Thinking regionally: The Scottish Highlands and Empire in the ‘Age of Imperialism’

Thinking regionally: The Scottish Highlands and Empire in the ‘Age of Imperialism’

This week, PhD candidate Ben Thomas (Aberdeen) reflects on the fruitfulness of four nations approaches to the empire and considers how they could be enhanced through study of the Scottish Highlands.

Of all the academic uses of a four nations approach to British history, a four nations approach to the study of empire has emerged as one of the most productive in recent years.  This vein of scholarship has highlighted the fact that the home nations each had their own relationships with empire, and explored the subsequent implications for the identity of each individual nation.[1]  Yet if this literature has done us the service of moving away from an overly anglo-centric perspective on empire, then placing too great an emphasis on national units of analysis can also obscure the sub-national differences that typified the everyday experiences of Britishness and empire.[2]  Building on a number of previous blog posts highlighting the importance of looking below the level of the nation, I want to suggest that local and regional levels of analysis are just as important as that of the nation to understanding Britain’s relationship with the Empire.  This will be done through a glimpse at the Scottish Highlands in the late nineteenth century, a period commonly known as the ‘age of high imperialism’.

As it would be impossible to do full justice to the history of the region and its relationship with empire in the space available here, I want to focus on how one distinctly regional issue – the land question – shaped public cultures of empire in the Highlands and Islands.  During the late nineteenth century issues of land ownership and land use were of paramount importance to large sections of the region’s populace.  Although the area did not witness the level of violence that typified the land question in Ireland, a number of violent protests still occurred.  A vociferous campaign for land reform also helped to put the land question at the forefront of regional politics.  In 1883 a parliamentary inquiry was appointed to investigate the land question in the Highlands and Islands, and the commissioners toured the area taking evidence not only from landlords and their factors but also the people who worked the land; the crofters and cottars. 

In the rhetoric that surrounded the land question, two particular empire-related themes are worthy of note.  These are emigration and military service, both of which highlight the way in which ideas about empire were inflected by local and regional experiences.  Emigration in particular emerged as a hotly contested issue in the debates about possible solutions to Highland problems.  On the one hand, landlords, emigration agents and other interested parties advocated large-scale emigration as the only way to solve the problems of poverty, overcrowding and hunger then being experienced in parts of the region.  Many arguing this way portrayed the colonies as part of a ‘Greater Britain’, and claimed that departing emigrants would still belong to a trans-Atlantic British community because they would remain within the empire.  Yet in contrast the crofters and their land reform counterparts labelled the colonies as ‘alien’ and ‘foreign’ lands, and portrayed emigration as a form of ‘banishment’ from their ancestral homes.  Their cry was clear throughout the Crofters’ War: ‘we want migration, not emigration’.[3]

To give the laissez faire government of the day a reason to comply with these wishes, many crofters drew upon the region’s historical relationship with military service.  This strategy argued that the Highlands had previously supplied the British nation with a disproportionately large number of soldiers, and that the clearances had stripped the region of such stalwart subjects and replaced them with sheep and deer.  Playing on declinist fears about Britain’s place in the world, many land reformers promised that such numbers would return with the granting of speedy and effectual land reform.

Yet in arguing their case the crofters and land reformers were forced to avoid an inconvenient truth.  This was the fact that, despite the contemporary fame of the Highland regiments, very few Highlanders had served in the Highland regiments since the Napoleonic Wars.  Thus, for all their rhetoric about the bravery of Highland soldiers at Quebec or Waterloo, the land reform lobby rarely engaged with contemporary imperial campaigns in their arguments.  Instead, regional politics shaped the tone and form of these empire-related discussions, and in ways that blunted the celebration of contemporary empire-related military victories; Scottish, British or otherwise.

 By looking below the level of the nation, therefore, sub-national experiences are revealed that were vital in shaping popular responses to empire, as well as the tone and form of popular imperial cultures more generally.  As such, this example clearly demonstrates a limit to a four nations approach to the study of empire.  Only by taking a smaller unit of focus can such complexities be properly understood, and alongside nation and empire we must also think regionally and locally about British and imperial history.

[1] John M. MacKenzie, “Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English Worlds? A Four-Nation Approach to the History of the British Empire,” History Compass 6, no. 5 (2008), 1244.

[2] Richard J. Finlay, “National Identity, Union, and Empire,” in John M. MacKenzie and T.M. Devine (eds.), Scotland and the British Empire (Oxford, 2011), 289.

[3] From evidence given to the Napier Commission.  See The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, C. 3980 (1884),Donald Buchanan, p. 21, 340; Hugh MacRae, p. 642, 10176.

Ben has submitted his PhD at the University of Aberdeen, and will be examined in a fortnight. His thesis explored the place of empire in the Highlands and Islands between 1876 and 1902, and he is currently putting the finishing touches to a journal article dealing with the themes of this blog post.


2 thoughts on “Thinking regionally: The Scottish Highlands and Empire in the ‘Age of Imperialism’

  1. I am sometimes perplexed by the idea that focusing on the history of the Highlands and Islands is some kind of new and interesting concept. There has been criticism for hundreds of years that Scottish history has primarily been written by outsiders heavily influenced by anglo-centric perspectives of Empire. We have rarely had the privilege of viewing Scottish history from the perspective of Scotland, let alone that of the marginalised Gaels.

    Another issue is the way in which Gaelic history, and Scottish history more generally, is frequently only ever considered as it relates and influences English history. Take the Civil War period for example, how many academic works focus primarily on the English aspect of the way, with ‘bit-parts’ for Scottish/Welsh/Irish actors as they become relevant to the situation in England? How much has this also applied to Empire-related historiography?

    Perhaps the Four Nation Approach may be beneficial to the study of history and in breaking down what has been obvious to most Scots for a very long time – that there is far too much ambiguity between what is ‘English’ and what is ‘British’.

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