Kind Words for Strathpeffer

Rosalind Mitchison

  • The British Isles: A History of Four Nations by Hugh Kearney
    Cambridge, 236 pp, £17.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 521 33420 9
  • Cromartie: Highland Life 1650-1914 by Eric Richards and Monica Clough
    518 pp, £29.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 08 037732 7
  • Jacobitism and the English People, 1688-1788 by Paul Kléber Monod
    Cambridge, 408 pp, £30.00, November 1989, ISBN 0 521 33534 5

Hugh Kearney has written a book to assert the reality of the British Isles as an intercommunicating group of cultures with many features in common but also with strong regional or national differences. It is a timely reminder that the political dominance of these islands by England from the 17th century covers only a small part of their various histories. We are reminded vigorously of the Irish cultural dominance in the sixth and seventh centuries, the political dominance by Scandinavia of almost the whole island complex in the tenth century, and the control by a relatively small group of Normans in the 12th and 13th centuries. These periods show that there is nothing historically inevitable in the political and cultural rule of Big Brother in London and the South-East. An interesting suggestion is that the emphasis on the South-East was originated by the market power of London rather than by religious, political or administrative changes instigated by the English state. London’s potential as a port put it into the international range of city size along with Antwerp and Venice, but for this to be effective the food supplies of the city had to come from all the coastal and riverine areas of Southern Britain. Culture, religion and politics followed the shopping basket.

The view here displayed of the history of our islands may appear strange, even hostile, to many English historians. Professor Kearney refers to a recent conversation with a tutor at Cambridge in which the tutor explained how his college did its best to prevent students developing an interest in Scottish, Welsh or Irish history instead of concentrating on England. This policy is not confined to Cambridge: British history as studied in many history departments in English universities, and in some in Scotland and Wales, is almost the same as the history of England. It assumes that for imperialist monarchs such as Edward I the Celtic realms were simply there to be conquered and assimilated. The Scots are seen to play a part in English history in the mid-17th century, and receive peripheral and often inaccurate reference, and it is well understood that politics after 1870 cannot be handled without recognition of the Irish dimension, but that’s about it. The recent celebrations of the Glorious Revolution were a conspicuous reminder of this perspective, for the glory of the Revolution is held to lie in its bloodless nature (except for the massive nose bleed of James II), and ‘bloodless’ is not quite the adjective attached to the event by either the Scots or the Irish. The Anglocentric interpretation of British history is long established, and has resulted in a most admirable, detailed and sophisticated understanding of English developments. But this should not give it any special sanctity. The attitude of the Cambridge college mentioned by Kearney should be seen first of all as simple laziness and, like all laziness within the world of teaching, as a method of depriving students of creative opportunities. For it is in the relatively less worked-out historiography of Scotland, Wales and Ireland that splendid opportunities for large-scale original work still exist. It is one of the attractive features of American and Canadian historians of Britain that they do not use these blinkers.

Kearney’s emphasis on the varied cultures of these islands is not simply in national terms. For instance, he claims that the 19th century saw the development of a new urban culture in the North of England. He holds that then there were at least three Scotlands: the Highlands and Hebrides, the Eastern Lowlands, including Edinburgh with its political and legal supremacy, and the Western Lowlands with their economic and demographic power. There were also two separate Welsh nations, the rural Welsh-speaking West and North and the industrial South-East. A similar fracture of what we think of as identifiable national units is claimed for late 13th-century Scotland, for, as Kearney states, ‘issues of national identity have little place in a situation... dominated by ideas of lordship and vassalage.’ Certainly the initial issues of the future of the Scottish monarchy were seen in these terms, but even the early part of the long struggle for independence brought a real, if precocious sense of nationhood to Southern Scotland. Nationality in Scotland came primarily from opposition to foreign law and domination rather than from a positive sentiment of kinship, as it seems to have done in the case of Sicily.

In the light of distinctive national institutions for Scotland, should one be happy to see the word ‘nation’ used to describe a distinctive regional culture? Kearney’s nations in most cases lack the institutions of government. It may well be that a common sense of Irish nationality in the modern period has been fostered by the weakness or incompleteness of such features in the past. In the same way Scottish Gaeldom found it tolerable to accept the nominal overlordship of the Scottish king since that king had, in practice, no authority over it. He could not even extract a revenue from the Gaeltacht.

