Hub for the Study of British Identities

Research network, journal and blog

Traditionalising Empire: Imperial Commodities in Gaelic Popular Culture

We’re delighted that Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart’s talk on empire, consumption and the Highlands is now available on YouTube:


‘Your house looks so British – I mean English – Or … Scottish?’

This week’s blog post comes from Mareike Zacke, one of our new MLitt British Studies students at UHI for 2016-17. Mareike is an Erasmus student from the University of Bonn.

Earlier this year I did a course at my university in Germany on the postcolonial Bildungsroman, which, amongst other novels, covered Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions (1988) as well as Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey (1970). Both novels portray the coming of age of their protagonists, Tambu and Tee, young girls who struggle to come to terms with their own identity after they have been exposed to different forms of ‘Englishness’.


Nervous Conditions follows Tambu as she moves from the patriarchal restrictions of her tribe in 1960s Zimbabwe to her paternal uncle who has just returned from studying in England. While living with her uncle’s family, Tambu experiences their new English’ lifestyle and soon, she notices a discrepancy with their ‘Englishness’: even though her uncle mimics Englishness and its progressiveness, he does not accept his daughter Nyasha’s even more modern – more English – way of thinking. To her, ‘Englishness’ means something different and as she has become a hybrid of both cultures, she struggles to fit into either society.

Similarly, Tee’s identity formation in Crick Crack, Monkey is equally disturbed as soon as she is exposed to ‘Englishness’ through education in school. Initially, she is brought up rather traditionally in colonial Trinidad by her aunt and is rooted in her culture. In school, however, she undergoes an English education that introduces her to strange concepts and thus leaves her confused about European customs and names. When she moves to her anglicised aunt Beatrice after winning a scholarship, Tee, like Tambu, begins to adapt a westernised lifestyle and is alienated from her cultural heritage and past.

Both novels depict the influence of ‘Englishness’ on individuals in a postcolonial context, yet, in terms of British identities it is challenging that the novels’ representations of Englishness, uncle or aunt respectively, are neither actually English (or British in the broader sense). What they impose on the young girls is what they believe to be ‘proper’ English behaviour, lifestyle and even language.

Their ideas of what the term ‘English’ stands for were rather stereotypical and I had to think about my own conceptions of British- and Englishness, realising that, being German, I tended to use both terms interchangeably. Naturally, as a non-native speaker of a different nationality I was not overly aware that what I called ‘British’ at times was actually perceived distinctly ‘English’ and that I consequently subordinated the other national identities in the UK. Just as I do not sympathise with the stereotype of the average German wearing Lederhosen, a traditionally Bavarian custom, at least they do not call us all Bavarian. The same understandably applies to other nations and cultures as well.


It is difficult to distinguish the terms ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’ and ever since reading the novels I have become rather cautious of using either term. The habit of using the term ‘British(ness)’, especially abroad, probably arises from the problematic of having multiple national identities on the island. Instead of subordinating them to an English identity, we use the term ‘British’ to acknowledge the other national identities. The term, thus, becomes a sort of ‘neutral’ description and refers to common features of all identities. However, the stereotypes attributed to the supposedly neutral term ‘British’ then, remain the same, ignoring that what has been shaped by popular culture is actually English.

Promoting ‘Englishness’?

The overall problematic is not only apparent abroad but also for people in Great Britain. If they do not know what term describes them best, how am I supposed to know? Consequently, the question of which term to use and which alternative is considered the most appropriate remains. Just recently this issue occurred when I arrived in Inverness for my Erasmus exchange. When entering my host mother’s house, I complimented her on it being so “English”, when it caught me red-handed that I was in Scotland … and that in order to prevent any offense I should probably refer to it as Scottish? Or British? In the end I might have mentioned all three terms, just to cover all bases.

Traditionalising Empire: Imperial Commodities in Gaelic Popular Culture

We’re very excited to announce our latest event, in conjunction with UHI Centre for History’s seminar series. picture1

Join Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI on Wednesday 26th October 2016, 5.00pm-6.00pm for a seminar about how imperial commodities found a place within the domestic popular culture of the people of the Highlands from the seventeenth century onwards, at first as exotic, fashionable curiosities, then increasingly as household necessities.

