"Donald Ross and the Highland Clearances" by Andrew Ross is a superbly-researched book that should be considered essential reading for anyone with an interest in one of the darkest episodes in Scotland's history, certainly in the last couple of centuries of it. Ironically enough the very nature of the Highland Clearances means that there will be very many times more people living outwith Scotland whose backgrounds and lives are directly influenced by the events recorded in this book than there are who still reside here. In Scotland, the clearances left man-made deserts that are still obvious today: what happened has to be worked out from the absence of the people who once lived here. In Canada or Australia or the USA or in the many other places the Scottish diaspora - much of it driven by clearance - settled, the stories in this book form part of people's DNA.
What is particularly fascinating is that in "Donald Ross and the Highland Clearances", Andrew Ross (one of Donald's great-great-great-great-grandsons) has succeeded in presenting the history of an important part of the Highland Clearances through a detailed and painstakingly-researched biography of one man, Donald Ross.
I'll let the publisher's blurb take the strain in describing the contents of the book: "The Highland Clearances was a dark episode in Scottish history when many thousands of people were forced off lands that they and their kin had lived on for generations. Some boarded ships destined for the colonies of America and Australia, others ended up on small barren plots by the coast or in city slums. A few men were outspoken against the atrocities, and one of them was Donald Ross. Donald Ross was a Highlander, born in Sutherland in 1813. His father was the miller on the Skibo Castle Estate and Donald took over the mill when his father died. He and his family were subsequently evicted, fighting against their eviction in the Supreme Court but losing the case. Donald moved to Glasgow and within two years, as Agent for the Poor, helped over 1,500 people receive poor-relief payments, which were being withheld by local parish boards. In the 1850s Donald became the most outspoken critic of the Highland Clearances and wrote many detailed newspaper articles and pamphlets about mass evictions on Barra, Knoydart and Skye. His most famous publication was The Massacre of the Rosses, in which he graphically described the women of Strathcarron being brutally beaten by policemen for refusing to accept eviction notices. Donald supplied over 8,000 books and pamphlets for emigrants on the ill-fated Hercules. He also raised a lot of money to help poor people in the Hebrides, particularly during the infamous Potato Famine. However, Donald’s efforts were cut short by a scandal that saw him and his family emigrate to Nova Scotia. Donald’s inspirational story makes him an unsung hero of the poor."
This book isn't easy reading in any sense of the expression. The author has gone into considerable detail about his subject and the result is a book that will be of lasting value to future students of the clearances and - especially - of Donald Ross. What I found most interesting was the way the author has succeeded in taking what feels like a very balanced approach to the life and achievements of his ancestor. It becomes clear in the book that Donald Ross was a man who, at times, wouldn't let excessive adherence to the facts get in the way of telling a sensational story if he thought a little embroidery of the truth could bring the injustices of the clearances to a wider and more sympathetic audience. This probably made him no different from other journalists at the time and - certainly - since. But it's almost possible to imagine the "oh, no!" moment when Andrew Ross discovered the extent of his ancestor's fabrication and had to set out to separate truth from exaggeration or even fiction in what Donald Ross had written in order to give an objective assessment of Donald's achievements.
This is an excellent biography of Donald Ross and an excellent account of the Highland Clearances. It's also a book whose considerable value as a source of reference seems likely to endure.