Conversely, it is difficult to avoid the idea of a common British Isles culture in the 20th century, despite national differences. It is not just the dominance of the English language that accounts for this, though the special Irish talent in the use of the language helps to bind the countries closer. There is a striking similarity in ways of life across the countries and a sharing of social and medical problems. That many Irishmen prefer to see their national identity as lying outwith Britain, but that Scots, on the whole, and Welsh people more conspicuously, are content to express theirs within Britain, are differences more of degree than of intrinsic nature. Of course there is also English nationalism: the main mechanism by which this is expressed is the simple denial that Britain is not synonymous with England. Doubtless the course within which Professor Kearney’s Cambridge tutor does his teaching is labelled British history, and this is interpreted in terms of the conventions of English nationalism.

Professor Kearney’s approach leads to the removal or downgrading of the usual historical landmarks or dates. The Acts of Union, Welsh, Scottish and Irish, are there; the three Parliamentary Reform Acts of the 19th century just get in, but such discussion as they receive is solely in relation to Ireland. To read the political history of 19th-century Britain with no or only minimal reference to the Corn Laws, Chartism, Poor Law reform, but with close attention to the various spectra of dissent and the long-term cultural changes produced by the local impact of industrialisation, is very refreshing.

The reality of regional identities within Britain is brought home by a recent study of the estate of the Earls of Cromartie. Highland society was, well into the 19th century, different from society in England or the Scottish Lowlands. The priorities of the populace were those of a peasant society, with access to land the dominant demand. Landowners had public obligations for the area they ruled: they had to supply food when the harvest failed. This was acknowledged by government in its handling of the potato famine in the North-West. They also had public advantages. They might gain in prestige and influence in time of war by recruiting regiments from the sons of their tenants: in return, the tenants expected to continue in their holdings. But by the 1840s the adverse publicity resulting from the Highland clearances meant that the great power of an estate to order people’s lives differently could be wielded only with restraint.

The Cromartie estate was made by binding together three very distinct units or baronies acquired by the first Earl, lawyer, politician and courtier, whose career bridged the revolution of 1688. He was reputed – and there is no reason to disagree with the repute – thoroughly corrupt. He left to his successors an estate containing corn lands of high value in Easter Ross, the inland area of Strathpeffer, rolling country with a lot of upland, and the remote and exposed area of Coigach on the west coast. Held together as property, these areas learnt to interact: Coigach cattle were exchanged for east-coast grain. Unfortunately for the family, the third Earl dealt unwisely with the problems of an income below his expenditure pattern. Instead of sitting at home, confident that as hereditary sheriff of his scattered shire he could not be got at legally by his creditors, he rushed belatedly into the Jacobite rising of 1745 with military incompetence. He was saved from execution at the last minute and left in what to an aristocrat was destitution. Not till 1784 did his descendant, by sedulous usefulness to the Government, regain the estate, and not till 1861 was the title re-instituted.

The differences between a Highland estate and one in lowland Britain is shown here by the vast and increasing number of people in it and the small scale of the rental. ‘Improvement’ – that is, enhancement – of revenue meant the creation of larger farms or sporting estates, and the shifting of undercapitalised peasantry to new lots on hill land or the coast: the policy known as clearance. There were two obstacles to this rationalisation. One was the resistance of the populace. Riots in 1851-2 in Coigach not only stopped the policy of reorganisation then but also, through fear of similar disturbances, prevented its resurrection thirty years later. Yet suspension of the policy on a large scale did not win the approval of the tenantry: they bitterly resented the minor adjustments that were made, to their disadvantage, and the whole of this came out in the enquiry by the Napier Commission in the 1880s.

The other obstacle was the chronic lack of money in the hands of the estate. Except for the period between 1861 and 1888 when it was merged in the vast Sutherland empire, it never had the funds to embark on any major change. The reason lay in the economic effects of family structure. Though the Cromartie family did not have to carry the burden of large families to be set up in the world, they had just as expensive a load in a remarkably large number of relatively youthful dowagers who lived elsewhere and saw no reason why they should not receive the full amount of their jointure or even more. The inheritors of the estate could not really complain about this for they also were unwilling to economise on their expenses for the benefit of long-term development.

