If the Highlands are remote, where exactly are we remote from? - Prof David Worthington

Phopachy lies less than five miles west of Inverness, alongside the A862 as it snakes past the shore-side settlement of Bunchrew. In the mid- to late-1600s, this rural spot by the Beauly Firth fizzed with intellectual activity.

Phopachy on the Beauly Firth, home to James Fraser, a minister and scholar, who left the village to "seek the universe" in the mid-1600s. The Highlands might often be thought of as remote but history shows us that its people have long sought worldwide connections and inspiration. PIC: David Worthington.

It was where Gaelic-speaking Highland scholar, traveller and minister, James Fraser, was born, a home which allowed him to move easily by foot or horseback between his local parish church in Kirkhill and his nearest burgh of Inverness. Beyond that, lay a broader ‘firthlands’ environment that stretched across sea and land linking, by ferry, the crinkled peninsulas of the Black Isle and Easter Ross to east Sutherland.

It was a coast that led eastwards also to Moray, then on to Aberdeen, and from there, the rest of Scotland and beyond. I am currently writing a book (contract under offer from Edinburgh University Press) which presents Fraser as part of a dynamic north Highland scholarly culture of the time.

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As the work of Steve Murdoch, Alexia Grosjean and numerous others has shown, Scots connected with Europe via North Sea harbours and became entangled in empire prior to the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707. The Highlands played its own part in this. In the century before Culloden, Phopachy was certainly not remote and nor was Fraser.

At my place of work, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), there is an ongoing debate around this attribution of ‘remoteness’. If we are ‘remote’ today, where exactly are we remote from? Connected with that, how do we best respond to that assumption of this part of Scotland being peripheral that, for two centuries following the Enlightenment, coincided with Clearance and then dramatic levels of emigration from the region, with often traumatic effects?

There are yet other opinions. Does an emphasis on the negative consequences for this part of Scotland of being consigned to remoteness distract both from the region’s complicity in global histories of subjugation and slavery, and, paradoxically, also from the tourism revenues that have accrued, for some, from the marketing of this perceived isolation?

Perhaps all who live in what is currently known as the British Isles are remote? According to his own reflections, the abovementioned James Fraser had come to the conclusion, by 1657, that the mainland of ‘Great Britain’ comprised ‘an Island ... divided from parts of the world’ and so as islanders, its people were ‘lost and oft in need of forrein travels’.

That year, he claimed this was the impulse which prompted him to seek a testimonial and passport from the Inverness garrison controlled by the forces of Oliver Cromwell so he could ‘view this universe’. He was 23.

He obtained the pass without any obstacle and began a three-year journey that would take a wide-eyed Fraser through France, Spain and Italy, to the ‘very naval [navel] centre’ of the continent, in Bohemia, and beyond, to Hungary.

The career of a near neighbour of Fraser’s, Henry MacKintosh of Borlum, was more obviously colonial. Elsewhere, I have been able to build on the work of scholars like David Alston to outline how the Highlands’ earliest-known Atlantic slave-owning circle was dependent on the importation to Inverness, from Dutch ports, of sugar which had its origins in their American colonies.

Highland migrants were active simultaneously in the sugar-based enslavement of African and indigenous populations in the Dutch colony of Suriname. This is most obvious in the commercial activity of MacKintosh, who developed strong ties in the 1680s linking the colony with New England, Rotterdam, and his home burgh of Inverness. On occasion, this even involved horses being sent out to Suriname from the Highlands, Invernessian agency in what is sometimes called the ‘Columbian Exchange’.

But the people of the Highlands and Islands have done more on the coast besides use it as a means to leave. Scotland is a country with over 10,000 miles of, often indented, littoral. Much of it is in the north and west and these are often locations that evince identifiable histories.

We know more about the isolated, huddled, ocean-facing fishing settlement or the busy social and cultural setting of the interior straths and glens, than what was, for others, an everyday, albeit contested, engagement with the estuary, the beach, the links, port, cliff-edge or machair, and other spaces that lie between sea and land.

In parts, the coast has been the location for flames of activity as well as ‘gloomy memories’. Today, the vast majority of our university’s academic partners are based within a mile or two of a sound, firth, sealoch, voe or bay. These spaces are providing us with a starting point for creating a new kind of coastal studies, one which blends the local with the transnational, and which is cross-disciplinary and incisive.

James Fraser grew up at Phopachy with a sense of it being at the heart of the Fraser world. He contributed to the latest thinking on the crannogs that lay just offshore in the Beauly Firth – ‘three great heaps of stones in this lake’ one of them of ‘huge bigness’ when revealed at low tide.

Local tradition-bearers also shared with him the belief there had once been a cell of scholarly hermits along the shore at Bunchrew.

But his accounts of everyday Phopachy also confirm a murder on the shore in the 1640s after which the guilty escaped across the firth northwards at low tide. Elsewhere, he informs his readers of the capture, in 1649, of so many herrings offshore that ‘40, 50, boats and more were every day fishing’.

Evidently, the coast was Fraser’s major place, not just of work, play or violence, but of daydreaming about distant horizons.

Professor David Worthington is the Head of the Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

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