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Hub for the Study of British Identities

Research network, journal and blog

Journal of British Identities Issue 1

JBI CoverWe’re delighted to mark the start of a new academic year with the publication of our very own journal – the Journal of British Identities.

The JBI is a free, peerreviewed, open access, online interdisciplinary journal which aims tencourage public debate about Britishness. The journal has developed from some of the conversations which have been taking place on this research network blog for the past couple of years, where MLitt British Studies’ colleagues and students from the University of the Highlands and Islands, academics from across the world, heritage professionals and members of the public have shared their thoughts on the complexity of identities in the British Isles and British World.

Our first issue of JBI features four articles reflecting on various different aspects of British identities. First, we have Marzia Maccaferri examining the development of debate about Europe amongst British intellectuals from the Suez crisis to the first referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EEC, back in 1975. Stephen Collins’ article on Invernessian folklore in the 1870s shifts our focus towards the British Empire and how Alex Fraser’s work on wells and water in the Highlands can be read as part of the developing discourse which saw folkloric practices through the lens of imperialism. We then move back to seventeenth and eighteenthcentury Scotland, where Alan Montgomery’s article establishes how an earlier connection between Britain and Europe  the Roman Empire  shaped certain aspects of Scottish identity during the early modern period. And, finally, we have Gareth Jenkins’ reflection on how historians have characterized the cities of Belfast and Liverpool in the latenineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries, examining the subtle interactions of local, regional and national identities in the development of sectarian political culture.  

All the articles in the first issue of JBI, then, engage with debates that continue to have contemporary political resonance, from the UK’s decision to exit from the EU to discussions of ‘Empire 2.0’ and Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth, to the increasing importance of Northern Ireland to the fortunes of Theresa May’s Conservative government following the 2017 General Election. What these events, and the articles presented here, tell us is that understanding British identities is key to making sense of the world today and, importantly, that these identities are shifting, malleable and have changed (and continue to change) over time.

We hope this first issue of JBI opens up more public debate about Britishness. We will shortly be making our second call for papers (for the issue to be published in September 2018) and we welcome contributions from researchers of all backgrounds, including submissions from the public outwith academia, and from early career academics and students.  In the meantime, we hope that you enjoy reading JBI and we look forward to further exciting and fruitful public conversations about British identities in the future.

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The North British-ers – or Northern Europeans?

This week’s blog comes from one of our MLitt British Studies students, John Macdonald, and was written as an assessment on our module ‘British Identities’. John MacdonaldJohn runs a tour company in the Highlands and Islands – The Hebridean Explorer


With its totemic protruding toe, the statue on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile of the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume has become a superstitious fixture for modern day philosophy students hoping that touching the toe will help gain knowledge, wisdom or even just a little bit of luck.

Hume
David Hume by Bandan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

However, as a renowned figure of the Scottish Enlightenment – that great intellectual and scientific renaissance in eighteenth-century Scotland – David Hume would have had considerable distaste of such practices.

 

After all, Hume (one of history’s great philosophers) famously advanced the notion of critical thinking – the development of new ideas and approaches within philosophy and the sciences based around the principles of reason and human nature, using scientific processes and reasoned observations.[1]

 

Another modern day practice that may not have been agreeable to Hume and many other eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment figures was their subtle, but nonetheless noticeable, appropriation in support of modern Scottish nationalism during the 2014 Independence Referendum.[2]

 

The great paradox of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was that whilst it was undoubtedly a tremendous Scottish endeavour, most of its influential thinkers were Unionist in their sympathies. Indeed, during this period many even advocated a further strengthening of the relationship with England, in essence a ‘completing of the Union’.[3]

 

Why – in the view of many Enlightened Scots  – would the Union require further completion? As the Act of Union in 1707 was, for the most part, driven by an anti-Jacobite and pro-Hanoverian agenda (chiefly, with the aim of securing a Protestant succession in Scotland and England) it did not necessarily fulfil the constitutional ideals of a new state.

 

Although 1707 brought a political union, Scotland continued to retain its own distinctive judicial, religious and educational structures. However, those were widely deemed as secure, identifiably Scottish institutions not warranting change or integration into a wider British state.

 

What then was missing from Scotland within the Union? Many Enlightenment figures believed it was the need for an Anglo-Scottish identity, one that would support and facilitate an emerging sense of Britishness in Scotland – a North British identity.