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:


Blackness and Wildness: James IV and Highland Cultural Identity

This week’s blog comes from Dr Lesley Mickel, Lecturer in Literature img_0025at the University of the Highlands. Here, Lesley reflects on her paper, presented at our recent ‘Exploring Identities Day’.

Accounts relating to the tournament of The Wild/Black Knight and the Black Lady staged by James IV of Scotland in 1507 and 1508 show the interchangeable nature of the terms ‘black’ and ‘wild’. In his Historie and Cronikles of Scotland, (written c. mid 1570s, published 1782) Pitscottie refers to James IV’s tournament as The Black Knight and Black Lady and explains these chivalric identities as the antithesis of the white rose (Yorkist/English?) knight and lady who presented themselves at the tournament.

Lesley Mickel presenting at HSBI’s ‘Exploring Identities Day’.

The practice of pairing knights and ladies in this way was conventional in the sixteenth century, as reflected in the celebrated Bayonne entertainment (1565) featuring Charles IX of France, where knights and ladies of the same nation appear in pairs with matching costumes. Groupings of this kind are, of course, stereotypical and generalising in terms of race and nationality, but they are visually arresting and were a recurring motif in festivals representing diverse nations – a popular format for court entertainments in Europe. In contrast to Pitscottie, the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland’s accounts relating to James IV’s tournament refer to a ‘wild knight’, indicating the interchangeable, overlapping nature of the terms ‘wild’ and ‘black’. Pitscottie elaborates on James’s adoption of the ‘black’ disguise, showing that blackness was not only associated with exotic or demonic others (as often the case in the discourse of the period), but with great physical strength and power:

The king iustit him selff dissaguysed onknawin and he was callit the blak knicht quha gave battell to all thame that wald fect for their ladyis saik and speciallie of the knichtis and gentilmen of France Ingland and Denmark. The blak knicht sayit thame all bot their was nane that mycht war him at na tyme bot he wan the lady frome thame all for he was verie puissant and strenthie on horseback and faucht and iustit with kind of weaponis that usis thairunto that is to say with spear sword and mass bot their was nocht ane that incountart him that micht byd his straikis he was so strang and puissant in his armes thairfoir the iudge and harraulds gave him the degrie of that tournament that he vsed all kind of turnment maist manlie and knichtlyk of ony that was their at that tyme. (Pitscottie, vol I, pp.243-244)

It seems to me that just as the white rose knight from England represents a Yorkist version of Englishness, James IV uses ‘blackness’ to figure a version of Scottishness based on chivalric military power and strength. Chromatic opposites are used to define a sense of nationhood in relief – we are Scottish, because we are not English. These connections between blackness, wildness and Scottishness can also be seen in the visual language of Highland heraldry where savages or wild men are used as supporters on the shields of noble Scottish families from the Highlands and Islands. James IV’s guise as the ‘Black Knight’ deliberately appropriates associations of wildness and blackness linked with Highland identity to reinforce his personal prestige as a powerful warrior, and his national prestige as ruler over the expanding nation state of Scotland. In maintaining control over the recently subdued Western isles (in 1493 the Lord of the Isles, John MacDonald forfeited his title and estates to the Scottish Crown), James not only conquered this infamously wild and unruly region, but also appropriated its rhetorical construction into the visual iconography and discourse of Scottish kingship.

Lord of Lewis Coat of Arms

At the banquet following the tournament a great cloud appeared which ‘clekkit up the blak lady’ so that she disappeared – the result of ‘Igramancie’ hinting that the King’s physical prowess resulting in his claim on the Black Lady was matched by his mastery of the natural and supernatural world (Bishop Andrew Foreman devised the special effects). The online Dictionary of the Scots Language tells us that ‘Igramancie’ as a term means more than simply magic, as it is etymologically derived from ‘nigromancy’ – or more specifically, black magic. The king’s power then, has a mysterious origin and powerful although potentially dangerous applications; these magical and spiritual attributes of kingship were carried through into the later Stuart court masques staged at Whitehall and harnessed to a narrative of divine right and power, for example The Masque of Blackness (1605). Appropriating wildness associated with the North was part of a political discourse consolidating territorial claims over the North and a strategy to rewrite a negative narrative of Northerness, producing a rhetoric of Scottish national identity to take its place.

