• Charles Withers
Location:
Edinburgh
Date:
Thursday 17th June 2010
Reference:
SWI2010/018

Simon:

Shall we start with a little bit about your own discipline in terms of how you’re looking at topics and then the specific background to the Urban Highlanders research?

     

Charles:

Well, the project really is a work ... I mean, not just the book. In a sense, what the book speaks to is a project in historical geography; understanding the significance of migration to the Highland experience; understanding the significance of migration to the creation of an urban Gaidhalteachd and very much trying to bring together the awareness that there was, in Scotland’s cities, a Gaelic presence from at least the end of the seventeenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century this had become quite strongly politicised in a variety of ways and yet no one had really thought to use a variety of sources, notably the census, I mean that’s the main one actually, to investigate where Highlanders had come from who’d become permanent residents in places like Glasgow and Edinburgh and Aberdeen and so on. But also to try and understand the sort of circuitry of migration that underlies this presence of Gaelic culture in Scotland’s urban spaces.

Simon:

Maybe just explain a little bit about historical geography to someone who doesn’t have ...?

     

Charles:

Well, historical geography, as a particular branch or adjective of geography, is really concerned with the human geography of the past. It’s not archeological in as much as it doesn’t go beneath the surface of the land, and it’s really quite present in as much as all geography is historical geography in as much as today will become yesterday and so on but it’s, at least in it’s traditional form, source based. So the census has been a very important form for understanding things like urban social structure, migration patterns ... Other sources have been likewise important in understanding changes in rural landscape. Historical geography at least has been practiced in, you know, geography over the course of the last hundred years, say. It’s based on interrogation of sources, which will reveal in some sense a past landscape or a past human patter or condition.

Simon:

OK, and in terms of the sources you mentioned, the census, are there other kind of sources? For example, for looking at things like the Gaelic societies and organisations that you discuss in the book, what kind of sources did you draw on for that?

     

Charles:

The census is crucial because it’s the only source from 1851 which allows you to do place of birth by parish, that’s the crucial crucial thing. And you can then do it decadely thereafter up to 2001 ... 1901 is available in 2001 and so on, available in a hundred year intervals. But other sources are crucial here. I suppose they really fall into two types. One is the whole variety of individual institutions, Highland societies, Highland clubs, Highland associations, which have got records of varying quality and extent which document the presence both of themselves, the institution, but also things that they did, charitable work, philanthropic work and so on. These sometimes extended into things like sporting associations or political regional associations but there’s a whole range of Highland clubs. The second is a whole series of what we might call, I suppose, sort of parochial records in consequence of other things, like the statistical accounts for example. They actually say the end of the eighteenth century and the middle of the sort of 1830s and 1840s and there’s quite a lot about the changing conditions of Highland life, the changing conditions of migration in relation to the Highland economy, and you get a whole series of, as it were, particular instances. The Highland Destitution Committee in relation to the famine, for example, the great Highland famine of the 1840s and the very early 1850s. And rarely, but when of course they do appear they are greatly valuable, there are individual diaries or records of certain circumstances. They’re rare and there’s the odd sort of record like Police Society records which actually you can use to trace people from the Highlands who became policemen in Scotland’s major cities.

Simon:

We’ll come on to the first topic here, the cycle of migration that was typical of Gaelic life in the period you’ve studied, so initially if you could just summarise some typical examples of the kinds of work that people were entering into, the kind of ages they would maybe enter into work and whether there was specific gender-related work?

