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Highlandism And The Politics Of Geography

Alistair Livingstoneis a historian living in Galloway. He contributed to BBC Radio Scotland’s acclaimed series - The Lowland Clearances. Here he comments on Allan Armstrong's Beyond Broadswords and Bayonets

Having lived for 10 years in Hackney, east London (population 200,000) and then returning to Castle Douglas, south-west Scotland (population 3800), the contrast between these very different environments led me to research the history of the south-west. Why did Galloway remain a rural region despite the best efforts of landowners and entrepreneurs in the late 18th century? Castle Douglas was meant to become a ‘cotton town’ when it was built in the 1790s, but failed to become a rival to Manchester or Paisley. Very quickly, I realised that geography and even geology had to be taken into account. Castle Douglas’ cotton factory lacked enough water power to work its looms. Galloway lacked the coal needed for steam power. For these and other, related, reasons Galloway never experienced an industrial revolution and remains a rural region.

It also remains a ‘forgotten’ region of Scotland. Its history remains a local history, excluded from the main stream of popular Scottish history. One could argue that this is because key events in Scottish history took place elsewhere. Yet for a brief period, events in Galloway and the south-west were important.

Since Allan Armstrong has already and very effectively documented this period in his article, I will move on to some ‘why’ questions.

Why are the Lowland Cameronians not so well known as the Highland Jacobites? In particular, why should the suppression of the Highlands post 1745 be so well known whereas the suppression of Galloway and the south-west post 1660 is not?

Here geography cannot be the simple answer. Both regions were and are remote from the centre of Scottish political power in Edinburgh. Both regions were and are highly rural.

Nor can their histories provide an obvious answer. Yes, the power of the Scottish state had met with resistance in the Highlands long before the Jacobite period. But Galloway was an equally difficult region. In the 12th century, Fergus of Galloway (who termed himself ‘rex’ or king of Galloway) and his descendants tried to maintain the region’s independence from the Scottish crown. Galloway also supported the Balliol claim to the Scottish throne against that of the Bruces during the Wars of Independence. In the 15th century, Galloway was a power base for the Douglasses against the Stewarts.

The answer may lie in Professor Tom Devine’s recent book Scotland’s Empire in which he claims that the notion of Scottishness, steeped in all things tartan, was a myth designed to accommodate Scottish ambitions within the British Empire (Sunday Herald: 12 October 2004).

In other words, by locating Scottish national identity within the history and culture of the Highlands, clan feudalism and Stuart absolutism (the divine right of kings) became the signifiers of Scottishness. Significantly, Devine dates this construction of ‘Highlandism’ to the period 1790 to 1840. This was also when, as Allan Armstrong explains, the radical traditions of the Covenanters re-emerged.

The radical left-wing Covenanting tradition went underground for most of the eighteenth century. However, it re-emerged in the United Scotsmen and early trade union organisations. Their democratic organisation was modelled on that of the Cameronians. They had formed United Societies organised in wider Correspondences. They kept in contact by circulating Declarations (early manifestoes). These were discussed and debated at their General Meetings. The verylanguage of these new democratic and working class organisations comes directly from the earlier United Societies.

A national Committee of Scottish Union Societies had emerged during the 1812 (Glasgow weavers’) strike. The word ‘society’ has a long pedigree in Scottish political history. Presbyterian extremists in the seventeenth century frequently being referred to as ‘society men.’

This was the period when ‘democracy’ was a revolutionary idea, and one which had to be suppressed. It is hardly surprising then that the history and traditions of the Highlands were adopted and promoted as that of the ‘true’ Scotland and those of the Lowlands and south-west were not.

Challenges

As Allan Armstrong points out:

As a result of the long domination of British unionist history on the Left, a populist Jacobite history and culture has permeated wide sections of society in Scotland, not least the Left. Ironically this ‘divine right’ monarchist tradition is unionist too - only it is the Union of the Crowns it upholds. It is an indication of the serious lack of knowledge of Scotland’s own vernacular revolutionary traditions that there are Scottish socialists, who identify with this feudal, counter-revolutionary tradition.

In which case, overcoming ‘Highlandism’ is not going to be easy, when even would-be Scottish revolutionaries accept it at face value...

Nor, given that today Galloway (and Upper Nithsdale) is represented by a Conservative MP and MSP, can it be claimed that the south-west has remained true to its radical political heritage.

It may be that Tom Devine’s new book will revolutionise popular understandings of Scottish history and national identity. I am not so sure. Earlier this year I contributed a section on the Galloway Levellers to a Radio Scotland series on the ‘Lowland Clearances’. Unfortunately, all though packed with challenging historical research, the series has made no impression on the belief that the Highland Clearances were a unique phenomenon.

Highlandism is just too deeply embedded in popular consciousness. For every article like Allan Armstrong’s, there are a dozen which perpetuate the ‘imperial’ version of Scottish history.

And yet... for all its flaws, the devolved parliament in Edinburgh exists as a centre of political power and influence. What I have noticed, from the perspective of the south-west, is that the politics of Scotland’s geography are beginning to re-assert themselves. In particular, although expressed in crude ‘pork-barrel’/ economic self-interest terms, the rural south (Dumfries and Galloway and Scottish Borders) is challenging ‘Highlandism’.

Why are the Highlands a ‘special case’ ask local politicians? No rational answer can be given. Indeed, none can be given. Similar rural problems exist north and south of the central belt, yet the rural north receives more public funding per head than the rural south - well in excess of any geographic / demographic factors.

In The Scottish Political System (Cambridge University Press: 1989: 242), Professor James Kellas explains that the Highlands are a ‘special case’ for public funding, since

Many symbolic aspects of Scottish nationality are derived from Highland, rather than Lowland, Culture. Tartans, kilts, clans, bagpipes and country dancing are now built into the Scottish image... much of the sympathy for the Highlands is based on the feeling that if its ways of life were to perish, Scottish nationality itself would be in danger. This accounts for public expenditure to prop up the Highland economy.

When analysed, this politics of geography becomes a geography of politics. Kellas dismisses the distinctiveness of the rural south in a footnote, since it lacks Gaelic culture/language. What Allan Armstrong has remembered is the revolutionary political heritage of this forgotten region of Scotland.

Any responses to this article are welcome.

Alistair Livingstone