This week’s blog comes from Silke Reeploeg, a lecturer with the University of the Highlands and Islands based in the Shetland Islands. She has taught history and literature on a s200_silke.reeploegvariety of programmes including Orkney and Shetland Studies, Island Studies and Highlands and Islands Culture, and has recently completed a PhD thesis on the historical and cultural links between Scotland and Norway in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

The forthcoming referendum to decide whether the United Kingdom should stay or leave the European Union has reignited many conversations about what a progressive European community looks like, and what it means to be British within it.  Both Brexit and Stay-in supporters point out the exceptional position of the British, as both a constructive and critical voice within the European ideal.  The ‘civilised’ response to ever greater political union, on the one hand, is to put a stop to it – as it threatens the sovereignity of individual national member states.  Rubbish, say the Stay-ins, this is regressive and the very opposite of the European ideal.  This has at its very heart arguments about the ‘civilised’ and ‘civilising’ unity of nations and the prevention of an excessive nationalism that led to two World Wars and all the barbaric practices that go with it.  These two opposing views of what the ‘civilised’ construction of a transnational region looks like, and who should do the ‘civilising’, have reminded me of two things:  1) that I am definitely an unflinchingly romantic European and 2) that the way in which Europe, as a place and an idea, is reshaped (from a British perspective) at the moment sounds and looks very familiar.

NPG D13078; 'The landing of Sir John Bull and his family, at Boulogne sur Mer' by James Gillray, published by  Hannah Humphrey
‘The landing of Sir John Bull and his family, at Boulogne sur Mer’, by James Gillray. Published 31 May 1792 NPG D13078 © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Listening to the arguments on both sides of the Brexit fence, it is perhaps worth remembering that only a few hundred years ago both Britain and the British were part of something called ‘the North’, a rather ‘uncivilised’ region to be treated with caution.  The North, both as a place and an idea, has been reinterpreted and reinvented multiple times throughout history.   A rich cultural history of art, literature, folklore, historical and topographical writing populates the idea of the North (Davidson, 2005, Barraclough et al., 2013), with writers engaging with it as part of both a historical and contemporary reality (Francis, 2008 2007, Northbound).  During the eighteenth century the North, as an idea, underwent an improvement in terms of how people (in the South) perceived it and incorporated it into their private and public perceptions.

What had earlier been a rustic, barbarian and unrefined counterpart to the civilisation heartland of Europe, gradually became more and more part of the substantial definition of what was truly European (Stadius, 2001).

This was mainly due to an Enlightenment discourse that would find its ideological counter-image in the Baroque and Catholic South.  So, while Montesquieu’s famous climate theory developed in De l’esprit des lois (1748) mainly focused on improving the status of England and protestant societies at large (Stadius, 2005:20-21), the (Scandinavian) North moved from being a ‘paradise-like land’ to a ‘general idea of a non-civilised periphery’ (Stadius, 2005:18).  The idea of a ‘non-civilised periphery’ is closely connected to discourses of colonialism and has since, of course, been on the move.  We can today perhaps talk of European semi-peripheries, with nation states negotiating their relationship with the European Union based on economic, rather than cultural ideals.

In her study Geographies of the Romantic North (2013) Angela Byrne investigates the role of ‘men of science’ in the geographical construction of the Romantic North in Britain during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century.  She argues that by examining the relationship between late eighteenth century science, antiquarianism and ethnology, the construction of romantic visions of the North can be investigated and related to the history of European thought.  The northern parts of the British Isles thus became part of a romantic imagination that identified ‘Aboriginal districts’ such as the Scottish Highlands or the Northern Isles.   There the shared, traditional roots that united all Britons could be found, including antiquities and the remains of ancient languages such as Gaelic or Norn, a version of Old Norse (Wawn, 2002).  A new scientific system for the classification of material culture connected to this past was constructed, which was then communicated and shared through a social network of ‘Northern’ antiquarians.  The rise of antiquarian tradition and its rediscovery of the past during the eighteenth century is connected closely to the purpose of intellectual enlightenment through scientific practice (Sweet, 2004).  Previously antiquarians had focused their attention primarily on the physical ‘fragments of the historical shipwreck of time’ (Sweet, 2004:8).  Collections of natural objects and curiosities connected to the history of the Roman Empire, such as coin or inscriptions on monuments formed the main basis of pre-eighteenth century antiquarians’ attempts to reconstruct past societies.  This changed with the establishment of scholarly communities of the philosophical and scientific societies of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, which increasingly brought together people interested in a wide range of sources, not merely restricted to documents and manuscripts found in libraries and archives.

Material culture was increasingly seen as a valuable supplement to historical documentation, which could be rewritten or even forged according to political or religious influences.  Artefacts, on the other hand, were seen as ‘incorruptible’ (Sweet, 2004:10).  Antiquarians were thus instrumental in the creation of a new type of history-writing which was aimed at a reading public within Britain, and encourage an ‘empathetic relationship with the historical past’ (Sweet, 2004).