     

Charles:

I think the general picture you have to sort of understand of this topic, Highland-Lowland migration, is that it does take two forms broadly: permanent and seasonal or seasonal temporary if you like. The distinctions between the two aren’t always easy to draw. The permanent migration we know. There are people present, living, Gaelic speaking, in Edinburgh and Glasgow from the end of the eighteenth century. There’s evidence, of course, that they were there well before. Neil MacVicar’s congregation in Edinburgh, we know, is supplemented by seasonal inflow of Highlanders working the harvest. So there’s a sort of circuitry, a circulation of seasonal and temporary migration, underlying this presence of permanent migrants. Broadly it falls, this seasonal pattern, this circuitry, falls into two types. One, there is this pattern for harvest labour which will be both male and female. This is from the end of the eighteenth and certainly during the course of the nineteenth century, regarded as a kind of necessary condition for keeping Highland life going without actually having to leave. There is a sense too, from the 1830s and 1840s, that crofting is, to some degree, actually critically dependent upon that out-movement for a period of time. We have examples of the Valtos crofter who’s reported in a MacNeill Commission of 1851 as spending twenty years on a sort of annual cycle. He spent six months in a farm near Dunbar and six months back in Vaternish and he’s someone who ... his whole life is structured around that pattern. The second pattern is more conspicuously gendered and that’s out-movement for the fishing industry for young women. That tended to be, not wholly, but tended to be from the north west Highlands and the outer isles to the fishing industries of the north east coast, to Buchan and the Aberdeen coast and so on although, in fact, they went much further afield too. There were Gaelic preachers, for example, for the Gaelic female fish folk who were working in places like Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, even as late as the early twentieth century. This is at moments interrupted by what we, I suppose, can think of as sort of pulses of migration. Again, the distinction between seasonal and permanent is quite hard always to get a handle on, but the pulse is prompted both by famine, notably in the course of the middle nineteenth century, and by particular opportunities for employment. So when the railways come, that’s a wonderful opportunity and it’s not far to go from, say, the central Highlands down to the central Lowlands either for canal work, of course earlier or, from the 1830s and 40s for railway work.

Simon:

You mentioned that there was a conscious awareness that crofting relied upon this kind of secondary income. Crofting itself, as we know it today, is to some extent a product of the Improvement era and you had earlier the township system. Is the shift from township systems to crofting systems ...? Is there any reflection on that in relation to migration or ...?

     

Charles:

No, that’s a good question. It’s hard to know. I mean, I think the extent to which people were prepared to accommodate, if you like, a sort of annual and regular disruption to their life that migration demanded ... In order to maintain a foothold at home, and it is at home, there’s a strong sense of this being about maintenance of a community back in the Gaidhalteachd but dependant upon the cash that was generated from four months, six months, however long away. And of course that’s true too for those who actually went further afield for mining or for fishing, way further afield. So there’s no clear sense that migration is prompted by any sort of, if you like, tenurial shift in the nature of the crofting circumstance, but there’s a very clear sense that as the Highlands are being transformed, say, quite dramatically in parts of the outer isles after 1847 or so, after the famine, that people are prepared to make the move. For them, the intention is that it’s seasonal but for some, of course, we have all sorts of records of one or two individuals for whom the move that was initially seasonal becomes permanent and then in fact becomes emigration. There’s also evidence for people for whom the move south is certainly not a direct or even a quick one. Again, the difficulties of categories like permanent and seasonal migration in something of the General Registers of The Poor, which is a vital source after Scotland’s Poor Law transforms itself legislatively from the middle of the nineteenth century. There are records of people who take often ten to twelve years to make the move, as it were, from Highlands to urban Scotland and are recorded receiving poor relief from a whole series of smaller towns and villages as they move south before pitching up then in Glasgow only then, of course, to have to return so the question of seasonal migration, as it were, within a year is one aspect of maintenance of crofting but there’s also underlying this a circuitry of people who are always on the move, looking for a job.

Simon:

Are there distinctions between the people who are come specifically from crofting, like crofters with tenure as opposed to cottars?

     

Charles:

Hard to know. The only time that we actually pick up large numbers of cottars and, indeed, the sort of sub-tenantry from the crofting classes is in the sources that relate to the Highland destitution after the Highland Destitution Committee and that relate to the specific relief mechanisms after the famine. And it’s quite clear that the people who are then being, if you like, supported initially as seasonal migrants but latterly they become permanent migrants, are the cottars and the lotters, the sort of sub-tenantry of a crofting community that is actually on the edge of collapse in certain places.

