The Strathnaver Conference: Day 1 - Land and people in the Northern Highlands

11 September 2014
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Part one of a three part series on The Strathnaver Conference which was produced by the University of the Highlands and Islands and took place in Bettyhill, Scotland from 4-6 September 2014. By Theresa Mackay. ...

Part one of a three part series on The Strathnaver Conference which was produced by the University of the Highlands and Islands and took place in Bettyhill, Scotland from 4-6 September 2014. By Theresa Mackay.

It is the evening of 3 September and we have just arrived in Dùthaich Mhic Aoidh - Mackay Country - in the northwest corner of the Highlands at the coastal edge of the Scottish mainland. Having driven through miles of seemingly desolate land dotted with crofts, ruins and sheep, we meet up in a pub in the town of Tongue with a PhD candidate staying at the youth hostel down the road.

As three students on our post-graduate academic journeys, we spend a pre-conference evening over a pint swapping stories about connections to Scotland, diaspora and identity. Tomorrow, along with nearly 100 attendees from seven different countries, we will descend on An Bloran Odor- Bettyhill - population just shy of 500, for Land and People in the Northern Highlands: The Strathnaver Conference.


Produced by The Centre for History at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), The Strathnaver Conference is made possible through the support of The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland in connection with Carnegie Trust Centenary Professorship.

An honour for such a relatively new university and perhaps a nod towards the traction that the study of Highlands and Islands history is experiencing as a result of the hub and focus that the Dornoch-based UHI Centre for History provides, this year's visiting Professorship was awarded to UHI and renowned migration expert and award-winning Highland Clearances author, Emeritus Professor of History Eric Richards, from Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia. Many of us have made the trip here for the opportunity to learn from Professor Richards first-hand, his well-thumbed Clearances books in our bags waiting to be autographed.

Waking up to a pleasant autumn morning, we set off for Bettyhill, about a 20 minute drive east down a single track road. Laptops in hand waiting to be filled with ideas for future research, the day begins with UHI Centre for History lecturer and Strathnaver Conference Director, Dr. Elizabeth Ritchie, who welcomes us to the Province of Strathnaver, now the County of Sutherland. Knowing that 200 years ago the Strathnaver Clearances took place here with such figures as the notorious Patrick Sellar, the historical richness of this area does not go unnoticed.

Giving us a conference overview, we soon learn from Dr. Ritchie that the culture of Mackay Country - certainly significant for those of us in attendance with the same surname - will weave itself into the fabric of the next three days as we look at the agency of ordinary people and their relationships with the land through the history of the Clearances and the Gaelic poetry of eighteenth century bard, Rob Donn.


A conference on research in Highlands and Islands history would not be complete without a keynote from the first Director of the UHI Centre for History and author of 11 books, including the seminal The Making of the Crofting Community, UHI Emeritus Professor of History James Hunter (pictured). He starts his talk, Savages from Scotland: The North American Dimensions of the Sutherland Clearances, with a light-hearted animated Lego video by Reverend Menacer Studios on the Battle of New Orleans set to the music by Johnny Horton:

We learn from Professor Hunter about the Sutherland area's involvement in the War of 1812 and how residents impacted history in North America. Using his knack for telling slice-of-life stories and connecting them to the bigger historical picture, we hear of Donald MacKay, a Strathbrora man born in 1753 who joined the Hudson's Bay Company and was known as a tremendous map maker. MacKay, Professor Hunter argues, is an under-honoured man who "did more to shape our modern world than James Loch, Patrick Sellar and the Marquis and Marchioness of Stafford [...] ever did."

Such an integral part of the culture of the Highlands and Islands, it is not long before we hear Gaelic being eloquently sung during a presentation by retired American lawyer and now PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Ellen Beard.

In describing her research into the musical settings and first-time English translations of over 200 poems by her relative, Rob Donn, she analyzes two of his favourite subjects, that of Tongue schoolmaster, Iain Tapaidh, also known as "Clever John" Sutherland, and landowner, factor and drover, Perthshire-based Captain John Gray of Rogart. Using the power and freedom of poetry to speak one's mind, at play during Donn's lifetime 300 years ago just as it is today, Donn was not shy in his biting criticisms of Gray and Tapaidh, regardless of differences in social rank.

Several speakers later, Day one concludes. Our heads full, we retire in anticipation of Day 2 where  we will hear Professor Richards' keynote and experience a Mackay Country 'archive of the feet.'

Read parts two and three of Theresa Mackay's blog.


Theresa Mackay is Executive Director of the British Columbia Museums Association, the professional organization for museums in the province, owner of Larchgrove Marketing Group, named after her ancestral home in Glenlivet, and Associate Faculty at the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management, Royal Roads University. She is an MLitt candidate in Highlands and Islands history with University of the Highlands and Islands and blogs about having Scotland in her soul at Theresa played a key role in the application to secure Craigflower Manor and Lands for the Victoria Highland Games Association.