It seems like a silly question to ask, but in reality it is a pivotal question that isn’t asked enough by historians and, in particular, politicians and tourist organisations. It is also an area that, to this day, is undermined, abused and taken from far more than it is given to; but I shall prove that outlandish remark in a future post. It is, however, also one of the most beautiful places in the world with a set of histories and cultures that are celebrated, respected and misunderstood in equal measure.
In a geographical sense, the Highlands are exactly what the name suggests; the area of Scotland where there are mountains. Some of these were at one time higher than Everest currently is and some developed from stone which is now potentially the oldest in the world. This is a widespread area, but a line generally runs north-east from a few miles north of Dumbarton towards Forfar and the Angus Glens, then northwards towards Ballater and finally north-west to Auldearn. Everything North and West of this vague line is the Highlands.
But this is dumbing it down tremendously. Geographers may well argue the minute detail of where the fault lines and the height changes really occur, but in an historical sense, the Highland line is far more complex than a transition of material substance and landscape.
There were certainly prehistoric settlers in the Highlands; perhaps most notably in Argyll, Applecross, Morayshire and the Cairngorms. But by definition, prehistory means there is little evidence as to their mapped locations and territories, their cultural reasons for choosing their home and which parts of their culture were adopted into other cultures.
The Pictish and Celtic cultures are part of this progression. The question of where they came from and where they went are often discussed, argued and squabbled about, but there is rarely a definitive answer. The truth of the matter is that Pictish and Celtic nuances are almost certainly part of a version of Gàidhlig culture which is barely hanging on and may well disappear in its true form within the next two or three generations. In part, I hope to help prevent their further decline by conserving a written version despite being unable to protect their development and survival in genuine form.
Many historians and ethnologists in the last 250 years have attempted to define the Highlands by cultural transitions. This mainly rests on the Gàidhealtachd being the backbone of their proposition. The Gàidhlig speaking community were, at one time in the not too distant past, the cultural majority in the geographic Highlands. But again; this is too simplistic. Gàidhlig speakers also had lands in the Dumfries area and many Gàidhlig speaking clans of the 18th century had developed from Norman/French beginnings in the 11th-13th centuries.
At the peak of the Lordship of the Isles dynasty – the overlord-ship of the MacDonald chiefs who, at one time, were serious contenders for the “Scottish” Crown – the Gàidhealtachd was viewed as the Island kingdom in the modern-day Western Isles which, in order to sustain power and enlarge its territory, had to spread to the mainland. Oddly enough, this put the Lordship at odds with other Gàidhlig tribes who were amassing their own territories, particularly the MacLeods and Mackenzies, who effectively prevented the chance of a Gael taking the throne.
As well as the Gàidhealtachd, there is a huge Norse influence in the Highlands. Many are ignorant of the extent of this and it leads to cultural misunderstandings regularly, particularly by Government and centralised national tourism bodies today.
The northern Isles and Sutherland are clearly Norse territory. Many place names are distinctly Norse – even ‘Sutherland’ which roughly translates as the Southern Land of the Norse territory, despite being the far north of our centralistic modern view of Scotland. Genetic research has gone some way to proving that many Highlanders and people of Highland descent have Norse genes.
The Norse settlers didn’t confine themselves to certain territories, as is often claimed. Many Gàidhlig traditions, place names and cultural practices began taking on a distinctly Norse element during the 13th-18th centuries. Perhaps a sign that the two distinct cultures, if left to develop further, may have become irrevocably intertwined. Or perhaps they already had by the 18th century?
Religion is another huge element of what the Highlands is in terms of culture and tradition. The incredible thing about the Highlands is that as well as soaking up and merging cultures, it did the same with religion and religious practices as part of those cultures. There are clear elements of Druid, Pictish, Catholic and Protestant ritualistic practices all over the Highlands, even today. As well as the power of three, water and fire in many Highland ceremonies, the Highland Council is also the only Council in Britain who have Board Meetings looking out onto damning quotations from the Bible carved in stone into a building opposite.
But as well as religious piety, Highlanders through time have also been generally liberally welcoming of new religious practices into their cultural mix. This has always been a key element, despite religious tensions between Picts, Druids and Christians and, later, Protestants and Catholics in the Highlands. Just this year a strong community of Muslims in the Outer Hebrides has been encouraged in their bid to build a Mosque, albeit on an Island which also produced the mother of the most white-supremacist and anti-Muslim American President the world has ever known.
To base your definition of the Highlands on geography and a basic cultural map is generally acceptable in Scottish and Highland history, but it is a weak definition that completely undermines the wider sense of the Highlands.
It is beyond this particular post to define what Highland Culture ‘is’. But in truth, the Highlands are most recognisable, rightly or wrongly, by its culture. This is true all over the world where elements of ‘Highlandness’ are perhaps embarrassingly mixed with ‘Scottishness’ by a respectful and passionate diaspora who unwittingly base their ideology on the often flimsy and over-romantic visions portrayed by Victorian historians, modern national tourism bodies and lightly-educated historical lectures by ex-pats. This isn’t the case for all, of course, but the constant piping and kilt-wearing at Burn’s Suppers is certainly not Highland. And yet, it is now. It is also amusing that both kilts and bagpipes originated in the modern middle-east and were developed into their modern form by Englishmen in a British army.
The spread of Highland and non-highland-but-presumed-Highland cultural practices all over the world means that, in terms of a cultural definition, when talking about the Highlands, its culture, tradition and history, we must not be ignorant of how that has also developed out with the geographical definition of the Highlands. In terms of cultural, traditional and political influence both from and on the world around, we must also not be ignorant of the historical progression of Scotland, Britain, Europe and the World. After all, the Highlands and Highlanders have either been defined or have defined an awful lot out with their territory.
So, in terms of this blog we will attempt to realise the geographical, religious and cultural definitions both within and out with the beautiful region defined so vaguely at the start of this post. In a way, the vaguer we are about the territory, the more accurate we can be about its history. This is not the Iron Curtain, after all. Please follow, like, share and comment; and let’s enjoy the adventure!
Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot
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