 

However, North Britishness was not a new, clearly defined, and structured identity, rather, it was a general response of the Scottish intelligentsia to the Union from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. This Anglo-Scottish response was – by its very nature – a fluid, layered, dual identity where, for example, Scotland’s access to the economic benefits of being part of Britain could sit alongside emotional attachments and loyalties to elements of Scottishness and Scottish identity.[4]

 

North Britishness manifested itself in many aspects of the social and cultural life of Enlightened Scots, for example, the deliberate process of adopting English vocabulary and pronunciation in a conscious effort to remove ‘Scotticisms’ (Scots words and phrases) from contemporary language – a clear trait particularly found in the works of David Hume.[5]

 

Importantly, a core factor driving this developing identity was the perception that the adoption of Britishness – through the notion ‘North British’ – would allow fuller access for Scotland to appropriate well-established and entrenched English constitutional values and ideals.

 

Essentially, they considered England to have already done the historical ‘groundwork’ for mapping out the route towards, not only a prosperous economy, but also a successful constitutional and liberal landscape, and by adopting these English liberties they could improve Scotland within the Union.

 

Three centuries later, it is hard to argue that the core thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment would have viewed their appropriation (however subtle) by nationalists during the 2014 Independence campaign favourably.

 

However, it is worth noting that these Enlightened Scots did not restrict their admiration to elements of English liberties. They aspired to be part of wider a European cultural community.

 

Maybe, given the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union (but with Scotland in favour of remaining), eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment figures would have found the notion of their appropriation in support of a Scottish state within Europe more acceptable – the Northern Europeans!

 

[1] David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (London, 1739-40).

[2] http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2014/09/16/interview-alex-salmond

[3] See lecture by Tom Devine, ‘The “Death” and Reinvention of Scotland’, 11th June 2013, https://youtu.be/Z9GFbU0PUkU

[4] Colin Kidd, ‘North Britishness and the Nature of Eighteenth-Century British Patriotisms’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 39:2, (1996), pp. 361-82.

[5] Craig Smith, ‘The Scottish Enlightenment and Scottish Independence’, Economic Affairs, Vol. 33:3, (2013), pp. 334-47.

 

William Wallace: Unionist, Nationalist, or both?

 

DSCN0777This week’s blog comes from another of our MLitt British Studies students, Sarah Hunter, and is one of the assessments on our module ‘British Identities’. Sarah has recently graduated with a PGDip in History of the Highlands and Islands.


Linda Colley writes that ‘Identities are not like hats.  Human beings can and do put on several at a time.’[1]  With this in mind, it is intriguing to consider the seemingly contradictory identities attached to William Wallace, firstly in the halcyon days of empire in the mid-nineteenth century – when subscriptions were collected to erect a monument in his memory – and, secondly, in the late twentieth century, when the Hollywood film Braveheart was released.

 

Today, more than twenty years after the release of Braveheart, with the SNP the dominant force in Scottish politics, it seems incredulous to imagine Wallace as anything other than the mythic figure of independence into which modern culture has moulded him.  The image of Mel Gibson’s Wallace charging into battle, yelling that Scotland shall be free, is burned into our collective minds as the visual representation of a man who died centuries ago. However, at the time the Wallace Monument was constructed, common belief among unionists was that Wallace was integral to ensuring that the Act of Union was a marriage of equals.  Rather than ensuring Scotland’s separateness from England forevermore, Wallace was deemed to have secured Scotland space to grow into a worthy partner. [2]

800px-Wfm_wallace_monument
By Finlay McWalter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=248435

Graeme Morton describes Wallace’s life as ‘One of the great myths in Scotland’s national past’.[3]  From Blind Harry’s epic to the romantic poetry of the nineteenth century to Braveheart itself, there is no one, single story agreed upon by historians, antiquarians or archaeologists – and it is that lack of certainty, of proof, of fact, almost, that allows us to adorn Wallace in such different, seemingly diametrically opposed, hats with the same outfit. When so little is known about any person, it is easier to bend their identities to our will; the absence of evidence that an event occurred, for example, becomes proof it could have as nothing is known to the contrary.  With Wallace, this cloaking in myth allows us to consider him an icon of both nationalist independence and unionism.