One of the most fascinating aspects of Byrne’s book is her discussion of First Nation and Inuit Wayfinding and Mapping, which contrasts indigenous maps with those produced by Euroamericans (Byrne, 2013:131-149).  Indigenous maps of the Arctic North traditionally served a variety of functions, from ceremonial maps or those of the cosmos, to featuring migration routes, trails, landmarks and oral accounts of battles.  These types of mapping and wayfinding traditions are not solely focused on replicating topographical features, but often concentrate on spiritually important or practical information that will be relevant to wayfinding in a particular context.  Byrne points out that this type of mapping was often misinterpreted by Euroamericans. Indigenous maps were not intended to replace oral transmission, but to provide a visual illustration and supplement oral accounts.  As a result, traditional knowledge was often represented by Euroamericans as something quite vague and unspecific.  Rather than relying on scientific knowledge, indigenous geographical knowledge provided a much more cohesive and integrated knowledge of the local landscape and climate.  Many Euroamerican mapmakers incorporated indigenous information, or maps, into their published maps.  As part of the colonisation process, the resulting maps of the North were those of the British North, integrating indigenous knowledge, whilst still aware of the limits of imperial knowledge.

The uses, misuse, or integration of indigenous geographical knowledge by metropolitan scientific travelers reveal much, not just about British imperial perceptions of northern indigenous peoples, but also their attitudes toward other ways of knowing the world. (…) The practice of quoting or plagiarizing previous accounts without investigating their claims perpetuated many errors, as did generalizing across what is in actuality a complex tapestry of many, very different, culture. (Byrne, 2013:149)

However, a singular, romantic vision of a northern identity also remained part of the modern identity of the Scottish Northern Isles, as a part of the British Isles that retains the indigenous part of Scotland’s Nordic traditions and customs.  Britain’s separation from the rest of Europe is here often taken for granted, with British historians often presenting their nation’s history as exceptional and different from the Continent (Colley, 1992 (2009)).  An emphasis on the British Atlantic world (Armitage and Braddick, 2002 (2009)) and other imperial aspects of British history has made Britain and Ireland seem even more distant from the rest of Europe.  Yet, although both Britain and Ireland were part of a much wider imperial and colonial network, connections to continental Europe cannot be underestimated.   In terms of the construction of Northern European identities, and as Stephen Conway acknowledges in his study of Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe in the Eighteenth Century (Conway, 2011), although both British and Irish thought and acted in national terms, they were also able to see themselves as Europeans.  Through education and cultural activities such as the Grand Tour, eighteenth and nineteenth century British upper and emerging middle classes were, in fact, encouraged to think of themselves as part of a cosmopolitan European society.  So, for example, this encompassed a shared commitment to the law of nations, especially during warfare, which involved confronting other states on the continent, but still referred back to a common, internationally accepted military system. Similarly, the construction of regional and national identities within Britain at the time responded to wider movements in European thought, such as the change in how the European North (and regions within it) was perceived.

In Scotland, late eighteenth century writers such as Samuel Johnson in his diary of his 1775 Journey to the Western Isles ((Johnson, 1791 249-50) had provided widely circulated descriptions of Scottish Highlanders that were often negative:

Mountaineers are warlike, because by their feuds and competitions they consider themselves as enemies. (…) and mountaineers are thievish, because they are poor, and having neither manufactures nor commerce, can grow richer only by robbery. (Johnson, 1791)

Early nineteenth century literary texts such as Robert Bissets four-volume series Douglas, or, The Highlander (Bisset, 1800), on the other hand begin by not only describing the potential of Highlanders to ‘improve their condition’ (Bisset, 1800:6) through the direction of the (lowland) landowner, Douglas, but also show Douglas’ sons applying themselves within the context of the British Empire – by joining the army, going ‘to India to push fortune’ (Bisset, 1800) and attending St Andrews University.  The Scottish scholar John Stuart Blackie, in his Scottish Highlanders and the Land Laws (An Historico-Economical Enquiry) (Blackie, 1885, Wallace, 2006), comments on the transformation of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century Highlander from what was often described by outsiders as an ‘uncivilised’ and dangerous member of a warlike Northern tribe, to the Highland ‘soldier, rooted in the clan system, [who] was fostered by the healthy life of a mountaineer’ (Blackie, 1885).  Blackie describes a Highlander as ‘a healthy man, a sturdy peasant, a good workman, a natural gymnast, an intrepid fighter, a daring commander, and the best of colonists.’ (Blackie, 1885).

In terms of shifting ‘images’,  this then relates to a cultural transformation of the representation of Scotland’s populations from a threatening, backward peoples to domesticated rural communities with distinct folk traditions.  ‘Highlandism’, as a cultural discourse, has been analysed widely (Withers, 1992, Broun, 2007), and is often presented as ‘a form of Lowland cultural imperialism whereby the symbols of the subordinated society were removed and refashioned in a way that made them artificial and geared instead to non-Highland sentiments.’  (Murdoch and Mackillop, 2002).  However, and as argued by Murdoch, the very existence of the idea of the ‘Highland warrior’ also made it possible for a distinct and popular Highland military image to emerge during the eighteenth century, in which both a Gaelic and Scottish identity could be accommodated.  This applied both to the appropriation multiple identities by the Scottish Gaels and non-Highlanders, particularly when negotiating additional concepts such as Britishness (MacCoinnich, 2002).

