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The comedian heads north to the Highlands to learn about his Scottish heritage.
He may have a reputation as someone who both expresses the neuroses of Middle England and pokes fun at them too, but David Mitchell’s family roots lie partly in Scotland. For years, his father’s family were sheep farmers in the Highlands. “How come that all stopped and they started becoming accountants, hotel managers and comedians?” he asks.
After a visit to his parents to gather family memorabilia, David’s first destination is the small village of Tongue in Sutherland. It was here, in 1839, that David’s great-great-great grandfather, James, took on the tenancy of Ribigill Farm. This was an industrial-scale undertaking. When David’s great-great grandfather, William, worked the land, there were more than 3,000 sheep cared for by eight full-time shepherds. William was rich enough to take his new bride, Annie, on honeymoon to Paris.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the once grand farmhouse has been abandoned. What went wrong? The answer lies in the era when William’s bachelor sons James and George were in charge. Not only had sheep farming become less lucrative because of competition form New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, but the two men didn’t get on with a new landlord when the Duke of Sutherland sold huge swathes of his estate after World War One. The brothers eventually sold up in 1933.
One question has bothered David. Were his ancestors on the “non-heroic side” of the Highland Clearances, when thousands were thrown off the land? At the ruins of a hamlet, he’s reassured to learn that Ribigill Farm’s land was cleared in the early 1800s, before the Mitchells arrived.
Next, David wants to learn more about his paternal grandmother’s family. He heads for Skye, armed with a copy of a book written by his great-grandfather, Alexander Forbes, the snappily monikered Place-Names Of Skye, And Adjacent Islands.
At Skye’s Gaelic speaking FE college, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, David meets librarian Christine Cain. Alexander, he learns, also wrote a guide to the Gaelic names for animals. When these books were published, Gaelic was still widely spoken, unlike today, making them invaluable reference works.
Scholarly control freak
Alexander isn’t the only important Forbes that David learns about. Alexander’s father, John Forbes, was a Gaelic scholar and minister who wrote A Double Grammar, Of English And Gaelic. In Sleat on Skye, David sees his forebear’s grave and the now ruined church where he preached. When he learns that John Forbes helped see his parishioners through a time of famine and campaigned on behalf of young women who were lured south with the false promise of well-paid jobs in the mills, John seems a thoroughly admirable man.
But there’s a sting in the tale. First a Session Minute Book, a record of church court hearings in John’s time, reveals a near-obsession with sexual sin. Next, having put out a request for information over the web, David meets another Forbes descendent, Graham Biggs.
He reveals that John cut his own wife out of his will because she was “utterly unworthy of trust or confidence being unfortunately addicted during [a period of 18 years] to the vice of intemperance. The will is pompous, self-important, controlling. “You’ve no idea the amount of admiration that has been poured on this man in my presence over the last two or three days,” says David.
So what has David learned from his journey? Mainly, it seems, that he comes from “a long line of people who looked down on the peasantry and resented the aristocracy – and I hope to continue that mixed up, hypocritical attitude in my own life because without the middle classes there is no comedy.”