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.

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