Graham-WatsonThis week’s blog comes from Dr Graham Watson, Head of Resources at High Life Highland, the body responsible for cultural and leisure services in the Highland region. Graham has recently completed his PhD at St Andrews, on ‘Social and Economic Change in Northumbria under the sons of Oswiu’.

Identity studies have contemporary relevance not least because of the ongoing discussions about what it means to be British, or Scottish, or both. They are also of growing interest in my own field of Early Medieval studies, relevant for this blog in terms of those early kingdoms that eventually came together to make ‘Britain’.

My interest in identity began with personal experiences from the early years of this century. On a visit to Nova Scotia to look at the provision of Gaelic studies in schools, it became clear that Gaelic was just one of a number of different languages being developed by their school system. These reflected many of the historical immigrant and indigenous cultures of Canada, including Highland Scots, Polish and First Nations Canadians. Young Canadians with ancestral roots in many different cultures were choosing which of these they were going to learn about. In that choice we saw a number wishing to focus on a particular identity beyond simply ‘Canadian’, and making an active decision amongst a number of options as to which ancestral identity was most important to them.


Sometimes Nova Scotia is a bit too like Old Scotland – Inverness Beach and its café in October.

In 2002 I read Paul Basu’s doctoral research on ancestral tourism and identity, where he concludes that people were seeking to recover a sense of identity in the ‘maelstrom of modernity’, i.e. choosing an identity, this time based on a possibly imagined past, and indeed an imagined present, based on what they thought Scotland was like.[1] These two insights put into context a comment made by an American to the Highland team at a St Andrew’s Day parade in New York to the effect that she ‘had been Scottish for six months now’. Given my upbringing in Glasgow in the 1960s and 1970s it was a strange and novel experience to realise that identity could be a choice!

Of course, the world changes, and even in Western Europe identity is becoming less constrained. In the context of British studies it may be only older students that remember the pressure to conform to a post-war gendered, class-based, national identity, with a special west coast of Scotland religious edge. However these issues are not confined to the past, and the religious identity of others remains an issue for some, with the Scottish Government still having to allocate resources to combat sectarianism.

Of course, we should not be talking about a single identity, but rather multiple identities. Perhaps this is better termed as ‘layered’ identities. These can be gendered, religious, and cultural. If I take some of my own as an example, these currently include Highlander, Scot, Briton and European. From an external, for example Asian, perspective, my most obvious identity is likely to be European or British. Being born and raised in Glasgow in the west of Scotland, how ‘Highland’ am I, despite thirty years of living here? How much is it my choice, and how much is placed on me by others?

Turning to the Early Medieval period, archaeologists have long understood the role of identity in, for example, shaping material culture. But what of identity in shaping peoples, and in turn nations? And what if identity is a choice? These are big questions, and are being examined in terms of how identity was framed and developed by those groups that entered what was the western part of the Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth-centuries. It used to be thought that these were tight ethnic groups, who came as ‘tribes’ from specific geographical locations, and retained their identity down the generations. Then came the suggestion that only the elite in these groups preserved a tradition from the past, and gathered others around them who adopted a sense of this group identity. More recently the view is being developed that the formation of these groups might be best described as ‘ethnogenesis’ and that much, if not all, of the group identity is a construction. We may see seventh century evidence of this in Britain when Bede tells us about ‘the West Saxons, who in early days were called the Gewisse’.[2] It may be that the new Royal line under King Ine actively created a new identity for the people of the kingdom that enabled them to hold onto power and downplay their predecessors and possible rivals for the kingship. Ine, and others, also had to address the process of accommodating the British population into the growing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of what is now England. The Laws of Ine talk of Wealh (the British population) as having rights under West Saxon law, but a lesser wergild, or compensatory value, than their West Saxon equivalents. This perhaps explains why the British population gradually fades away, and good reason for them to adopt ‘West Saxon ways’. But at what point was British ancestry quietly dropped, or allowed to be dropped by others? What is the process of ‘nativisation’ in the early medieval world? To take another example, Bishop Wilfrid in Northumbria took a young British child into his retinue, and we later find him with an Anglo-Saxon name, Eodwald. But at what point, when he spoke, dressed and had the manners of an Anglo-Saxon, might he have been seen by the others, if at all, as ‘one of us’?[3]

Pictish identity is seen by some scholars as something that was initially a Roman view of a much more complicated tribal situation to the north of the Empire. The Romans seem to coin the term ‘Pict’ for all the tribal groupings to the north. A modern analogy might be the way we talk about ‘Indian’ food when we mean the rich culinary traditions of many different group identities. Subsequently the Picts started to self-identify with this term, and in the course of the seventh century developed a system of symbols, ultimately carved onto stones, that reflect their view of themselves, and consequently their view of ‘others’, helping to build a ‘nation’ and a proto-state.[4]

The relevance of all of this to contemporary British studies is, I hope, clear. The competing tactics of choosing to develop and embrace a collective identity that permits entry by others willing to conform to a set of behaviours, versus identity defined by excluding others, and the reality of multiple-layered senses of self, versus identity as imposed by others, is something that has been worked through many times in the distant past. The manipulation of identity by the nation state, and the freedom to choose or otherwise for the individual, is nothing new.

[1] Paul Basu, ‘Homecomings: Genealogy, Heritage-Tourism and Identity in the Scottish Highland Diaspora’, unpublished PhD dissertation (University College London, 2002). Paul is now Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Heritage, UCL.

[2] Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors, (Oxford, 1969), book iii, chapter 7.

[3] The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus, ed. and trans. Bertram Colgrave (Oxford, 1927), chapter 18.

[4] The discussion can be followed in Sally Foster, Picts, Gaels and Scots 2nd ed. (Edinburgh, 2014).