 

To me, the unification of these two identities initially seemed ludicrous.  Yet, watching Braveheart I began to understand how this contradiction evolved.  If we consider religion, for example, Wallace is depicted as a devout Catholic – but not an absolutist; the absolutist figure is the ‘pagan’ English king, Longshanks.  Transporting this to the mid-nineteenth century, when Wallace was an icon of unionism (a thoroughly Protestant notion, in Colley’s opinion), we can transform Wallace into a man practicing the modern religion of his contemporaries, and his antagonist Longshanks that of his repressive ancestors.  This removes the Catholic Stuarts’ absolutism from association with Wallace, allowing him to be identified with Protestant unionism in spite of his religion.  He stands for freedom and peace; Longshanks tyranny and war. [4]

800px-Scott_Neeson_on_the_set_of_Braveheart,_1995
On the set of Braveheart, 1995 By Scott Neeson (Scott Neeson) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/
        The example of William Wallace highlights the truth in Colley’s statement; we are all the sum of our parts, parts which must be addressed individually.  Wallace is identified in both instances as a patriot, fighting for the freedom of ‘Scotland’, a unified entity that did not exist within his lifetime.  Where our two icons differ, is the purposes for which the myth behind the man was used.  The pro-Union Scots of the mid-nineteenth century were as correct in their assessment that Wallace’s actions ensured that Scotland was not incorporated into the English state in the same manner as Wales (thus allowing for an Act of Union), as the pro-Independence Scots of the late twentieth century were to argue that he fought for a Scotland free from England’s rule.  We are thus able to separately adorn Wallace in two very different, seemingly antithetical, hats.

 

[1] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the nation, 1707 – 1837 (New Haven: 2014), p. 6.

[2] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Stirling_(city,_Scotland)#Wallace_Monument

[3] Graeme Morton, ‘The Most Efficacious Patriot: The Heritage of William Wallace in Nineteenth-Century Scotland’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 77:2 (1998), p. 224.

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112573/mediaviewer/rm2372799488

British Studies in the Inverness Courier

We’re delighted to have appeared in the Inverness Courier this week. The article is now available online: http://www.inverness-courier.co.uk/News/British-studies-hailed-a-success-at-University-of-the-Highlands-and-Islands-23032017.htm

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We did the interview with the Courier‘s Donna MacAllister some weeks ago now – before the latest policy ruminations on ‘Empire 2.0’ and before Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to pursue a second referendum on Scottish independence. It seems, though, that with every passing week, what we do on the MLitt British Studies becomes yet more relevant!

And this is what the MLitt British Studies at UHI is all about. On the course, students explore historical, philosophical, archaeological and literary perspectives on British identities and use them to understand the contemporary world around us. In teaching my module ‘British Identities’, I’ve found it exhilarating to look at, say, eighteenth-century ideas about liberty, freedom and nationhood or early twentieth-century debates about the economics of empire and apply these discussions to the latest fall-out from Brexit or IndyRef.

So, if you’re interested in learning more about the roots of debates about Scotland’s place in (or out) of the Union or Britain’s relationship with Europe, come join us on the MLitt British Studies! You can find our more about the course here, where you can also apply online.

 

Who won? The Battle of Hastings and national identities

This week’s blog comes from another of our MLitt British Studies students, Brian Symons. This is one of the assessments on our module ‘British Identities’, but Brian has also reflected on some of the material covered by our Archaeology module, ‘Britain Begins’. BS Img


Last year marked the 950th Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings.[1] For those not raised on the school version of history (despairingly known as M3 – Monarchy, Military and ‘Mpire) the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. William the Bastard[2], a Norman Duke who claimed the throne to a substantial portion of Britain, invaded England, and defeated the indigenous army. Subsequently the Norman soldiers slaughtered the local population, primarily Saxon, burnt houses and crops, and killed livestock particularly in the area north of the River Humber. William then apportioned the country between his Norman Baronial supporters for their exploitation.

“Cavalier Normand, 1066.” by Vinkhuijzen, Hendrik Jacobus is licensed under CC0 1.0
‘Cavalier Normand, 1066’, by Hendrik Vinkhuijzen, licensed under CC0 1.0

Sitting on the seafront at Hastings two questions come to mind: why are we celebrating an invasion – apart from the obvious tourist potential, and why do I feel unsure if ‘we’ had won or lost?