A Sense of Belonging

This week’s blog comes from one of the participants at our recent ‘Exploring Identities’ day at Inverness Museum and Gallery, and reflects on what we did during the day and how we explored the meaning of identity.

Who am I? Do I exist? Where am I from? Who are my people?

These and many other questions popped up on the excellent Exploring Identities Day co-hosted by IMAG and UHI.


I came away from IMAG’s previous event (Reflections on Celts) feeling very European. But this day focused more on British vs Scottish identities, perceptions of identity and teaching of identity. On those darn demographic boxes that now appear on every form, I have to admit that I tick British based on having 2 English parents, 1 Scottish grandmother and 3 English grandparents. But then as Ian Blyth rightly said, we are all from Africa.

Dr Ian Blyth talking about recent philosophies of identity


Fast forward to the end of the Exploring Identities Day and we are asked to draw on a satellite map of Scotland. I begin with St Kilda just visible as a blur on the far left of the image taken from space. My grandmother’s ancestors, Macdonalds, came from Hirta in the 1840s. They settled in Rodel on the southern tip of Harris and some of the family moved a few miles to Tarbert where my grandmother was born as a Mackenzie in 1901. How she ended up in the Midlands of England, as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK, is a bit of a family mystery.

But back to the map – the islands in the sea are important to me. Following the line of grainy blurred shapes, I add names in orange marker pen as I head up the chain of the Outer Hebrides: Mingulay, Vatersay, Eriskay, Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Harris, Lewis. If only I knew how to speak Gaelic, then the names themselves would become a song of wind chimes strung across the Minch. Today we have spoken of ancestors and of story-telling, of culture and of heritage, yet surprisingly only one song has been sung.

I return to the map and mark on places of yet more significance for me – Luskentyre where I want my ashes scattered, Callanish where the stones can make time stand still. I’ve visited these places many times and they exist also in my mind as places to which I can return to find peace. Once, they saved my life.

Back in the day I was a translator in Paris, suicidally wanting an escape route from work pressure and city rat race that didn’t involve returning to England. The existential questions kept coming at me then – but paramount amongst them was “what did I want to do with the rest of my life?” One day on the bus to work which I had taken a thousand times before, I realised I was asking myself the wrong question. No wonder the answer was beyond my grasp. “What would I do if I had 3 months left to live?” That question was easy – I would return to Harris, the landscape and the seascape of my dreams, maybe I would explore the other Hebridean islands too. After all, I had 3 months to live. Time enough. And so Scotland saved my life. It may have happened a second time, but that’s another story.


Cait McCullagh and Dr Kristin Lindfield-Ott guiding us through our ‘Mapping the Highlands’ exercise

So on my map, I add in The Minch and make a start on labelling the Inner Hebrides. I visited them on my Grand Tour when I left France and have been lucky enough to return to many of those special places – Arran, Islay, Jura, Mull, Iona, Staffa, Eigg, Canna, Rum, Muck, Skye. All jewels of the Scottish seas. I often wondered if you have to be an island in order to fall so in love with islands.

The discussion around other people’s maps leads us to the concept of home. My hometown is where I was born and brought up in the Midlands due to the quirk of my Hebridean grandmother landing herself a husband in the very centre of England. However I cannot say it is home. I spent most of my time there wanting to escape. The times I have returned to Harris in the past offered me moments when I felt that the island was the home of my soul. It felt deeply spiritual to return there and it kept drawing me back but I have been away a while now so I’m not sure if the magic still works. I’ve been lucky enough to land on St Kilda a few times but I have no idea whether good fortune will ever take me back there as much as I long to see it appear again out of the morning mist. I still feel that the island of Hirta holds me safe in the palm of its hand (or in reality protected in the caldera which remains visible from space if only the satellite image were a little less grainy).

