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.

  • Charles Withers
Thursday 17th June 2010