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The Best of Celtic Life 2019

The Best of Celtic Life 2019

Wonderful to see this excerpt from Flight of the Highlanders turn up in The Best of Celtic Life 2019. The 100-page magazine features an array of articles on everything from Celtic Folklore to Celtic Genealogy and Celebrating Celtic Culture.

Chapter 3: The Old Way of Life
In the Celtic tradition, “Thin Places” are sites where the natural and spiritual worlds meet and intermingle, separated by the merest veil. The ancient Celts would visit these sacred sites, among them Stonehenge in England and the Ring of Brodgar in Orkney, to experience the presence of their gods. For avowedly secular types, the concept works better historically. I think of the reconstructed Gaelic village in the Highland Folk Museum 45 miles south of Inverness, where you can wander in and out of blackhouses and see people at work in the clothing and spirit of another time. The same goes for Auchindrain Township, six miles south of Inverary. It is the only stone-built settlement to survive essentially unaltered from among hundreds that existed before the Highland Clearances. And what of the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village at a beautiful waterside location on the Isle of Lewis?
All three of those sites provide a sense of how most Highlanders lived in the decades before and after the mid-1700s, when the Battle of Culloden marked the beginning of the end for the Old Order. Political and military historians of the Middle Ages focus on kings and aristocrats and the battles they fought, won, or lost. But most Highlanders were farmers who stayed home in small townships made up of extended families.
They lived in “blackhouses,’ so-designated because they were dark, windowless, and blackened by peat-fire smoke.  The term distinguishes them from the “white houses” which came later and introduced such amenities as windows and toilets. In Thatched Houses, author Colin Sinclair identifies three types of blackhouses according to their roof styles. The Hebridean has four walls of the same height and a ledge running around the edge of the roof. The Skye has four similar walls but no ledge: the thatch runs over the edge. And the Dailriadic has a Skye-style roof but pointed walls at two opposite ends providing for a pitched roof.
The common features among these three types tell us more about how people lived. Besides their thatched roofs and walls made of stone or peat slabs, blackhouses were usually oblong and divided into three compartments. You would enter the house through a flimsy door that opens into the byre or cow-house that forms one of the two end compartments. You would see two small black cows reclining on a bed of straw. But the place stinks of cow dung and chicken droppings so why tarry? You turn right and, through an opening or pass door, step through an internal wall into the main apartment. The third compartment is straight ahead, divided from this room by a wooden partition containing another pass door covered with a blanket.
You can’t help but notice the smoke, which gets thicker higher up, and you crouch to avoid the worst of it. The smoke curls upwards from a peat fire which sits on a stone slab in the middle of this dirt-floor apartment. It drifts eventually through a hole in the thatch located off-centre so that heavy rains do not douse the flames. A three-legged iron pot hangs over the fire from a chain attached to a beam in the roof. You sit down on a bench that occupies a side wall and notice a dresser neatly displaying rows of plates. Beneath it sits a washtub and beside it a wooden bucket.
Welcome to the house of the Gael in the Old Highlands. It allows for conversation and conviviality around the glowing peat fire, but mainly it provides shelter from the storm – though the roof of the blackhouse is not water tight. In rainy weather, heavy drops of inky black water make their way through the thatch. This happens often enough that people have a name for those falling droplets: snighe.
When weather permits, not surprisingly, the common folk spend most of their time outdoors. They tend their crops and their cattle. When James Boswell passed this way with Dr. Samuel Johnson in 1773, he wrote, “we had not rooms that we could command, for the good people here had no notion that a man could have any occasion but a mere sleeping place.”
(To read the rest of this excerpt, pick up the new "Best Of" issue of Celtic Life International. Better still, pick up the book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada, now available everywhere in better bookstores.)

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Ken McGoogan
Yo, OTTAWA! Gonna be like CHICAGO!

Yo, OTTAWA! Gonna be like CHICAGO!