St Kilda

Scotland always draws me back to its shores. It is magnetic. I have recently returned from exile after family bereavement and a conjunction of other unfortunate circumstances forced me to leave. Two years away seemed much longer. Inverness is home now and I believe that it always will be where I live. Three months I have been back here and it was only last week that I noticed the big red YOU ARE HERE marker on the tourist map board on the street where I live. Life is in transition for me, I am evolving in more ways than it is possible for you to imagine, I am creating a new life for myself, a new “I”, the same “me”. But I AM HERE, finally it has sunk in. My exile is over. I have returned – maybe not exactly triumphant but at least still alive. Now I cannot imagine life without the river, the bridges and the pink castle. The bridges guide me through my own mental maze and the river replenishes me with energy every day. As long as the river keeps flowing, I can keep going. That’s my latest mantra for keeping suicide at bay. Like I say Scotland saved my life – twice.

As for my identity, that is so multi-faceted my Facebook friends tell me it warrants its own blog.

I am male. I am weak. I am my mother’s daughter. I am strong. I am a survivor.

Which of these statements (if any) is false?



Exploring Identities: Day Conference

9 August 2016, 10am – 5pm, Inverness Town House

We’re delighted to be preparing for the new academic year with an exciting event at Inverness Town House, where we’ll be joined by colleagues and collaborators from Inverness Museum acait23nd Art Gallery and the National Trust for Scotland’s Culloden Battlefield Centre for a day of FREE talks, discussions and workshops discovering different ‘identities’.

Find out more about how we research and teach identities at UHI and IMAG.  Explore the great variety of identities represented throughout the British Isles from the Romans, the Picts, the Jacobites and the Victorians to the present; discuss what it’s like to have more than one identity with international students and community members, and help us to capture what it means to be a Highlander in our ‘Mapping the Highlands’ finale!

No admission charge but booking is essential, in person at Inverness Museum & Art Gallery, call 01463 237114 or email

‘Civilising’ the North: British Identities and the European ideal

 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

Creative Commons License


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.



The ‘lapsed’ natives

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


The Great Tapestry of Scotland – a wonderful depiction of the story of Scotland from pre-history to modern times – recently visited Inverness. One of the panels was called ‘English Advance Gaelic Retreat’ and depicted the changing names of many Scottish towns, both Highland and Lowland, from Gàidhlig to English.


Gaelic language regression has been a factor throughout Scotland and the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic-speaking part of north-western Scotland) for many centuries, a decline that has continued, with particular intensity, since the Act of Union – although there is now some evidence of the beginnings of an arrest in that decline.[1]

Great Tapestry of Scotland - English Advance Gaelic Retreat
‘English Advance Gaelic Retreat’ Panel from The Great Tapestry of Scotland


This panel brought to the fore my interest in the role of language in defining identity. In particular, how important is the Gaelic language in defining Gaelic identity?


At first glance, this may seem to have an obvious answer – very. However, if language is a key component of identity, where does that leave, for example, the many Scots who associate with a Scottish identity but do not speak the Scots language?[2] Indeed, one recent study suggested that the Gaelic language is not necessarily the most important marker in associating with Gaelic identity. Rather, it concluded that ‘there is no simple metric for being a Gael and while the language matters, that alone is insufficient’.[3]


My interest in Gaelic identity has been shaped by two twentieth-century works of Gaelic literature, both of which provide emotive literary responses in support of the language as a key part of Gaelic identity.


Murdo MacFarlane’s words in the verses of Cànan nan Gàidheal (The Language of the Gaels) can be interpreted, not only as a cry for the survival of the Gaelic language from continued encroachment by English, but as chastisement for those Gaels that have abandoned their native tongue.[4]

Blog Post Assessment 1 (update) - The Language of the Gaels

MacFarlane’s sense of frustration comes through as he mourns the loss of Gaelic identity from the ancient heartlands, as mountains and glens forfeit their Gaelic names, and in turn their connection with Gaelic identity.