Examples such as this show the importance of understanding the dialogue between politics, and historical and literary production during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Together they not only ‘civilise’ and domesticate certain regions in the North, but in doing so demonstrate the subtle integration of historical fact and literary fiction, as well as the complex process of ‘mental mapping’ of cultural and social realities during this period.  They do not necessarily construct a simplified ‘folk culture’ for us, but invite us to take part in the construction of what Benedict Anderson calls ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1991), and the way societies imagine themselves as historical entities through narration (Bhaba, 1990).  The figure of the ‘sturdy mountaineer’, in particular, helps us to understand the complex, but complimentary, relationships between nineteenth century European history, and the various nationalist, patriotic and imperial motivators of the time.  It also exposes our own continued attraction to linking geography and historical narrative, as part of a continuous dynamic that integrates it into a complex cultural performance of creating our very own sense of place within Britain and Europe (Reeploeg, 2012).  So whether you agree with the Brexiters or not, the imagined community that is Europe remains an integral part of British identity, which is itself firmly grounded in European ideals about what it means to be ‘civilised’.


Works cited:

ANDERSON, B. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London and New York, Verso.

ARMITAGE, D. & BRADDICK, M. J. 2002 (2009). The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

BARRACLOUGH, E. R., CUDMORE, D. & DONECKER, S. 2013. Der übernatürliche Norden – Konturen eines Forschungsfeldes. NORDEUROPA Forum 23, 23-53. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 24. May 2016].

BHABA, H. 1990. Nation and Narration, London, Routledge.

BISSET, R. 1800. Douglas; or, The Highlander. A novel, London, Chapple.

BLACKIE, J. S. 1885. The Scottish Highlanders and the Land Laws, London, Chapman and Hall Ltd.

BROUN, D. MACGREGOR, M. 2007. Mìorun Mòr nan Gall, ‘The Great Ill-Will of the Lowlander’? Lowland Perceptions of the Highlands, Medieval and Modern, Glasgow: Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies, University of Glasgow.

BYRNE, A. 2013. Geographies of the Romantic North: Science, Antiquarianism, and Travel, 1790–1830, Palgrave Macmillan.

CHURCH, J. T. 1989. Political Discourse of Shetland: confabulations and communities. PhD Thesis, Temple University, Indiana.

COLLEY, L. 1992 (2009). Britons, Forging the Nation 1707-1837, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

CONWAY, S. 2011. Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe: Similarities, Connections, Identities Oxford, Oxford University Press.

DAVIDSON, P. 2005. The Idea of the North, London, Reaktion Books.

FRANCIS, G. 2008. True North, Travels in Arctic Europe, Edinburgh, Polygon.

JOHNSON, S. 1791. A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, London, A. Strahan and T. Cadell.  [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 24 May 2016).

KELLY, S. 2010. Scott-land, the Man who invented a Nation, Edinburgh, Polygon.

LEERSSEN, J. 2006. National Thought in Europe: A Cultural History, Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press.

MACCOINNICH, A. 2002. ‘His spirit was given only to warre’: Conflict and Identity in the Scottish Gaidhealtachd c.1580-c.1630. In: MURDOCH, S. & MACKILLOP, A. (eds.) Fighting for Identity, Scottish Military Experience c.1550-1900. Leiden, Boston, Koln: Brill.

MURDOCH, S. & MACKILLOP, A. E. 2002. Fighting for Identity, Scottish Military Experience c. 1550-1900, Leiden, Boston, Köln, Brill.

REEPLOEG, S. 2012. The Uttermost Part  of the Earth: Islands on the edge … and in the centre of the North Atlantic. In: MATTHEWS, J. & TRAVERS, D. (eds.) Islands and Britishness:  A Global Perspective. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

STADIUS, P. 2001. Southern Perspectives on the North: Legends, Stereotypes, Images and Models, Wydaw, Uniwersytetu Gdańskiego.

STADIUS, P. 2005. The North in European Mental Mapping. The North Calotte, Perspectives on the Histories and Cultures of Northernmost Europe. Helsinki: University of Helsinki.

SWEET, R. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain, London, Bloomsbury.

TREVOR-ROPER, H. 2008. The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History, New Haven and London, Yale University Press.

WALLACE, S. 2006. John Stuart Blackie: Scottish Scholar and Patriot, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

WAWN, A. 2002. The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth-Century Britain, New York, Woodbridge and Rochester.

WITHERS, C. J. 1992. The Historical Creation of the Scottish Highlands. In: DONNACHIE, I. & WHATLEY, C. (eds.) The Manufacture of Scottish History. Edinburgh: Polygon.