Hub for the Study of British Identities

Research network, journal and blog

British Studies in the Inverness Courier

We’re delighted to have appeared in the Inverness Courier this week. The article is now available online:

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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’ <; [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:


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.

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.


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.

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:


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