Fine sport for demons in human form! (Donald MacLeod, cleared Highlander and author of Gloomy Memories)
I think it’s important to understand what they were and not forget them, because it’s like so much [of] human history. (Alexander MacLeod, Associated Clan MacLeod Societies)
The visitor to the Scottish Highlands today can gaze upon beautiful vistas, filled with deer forests, castles and golf courses and with few signs of inhabitation for miles. It is hard to believe that, once, these hills were one of the most populated areas of Western Europe. What happened to the former inhabitants, and where did they go?
The Highland Clearances were the forcible removal of the indigenous population of the Highlands and Islands to make way for sheep, and later, deer.
Voices Over the Water is a documentary look at these Clearances and the resulting emigration and diaspora. It explores what life was like before the industrial revolution took hold, before the clan chiefs made their life-altering plans; the songs, the poetry, how many in the rest of Britain viewed these mostly Gaelic-speaking people, and the political backdrop to what was about to happen.
Voices Over the Water goes to many of the sites where change and conflict happened, places such as the ruins of cleared villages on Mull and Strathbrora in Sutherland, the battlefield of Culloden, the haunting legacy at Croick Church. Through letters, eyewitness accounts and newspaper coverage from the time, we reveal some of the hardships faced, journeys taken, and the reactions of the wider world to the plight of the Highlanders, including their interactions with Indigenous people in the United States and Canada, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
In Voices Over the Water you will see many of the places Highlanders settled such as the Cape Fear area of North Carolina, Cape Breton in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. We will look at how the emigrants’ experienced their new homelands.
In telling this story, we will include readings, archival sounds and images. We will hear echoes of the past in songs, poems and stories (Gaelic and English) told by descendants of those who were cleared, impassioned interviews with curators of Highland history, eminent historians, along with commentary by members of cultural organizations, politicians, artists, poets, and musicians, from Scotland, New York, North Carolina, Canada, and Australia, and elsewhere. Actor portrayals and voice-over narration will let the natural drama to unfold as we present different viewpoints side by side. The documentary will draw on the many materials in archives, museums, and art galleries from all areas of Scottish settlement, including drawings, paintings, maps, letters, and artifacts to illustrate the rich tapestry of this story.
The documentary includes a moving rendition of the Scottish classic song Auld Lang Syne by interviewee Kate Taylor, performing an adaptation written by James Taylor and Charles Witham.
The filmmakers explore to what extent the Highland settlers made contributions to the cultures of their new homelands and how their Gaelic language fared. Voices Over the Water also looks at what identity means to different people, and shares in the popularity of family and community gatherings such as ceilidhs, Burn’s Night dinners, Highland Games and a Tartan Day parade. At these events, we witness the pride of those of Scottish and specifically Highland descent, and hear the words of others who have found their identity in this particular culture.
Voices Over the Water also observes the ways in which some have adopted a romanticized view of Highland identity to create a new mythology. We ask, are some participants simply “tasting” Scottish culture by selectively choosing certain aspects of the culture to adopt as their own?
The role of Gaeldom in culture is also explored, as Dr. Michael Newton states:
While the construction of Highlandism is a favourite topic of sociologists in a Scottish context, the vantage point is almost always external: the reaction of Gaels and impact upon Gaelic culture is almost never explored or even acknowledged. (Virtual Gael)
Finally, the program explores the notion of a class warfare as part of the Highland Clearances story. This story is a universal one and relevant today as it exemplifies the collision between rapidly growing commercial enterprise and the values of traditional societies, throughout the world. Enclosure of land, “improvement” upon neighborhoods and expulsion of local communities are still being carried out. Today there is often heated debate over their causation and outcomes.
Voices Over the Water historian Eric Richards states that the terms “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” “economic displacement” and “population control” have been widely used to relate the tragic story of the Highland Clearances. Are there issues of the present-day which mirror the Clearance narratives (e.g. gentrification, eminent domain, the exploitation of land and sustainability)? What significance do the Clearances have in regards to the worldwide diaspora? How significant were the Clearances in causing such a large number of people to relocate across the globe? What aspects of Gaelic and Highland culture were brought with them to new lands? Voices Over the Water seeks to shed light on the debates and present differing interpretations.