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Inaugural professorial lecture by Professor David Worthington

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Re-Presenting Rev. James Fraser (1634-1709): The Scottish Highlands and Europe in the Century Before Culloden

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What was the Highlands like in the century before Culloden? My lecture will provide a new perspective, drawing on autobiographical sources relating to a traveller, scholar and minister from Kirkhill, by the shores of the Beauly Firth. I will seek to outline how this individual, Rev. James Fraser, or, at least, aspects of his self-presentation, might encourage a new way of looking at the Highlands and Islands today.

This lecture aims to provide a new interpretation of Scottish Highland history prior to the Battle of Culloden in 1746. It will do so by interrogating the revealing autobiographical sources left by Rev. James Fraser (1634-1709) of Kirkhill, a Gaelic-speaking scholar, traveller and minister. The entire period between 1493 and 1746 can still appear enigmatic in the history of the region. However, this talk will highlight to listeners a different side to it. Using Fraser as an example, it will focus on the strong Highland engagement with the North Sea and Europe, and its early entanglement with empire, on the verge of the peripheralisation, depopulation and under-development associated with the centuries that followed.

Through the example of Fraser, the lecture will illuminate the dynamism and individual and collective agency of the people of the ‘firthlands’ in particular. It will present this within the context of a growing scholarly move towards ‘coastal history’. Scotland is, generally, ‘cut up by arms of the sea’. In the north, the widest of these ‘limbs’ is the Moray Firth, which can, somewhat contentiously, be defined to comprise the largest of the country’s saltwater inlets, linking Fraserburgh in the south-east, Beauly in its south-west, Wick to its north, and all points in-between, a roughly-indented triangle of sea and coast that provides a backdrop to much of the history of the far north-eastern mainland. In its inner part, geology, the tide and human engineering have interacted to bequeath a unique section of land and sea linking east Sutherland with Moray in particular. This ‘firthlands’ space involves one tidal inlet, Loch Fleet, and three other narrow, long bodies of seawater - the Dornoch Firth, the Cromarty Firth and the Inner Moray Firth (including the Inverness, Kessock and Beauly Firths) - each compressed and crinkled almost together. This has helped create winding, looping shores, and shoreside settlements, encouraging its people, until very recently, and in all but the worst weather, towards trans-firth activity. The ‘firthlands’ was Fraser’s major place of work and play, an ‘amphibious’ space where he ministered, debated, reflected and socialised. In the days before modern roads and bridges, Inverness was not quite as dominant within the locale as it is now, and the lecture will consider it to highlight some of the evolving features and challenges of internal communications within the Highlands and Islands.

Key Themes

  • to challenge the assumption that the Highlands comprised a vacuum, sealed off from the rest of Scotland and the world beyond, prior to the eighteenth century
  • to examines the self-presentation of an energetic, curious, Highland male and situate him within his locality, his region, country, archipelago and continent in a way unparalleled by any other contemporary example
  • to identify, in the context of growing global engagements and entanglements, the agency, vitality and resilience of the people of the Highlands in the century before Culloden
  • to strengthen a rich vein of recent history writing that is allowing for a more comprehensive presentation of the Highland past in this period

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Image caption:

Triennial Travels, containing a succinct and briefe narration of the journay and voyage of Master James Fraser through Scotland, England, all France, part of Spain, and over the Savoyan Alps to Italy [also in the Tyrol, Bavaria, Austria, Bohemia, Germany, Holland, Picardy etc. and back to France, England and Scotland], University of Aberdeen, Special Libraries and Archives, MS 2538, I, p.2. and Church at Kirkhill


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