Yo, OTTAWA! Here comes the night! Peeps are awakening to the news that awarding-winning author  and Royal Canadian Geographical Society Fellow Ken McGoogan is coming your way next Tuesday evening (December 3). It says here that in performance, Ken may well remind you of Richard Gere in CHICAGO, you know where he sings and dances and razzle-dazzles his way through a media circus of celebrity, scandal, and corruption?
On the other hand, he may not remind you of Gere at all. But he WILL captivate with insights from his new book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada. Ken will talk about Dragging History into the 21st Century, highlighting stories of those refugee Scots who were forcibly evicted from the lands of their ancestors. Many of them sailed in coffin ships to Canada, where they battled hardship, hunger and even murderous persecution while laying the foundations of a nation that welcomes immigrants. 
OK, so it’s not a lot like CHICAGO. But there is a stage. Flight of the Highlanders happens at the Alex Trebek Theatre at RCGS headquarters, 50 Sussex Drive, starting at 7 p.m. The trick is to get tickets by clicking here. Bring a gang!
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Ken McGoogan
Dead Reckoning still sailing with Franklin

Dead Reckoning still sailing with Franklin

With Flight of the Highlanders roaring along nicely (thank you very much), it’s wonderful to see an Alaska publication (Stock Daily Dish) giving Dead Reckoning a bit of love – doing its part to keep the paperback edition thriving here and here and in better independent bookstores. Yesterday, the newspaper published an article in which its regular reviewers look back over their favorite books of 2018. For David James, Dead Reckoning was one of two top picks. Here is what he wrote: 
Looking back on the books I reviewed for 2018, I find that all five of my favorites concern history. This year there’s a two-way tie for the top spot, while the other three fall in no particular order. . . .
Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage, by Ken McGoogan; HarperCollins Canada/Patrick Crean Editions.
This overview of the search for the Northwest Passage is both wonderfully written and an excellent resource for fitting the Franklin Expedition, the Arctic’s most deadly calamity, into its broader historical and cultural perspective. Canadian historian Ken McGoogan has written several in-depth works on people who made their mark on the Arctic, but here he takes the long view, showing how explorers (most of them British) fared in the north from the 16th through the 19th centuries.
The result of decades of research, McGoogan examines who succeeded, who failed, and why. His persistent finding is that those Europeans and Brits who learned from the Inuit residents of the Arctic and followed their examples generally thrived, while those who dismissed Native knowledge often met extreme hardship or death.
In the mind of Sir John Franklin, who left England with two ships in 1845, the Native people were savages and only British technology and know-how could conquer the far north. Instead, he and his 128 crewmen all vanished, leading to searches that found only a handful of corpses and, until they were located in this decade, no sign of their ships.
As McGoogan shows, even among the many expeditions that went searching for the men, the shortest path to tragedy was found by ignoring the locals.
Here a link to the complete article.

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Ken McGoogan
Highlanders flying high as "terrific, timely"

Highlanders flying high as "terrific, timely"

Authors enjoy few things more than positive reviews . . . especially during the run-up to Christmas. Below, excerpts from four different takes on Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada . . .

Celtic Life International:
Best-selling author Ken McGoogan "deep dives into the historical horror of Scottish Highlanders in this terrific and timely tome. Spanning over a century, the scribe chornicles the terrible injustices brought on to families and communities by the British following the 1746 Battle of Culloden. While the cultural genocide of the Clearances showed the Brits at their worst, it brought out the best in the Scots, with tens of thousands of them setting sail for the New World and settling into new lives. More than a mere lesson in history, Flight of the Highlanders showcases the spirit of a people who sacrificed everything to preserve their culture and who were at the very core of constructing a new national identity. -- Stephen Patrick Clare

The Scotsman:
In Flight of the Highlanders, the bestselling Canadian author argues that the Highland Scots – victims of the Clearances and the oppression that followed the Battle of Culloden – were “Canada’s first refugees.” And that makes their story a timely reminder of the contribution refugees and other newcomers have made, and continue to make, to their new homelands.. . . But in a time of rising intolerance toward minorities and immigrants, Flight of the Highlanders is a much-needed reality check. McGoogan’s chronicle of how impoverished but tenacious Scots built new lives in Canada – and transformed their new country – is a reminder that all of us, regardless of origin or race, want the same things: a better life and a brighter future. -- Dean Jobb 