Although Cànan nan Gàidheal may sound harsh in its anger towards the English language – the ‘disease from the south’ that is destroying the Gaelic language – this is tempered by MacFarlane’s scathing criticism of the Gaels for their own complicity in this matter. English would not have been so successful in spreading throughout the Gàidhealtachd without generations of Gaels abandoning their language.

YouTube BBC Four clip about Cànan nan Gàidheal


While MacFarlane imagines a continuing Gaelic heartland, it is expressed with a sense of hope rather than expectation. A more positive reflection comes from Anne Frater’s poem Aig an Fhaing (At the Fank).[5]

Blog Post Assessment 1 (update) - At the Fank.jpg

Here, Frater imagines a typical rural Highland and Hebridean crofting event – a day at a sheep fank. Standing on the sidelines, watching, waiting and aware, before eventually becoming immersed in the work, this poem reflects on the role of Gaelic in defining identity. It could aptly apply to many Gaels who have let slip their native tongue, as a reminder of the importance of the language to their identity, and as encouragement to re-join the Gaelic language community.

YouTube clip of a sheep fank on the Isle of Lewis


Unfortunately, my academic impartiality regarding the question of Gaelic language and identity is likely to be slightly hindered by my own status – the very one chastised in Cànan nan Gàidheal – that of a ‘lapsed’ native Gael.


It is on with mo bhòtannan (my wellies) and off to the fank for me.




[1] 2011 UK census report shows a significant reduction in the rate of decline of Gaelic speakers over the previous decade and a slight increase in younger speakers.




[2] See Robert Millar McColl, ‘An Historical National Identity? The Case of the Scots’, in Carmen Llamas and Dominic Watt (eds), Language and Identities (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), pp. 245-56.



[3] Frank Bechhofer and David McCrone, ‘What makes a Gael? Identity, language and ancestry in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd’, Identities, 12:2 (2014), pp. 113-33. []



[4] Murdo MacFarlane, ‘Cànan nan Gàidheal’ in Anne Lorne Gilles, Songs of Gaelic Scotland (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010), pp. 312-13, and available online in Gaelic at []



[5] Anne Frater, ‘Aig an Fhaing’ in Christopher Whyte (ed.), An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd: In the Face of Eternity (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), and available online at []




‘Scotland to a T’?

This week’s post comes from Magda Szymborska-Bishop, onDSCN2914e of the students on our MLitt British Studies course.


A few months ago Dr Christie Margrave discussed in her HSBI post the rising use of the Union Jack, a widespread symbol of Britishness. Her debate about ‘the ludic postmodern representations of the flag around the world’[1] gave, in turn, Dr Innes Kennedy a starting point for his argument about the meaning of British identities. Having read both blog posts in the context of (the now long gone) St Andrew’s day – the Scottish national day when on government buildings only the Saltire is flown across Scotland; and (the fairly recently passed) Burns’ Night, with its celebration of the contribution of the bard to Scottish culture, made me consider that it may be worth pausing on some aspects of the use of popular Scottish iconography.

As discussed by Christie Margrave the Union Jack design is now not only limited to fashion objects but has spread across supermarket shelves. It brands our fruit, meat and even crisps, where it is used to advertise the origins of ‘home grown’ potatoes.[2] Picture1This developing custom, besides creating a well-marketed heritage narrative, indicates that ‘banal nationalism’ is certainly on the increase.[3] Scotland’s heritage symbols, on the other hand, seem to be used in order to refashion this country yet again as a place for peaceful and/or joyful retreat. It appears that the sense of Scottishness encountered on a day-to-day basis sustains a connection that dates back to mid-eighteenth century aesthetics, which once shaped Scotland.

