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.

  • Charles Withers
Thursday 17th June 2010