Winnipeg Free Press:
Flight of the Highlanders is a tragic and pathetic tale, well-told by the sympathetic McGoogan, of a people who came from afar to spearhead with others the settlement of Canada before it became a nation. They were thrown out of the Scottish Highlands in a cold-hearted annihilation of their ancient way of life. It was called the Clearances.. . . . The erasure of an independent culture feared and reviled by the English began in 1746, with the Battle of Culloden. McGoogan recounts how a professional English military destroyed a vastly outnumbered ragtag army of the farming Highlanders raised by and under the command of a wishful-thinking and militarily dumb Bonnie Prince Charlie. . . . In the Clearances following the Scots’ defeat, McGoogan explains, about 200,000 Highlanders were evicted from their ancestral lands between 1760 and 1860. They were offered passage to Canada in what became known as "coffin ships" because a number always died in the miserable and diseased conditions below decks. Today, more than five million Canadians claim Scottish ancestry and are proud of it, and the old Scots (among others) are revered as nation-builders -- Barry Craig

Globe and Mail:
[McGoogan] writes that the Highland Scots who were driven off their traditional lands should be looked at through the lens of history as refugees, and he goes a long way toward supporting this thesis by his demonstration of what they suffered. He starts with the misbegotten Battle of Culloden in 1746, when the British army beat Charles Edward Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” in his challenge to the throne. The army then went on to savage the highlands . . .  Over the next century in various waves, landlords brutally drove off tens of thousands of cottars in order to clear the land for sheep, which returned higher profit. McGoogan illuminates this general history with many individual stories. . .  [This] is a volume that rewards dipping into, preferably before a fire with a glass in hand. Ken McGoogan is an amiable companion to have with you there. -- Antanas Sileika

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Ken McGoogan
The River Battles started with an email

