Place, Identity and Dead Men

Highland men do not suffer from lack of stereotypes. According to anti-Jacobite propagandists they were barbaric; according to Walter Scott they were noble; and according to Diana Gabaldon, they were rugged and sexy. I have always enjoyed exploring graveyards, but recently I wondered if the headstones could tell me something about how Highland men thought of themselves. Indeed they can! I have identified how men’s identities were based on religious faith, on their emotional relationships, on their social status, and on place.[1]

Other than his name, dates, and family, the most common detail on men’s gravestones is where he was from. By the nineteenth century the clan system was long gone. However, men continued to have strongly localised identities, associated with kin and with place.

On the west coast of Lewis, when the old graveyard at Cladh Mhuire was extended the new site was arranged geographically. Each village was allocated two rows, marked by a concrete post. Even in death people were kept within their community and continued to belong to a particular place.

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Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

This is uncommon in such recent graveyards which, like at Proncynain just outside Dornoch, are usually laid out chronologically. Each new burial takes the plot beside the previous one. Communal groupings are more common in older graveyards. This is often not obvious. In Bragar, a few miles south of Cladh Mhuire, the stones are clustered by village, though here there are no signs. In Kincardine, Sutherland, close inspection reveals the same. In the south east corner are the people from Invershin, and near them the folk of Gledfield. Further back are those from Greenyards.

In mixed Protestant-Catholic regions, the spatial organisation of graveyards reflects communal religious identities. On An t-Eilean Uaine, Loch Sheil the Catholics are buried on the Moidart side of the island and the Protestants on the Argyll side.[2] In Ardmichael cemetery, South Uist, Protestants are buried to the west and Catholics to the east.[3]

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Ardmichael, South Uist. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

So far, the place-based identities displayed in graveyards are communal and apply as much to women or children as to men. However when an inscription connects an individual with specific places, this seems to be peculiar to men.

The stones of some men use locations to trace a life story or a career. Rev. Donald MacIntyre (1782-1869) was for nine years ‘missionary of the Braes of Lochaber, for one year assistant in the parish of Creich, and for twenty five years incumbent of Kincardine.’

Most men were clearly associated with one specific settlement, farm or estate in the mind of the community. This was often noted alongside their occupation: ‘Thomas MacKenzie, Shandwick Inn’ (1846-96); ‘Walter Watson, plasterer, Clashmore’ (1859-97). Other inscriptions suggest a man’s deep knowledge of a particular piece of land: John Munro (1779-1820) was tenant at Blairich, Rogart; and George MacKay (1816-73) crofted at Bogrow, Edderton. For some men this close association came through their professional life. Gamekeepers, factors, groundofficers and shepherds took up employment in adulthood. Thomas Herbert (1832-80) was gamekeeper at Alladale, and Robert Sutherland (1791-1841) was grieve at Dunrobin Farm, near Golspie. It was through length of years and the intimate use and organising of the landscape that they became identified with it, shaping their self-identity and their identity within the community.

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Alladale. Thomas Herbert chose a challenging place to live out his life as a gamekeeper. Photo: Elizabeth Ritchie

Other men had multigenerational connections with a place. Farmers’ inscriptions invariably included the name of his farm. In Easter Ross Alexander Anderson (1809-71) was ‘farmer, Nonikiln’, and John Ross (1777-1867) was ‘late farmer, Achnahanat’. Such men were often known locally by the name of the farm. While this was a convenient way to distinguish people with common personal names, it also reveals a cultural attitude about land and people. Individual men existed only for decades, whereas farms endured.

Tacksmen were similar. Hugh MacIntyre (1797-1881) was ‘tacksman of Culrain Mains’ and James France (1778-1840) held the tacks of Annat and Groam near Inverness. Such a man drew his identity from his social status, his membership of a local family, his authority over the residents of the tack, and his association with that piece of land. Holding a tack was part of the old system of clanship, so his and his family’s connection with that land was embedded deeper in time than that of the plasterer and the gamekeeper, even the farmer.

Despite the mobility of the nineteenth-century, part of Highland masculinity was a deep identification with the places they were from, where they lived, where they worked, and which they shaped.

[1] Few historians have considered masculinity in a Highland context. In terms of ordinary men rather than the gentry, Lynn Abrams has explored the role of inter-personal violence in Highland masculinity while Rosalind Carr and J.E. Cookson have touched on how Highlanders used the military to achieve the ‘independence’ which was foundational to manhood. Lynn Abrams, ‘The Taming of Highland Masculinity: Inter-personal Violence and Shifting Codes of Manhood, c.1760–1840’, The Scottish Historical Review, 92.1, (2013), 100-122; Rosalind Carr, ‘The Gentleman and the Soldier: Patriotic Masculinities in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’, Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 28.2, (2008), 102-121; J. E. Cookson, ‘Early Nineteenth-Century Scottish Military Pensioners as Homecoming Soldiers’, The Historical Journal, 52.2 (June, 2009), 319-341.

[2] Alasdair Roberts, Chapels of the Rough Bounds: Morar, Knoydart, Arisaig, Moidart (Mallaig: 2015)

[3] https://canmore.org.uk/site/9898/south-uist-ardmichael-burial-ground

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5 thoughts on “Place, Identity and Dead Men

  1. Pingback: History Links Dornoch: Place, Identity and Dead Men – SeanMunger.com

  2. This was a very interesting article! I’ve been researching a connection between my husband’s 5-great grandfather and Skibo. All of the family history claims that he (Thomas Gray 1761-1853) was from Skibo and that he himself stated he was “from” Skibo and talked much about the land and the estate. Some of the family history goes as far as saying he was the heritage owner, but never says that Thomas himself claimed to be the heritage owner. From the research I’ve done so far I can’t see that this is the case. My hunch is that when he said he was “from” Skibo that it was more of a relation to the land/estate as you mention in this post. Maybe his family lived in a cottage on the estate, worked on the estate, etc. I’m not totally ruling out a familial connection but am thinking it would have been more along the lines of cousin/distant cousin than of heritage owner.

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