Simon:

Move on to ... the creation of groups and organisations in the areas. You summarised a few earlier when you were talking about the documents but maybe you could provide a more detailed ... some of the actual types of organisations and the activities that might be involved?

     

Charles:

In one sense, you can see the creation of an urban Gaidhalteachd through the emergence of a variety of institutions and societies that help support Gaelic folk in one way or another. Institutionally, I suppose, the earliest that is significant in this regard is the Highland Society of Glasgow from the 1720s and this is in no doubt, at least in its own paperwork, about the role it plays in supporting Highland persons or persons of Highland origin, as it has it. But I think there’s a sense too that this institution is actually sort of about Highland gentlemen, that this is about men of status, and men of status rather than whole families. This is not in any sense what we see by the end of the nineteenth century; of institutions coping for the Highland destitute poor; institutions which are structured either by region, which is very common: Argyll Society, Sutherland Society and Caithness Societies and so on, or in relation to particular clan loyalties but even before we think of institutions in those terms, what we have to understand is the importance of the family as a sort of network, as a resource, for the people we call upon, much as now of course. Why should we see anything different in the past? And the most important institution in the urban context was the Gaelic church, there’s no doubt about that. That’s particularly true for Glasgow. So it’s dangerous to think of a kind of typology over time but you can think of initial rather sort of high social status charitable organisations ... Gaelic churches were clearly important right from the off and then, by the latter part of the eighteenth and certainly throughout the nineteenth century, a whole variety of regional clan affiliation or sometimes, just sometimes, occupation support for Highlanders working within particular industries.

Simon:

Do you feel, just coming back to Glasgow, those organisations that were more institutionally defined in the sense that they’re recognised today, did they tend to come from a more upper class background that’s creating this as a partly philanthropic act or is there ... are there more ground-up organisations? Maybe the church is probably the best ...

     

Charles:

The church is the best one ... Well, the church is both ground-up and top-down actually cos there’s a very clear sense that the church, by it’s absolute nature, had a sort of philanthropic mission but there’s a very strong sense too that, if you like, the sort of local flavour of particular churches, not the church capital ‘c’, was governed by the nature of the minister, the incumbent. So Caraid nan Gaidheal, Norman Macleod, is crucial in that respect, in Glasgow in the 1830s, 40s, 50s. But I think there’s a sense to, rather than necessarily see this in terms of class status, it’s helpful perhaps to see it in sort of ... well, perhaps rather than clan, in terms of caste, in terms of distinctions within certain groups. So there’s no doubt that clan groups do support one another and there’s no doubt that those clan groups are actually led by the clan chief, though he be dispossessed of something of his sort of traditional power, but within that there is a preparedness to support all of that name, then there’s a preparedness to support all of Highland stock, but somehow also to expect that there’s a support coming from other directions. If they’re supporting Macdonalds or whatever it might be, that similarly church institutions, philanthropic institutions, even work places, would be as well supporting what the clan based society or the regional society is doing at the same time.

Simon:

I guess a parallel development with this period is actually the emergence of civil society structures, that we think of today, emerging at this time?

     

Charles:

Yes, I mean I think the whole issue of Highland-Lowland migration has to be seen in a broader context. First of all, of course, they’re not separate worlds. The Highland line is a geographic conceit. It’s not something that is a pecked line that runs somewhere through central Perthshire over which you step to get down into the Lowlands. And much of what is characterising the transformation of the Gaidhalteachd in this period is, of course, exactly what’s characterising much of rural Europe. That said, the emergence of institutions of philanthropy, the role of the church, the emergence of a sort of literate concerned political public sphere in the nineteenth century, is all part of what is happening much more generally, so when newspapers start agitating as they do about ... manifesting a concern for the plight of the destitute Gael, they’re manifesting it not just because they’re Gaelic speaking or Highland born but because they’re the poor, they represent a moral crisis. This is a blight, this is something that we have to pay for, that we should be concerned about ... and there are all sorts of echoes of the emergence of a caring body politic.