So the area lumbered on into the 20th century relatively without development, except for some investment in the social setting of Strathpeffer Spa. This involved problems similar to those faced by modern developments for tourism: how far down market do you want to go? Expensive machinery could keep medical treatment sufficiently select. But in the long run investment in tourism means acceptance of cultural amalgamation. The water of Strathpeffer would benefit every known disease, it seems from its advertisements – sluggish liver, constipation, gout, syphilis, bone disease, scrofula and ulcers, to name just a few – provided the sufferer was well-off. The ambience of a dukedom, the attractions of walks in burgeoning scenery, and the availability of rail transport, made this for a while the most successful investment by the estate, and it still provides a village with charm.

In this book the reader can see the assimilation of a part of one of Professor Kearney’s nationalities to a stronger presence. While Coigach still retains some cultural distinctiveness, Easter Ross and Strathpeffer have become areas subject to stresses similar to those felt elsewhere in Britain: the preference for a level of domestic comfort over access to the land, the movement from the land to small towns or villages, the movement back to holiday cottages, the effects of distance and transport costs on prices and productivity, the end of patriarchy and its substitute, paternalism. The area has become culturally part of Northern Britain, though still sharing in the national identity of Scotland.

It might be held that Dr Monod, in writing a book on English Jacobitism (and by ‘English’ Dr Monod does not mean British), is filching a topic conventionally assigned to Scottish history. In sounder historiographical terms, his work is part of the new anti-Whig approach to the 18th century, which asserts the importance of support for the Established Church and the hatred held by many for Protestant Dissent. The foundations of the Whig ascendancy were, it is claimed, fragile. Historians have generally accepted the Whig claim that the Whigs, on the whole, stood for constitutional liberties and the rule of Parliament, without enough attention to the unspoken rider that something was wrong with the working of the constitution whenever the great Whig houses which had come to the top in the dirty work of 1688 did not form the government. Now we have it pointed out that many people of all ranks thought that the claim of the main Stuart line to the throne was valid, and certainly better than that of Hanover.

This work is a collection of such evidence as exists of the opinions of ordinary people, mostly shopkeepers and craftsmen, but also of the more articulate and better-recorded landed class. Such opinions were shown in seditious remarks, celebration of monarchical anniversaries of the wrong kind, pamphlets, slogans and even riots; there was rude poetry with barely disguised references to George I as a turnip; there was possession by the upper class of commemorative medals or glassware. Jacobite families intermarried and led their social life with others of the same opinion. Low-level Jacobitism had links with the criminal world, particularly with smuggling, and was, perhaps, involved in the organised deer poaching of the 1720s which provoked the savage Waltham Black Act.

None of this is very surprising: in a country with very little central control over local authorities and local activity it was easy and relatively safe for groups to let off steam by gestures of political dissent. Certainly Jacobite rioting was, as Dr Monod shows, serious in 1715, but there were more riots in that year ostensibly against Dissenting meeting-houses than those commemorating Jacobite events. Of course, religion, either Church of England or Roman Catholic, was a cause of Jacobite sympathy, but the main element in the union of sentiments may have been religious rather than political. One would like a comparative weighting of these riots with the excise riots of the 1730s to gain a measurement of the scale of political dissent.

How seriously should we take this revaluation of English Jacobitism? How many of its features were no more than mechanisms for annoying those in power? There was certainly a serious English element in the rising of 1715, mostly from Roman Catholic landed families in the north. The repression, by executions and financial penalties, was so severe that these families did not dare participate in 1745. Their abstention encouraged Anglican Jacobitism to show its hand, but the only significant contribution made to the Jacobite army was the Manchester regiment of approximately two hundred men. By contrast, in Scotland Jacobitism was much more than a mechanism for teasing the Government: it was seen, at least in 1715, as a real political alternative. The great bulk of landed families had some member active in the rising. For this reason the penalties there were slight. It was not practicable to prosecute the ordinary soldiers involved, mostly Highlanders anyway, and the legal establishment successfully defeated attempts at land confiscation.

Dr Monod’s book, though a valuable reminder of the reality of traditions of political dissent, fails to assess its strength. How many would have rallied to Charles Edward if he had come south of Derby? Was the ramshackle structure of government, which could certainly deal brutally with individuals of low social standing unwise enough to get involved in political plotting, capable of drawing on positive popular support in an emergency? To get a true evaluation of the resources of the Government in a crisis it would probably be most rewarding to study closely the period of the Atterbury plot. In that crisis a government seriously weakened by the South Sea Bubble scandal faced serious trouble in the Church, particularly in London. The mixture might have led to a repeat of 1642, whereas the march of Charles Edward produced merely a run on the Bank.