It is tempting to search for continuity of ethnic identity in Britain; studies of the DNA of Celtic-Italic Y-Chromosome suggest that in early prehistory British ethnic identity was much the same as large parts of Western Europe, having a shared linguistic grouping with the European mainland.[3] Whilst this may represent a degree of ethnic homogeneity, by the time of the Roman invasions, according to Roman sources, the British Isles were populated by a large number of independent tribes or kingdoms most probably having some sense of separate identity[4].

The Roman invasion introduced to Britain significant numbers of troops, administrators and traders from the extensive racial and tribal diversity of the Empire: with consequent effect on the British gene pool.[5] Even in the Highlands where the Romans established some settlements, it is safe to assume that some degree of miscegenation, voluntary or involuntary, would have influenced the genetic mix even in areas with less direct Roman contact.

From the seventh century onwards there were extensive Norse invasions and settlements of Ireland, Scotland and the North of England with some thriving commercial settlements with Hiberno-Norse populations.[6] Additionally, if we accept 18th century writings, then far from being remote, the Picts and Scots ‘had frequent intercourse with the Romans, the Britons and the Western Highlanders, the Irish and merchants from different countries’.[7] It can be assumed that ‘intercourse’ in this context refers to contact, however it can be expected that such contact would also include the alternative reading of the term with consequent hybrid offspring.

Harley 7182 f.60v
British Isles from BL Harley 7182, f. 60v by Ptolemy, licensed under PDM 1.0

Interestingly, records at the time of the 7th to 9th century commenting on Scandinavian settlers in northern and eastern England, distinguish between the Danes and the Norsemen, the latter being those invaders who had come from Dublin.[8] In addition to the Norse, Danes and Romans, the centuries saw successive migrations to the British Isles of Celts, Jutes, Angles and Saxons with much mingling of these peoples; and of course the Normans.[9]

I choose to identify myself, if pressed, as English yet I have Cornish and border Reiver recent ancestors. I love music and savour melancholy so does ancestry and disposition make me Celtic? London is my spiritual home, not because I see it as superior but it was where I spent my formative years, but now I live in the Highlands. So which part of this makes my identity: Britishness, Englishness or Scottishness or some other fusion of genes and character? Having lived and worked in many places the notion that identity arises from a blend of place and culture is a weak paradigm for me. Certainly I identify with British culture, even if I am often at odds with some of its elements, but this feels like a small, plastic identity in the current world.

“Franklins 1066” by wonker is licensed under CC BY 2.0
“Franklins 1066” by wonker, licensed under CC BY 2.0

However there is certain value and perhaps pride to be taken in the hybrid nature of the British but little to support any notion of a racially pure (if such a thing exists) British identity or indeed any of the four nations’ identities. Identity is not physiological; in the historian’s view identity and national identity is a subjective process by which we and our associated groups identify ourselves, usually with reference to common interests or by contrast with ‘others’.[10] All identities are therefore constructed: we are given them in childhood and they are socially and culturally reinforced by education and the media; however in the end we choose our identities. Starting with my own self-referential meta-identity of British, a descriptor of the geographical identity of being of the British Isles, then sub identities under this umbrella are fluid but in the end equally self-referential.

Whilst the conventional qualities of identity are currently being challenged as being over simplistic[11], they have an emotional resonance, else why should I feel, without any intellectual justification, that ‘we’ lost the Battle of Hastings.

[1] ‘ROOT 1066’ <http://www.hastings.gov.uk/arts_culture/root/&gt; [accessed 15 November 2016].

[2] John Gillingham, ‘William the Bastard at War’, in C. Harper-Bill, et al., Studies in Medieval History Presented to R. Allen Brown (Woodbridge, 1989), pp. 141–58.

[3] Patrick Sims-Williams, ‘Bronze- and Iron-Age Celtic-Speakers: What Don’t We Know, What Can’t We Know, and What Could We Know? Language, Genetics and Archaeology in the Twenty-First Century’, The Antiquaries Journal, 92 (2012), pp. 427–49.

[4] Barry W. Cunliffe, Britain Begins, First Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[5] Cunliffe, Britain Begins.

[6] James Graham-Campbell and Colleen E. Batey, Vikings in Scotland : An Archaeological Survey (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998).

[7] Anon., ‘A Speculation on the Origin and Characteristical Manners of the Picts and Scots’, The Scots Magazine, 56 (1739), p. 756.

[8] Dawn M Hadley, ‘Viking and Native: Re–thinking Identity in the Danelaw’, Early Medieval Europe, 11.1 (2002), pp. 45–70.