The River Battles started with an email

In July, 2014, Canadian historian Mark Zuehlke received an e-mail from Italy. A history institute based in Ravenna was inviting him to give the keynote address at a conference celebrating the 70th anniversary of “the liberation of many towns in our province, Ravenna. ... All the towns were liberated by Canadian Regiments toward the end of 1944.”
In his preface to The River Battles, the B.C.-based Zuehlke notes that several years before, after taking a quick look, he had concluded that the pitched battles which occurred in northern Italy could not sustain an entire book. Now, however, confident that those encounters could drive a 30-minute talk, he accepted the invitation. He began researching and found himself swamped and astonished by “accounts of fierce battles fought in a complex landscape criss-crossed by rivers and canals ... [and] countless stories of individual courage and sacrifice.”
That December, after giving the keynote, Zuelke spent days exploring the battlefield, standing on dikes “overlooking mud-soaked fields and vineyards in conditions mirroring those the Canadians endured in 1944-45.” He found the exact location next to a little church where a Seaforth Highlander earned a Victoria Cross.
“Walking away from that church in a cold rain,” he writes, “I realized the hook was in.” Back in Canada, he turned up hundreds of historical records – more than enough to animate a book about this culmination of Canada’s Second World War Italian campaign.
As a Canadian military historian, Mark Zuehlke stands with Tim Cook, Ted Barris and David O’Keefe. He belongs to the elite. To write this fifth and final volume in his Canadian Battle Series, Zuehlke assimilated an astonishing amount of detailed information from a multiplicity of primary sources. Building on the focused unities of time and place – six months in 1944-45 and a waterlogged plain called Emilia-Romagna – he has delivered a vivid, hard-slogging narrative.
Zuehlke spares us no horror. He describes an endless night of shelling, for example, when rockets known as Moaning Minnies “sobbed hysterically” as they smashed into the trenches filled with huddled troops. Come morning, the guns fell silent and Sergeant Fred Cederberg sent a man to wake a recent recruit sleeping in a shallow trench. The man lifted a blanket and yanked on the recruit’s foot. The leg came away in his hand: “My God, come here! The poor bugger’s cut in two.”
A few pages later, we find engineers under heavy machinegun fire struggling to clear a riverbank of debris and landmines. Finally, one troop manages to cross the river. Two more troops start to follow and Zuehlke allows an eyewitness describe an explosion so violent that “it appeared to lift the entire floor of the gully.” Hopelessly trapped under heavy fire, the Canadians “sustained tragically high casualties, with 16 men killed and five wounded.”
Against this dark background, Zuehlke draws attention to bright acts of extraordinary courage. While under intense artillery fire, one field company managed to clear several multifaceted, booby-trapped roadblocks near a river. The driver of an armoured bulldozer found himself struggling to dismantle a final obstacle, unable to see which way to turn from his restricted seat. A young lieutenant jumped onto the vehicle and, standing outside the protective cage surrounding the driver, gave him directions, hopping down occasionally to scurry alongside and shout the way forward. For this, Lieutenant Victor Alexander Moore earned a Military Cross.
Elsewhere in the field, Major Allen Brady led a section of men through flooded streets to occupy a house overlooking a canal. He ran a telephone line back to tactical headquarters, but then the house suffered a series of direct hits from a massive, self-propelled gun (SPG). Knocked unconscious, Brady awoke to find four men dead and the telephone line severed – the only way to request help. He ran outside, repaired the line, and then directed artillery fire in knocking out the SPG. Despite “great pain” and heavy bleeding from undressed wounds, Brady led his men along the river to a better position. He was later recognized with a Distinguished Service Order.
From time to time, Zuehlke pulls back from the battlefield to provide context, focusing on shifts in command structure and changes of strategy. He shows how, viewed from a lofty distance, troops comprising up to 250 men become pieces in a chess game. When Canada’s defence minister, Colonel J. Layton Ralston, returns to Ottawa and pushes for conscription to address the worsening manpower shortage, Prime Minister Mackenzie King replaces him.
Later, Zuehlke notes that as the Canadians struggled forward, the supreme commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, “was less interested in winning ground in Italy than in preventing enemy divisions” from abandoning this territory to fight elsewhere.
Canada’s Italian campaign, which culminated in these river battles, lasted 20 months and was the longest undertaken by the Canadian army. Those killed included 408 officers and 4,991 of all other ranks, while 1,218 officers and 18,268 other ranks were wounded. Including those taken prisoner, total casualties were 26,254. Although the campaign was essential to achieving victory, such numbers make one wary of lightly going to war. Perhaps that is the greatest achievement of books like The River Battles.

Ken McGoogan recently published his 15th book, Flight of the Highlanders: The Making of Canada.

  • The River Battles: Canada’s Final Campaign in World War II Italy
  • Mark Zuehlke, Douglas & McIntyre, 470 pages
Image above: Infantrymen and tanks of the Eighth Army push along a road to Ferrara, Italy, in April 1945.
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Ken McGoogan
Descendant adds detail to a violent Clearance

