John MacdonaldThis week’s blog comes from our latest MLitt British Studies student, John Macdonald. John runs a tour company in the Highlands and Islands, The Hebridean Explorer.



From her research, Debbie believed that her Macleod family ancestors had faced their first eviction from the Outer Hebridean island of Pabbay in the 1840s. Forced to live as cottars on the neighbouring island of Berneray, their second eviction came in the early 1850s and they eventually found themselves on the long journey to Southern Australia, where they settled in Adelaide. Nearly a century and a half later, Debbie travelled to the Hebrides to see the land of her ancestors. As a Highland and Hebridean tour guide, this was my first multi-day tour, taking seven days to travel around the Scottish Highlands and Outer Hebrides before arriving on the sands of West Beach in Berneray where we could see the Isle of Pabbay just across the channel.

West Beach, Isle of Berneray
West Beach, Isle of Berneray, Outer Hebrides

Since then I have done a number of ancestry and genealogy tours based around family research. With the ‘Nova Scotia’ sisters (as I call them), we have explored most of the graveyards between Beauly and Glen Urquhart, looking for links to their Macdonald ancestors that sailed to Nova Scotia in the early 1800s and settled in Pictou County, while the Murdoch and Macdonald ancestry lines of Doug took him from Ottawa to Badbea, Helmsdale and Elgin. Understandably, with these returning descendants having an identifiable link back to an individual from a specific part of the Highlands, the majority have expressed a regional ancestral identity along with a national identity – although they have been more likely to identify themselves of Highland Scots heritage over an ancestral Scots identity.

Badbea Clearance Village
Badbea Clearance Village

However, many more of my ancestral tours have been for those with no more links to the region than what would be considered to be a Highland surname. What has been intriguing about these tours is that despite their ancestral name providing a link back to a specific area within the Highlands – e.g. Macraes and Kintail – the majority have connected more with the notion of a Scottish ancestral heritage rather than a Highland ancestral identity. They have tended to express their ancestral heritage under the umbrella of ‘Scottish roots’ and ‘Scottishness’, identifying with what they perceived to be Scottish national markers, cultural symbols and traits (the usual array from tartan to whisky to stubbornness!).

A common thread between these tours is that the vast majority of the returning descendants ancestors would have left Scotland after the Union with England, when it was part of the United Kingdom and they could have identified as British. Yet, not one returning descendant (on my tours, to date) has expressed any sense of having a British ancestral identity. Indeed, most have tended to voice rather negative views of the historical concept of British and Britishness – invariably associating it with an English identity – and never raising the topic of their ancestors having any notion of a British identity.

Granted, this is just a tiny subset of those with links to the region visiting from overseas, and for American ancestral visitors, in particular, their country’s independence clashes with Britain seem to have influenced a generally negative – historical – view of their sense of British identity and Britishness. Coupled with the fact that Scottish tourism advertising makes so much of ‘Scottish ancestry’ and ‘Scottish roots’, why would they explore any notion of having a British ancestral identity?

Maybe it is just simpler to break ancestral British identity down to its constituent parts or – far more likely – it was never even a considered option. However, it is still intriguing that very little thought seems to be given to British ancestral identity, particularly when the descendants’ views of modern day Britain are, for the most part, very positive.