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I find it difficult to concentrate on the news. Most of what the media offer as news is so incredibly déja vu – make that déja lu: I read more than I watch. Consequently, my mind tends to wander from one thing to another. It confuses times, places and protagonists. Lately, there were stories in the news about a Christian ruler who resolved to make war on barbarity. If my memory serves me right, they came down to this:

James VI of Scotland, a.k.a. James I of England, had a low opinion of a large part of his Scottish subjects: the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and especially the inhabitants of the western isles. In his Basilikon Doron (1598) – the same book in which he advised his son always to remember that God has destined him to be "a little God to sit on his throne and rule over other men" – he expressed his contempt for the "barbarous" Gaelic culture of the Highlands and the "utterly barbarous" islanders who were "without any show of civility."

Notwithstanding his firm opinion of the inhabitants, the king, who had never visited the islands, readily believed that they were places rich in gold, fertile land, fishing grounds and other goodies. So he decided to do well by doing good. In 1597 he embarked upon a policy of "civilising" the islands by encouraging English-speaking Lowlanders to establish colonies ("plantations") there to bring them within the reach of the king's tax collectors.

The Isle of Lewis, controlled by Neil Macleod of the Clan MacLeod, was selected as a testing ground for the new policy. The king had his Parliament pass an Act that leased the island to a group of speculators, based in Fife and known as the Fife Adventurers. Led by the Duke of Lennox, a favourite of the king, they were to bring civilisation and religion to the MacLeods, who had "given themselves over to all kinds of barbarity and inhumanity" and were "void of any knowledge of God or his religion."

Just to make sure that the Adventurers would not lack the means for their mission, the Act authorised them to resort to "slaughter, mutilation, fire-raising or other inconveniences." In fact, it authorised them to do anything that would be necessary for "rooting out the barbarous inhabitants." Not a single clause in the Act mentioned any means for improving the lot of the islanders.

Well, the islanders did not take kindly to the idea of being civilised by being rooted out. They let no occasion go by to harass, ambush and raid the invaders. With great difficulty, the mercenaries in the pay of the Adventurers succeeded in securing a stronghold in the town of Stornoway in the autumn of 1597. There the gentlemen of Fife set out to build their trading centre, although by then they had seen enough to realise that reports of the "untold riches" of Lewis had been more than just slight exaggerations. Moreover, the locals did not care to supply the uninvited guests with food or other amenities and soon the spectre of starvation loomed over the would-be plantation's owners. The harsh climate was far worse than anything they had expected. During the winter, many colonists and mercenaries died from starvation, exposure and dysentery. They could not secure help from the mainland because Neil MacLeod intercepted their messengers.

Prospects improved when the colonists took advantage of the rivalries and divisions in clan-politics. They succeeded in getting Neil MacLeod to support them against his half-brother Murdo, who was subsequently captured and then hanged in St. Andrews, in Fife. However, Neil soon took on the Fifers again. By 1601, the Adventure was abandoned.

Of course, that outcome was not what King James had had in mind. A second expedition was launched in 1605. It failed. Then, two years later, a third attempt at colonising Lewis was made. Again, Neil MacLeod held out until in 1610 the Adventurers left, never to return. However, victory did MacLeod no good. Lord Kintail of the Clan MacKenzie, who had previously assisted Macleod in his opposition against the Lowlanders, sent a force of more than 400 men to the Isle of Lewis to occupy it for himself. MacLeod and a handful of supporters fled to the small island of Bearasay in the mouth of Loch Roag. Eventually, he surrendered to one of his own kinsmen, who turned him over to the Privy Council and got knighted for his services to the Crown. In April 1613, MacLeod was hanged. King James granted Lewis to the MacKenzies, who became its hereditary owners as well as instruments of James' policy of pacifying the Highlands.

Thus, by their resistance the islanders averted the humiliation of colonisation. However, it did not save their Gaelic culture. In 1608, James instructed Andrew Knox, the Bishop of the Isles, to sail to the Isle of Mull to kidnap some important clan chiefs. The price for their release from prison was high: they had to agree to implement a policy designed to destroy the Gaelic culture. The infamous Statutes of Iona (1609) required the Islanders to support the reformed Kirk, suppress Gaelic customs, manners, dress, and poetry (effectively censoring the "bards" who were the bearers of Gaelic literary and historical consciousness), forbid the carrying of fire-arms, and oblige larger property-owners to send their sons to the mainland to be educated in English. In addition, the chiefs had to sign the General Band, in which they declared their loyalty to the King and acknowledged his authority. If pacification was the professed aim of this exercise in kingcraft, it was not the result. Its enduring legacy was the atrophy of Gaelic culture.

The debacle of the Fife Adventurers did not kill James' appetite for "plantations." In 1609 he resolved to bring religion, civility, order and government to yet another "barbarous and unsubdued people," the Irish. He took great pride in the success of his Ulster Plantation: his heavily armed English and Lowland settlers turned Ireland into an outpost of Protestant Europe. For those on the receiving end of what he described as "an act of piety and glory, worthy of a Christian Prince," it was the beginning of four centuries of exploitation, misery, racial and religious abuse, and suppression of their cultural life and identity.

Of course, I realise that that is not what I have been reading lately in the newspapers. I have enough sense to realise that today no government would declare its policy intentions so openly as James VI did in the Act of Parliament of 1597 concerning the Lewis Plantation. What a relief! Isn't it comforting to know that in the political field at least the art of lying – a.k.a spin – has made such tremendous progress?

Frank van Dun [send him mail] teaches philosophy of law at the Universities of Ghent (B.) and Maastricht (Nl.).

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