[9] Norman Davies, The Isles: A History (London: Macmillan, 1999).

[10] Peter Mandler, ‘What Is “National Identity”? Definitions and Applications in Modern British Historiography’, Modern Intellectual History, 3.2 (2006), pp. 272–74.

[11] Mandler. ‘What Is “National Identity”?’

Flora Macdonald – Jacobite Heroine and Loyal British Subject

This week’s blog comes from one of our MLitt British Studies students, John Macdonald, and is one of the assessments on our module ‘British Identities’. John MacdonaldJohn runs a tour company in the Highlands and Islands – The Hebridean Explorer


Grandly overlooking Inverness is the statue of Flora Macdonald, the Jacobite heroine, famous for her role in helping Charles Edward Stuart (or Bonnie Prince Charlie as he is popularly known) evade capture following the Jacobite army’s bloody defeat at the hands of the government Hanoverian forces on Culloden Moor in 1746.[1]

Flora Macdonald Statue

Flora Macdonald, Inverness Castle, Scottish Highlands

 

Less well known is that in later life – following her emigration to North Carolina – Flora Macdonald became a supporter of the British government cause in North America during the War of Independence. How does a heroine so identified with one movement become a seemingly loyal supporter of its opposition in later life?

 

Raised in the Clan Donald lands of the Hebrides and West Highlands, Flora Macdonald’s early identity was shaped by the culture, traditions and structures of clan life, and the complexities of the Jacobite cause that dominated the Highland region (and much of the British Isles) during the first half of the eighteenth-century.[2]

 

While Flora Macdonald’s relatively brief assistance to Charles Edward Stuart – helping him escape ‘over the sea to Skye’ – resulted in a short period of imprisonment in London, it also brought her a lifetime of fame and legend as a Jacobite heroine.

 

Such became Flora’s celebrity throughout British society that within just a few years of the uprising she was painted by many prominent artists, including Allan Ramsay who famously portrayed her swathed in tartan with a recognisable Jacobite emblem in her hair (the white rose).

Flora Macdonald by Allan Ramsay

Portrait of Flora Macdonald by Allan Ramsay (1749), ©Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Following her marriage in 1750 to Allan Macdonald (a former Highland militia officer and supporter of the King during the ’45 Jacobite rising), Flora spent over two decades on the Isle of Skye where the hardships of life in the Hebrides eventually led to her decision to emigrate to America in 1774.

 

However, her arrival in North Carolina – where she was lauded as a symbol of Highland bravery and independence, particularly amongst the large Highland Scots communities dominant throughout the region – soon brought a fresh conflict of loyalty.

 

Allan Macdonald joined the British forces at the outbreak of hostilities during the American War of Independence. In supporting her husband’s decision it seems that Flora Macdonald moved away from her Jacobite heritage to that of a loyal subject of the British crown.

 

Considering what factors influenced Flora’s changing identity raises many questions. Was it out of loyalty to her husband and family? As well as her husband, a number of her sons were British military officers during this time.

 

Maybe, having previously experienced the devastating power of the King’s army, Flora had no doubts that the Crown would succeed in quelling the revolution. Or, could Flora have been a reluctant Jacobite in earlier life – after all, she did marry a committed government supporter soon after the uprising.

 

Arguably, Flora Macdonald encapsulates the emerging duality of Scottish and British identities developing around the Empire in the late eighteenth century. Many of the emigrants from the British Isles during this time formed, or settled in, distinctive ethnic and regional communities that sat alongside – often uncomfortably – a shared sense of Britishness and British identity.

 

Whilst we can only guess at her personal motivations for supporting the Crown it seems evident that Flora Macdonald’s Jacobite and British loyalties highlight the complexities and fluidity of identity.

 

It was possible to have multiple identities simultaneously and, importantly, identities were flexible and had the ability to change over time. As Linda Colley aptly noted, identities ‘are not like hats… human beings can and do put on several at a time’.[3] Although popular history has chosen to remember Flora Macdonald in a Jacobite hat, it seems that she wore more than one during her lifetime.

 

[1] For an overview of the Jacobite uprising of 1745-46 see Jeremy Black, Culloden and the ‘45 (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000).

[2] For a detailed examination of Flora Macdonald see John Toffey, A woman nobly planned: fact and myth in the legacy of Flora MacDonald (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1997).

