North American

Scottish Highlanders, an experience which owes little or nothing to

Scotland. They don't do things the way we do in Scotland. But why should


In truth they have much to celebrate. Highland Scots cannot claim to

have created modern Canada, but it couldn't have been created without


Stornoway-born Alexander MacKenzie and Simon Fraser from Strathglass

left their names on two of Canada's greatest rivers. They, along with

all the other members of that extended Highland family that was the

fur-trading North West Company, ensured that Canada would stretch to the

Pacific, preventing the USA from pushing north. The North West Company

hardly rates a mention in our history books but it made the running, not

the near moribund but celebrated Hudson Bay Company.

It was Glasgow-born Sir John A MacDonald, whose father was from Strath

Oykel and his mother from Stathspey, who was to become Canada's first

Prime Minister, the father of Confederation. It was MacDonald along with

two other Scots, George Stephen and Doanld Smith (later to become Lord

Strathcona), cousins of families also from Strathspey, who were to build

the Canadian Pacific Railway coast to coast. This more than anything

ensured the integrity of Canada.

There were more, many more tales of achievement. These were the same

Highland people described by Patrick Sellar as ''the aborigines'' who

were characterised mainly by their ''sloth, poverty, and filth''. But

the backcloth to their achievement was a new land with its own people.

The Highlanders' attitudes to the native Americans varied greatly.

Ullapool-born George Simpson, who was to head the amalgamated Hudson and

North West Companies, believed: ''They must be ruled with a rod of iron

to . . . keep them in a proper state of subordination.'' Angus

MacDonald, whose uncle Archibald had led the Kildonan people to

Manitoba, meanwhile lived with the Indians, could talk several Indian

languages and married Catherine who belonged to the Nez Perce tribe.

Jim Hunter met their great-great-grandson Tom Branson when he was

researching the book. Tom is an Indian but can trace one side of his

people back to Leacantuim in Glencoe.

So what does it all mean to Jim Hunter? ''I remember at the time of

the last election when separation was again an issue, there were lots of

articles written by people starry-eyed about Scotland's relationship

with England. I know what they meant but from my own perspective there

is far stronger link with Canada, and I am not alone.

''When I was doing the research and talking to old people in the

islands, it was obvious that their generation have a far clearer mental

image of Canadian geography than English geography. They know where

Winnipeg is in relation to Vancouver but Birmingham to Manchester less

so. It is not surprising because there will scarcely be a family in the

Highlands which doesn't have family in Canada.

''I believe there should be a far closer relationship between Canada

and Scotland. We have tended to leave this to the clan societies but

there could be some real economic mileage for the Highlands. It is

something that the new Highland Council should explore. Perhaps we

should start with the Millennium Fund having the biggest family reunion

ever recorded.'' The ceilidh of the century.

* A Dance Called America: The Scottish Highlands, the United States

and Canada, by James Hunter is published by Mainstream Publishing, price