Many scholars, including Trevor-Roper’s infamous article about the ‘invention of tradition’ in the Scottish Highlands, have dealt with the issues that have participated in creating Scotland and defining it, largely, through this one region. As a result of Macpherson’s Ossianic Collection and Burns’s poems Scotland became a tourist destination in the mid-eighteenth century and that popular view of the country was intensified by Walter Scott’s fiction. The Romantic movement’s aesthetics of the picturesque and sublime portrayed Scotland and the Scottish Highlands as a place of romantic sanctuary and, subsequently, the region was made into a lens for perceiving Scotland as a whole. Interestingly, as Womack discusses, this region ‘acquired the role of representing Scotland for the English’.[4] Although, at first, this appropriation of the Highlands was created and recreated through art, over time it became a dominant narrative adopted for the needs of what is broadly understood as the heritage industry. Heritage which, in many cases, as Lowenthal defines, substitutes ‘an image of the past for its reality (…); it effaces history’s intricate coherence with piecemeal and mendacious celebration, tendering comatose tourists a castrated past.’[5]

Items which nowadays can be found in tourist shops across Scotland indeed reflect Lowenthal’s argument. What, however, is the situation with home-grown products that are supposed to be dedicated to the inhabitants of Scotland?

Without much difficulty I found two particular creations dressed in heritage ideology, which left me astonished, if not baffled. Picture2The first was an advertisement for the Highland home trend, which, according to a dedicated designer of the department store, will allow you to ‘transform your home into a rustic retreat (…). Inspired by the Scottish landscape and wildlife, this cosy collection creates a restful and ambient atmosphere that will make you reconsider if you ever need to leave your home’.[6] Unsurprisingly therefore the narrative, infused with myth-making ideology, which harks back a few centuries, tries to persuade customers that by purchasing  (heather coloured!) tartan bedding, a few knitted blankets, a picture of a grouse and deer-style candleholders they will be able to bring the romanticized Scottish landscape into their homes. Interestingly this advert does not rely too heavily oPicture3n tartan, but incorporates a wider albeit stereotypical vision of Highland scenery. More importantly however it lends itself to the divisive narrative of the Lowlands (understood here, I believe, as the rest of Britain) and the Highlands. The latter region denotes, according to this trend a ‘snug haven.’ Consequently, in my opinion, through the use of features of nature it partially adapts the eighteenth-century construction of the Highlands (wilderness, understood as ‘a version of nature’ and ‘the antithesis of culture’ and a space destitute of people)[7] thus offering our imagination a more authentic withdrawal from real life.

The second item confronted me with the use of popular Scottish heritage in the pub when, a couple of years ago, on the glass of my favourite lager I noticed clearly demarcated icons of Scotland.


The pint glass I was served in was produced in 2012 especially for the occasion of St Andrew’s day and was given the playful label ‘Scotland to a T’. It encompasses thirty six statements that were chosen from over 3000 entries and aimed ‘to create a unique snapshot of the nation in words and pictures.’[8] In theory it sought to capture current perceptions of Scotland; and indeed one might find a few humorous phrases that portray the country (my personal favourite is ‘land of the square sausage’). The marketing campaign even produced a cartoon where some comments were used to create a seemingly cohesive narration:


However these slogans, at large, adopt stereotypes in order to codify Scottishness and in this context they predictably tap into a wider, heritage-oriented narration. It is a challenging item, as although there is a noticeable intention of self-mockery, which  substitutes the tendency of the ‘Highlands home trend’ to fetishize the Highlands for putting a real (often drunk!) person into Scotland’s idealised landscape; the glass as a product, even if subvertly, echoes the same ‘castrated past’ and creates a no less castrated present.

Such a selective glance at some aspects of how Scottish popular iconography underpinned by Scottish heritage is used in contemporary products does not give a full picture of the matter. It does however indicate a very broad use of Scottish popular icons, which, essentially, create a sometimes deceitful cultural merry-go-round, made of solitary fragments of Scottish culture and identity.





[1] Innes Kennedy, ‘Bricolage and the question of British Identities’ in the Hub for the Study of British Identities. Available from


[3] See M. Billing, Banal Nationalism (London, 1995).

[4] P. Womack, Improvement and Romance. Constructing the myth of the Highlands (Basingstoke, 1989), p. 148.

[5] D. Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge, 2010), p. 102


[7] D. McCrone, Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Nation 2nd Ed. (London, 2001), p. 39


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