Simon:

In terms of the actual composition of the membership of these groups ... I mean, you’ve touched on that to an extent. Is there an indication of it changing over time? I’m kind of thinking basically, if you have permanent settlement arising in urban centers like Glasgow and, say, by the time you get second generation families and such, do they, in terms of the affiliations that they would see themselves being part of the same groups?

     

Charles:

There’s an interesting shift in terms of the typology of these institutions. I think it is clear from the second half of the nineteenth and even the last quarter of the nineteenth century, that many more of these institutions are quite highly charged, politically, by which I mean they are prepared to debate in the public sphere and see themselves as spaces and platforms for concerns about things like the land wars for the sort of rather more agitated nature of a response to what is taking place in the Gaidhalteachd. What I think is also true is that over the generations, these institutions are themselves continuing to be strong but the language base within them is less strongly Gaelic. Now, of course there are all sorts of exceptions to that general statement. One needs to be therefore careful in this regard. If there is a sense in which these institutions are as they are, clearly maintained by a constant inflow of people for whom migration is permanent, then there’s also a sense that second, third and later generations of Highland born are also less Gaelic speaking. The reasons for that are to do with cultural shame that was attached to knowing Gaelic, to do with a lack of support within the urban context, relatively few Gaelic schools. The only real space was the Gaelic chapel or church. So these bodies and societies become no less caring but I do think they become less Gaelic in some regard.

Simon:

I was wondering also if you maybe had a shift from regional affiliations to more, for example, around trades or around a status within society?

     

Charles:

My sense would be the contrary actually. I think that regional associations are strong. I think that you will find, in a sense, completely independently of an association about Highlandness or Gaelic language, an affiliation that has to do with a shared place in the work environment. So, you know, one is, if you like, a weaver or a plate metal worker, regardless of one’s background in that regard, and I don’t think you’re necessarily picked out by virtue of place of birth, language and so on. There is of course the exception to this in as much as ... certainly the Irish are ... always sort of typified as the sort of bestial worst excesses, worst examples of the urban poor in the nineteenth century. The Highland man, the Highland family, is never quite figured in those ways as sort of both apes and angels, as others have written, but there is a sense in which I think initially they were seen as strange, a moral burden for Scotland’s society. I mean, after all, the Jacobite rebellions are only a generation or two away in the public memory by the time people in the 1810s and 1820s are establishing Highland societies in Dundee, Edinburgh and so on. So I think there’s an aristocracy of labour at work. There’s a sectional difference within labour as well as within a sense of common concern, if you like, within Scottish civil society as to what the Highlander represents when in the midst of the city.

Simon:

And just staying with organisations for a little bit, are there distinctions between ... You talked about the Glasgow Society being a predominantly male institution. Are there more female orientated institutions or are they largely a male preserve?

     

Charles:

I’ve not come across any specifically although I do think there are certain bodies, if you like, whose operational practices recognise the need to attend separately to the experience of Highland women by which, in a sense, of course ... if Highlanders to some degree represent a moral burden to urban civic and Scottish society more generally, the unattended Highland woman is likewise not intrinsically a problem but is an issue to be recognised so the Uist and Barra Association, for example, has records of them not only providing monies to provide accommodation upon first arrival in west central Scotland but also setting up a sort of network of places where they might expect to get a job as a domestic servant or working in a shop or whatever. So there was an issue that women, if you like, particularly single young Highland women, had to be managed and catered for appropriately if they weren’t to fall ... well, fall from grace.

Simon:

You touched upon some of the perceptions of the Gaelic community in the urban areas. In Urban Highlanders you give some extracts from some employers about how they described Highlanders in that and you’ve also mentioned about this distinction with the Irish. Is there ... Firstly, you’ve mentioned some of this but to lead into the discussion, can you summarise some of the dominant perceptions of non-Gaels towards Gaels?

