Becoming an Islander through Action in the Scottish Hebrides

By Kohn, Tamara | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Becoming an Islander through Action in the Scottish Hebrides


Kohn, Tamara, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


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The Island I have called Sial (1) is 12 miles long by 3 miles wide and it takes a three-and-a-half hour ferry-ride from the west coast of Scotland to find it. For the three years I lived there (1984-7) it had a permanent winter population of about 150 men, women, and children of a wide variety of background and experience, and that figure has changed little since. In the summer the population doubled: 'summer swallows', (2) tourists, and others flocked to the island to enjoy its fresh and jagged landscape and its long white sandy beaches. So there was a marked seasonal shift in the population, and even a seasonal shift in the activities which took place on the island. For my doctoral research I was interested in the identities of all of these people: the locals, 'summer swallows', 'Glasgow cousins', and tourists. I became curious as to how islanders who were able to trace their ancestry back for many generations appeared to share the most honoured position in the community of Sial with the offspring of import ed 'farming stock' (who came between the 1850s and 1950s) The descendants of Ayrshire incomers were certainly popularly identified amongst those who 'belong the most' in a community which was then filling its ruined houses and cottages with incomers of a newer and different variety. The farmers who not so long ago were given the status of incomers had become endowed with a status of 'islanders' (to all but a very few locals whose own identities might be threatened by this acknowledgment). Understanding this shift entailed recognizing that some identities, rather than being immutable, are flexible if examined diachronically. I discovered that, in contrast to demographic and economic indicators as well as social and academic stereotypes which would place Sial and its neighbouring islands in a model of decline culminating in possible extinction, there are 'identity indicators' which I believed could be found through ethnographic enquiry and which would tell us that this island community was in fact thriving (Koh n 1988). 'Incomerness' in both a past and present context fits within the notion of 'the social space' (Ardener 1989), and the 'social space' has been able to accommodate positions for people anywhere along the incomer-islander continuum.

Yet island incomers are curiously ignored by most scholars. Those anthropologists who looked at incomers in modern Scottish communities (e.g. Ardener 1987; Condry 1980; Forsythe 1974; 1980) viewed them only for what looks now to be a brief moment in the 1970s as escapists, 'peaceniks', artists, or nature-seekers, and not as people who have appeared in the Scottish islands in different ways and for very different reasons for centuries. (3) They also neglected to consider the movement that some incomers may make in their lifetimes towards some sort of core of island identity. (4)

Highland incomers are likewise generally invisible in historians' accounts. For my doctoral research I combed historical accounts of the agricultural reforms throughout the Highlands which culminated in the Highland Clearances, expecting to find some documentation of the experiences of incoming sheep-and cattle-farmers (the ancestors of some of today's islanders), but none was to be found. There were countless renditions of an historical sequence beginning with the placement of large herds of sheep in the Highlands, followed by evictions of the common people from the land and their eventual emigration, and these were told evocatively and sympathetically The depictions of a simple replacement of men by sheep in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the Highlands and Islands have generally lent themselves to poetic versions of history (Prebble 1963; Marx 1887), but the experiences of the men and women who came in with these animals were totally erased from history. Likewise, accounts of Sial (mostly writte n by Sial enthusiasts, travelling intellectuals, and authors of tourist guides) have alluded to various times when lairds recruited people into the island, but we learn nothing more about their fate in the community. …

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