Myths of Genocide: Answering Bella’s Experts

by Jeggit

On Wednesday this week Mike Small published an article on his blog Bella Caledonia in which he sought, through the opinion of certain eminent Scottish historians, to debunk the “myths of genocide” – as he sees them – that have been circulating in recent weeks in relation to the Clearances. His reason for this interjection, as he writes, is that this “manufacture of grievance” – as a “hysterical account of the past” – does not “serve the movement for Scottish independence.”

Small’s piece, however, is entirely vague on the question of who precisely has been doing all this grievance mongering and hysterical storytelling; leaving Seonaidh to ask in the comments: “Just wondering who actually said it constituted ‘genocide?’” On the face of it, Mr Small was putting right a matter no one appears to have put wrong. Of course this was not the case. The author was simply unwilling to credit the original source of these “myths.”

Omitting this detail was rather dishonest, but I would say this – because I am that original source. On 27 May 2016 I published “The Scottish Genocide” on this website suggesting just that, that the behaviour of the British authorities towards the Highlanders and Islanders during the Clearances was genocidal. More recently on my own blog, Random Public Journal, I revisited this topic, arguing that – in light of international law – there is a case to be made vis-à-vis the perpetration of genocide in Scotland at that time.

In the original 2016 piece I pre-empted Mike Small’s disingenuous effort to reframe my proposition as the deliberate manufacture of grievance as part of a cynical ploy to bolster support for Scottish independence. I state this more firmly in an article due for publication in March in iScot Magazine (submitted prior to the piece in Bella Caledonia) in which I write:

It is not the purpose of this article to instrumentalise the experiences of those expelled from the Highlands and Islands in order to aggravate or antagonise those who deny this proposal… Nor is this intended to create a new grievance with which to pursue a political agenda or to elicit a sense of shame.

On this point, at least, Mr Small and I agree. Whether the later Clearances in the Highlands and Islands were genocide, ethnic cleansing, or the regrettable and unforeseen consequences of economic progress, real people suffered – and terribly so. It is always wrong to instrumentalise the suffering of others in the service of one’s own political agenda. This is both cruel and selfish.

My purpose in writing of this in the first place was twofold; to raise awareness of the Clearances in Scotland – something few of us learned in school – and, more importantly, to highlight the gross injustice visited upon the men, women, and children who were forcibly expelled from their homes and from Scotland as a result of expedient economic policy and as a consequence of the British establishment in Scotland’s racist ill-opinion of them. Throughout everything I have written on this sad episode in our history the focus has remained firmly on this question of justice, and this is where Mike Small’s article goes entirely awry.

Hoping to confound my appeal to justice he solicited the opinion of “two of Scotland’s most respected historians;” namely Tom Devine, Professor Emeritus at Edinburgh University, and James Hunter, “an award-winning historian” and Director for the UHI Centre for History. Yet these consultations were wholly unnecessary. Who am I to dispute Scottish history with Emeritus Professors Devine and Hunter? In spite of Mike Small’s repeated and obnoxious insistence to the contrary over social media, I have never disputed the evidence of history or the opinions of these two illustrious men.

As Mike Small did not see fit to cite me anywhere in what he wrote, he is certainly not in a position to show me or anyone where I have disputed the events of the past. At best what he has done is to have constructed an unnamed and unquoted strawman, a paper tiger completely of his own making. In the academy, the natural habitat of Professors Devine and Hunter both, we call this dishonesty.

Thus it is regrettable that these esteemed historians have been put in a position in which, without any more context than a simple question, they have opined that my thoughts are at once an “insult to people who have genuinely experienced organised slaughter on a huge scale” – à la James Hunter – and a “ludicrous” and “bizarre assertion” – à la Tom Devine. This is regrettable because both of these men have issued a decision on a subject that is beyond their competence. Neither Devine nor Hunter are qualified – as far as I am aware – to speak on international criminal law and to determine what is justice and injustice in matters of law.

In fact Professor Hunter makes this obvious himself when he equates genocide to “slaughter on a huge scale.” In law that would be mass murder, defined as the “intentional and indiscriminate murder of a large number of people.” Genocide is neither indiscriminate nor is it limited to a given number of victims. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish Jewish law professor who coined the term genocide, was unambiguous when he wrote that “genocide can be carried out through acts against individuals” in his 1946 article, “Genocide,” in the American Scholar journal. Had James Hunter been a law professor he would have known this, but he is not. He is a brilliant historian.

Mike Small’s article goes on in the closing paragraphs to interpret what he thinks is Article II of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, that part of the “Genocide Convention” I cite in my second article, to show “what does not constitute genocide.” The Convention says no such thing. It would appear that Mike Small is no law professor either. What he quotes is legal opinion attached to a fragment of the Convention on the United Nations’ website and not the Convention itself. For the purposes of law only the wording of the Convention and the determination of justices in specific cases matter.

In quoting mere opinion he writes: “Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group. It is this special intent, or dolus specialis, what makes the crime of genocide so unique.” Indeed this is a valid legal opinion, no doubt written by a legal expert in the employ of the United Nations, but – like all opinion – not everyone agrees. Those responsible for the successful application to the International Criminal Court at the Hague concerning the genocide at Srebrenica disagreed. The application and final judgement (26 February 2007) reads:

…the Applicant first points to an alleged policy by the Bosnian Serb forces to encircle civilians of the protected group in villages, towns or entire regions and to subsequently shell those areas and cut off all supplies in order to starve the population. Secondly, the Applicant claims that Bosnian Serb forces attempted to deport and expel the protected group from the areas which those forces occupied. Finally, the Applicant alleges that Bosnian Serb forces attempted to eradicate all traces of the culture of the protected group through the destruction of historical, religious and cultural property.