     

Charles:

The perception of the Highlander in one respect, of course, is ... well, certainly by the first twenty years of the nineteenth century, is overlain and coloured dramatically with all sorts of romantic associations. This is the world of Walter Scott’s imagination and the creation of him and David Stewart of Garth who, with others, set up this glorified tartan extravaganza when George IV arrives in 1822. So in one sense, the perception of the non-Highlander, the non-Gael, to the Highland person is of a sort of caricature of their own making, the be-tartaned, ginger haired, knock kneed, immensely strong but rather dim witted but also, at times, military problem. Someone who is, if you like, not quite ethnologically distinct but certainly not of them. And we have to recognise that this sort of persistent tartanry, this tartanisation, Balmorality as others have called it, infects and inflects views of the Highlander. However, at the same time there is a very real sense that many institutions and many individuals in authority in the urban Lowland Scotland saw the Highlander as a problem of social transformation, didn’t see them as ethnically or racially distinct, certainly not ethnically or racially inferior. They worried in relation to questions to civilization about their retention of Gaelic because that wasn’t necessarily seen as the means to bring them into society so Anglicisation and civilization were important associations in the minds of many in the non-Gael’s attitude to the Gael. There were some, of course, who regarded them simply as a cheap labour source, and it didn’t matter where people came from provided you could build canals and build railways and have your farms worked, for people who needed what might’ve been a pittance of a wage. There’s no real sense of a sort of public fingering and identification of the Highlander as a sort of sweet generous figure in the way that there is of the Irish in the nineteenth century. Of course there would have been moments. There were moments, we know that, where the Highlander in particular jobs, by virtue of not speaking English or by dress or by affiliation with fellows from his or her own parish, were separated out for ridicule, but these are relatively minor instances in a culture generally that was accepting of these people simply because they were part of Scotland’s people and, of course, would have been seen on the streets generally as part of the circuits of seasonal migration. In a sense, what permanent migration does is just makes them stay longer and they become more evident by their larger number.

Simon:

And also you have emerging sciences, like anthropological studies, ethnographic studies, of which the Highlands and the Hebrides in particular are quite often popular sites of study and is that kind of research, at that time, feeding into an understanding of the Highlander culture? Do you feel it’s more of a specialist domain at the time?

     

Charles:

There’s a very strong sense in which the Highlander is regarded, as with the Welsh peasantry and the Irish, particularly the West Irish, as a sort of ethnic sub-type so in one sense this, I think, is an expression of the pseudo-science of phrenology, that you can see in people’s skull shape a difference that is then the explanation, if you like, for a moral and mental capacity but this is bunkum actually, we know that to be. But in the nineteenth century ethnology and anthropology, at least physical anthropology, was very fixed and quite concerned with the idea that people’s cultural capacity could be read, as it were, from their skull so the Highlander and the West Irish and indeed many parts of the sort of North East of Scotland, Buchan, agricultural labourers and so on, are all measured in the end of the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century, their skulls I mean, from which you then read ... one commentator called it ‘Index of Nigrescence’, which was actually about whether or not these people had been associated with the Phoenicians. This is about racial origins. So the Highlander gets, if you like, investigated in his own laboratory but that’s typical of nineteenth century pseudo-science, racial science, around physical anthropometry. Where there is a parallel interest that is much more, if you will, scientifically and academically rigorous, it’s around comparative philology. So the Gaelic language becomes a source of philological interest even at the same time as people being active in making sure there’s not enough funds for Gaelic schools or Gaelic in churches and so on, so you have Gaelic chair here in 1871 with Blackie, and Blackie comes at this question from his recognition of the lexical comparisons between Greek and Gaelic and he is aware, of course, of a bigger comparative linguistic and semantic questions. This is the whole sort of Indo-European problem. So the Highlander figures as both, if you like, a tartan lab-rat in some people’s minds, as a very important exemplification of a culture and language that may of course be on it’s way out, this persistent myth of disappearance, and as a figure who is seen almost as, indeed with other parts of Scotland, as a sort of rural archetype.