[3] Colley, L., Britons: Forging The Nation 1707-1837 (London: Yale University Press, 1992). p. 6.

 

 

 

Prof. John MacKenzie

Professor John MacKenzie’s talk ‘Presbyterianism, Empire and Scottish identity’ is now available on Youtube:

Presbyterianism, Empire and Scottish identity

We’re delighted to announce our latest event, in conjunction with UHI Centre for History’s seminar seri330es.

Join Professor John MacKenzie, Visiting Professor, UHI Centre for History on Wednesday 18th January 2017, 5.15pm-6.30pm for a seminar about how Presbyterianism and Empire have shaped Scottish identities since the nineteenth century.

Venue: Ross House, North Highland College, Dornoch or online (via Video Conference)

Please book your place at our Eventbrite page or by emailing Jim MacPherson: Jim.MacPherson@uhi.ac.uk

 

Culloden and Teaching Identities

This week’s blog post comes from Katey Boal, Leaaaeaaqaaaaaaaaheaaaajdzizmyzmgyylwjhndgtngy0my05ogi1lwnjmmq2ymyymzi0ngrning Manager at Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre, and reflects on discussions at our Exploring Identities day earlier this year.


Sister, wife, daughter, granddaughter, teacher, museums lover, environmentalist, radical, traditionalist, protester, tolerant // intolerant …immigrant.

I am all of these things, sometimes aspects of my life come into stronger focus than others but they are all me.  Sometimes these things come into conflict with each other but it doesn’t make them any less a part of who I am.

What do others see?

I am not sure.

I can tell you what they comment on – my accent.

So what does this have to do with identity?

Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre gets over 120,000 people visiting each year and over a quarter of a million people come to the site. They come from across the world, speak many different languages and all have their own world view. Our job is to give our visitors an understanding of what happened at Culloden, explore the complexities of conflict and discuss how the Jacobite rising impacted on world history.

25613-culloden-0226
Culloden Battlefield

These are big asks.  The Jacobite story is a complicated one, full of religion, politics and family lineages.  The story ranges across the globe, and it doesn’t finish at Culloden; there is a paranoia about Jacobites that lingers long after the rising finishes.

At Culloden we attempt to give a balanced view of this ‘civil’ war – however, people that visit can be focused on the romantic. While we do have visitors who are well versed in eighteenth-century history, many people visit with no concrete notion of what happened, where and why.

In a recent online survey, when questioned about the site, people (both those who have visited and those who have not) equated the story of the battlefield with words such as ‘pride’, ‘heritage’ and ‘honour’. In addition they were looking for an ‘authentic’ experience.  We have a significant number of our visitors who come from overseas, as ancestral tourists and at Culloden they find a connection to a real or sometimes imagined past. To put this in context to the idea of identity – visitors can come to the site seeking to validate their conceptions of self.

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They are looking for an intangible connection to who they are. Our programming, the histories we tell, and the way we tell them create an environment that is pitched to enable critical thought.  This process can be difficult; visitors can be confronted with uncomfortable realities and at times don’t want their version of history to be challenged.  I am reminded of a time when a visitor was in tears because the ancestors they assumed fought on the Jacobite side, in reality were members of the Government army.

At Culloden context is key.  Unless we have diaries or first-hand accounts, often the only way we can learn about a person or their actions is from what others say about them or what records of their life survive (second or third hand accounts). If we are lucky we may be able to have a sense of who a person was, however we are looking at their actions through our twenty-first-century lens.  Working with identities, in the past and in the present is not easy; as practitioners, we don’t know how people conceptualise themselves and it is dangerous to make assumptions.

This is particularly true when it comes to working with school students or those who are from vulnerable groups.

Therefore, our programming is about building and encouraging our visitors and participants to exercise their critical thinking skills, to develop their self-confidence, creativity and the ability to express themselves.  This is not about imparting information, rather it is about facilitating discussion.

In many ways I think the concept of teaching identity is false. We explore, discuss and work with identity.  You are who you think you are; we create our ideas of self and express that to the world. Our stories are also impacted by the perceptions of others – that is why it is so vital that we remember that, when dealing with identity, we often hear only one part of something that is very complex.

Working in public spaces with the concept of identity both in the present and in the past is challenging, frightening and exciting. We engage in a conversation with people about topics that are meaningful and through our programming make a lasting impact on people’s lives.

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