This is not mere legal opinion from a website following a quick Google search. This is the wording of an International Criminal Court judgment pursuant to the precise terms of Article II of the Genocide Convention. But this is beside the point. At no time did I argue the Clearances were an act of genocide on the grounds of cultural destruction. The case I make – and this too is only opinion – will be published in full in the upcoming issue of iScot Magazine.

It was never my intention for any of this to become a serious issue or a cause for falling out. For what it is worth, I sincerely regret that so many cross words have been spoken over this question in recent days. Yet, having read into the law of genocide and the events of the Clearances – which I do not dispute with Professors Devine and Hunter, I stand by my opinion. Others may see this differently, and of course this is each person’s prerogative. All I have sought to do is to present the law as I read it in plain English and invite open and honest discussion on the subject. I am at least glad that this whole affair has caused many more people to start thinking about these events.

Whoever destroys one life destroys an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved the world entire.
Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 37a


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The Butterfly Rebellion
Jason Michael
Ayrshire, Scotland

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3 thoughts on “Myths of Genocide: Answering Bella’s Experts

  1. Very eloquently put, JM, but then, I find most all of your work so.

    You’ve been nothing but honourable and dignified throughout this last few days and, at the risk of raking-up muck once more, I cannot understand why you’d be so vehemently attacked over this – by one of our own – when your stance has been largely ignored (accepted?) in anti-independence circles. Nor can I understand why some individuals are intent on attacking certain blogs/bloggers when communication between indy-supporters must be considered essential, I truly cannot.

    I look forward to the iScot piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have read both this article and Mike Small’s article in Bella Caledonia. I write both as a ( centre) right -wing maverick who has supported Scottish independence all my life and as a Leaver in terms of Brexit. I am also a Highlander who is separated by only five generations from one of the last violent acts of the Clearances which occurred at the so-called “Battle of Airdeans” close to Bonar Bridge, Sutherland. Highland children of the 1960s and 70s were well informed about the Clearances because the folk tradition was very much alive. I love Highland culture and the Gaelic language viscerally. I am also an oilman and I live in a modern world which has been blessed by technology and capitalism. There need not and must not be a conflict between Highland culture and modernity.

    I am inclined to agree with Jason that in technical terms there could possibly have been a Highland Clearances genocide under the Article 2 of the 1948 Convention. Off course the Convention was not in force at the relevant time. I look forward to seeing Jason’s upcoming article. There was certainly an attempt ( well meaning by some) to ridicule and eliminate the Celtic culture of the people of the Highlands. To some extent I have not totally escaped this on a personal basis. My father for instance was not a fluent Gaelic speaker but his English was filled with Gaelic words and his English contained much Gaelic idiom. While beautiful, interesting and sometimes funny, this was not the sign of a healthy culture. This child of 1960 felt that he had “lost” his real culture through arriving too late. Even Highlanders felt that Gaelic was a defeated culture and that any efforts to learn the language were exercises in eccentricity. Having now learnt a lot of Gaelic ( but not being fluent, sadly) I see the appalling cultural loss occasioned by our historic cultural experiences. I was originally drawn to the SNP as a child because I saw the party as being( among other things) a force which could restore our Highland fortunes. In all fairness, the advent of a Scottish Parliament and a historic vote on independence has gone a long way to change matters. The Gaelic language is now a priority but it may be too late.

    On the genocide issue, I think that MIke Small has the better political approach in that there is little purpose in arguing that the Highland Clearances could have been a technical genocide. Firstly, the Clearances happened long before the Genocide Convention was even thought off. Secondly, in terms of popular understanding of genocide, the Highland Clearances simply do not qualify. The popular understanding requires mass killing with the intention of destroying a people or religious group. The concept arises from the Holocaust. The 1948 Convention is very much a child of its era. Notice that Article 2 does not work for destruction of a “class” Therefore, since Stalin was intent “only” in murdering 4 to 6 million kulaks who lived in the Ukraine this would not be genocide. The definition of legal genocide is unsound and written like it is because of the presence of the Communist tyrannies.

    Another wider point which should be made is that with Scottish education firmly in Scottish hands since 1998, what efforts have successive Holyrood administrations made to teach our history and culture in Scottish schools? My teenager has just left school with a couple of good highers including an “A” in History. I saw for myself the depressing and pointless “Curriculum for Excellence” This is all about “skills”.I can hardly bear to hear the word. There is a myth out there that “facts” are dull and boring and should be ignored. When I learn Gaelic, or Scottish history or attempt to finance an oilfield, I need to learn the salient facts. From these facts, I can then hone skills. The vital facts of our history are being lost wholesale. When we visited Stirling recently my son thought that Bannockburn
    was an English victory! 1314 is arguably the salient date in Scottish history. My sister is also a life- long independence supporter. She has a special interest in the National Covenant of 1638 and the Covenanters. Our people do not know about the existence of the Covenant!

    So Jason, why not dedicate future work to raising the profile of our history and culture? You clearly wish to do this. We Highlanders and Scots do not need to be victims. We must be realistic and resourceful like our fore-fathers.

    Mar Sin Leibh

    Uilleam

    Liked by 1 person

    • Problem with all that William, is that genocide is not “a political approach.” It is a LEGAL definition. THAT was and is my point. Is there anyone capable of understanding this, or are we all just to used to accepting the changeable definition that will always change so as to never upset anyone?

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