Simon:

I was partly thinking of ... is it Mackenzie’s studies, where he starts these kind of cultural compendiums which is partly that tartantry aspect and then the travelogue ... (inaudible) ...

     

Charles:

Yes, of course. I mean there is that sense of, you know, the Highlands being discovered as a sort of natural laboratory and that’s vital in two respects. One, of course, is botany so people are desperately concerned to see the Highlands as a sort of space for ... I suppose what you might call understanding the botanical significance in order that the plants can be used medically but then, of course, as pharmacology, the sort of mass production of these things, you move away from the medical basis in plants. And the other area of work is geology. The Highlands, of course, present some of the oldest rocks in the world so the north west Highlands with Horne and Peach and the development of the Geological Survey of Scotland from the 1880s with the work of the Geikie as well, the Highlands become a really significant scientific space. What’s ironic, of course, is by this time the Highlands are being emptied in a whole variety of ways, even as they become significant geologically, certainly so geologically, botanically, and of course we have two other great scientific projects at work in the nineteenth century Highlands, even as the people themselves are being emptied from their habitual places of living and work. One is the Bathymetrical Survey and the other is the Admiralty Charting so the Highlands are, for perhaps the first time, being put to a consistent cartographic order. The shape of Scotland, if you like, is becoming more and more known.

Simon:

In terms of relation between the Highlander and the Irish, there’s both distinctions and continuities of sorts. Could you maybe elaborate a bit on that? Both in terms of ... I guess there’s the ... from outward perceptions, is there any evidence from within Highland and Irish communities of what their perceptions of each other are?

     

Charles:

That’s a hard one to get a firm grip on and, again, you have a series of sort of individual instances which are relatively few and I think based on family or individual perception, and then there are sources which can clearly demonstrate not what others have called a straight ethnic division of labour in the workplace but nonetheless point to distinctions between Irish and Gaelic Highlander or Highland born. Where there is an area that I think we still need to know much more about, over this Irish-Gaelic relationship, is in language use in relation to the census. The only census ... or the first census that is particularly useful in this context is the census from 1891 and what it shows, and no one really has looked into this in great detail, is that large numbers of Irish born people are clearly recorded as Gaelic speakers in the 1891 census. Now there’s every reason to suppose, of course, that an Irish speaker from, say, Donegal or Antrim or north east Ireland, would have been understood and would have been mutually able to comprehend Gaelic from Argyll or from the western Gaidhalteachd. There’s a linguistic distinction that I think Gaels made of themselves that Argyll Highlanders spoke a better form of Gaelic than the north west Highlander and the same is also true in reverse. But there’s no sort of standard sense by which you can get to a view of the Irish being somehow a sort of subaltern class to the Gael and the Gael likewise being subordinate to the Lowland Scot. This is actually about rank and status rather than, you know, any large-scale ethnic distinction. There will of course be upper class Highlanders for whom knowledge of Gaelic is vital, crucial to themselves and their sense of identity, but they might have affiliations with all sorts of upper class members of Lowland Scotland and Britain, just as they have affiliation to a Gaelic speaking or indeed perhaps even to an Irish community in their local town or through their institutions, such as the church or school.

Simon:

And in terms of ... (inaudible) ... the Land League movement, there was a desire to try and see commonality across different ...

     

Charles:

Absolutely! No, the land law reform and home rule and so forth is a part of what you can, I think, legitimately call a Pan-Celticism movement in the end of the nineteenth century. And that of course is in some sense evident in art and in literature but is very clearly rooted in a shared identity amongst, to use the term guardedly, ordinary Gaels and Highlanders and ordinary Irish concerned about the consequences of agricultural and industrial transformation. But again, this is a sort of class and caste movement, shared movement, rather than it being a sort of strict ethnic separation or ethnic affiliation. This is about a genuine and deep-seated grievance about the transformation, about culture and economy for which, of course, the only response when you have no other means of recourse is to leave.