Case Study: Archaeology and the persistent myth of aboriginal Scotland

The history of academic engagement with the material aspects of the modern rural past demonstrates the reflexive relationship between scholarship and its wider cultural, social and political contexts. Studies of rural life have developed in relationship with wider traditions of thought, and to understand the nature of archaeological practice and the knowledge it produces, those relationships need to be understood.

The earliest studies of Scotland’s recent-period rural archaeology were undertaken in the mid and later nineteenth century (Dalglish 2003, chapter 2). At that time, the emerging discipline of archaeology was primarily concerned with the study of prehistory and with developing the theoretical and methodological tools necessary for the investigation of the prehistoric past. In that context, there was a strong interest in ethnology, or the comparative study of cultures. The thinking was that interpretations of prehistoric societies could be placed on a stronger footing by drawing parallels with modern ‘primitive’ societies who used similar technologies and, it was assumed,  had a similar way of life. In Scotland, Victorian archaeologists argued that archaic forms of settlement, material culture, and social practice had survived more or less intact into the present in certain parts of the country – above all, the Highlands and the islands off the west coast. Assuming a continuum between prehistory and the present, these early archaeologists embarked on the study of living traditions and their material aspects (e.g. blackhouses, shielings, pottery and other artefacts) to provide ethnographic parallels for use in the interpretation of prehistory.

llustration of Both, Làrach Tigh Dhubhastail, Ceann Resort, Uig, Lewis.  Produced in 1859 for ethnologist/archaeologist Captian F W L Thomas, who considered this shieling hut an example of a prehistoric dwelling still in use, © Scran

Scotland’s early archaeologists were influenced by, and contributing to, a certain mythology surrounding the Scottish Highlands and Islands. This mythology has deep roots (Withers 1992; Berry 1997; Kidd 1993): during the medieval period, literature associated with the Scottish Court cast the Highlands and its inhabitants as wild, untamed and primitive; in the eighteenth century, Enlightenment theorists argued that all societies developed along a set evolutionary path and concluded that the Highlands were a few steps back on the evolutionary ladder when compared with the Lowlands and England; from the later eighteenth century, an emerging Romanticism held that the essence of Scottish society had been preserved in pure, primitive, authentic form in rural Scotland, especially in the Highlands – there, still living, was the Scottish way of life ab origine, as it was in the beginning. Immersed in this tradition, the archaeology of the 19th century saw the contemporary culture of the Highlands and Islands as a ‘window on the Iron Age’.

In the twentieth century, the continued power of this narrative is clearly to be seen in the new discipline of Folk Life studies which emerged after the First World War and which took forward the study of Scotland’s landscapes, settlements and material culture in connection with the investigation of rural practices and traditions. This branch of scholarship – perhaps, above all, associated with Isabel Grant, author of Highland Folk Ways (1961) and founder of the Highland Folk Museum – has concerned itself, in particular, with the study of traditional (read ‘conservatinve’) rural life. In Folk Life scholarship, acknowledgment of the extent to which rural society and the countryside have changed since the 18th century is paired with a continuing belief that life before 1700 lacked history: pre-improvement society was traditional, timeless, unchanging and, for the early folk life scholar, the job was to record the last vestiges of these old ways before they disappeared altogether.

This assumption of historical stasis was challenged by geographer and archaeologist Horace Fairhurst in 1960, when he questioned the prevailing method of projecting ‘into a more distant past the conditions prevailing in the early eighteenth century’ (Fairhurst 1960, 73). This statement represents an emerging rationalist and empiricist approach to the Scottish rural past, one founded on the belief that any knowledge of that past should be founded on empirical evidence and reasoned argument rather than Romantic essentialisms and assumptions. Much archaeological work today sits within the tradition which Fairhurst represents, concerning itself with the search for empirical evidence and interesting itself, in particular, in interpreting the dynamism of rural society – the focus is now more on identifying and understanding change than on assuming continuity.

Yet, alongside this and standing in conflict with it, the idea of a traditional and essential Scottish way of life has continued to influence archaeological scholarship, just as it has persisted in the popular imagination. In a speech in 2004 (at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Skye, June 18, 2004) then First Minister of Scotland, Jack McConnell discussed land reform as a corrective for the Highland Clearances, which devastated a traditional way of life: “the settlement pattern that had served people for more than a thousand years previously, virtually vanished”. A mass of empirical evidence contradicts this assumption of a historical stasis before Improvement and the Clearances, yet archaeologists have continued to bolster the idea as much as they have tried to challenge it. Some have made explicit statements in favour of this notion of a historical stasis:

Arichonan was a baile [township] – an ancient nuclear community whose form may well have evolved from settlement patterns in the Iron Age.” (Ascherson 2002, 199).

Others have supported it more implicitly, by perpetuating the traditional/modern duality of the modern past, presenting pre-Improvement/Clearance society through a lens of homogenous, cohesive, deep-rooted, slow to change community. Here, pre-Improvement ways of life continue to serve in the role as a counter to a commercialised, atomised, fast-moving, unstable and exploitative modernity (Dalglish 2010, 391-394). Archaeology continues to be influenced by the myth of aboriginal Scotland and to contribute to its continued vitality.

Return to Section 9.2 Archaeology: a modern way of knowing past and present

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