10.1 Introduction

The start date for this chapter is fairly arbitrary. National ScARF termed this period Modern and gave it a start date of the 16th century. For convenience the Highland Regional ScARF follows this, though it avoids the term Modern as this is often used for the last few centuries of the period rather than the entirety of what is being discussed (ScARF Modern section 1.1). Major events or developments occurred in this period which impacted on the Highlands, including the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century (ScARF Modern section 2.2), the civil wars of the 17th century, the Union of Parliament in 1707, Jacobite risings, growing involvement in international trade including links to slavery, agricultural improvements and landscape transformation in the 18th and 19th centuries, clearances, crofting formation, urban growth, large scale industrial projects such as the hydro schemes, improved communication, particularly through Thomas Telford’s work, railway construction and shipping, the importance and legacy of fishing, tourism and energy industries, and the changing role of Gaelic in culture and society, with latterly language decline and loss. These events and others will be discussed in this chapter, with a special Highland focus on the material remains.

Aerial photograph from a long distance showing a view of a green landscape, with a large body of water to the north and a narrow canal of water running vertically to the east of the picture. The landscape has modern buildings to the east, but a large open area of fields and trees to the west. The canal has five locks towards the bottom left of the frame, and widen towards the top until it meets the large body of water.
Aerial view of Fort Augustus showing the flight of 5 locks on the Caledonian Canal designed by Thomas Telford. ©HES

By the end of the medieval period, the Highlands was more or less firmly part of the Scottish kingdom. The Lordship of the Isles had been suppressed and the far north and west were no longer part of the Norse empire. However, this political relationship was not always smooth, as shown by support by many of the Highland clans for the Stewart cause. The Protestant Reformation swept through the Highlands as in other areas of Scotland, though some clans held to the Catholic religion. Religious change and strife are major features in life for much of the period, often tied to kin, and political and regional identity. This often led to conflict, both social and martial.

Following on from the medieval period, much of the Highlands was Gaelic speaking until at least the early 20th century. As much of the discussion about Gaelic post-medieval culture focusses on the Western Isles, there is scope for more focus on the mainland, and indeed the eastern Highlands (but see Cathcart 2006).

In 1475 the MacDonald Earldom of Ross was forfeited to the crown and this, along with the formal forfeiture of the MacDonald Lordship of the Isles in 1493, ushered in the period known as Linn nan Creach – the Age of Forays. Attempts to restore the Lordship exacerbated the instability prevalent in the north where powerful feudal earls and lords vied for power. The main beneficiaries of the power vacuum left behind by the Lords of the Isles and Earls of Ross were the Campbells, the Gordons, and the Mackenzies.

These and other kin groups underlaid the social structure of the Highlands, often referred to as the clan system, which characterised Highland society in the early post-medieval period. The extent to which Highland society was distinctive in being permeated by kinship and clientage is a matter for debate: not only was kinship important elsewhere in Scotland but aspects of Highland society and economy were intensely feudal. From the latter perspective Highland society was only different in degree from Lowland society.

Many of the political upheavals common to all three kingdoms in the post-medieval period found local expression in the Highlands, and the region was often a driver for conflict and change across the British Isles.

Social change in the Highlands was complex and is by no means fully understood but it appears to have accelerated in the 18th century as the elite became more commercially-minded and as chiefs became more like landlords. Emigration, improvement, clearance, and the introduction of crofting changed the landscape in many areas and the shape of Highland society. Resistance by small tenants and crofters to change imposed from above was strengthened by the creation of new social and political centres in the cities of the south (Kidd 2007). The later 19th century into the 20th saw many people in the Highlands struggle for land and rights (Hunter 1965; Devine 1994; Robertson, 2013). The armed forces of the United Kingdom became a highly important element of life in the region through Highland men volunteering in the army, impressment (MacKillop 2012; MacKillop 2000), and work in the Royal Naval Reserve; at one point 40% of those in the Royal Naval Reserves came from the Highlands and Islands (Thomas 2018; MacKillop 2012; MacKillop 2000).

In the period after the First World War and into the middle of the 20th century it could be argued that Highland society in many ways had ceased to exist as a distinct unit with its own social structure and institutions, although its Gaelic culture has lived on. Land issues, building on histories of landownership, clearance, resistance and resettlement, continue to reverberate in the present day and play a part in shaping political discourse in modern Scotland, and archaeology has a role to play in this discourse (Dalglish 2013). Memory, identity, and the place of archaeology and heritage in current political and social debate on the future of the Highland region has been a focus of study for archaeologists (Basu 2000; Jones 2012; Jones 2011).

10.1.1 Sources

10.1.2 Previous Work

10.1.3 Issues and Future Work

10.1.4 Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats

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