My heart’s in the Highlands…

…as is the rest of me, staying with relatives in Drumnadrochit, on the shores of Loch Ness. My mind, however, is also on the thought that I’ve going to be teaching a course on later medieval history in a month, which I need to bone up on. The course is on Britain and Europe, 1250-1500 and though in two terms you can’t get into much depth, Scotland does at least get a mention (as one of the objects of English conquest/colonialism/domination).

So surely being in Scotland is a good opportunity to get an increased feel for Scottish history? Unfortunately, that’s not really the case, at least not where we are based. Maybe in Edinburgh or Jedborough or Stirling or Aberdeen you can connect to Scottish history; in the Highlands what you largely get is Highland history. There are a number of histories of the Highlands in the bookshops which span centuries. For just about any other region of the British Isles, such a regional history would be an artificial construct for most periods. Anglo-Saxon Wessex, for example, may have its own distinctive history, but Tudor Wessex makes little sense. There’s no real continuity from medieval Northumbria to Tyneside in the Industrial Revolution.

For the Highlands, however, such a regional history makes a lot of sense. There are relatively few periods in which Highland history connects strongly even to the history of the rest of Scotland. There are a lot of early intersections, of course, like St Columba meeting Nessie or the Viking period, when the coastal regions as a whole are just as historically significant places as those inland. After that, however, the wider significance of the Highlands is minimal. The English and the Scots fought for Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness in the 1290s, but the real action wasn’t there. It wasn’t until the Jacobites that the Highlands again had a significant political role. And after that bloody interlude it was back to a history where the influence was mainly from the outside onto the Highlands, from the clearances to the fishing towns established in the late eighteenth century (like Ullapool and Plockton) and including the struggle for land rights, the Highlands being turned into sporting estates and various fishing and tourism booms and busts. The Highland influence on the outside world was largely from the exiles and ex-pats, from Nova Scotia to the Seaforth Highlanders.

The Highlands and Islands have provided many of the great symbols of Scotland: mountains, isles and lochs, whisky, clans and tartans, Celtic spirituality and Gaelic, caber tossing and the Loch Ness monster. Yet such symbolic importance is relatively recent and never been reflected in political or economic importance. It remains a marginal region, economically subsidised, often in danger of becoming merely a playground for visitors. However much I love visiting here, I suspect I have to look elsewhere to find the real heart of Scotland.

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