Descendant adds detail to a violent Clearance

It's always great to get a glowing review. But nothing beats the kind of email I've just received from Carol Annett, who was born a MacKinnon.
Those who have read Flight of the Highlanders will recall that Chapter One treats the violent eviction of a great number of McKinnons from Knoydart in 1853. It draws on an eyewitness account by activist Donald Ross. But here is Carol Annett:
"Thank you for writing Flight of the Highlanders. You have done an amazing job of telling this story. I can appreciate what an enormous amount of research was involved. What a feat to pull the disparate threads together.
"This subject has been my passion for the past ten years as I have been researching and writing the story of my ancestors. I am a direct descendant of Highlanders from Knoydart who sailed to Canada in 1853 aboard the Sillery. It was exciting to read the familiar, though horrific account of events at Knoydart in your first chapter.
"In 2016, I had the amazing good fortune to live for a week with a couple whose house is at Samadalan, Knoydart, the exact location of the village where my McKinnon ancestors lived. My friend had a keen interest in the history of her home and property, which was essentially an archeological site.
"On census records my friend had for the post-clearance years, I noticed that Allan McKinnon was still living at Samadalan. That led me to research every single family mentioned by Donald Ross in his account. What I found surprised me.
"My research shows that Allan McKinnon and John McKinnon, both mentioned by Ross, were the brothers of my great-great-great-grandfather, Archibald McKinnon, who left on the Sillery. The records show that 11 of the 16 families interviewed by Donald Ross remained on Knoydart for the rest of their lives, despite repeated efforts to evict them. I have census and death records for each of them. The last person died in 1909 at the age of 82. Many, but not all of them, died in poverty.”
Ms. Annett attached a PDF of an article she published in a genealogical quarterly called Anglo-Celtic Roots. It begins as follows:
Imagine you are Archibald McKinnon and the year is 1853. Your homeland, Knoydart, lies within a rugged region of the Scottish Highlands called the “Rough Bounds” or “Na Garbh-Criochan,” as you say in Gaelic. The place-name, Knoydart, is not of Gaelic origin. It means “Knut’s Fjord,” named by the Norse who once occupied the west coast of Scotland.
Though centuries have passed since the Vikings departed, this stark wilderness has not changed. Across the water from your house you see the mountains of Skye— the jagged Cuillin and the cone-shaped Red Hills—depending on the weather. It rains often and storms can be severe. On fair evenings, you are dazzled by a brilliant sunset or awed by the occasional sight of the shimmering aurora borealis. You live in this austerely
sublime landscape with an abundance of wildlife—seals, dolphins, whales, eagles, gannets, otter and deer—and about 1,000 people.
In August of this year, one-third of these people—including you—will leave Knoydart, and Scotland, forever. . . .
You can read the rest here:

Me again: you can see why I love this, right?

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Ken McGoogan
Trouble at Indigo? Bring back Canadiana!

Trouble at Indigo? Bring back Canadiana!

Indigo Books and Music is having a bad year. Canada's number one book retailer is dealing with declining sales. Compared with this time last year, sales are down roughly eight per cent. Those who want detailed figures can find them easily enough. Indigo CEO Heather Reisman points to some "promising early results on key performance measures." And Indigo recently introduced a new rewards program.
Let's hope that pays off. Meanwhile, I've got another idea. Let's bring back Canadiana!
Yes, I have written about this before. But my unsolicited advice has as yet gone unheeded -- though I offer it freely not just to Indigo, but to every independent bookseller in Canada. 
Once more into the fray. I would suggest that the way to differentiation -- and so salvation -- lies through an assertion of collective identity. 
Not long ago, I visited the main Waterstone's bookstore in Edinburgh. There I found one entire wall -- one long wall, mind, floor to ceiling -- devoted to Scottish books: fiction, biography, history, travel, children's, crime, you name it. In Scotland, that approach sells books. And it serves additionally as an assertion of national identity: och, aye, this is us! We are here!
A short while later, in Dublin, I visited the Eason bookstore in O'Connell Street. This time, I found one long wall, floor to ceiling, offering Irish books: fiction, biography, history, travel, children's, crime . . . . it's glorious.
Here in Canada, we went wrong some decades ago when we moved away from hiving off  sections in bookstores for Canadian books. Yes, I say "we" because Canadian writers were complicit in this change. Proudly we proclaimed that we didn't need a ghetto to survive. We were just that good. By gosh, we could stand with the best in the world. 

Well, now, surely, we have proven whatever we needed to prove. And we have stumbled into a brave new world in which the digital (algorithmic) weather is against us and the wind blows hard and the rain is turning into hail. 
Surely it's time for writers and publishers to call a halt to destructive infighting. Let's admit that, in our hubris, we made a mistake. Let's urge Indigo -- and other booksellers -- to start solving their problems by reviving the Canadian bookshop ghetto. Yup! I say we bring back Canadiana!
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Ken McGoogan
Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.