The myth of the Highlands


I’m just a bit interested in representations of the Highlands of Scotland at the moment… In 1989, Peter Womack wrote:

“We know that the Highlands of Scotland are romantic. Bens and glens, the lone shieling in the misty island, purple heather, kilted clansmen, battles long ago, an ancient and beautiful language, claymores and bagpipes and Bonny Prince Charlie – we know all that, and we also know that it’s not real. Not that it’s a pure fabrication: on the contrary, all the things on that rough-and-ready list actually exist, or existed. But the romance is not simply the aggregate of the things; it is a message which the things carry.

“Around 1730, an English gentleman called Edward Burt described the mountains near Inverness: they were, he observed, ‘of a dismal gloomy Brown, drawing upon a dirty Purple; and most of all disagreeable, when the Heath is in Bloom’. Here, preserved by chance, is one of the things without the message. Burt doesn’t know what heather ‘means’; for him, the plant is innocent of romance. This is because when he was looking at it, the romance had not yet been invented.

It is not a question of personal taste. Burt thought the heather-covered mountains ugly, but he might have liked them; most people nowadays find them beautiful, but it’s perfectly possible for a modern individual to dislike them. What it is not possible to do today, whatever our personal tastes, is to see the heather he saw. Trying to see that neutral, unappropriated flower would be like trying to see, say, a swastika as nothing but an abstract design. For us, the moment when we set eyes on a heather-covered Highland hillside, and see what it is, is also the moment when we register the presence of the Highland romance. Thus, while Burt’s observation is an exemplary demonstration that the things and the romance are separable in principle, it is equally a reminder that they are inextricable in practice. The highlands are no longer just a place where people and animals and plants live; they have been colonised by the empire of signs; they are what Roland Barthes called a myth: that is, an object which is signified within an ordinary linguistic sign, but at the same time serves as the signifier within a secondary sign, having been, so to speak, pressed into the service of a concept. The concept, the mythic signified, is vague: as Barthes also notes, ‘the knowledge  contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations… Not at all an abstract, purified essence [but] a formless, unstable, nebulous condensation’. It would be right to say that Highland heather signifies Scottishness, wild freedom, naturalness, antique valour. But that is talking loosely; it is not the point of myth that it should specify denotations in that way; this is not a question of symbolism. Rather, the heather (together with the other Highland differentiae) is made the instrument of an intention, saturated with ideological imperatives which, by merging themselves with it’s incontestably organic fibres, win for themselves the opaque and self-evident charm of a natural contingency. The concept, no longer recognisable as such, is just there, for all to see. Botanically, no doubt, calluna vulgaris is exactly as it was in the 1730s. Semiotically, it has been irrevocably hybridised.” (Pp1-2)

“…the Highlands are romantic because they have been romanticised.” (P2)

Womack Writes that this “began , fairly decisively, with the military defeat of the Jacobite clans in 1746, and can be regarded as complete by 1810-11, when a flurry of publications, including most notably Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, both depended on and confirmed a settled cultural construction of the Highlands as a ‘romantic country’ inhabited by a people whose ancient manners and customs were ‘peculiarly adapted to poetry’. Although I have strayed across both these chronological boundaries in pursuit of particular motifs and developments, the 65 years between them are the essential epoch in which the story is set.” (P2)

“During this period, the dominant theme in British discourse concerning the Highlands was Improvement.” (P2)

“The ‘Improvement’ of the Highlands… signified (a) that the region was to yield a better return on capital; (b) that it was to become, very generally, a better place; and (c) that (a) and (b) were substantially identical.

“This was evidently a project fraught  with contradictions both internal and external; and it was out of its contradictions that the Highland myth was generated. At every stage of its elaboration, the code of Improvement gave rise to discordant tones, dysfunctional ideological traces which it was obliged to elide or exclude: these, precisely because of the hegemonic unity of Improvement itself, formed a coherent counter-image to it, matching it’s powerful but limited rationale with a utopian but impotent irrationalism, mirroring its economist in a quixotic denial of self-interest, haunting its progressivism with a voluptuous love of the past. These oppositions can occasionally make the romance look like a counter-ideological formation, but as their symmetry suggests, the conflict is illusory. Rather, it is the ideological function of the romance that it removes the contradictory elements from the scope of material life altogether; that it marks out a kind of reservation in which the values which Improvement provokes and suppresses can be contained – that is, preserved, but also imprisoned. I began by pointing out that the romantic Highlands are not real; this is not an incidental drawback; not to be real is what they are for. Officially, Romance and Improvement were opposites: native and imported, past and present, tradition and innovation. But in reality they were twins. The story of Highland romanticisation is essentially the story of that covert complementarity.” (P3)

Ref: Peter Womack (1989) Improvement and romance: constructing the myth of the highlands. Macmillan: London


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