Those studying this period must, to a greater or lesser extent, pay regard to both history and archaeology though other disciplines are not irrelevant. At the most basic level, there are preconceptions about Highland society and how and when it changed. In fact, both history and archaeology have a part to play; neither can be set to one side. There should not be a closely policed border between them; material culture is, after all, of interest to both historians and archaeologists. There are limitations and possibilities set by the amount of information available to each which make an interdisciplinary approach highly relevant.
Some elements of Highland societies in this period are highly visible: not surprisingly this includes evidence related to the elite landed class and also inhabitants of burghs. Other people are far less visible, including the rural crofters, labourers, and the Highland Travellers. The testimonies of the Napier Commission (crofting) and Brand Commission (Royal Commission 1895) provide for the first time detailed first-hand accounts from the poorer tenants on properties (see Chapter 10.2).
The social structure around clans created a different focus than the rest of Scotland, with Highlanders sometimes seen as very different from their contemporaries. The prevalence of Gaelic supported this identity (ScARF Modern section 5.4; Devine 1994). On the one hand, Highlanders have been portrayed as wild and untamed (ScARF Case Study: Archaeology and the Persistent Myth of Aboriginal Scotland). On the other hand, the Highlands have also been romanticised, in no small measure thanks to Sir Walter Scott, which has the effect of colouring perceptions and local responses (ScARF Modern section 8.3; Withers 1992). For example, some tree planting initiatives in Highland Perthshire in 1814 were guided by concerns for tourist perception (Steward 2003b, 125).
Just how different the Highlands were from the rest of Scotland has been the topic of much discussion; see for example Adamson 2014 for a summary of key works, which include Dodgshon (1993; 1998; 2015), Hunter (2000), Dalglish (2002), Devine (2005) and Richards (2007; 2008). The common view was that the Highlands were entirely a society apart, overwhelmingly controlled by paternalistic lairds in a highly hierarchical structure, until the aftermath of the Jacobite rising in 1745, has been challenged (Devine 2005; Richards 2007), as it is clear that the system was more complicated (Donnachie 1986) and was already unravelling in some areas before 1745, with long distance grain trade and some industrial enterprises initiated in the late 17th and early 18th centuries (see 10.5, 10.7). Nor was it universal across the Highlands; Mowat (1981, 143–144) notes that a social system anchored on clan loyalty was not present in Caithness or Easter Ross after the mid-18th century. It is important to recognise that the character of the lowland areas of the eastern Highlands is very different than that to the west and north, reflected in their history and culture.
The disparities in income and the insecurity of tenancy, even under the clan system, resulted in a difficult life for those at the lower ends of the hierarchy. Rents were often collected as in-kind goods, but also in cash, especially where cattle droving was important to the local economy (Bangor-Jones 2000, 66). Nevertheless the results of the aftermath of Culloden, and the impact of clearances and emigration were undoubtedly severe (see Taylor 2016b, 7ff; Devine 2018). Archaeological remains can help create a more nuanced picture.
Many of the issues identified in the Highlands today – limited employment prospects, lack of accessible housing, out-migration, fuel poverty, renewable energy production, and concentrated patterns of land ownership – all have roots in changes and policies enacted over the last few hundred years. There is an opportunity to align archaeological research to some of those issues, and to make a lasting impact with some of the research that emerges.
The history of the Highlands is integrally bound up with the British state. Military service, infrastructure investment, and land policy are all vital to understanding both the region and particular places. There is much work that could be done here, teasing out the interrelationships and exploring how people saw their identity and place in the world. Often the material culture remains are ignored in such investigations.
Issues of economic development in the past may also help inform the present. What does sustainable development mean for a remote rural region? What kind of jobs has the region supported in the past, and what can be learnt from previous attempts at fostering industry and manufacturing? What role has the state played in such development, and how much has the outside world (ie Europe or Empire) impacted on the course this took?
Modern features in the landscape, such as the oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth, are the archaeology of the future. Some of these features are not seen currently as archaeological monuments, for example skateparks. While some material remains such as the post-Reformation graffiti in Fortrose Cathedral chapter house, are considered of archaeological interest, graffiti of the present is generally ignored. For a Highland perspective on contemporary archaeology, see Case Study Contemporary Archaeology in the Highlands.