I’ve been visiting the Isle of Harris with my family every summer since 2010. Last week was the first time I’ve been back to the island since beginning my PhD project, which takes as case study another Hebridean island – Tiree. My research is focused on ancestral tourism to Scotland, and seeks to understand the multi-faceted ways in which these visitors interact with and shape perceptions of Scottish heritage. Reflexivity is a key element of my research methodology, and I was conscious that this trip provided an opportunity to consider heritage tourism to the Hebrides as a visitor.
I was astounded by how much my perceptions of the island and my experience as a tourist had been affected by 10 months of studying Scottish heritage, tourism and genealogy practices. Although I went to school in the Highlands, and then studied History (specialising in Scottish history) at undergraduate and Masters level, at the start of my PhD my knowledge of Highlands & Islands history was patchy at best, and abysmal at worst. So, although I knew bits and pieces of history about Harris, it has only been on this last trip that I had some knowledge to ‘situate’ the island historically and to understand some of its present-day challenges and opportunities.
Many ancestral tourists research meticulously before visiting Scotland, and often have particular interests in specific localities – islands or townships where their ancestors lived. Often their family history research has led them to find out more about Scottish history more generally, and develop a knowledge of local history too. I now appreciate more fully how much this prior knowledge can enhance the experience of a heritage tourist.
Here are some of the most striking things I noticed during this trip:
This is obviously a key theme of my research – not only understanding the history of emigration from Scotland but also how people perceive and remember the experience of emigration. Over the past year I’ve read a lot about this – Jim Hunter, Marjory Harper and others have written extensively on Scottish emigration and the Scottish diaspora. As my main case study is Tiree, I’ve focused particularly on emigration from the Hebrides. During my fieldwork, I’ve also encountered the legacy of this depopulation – including the ongoing attempts to protect and promote distinctive & living cultural heritages in often challenging contexts.
Each year on our family holiday I have camped at Hushinish, across from the now-empty island of Scarp which was once home to hundreds of people. Understanding more fully the history of emigration from the Hebrides, I consider the ruined houses and empty landscape more carefully and see the island in a different light. Ancestral tourists too, often focus on these absences and appreciate that many of the spectacular and empty landscapes in the Highlands & Islands were once home to thriving communities.
Language as cultural heritage
I had always assumed that all the place names on Harris came from Gaelic. Not being a Gaelic-speaker, I’d been curious about the meanings of place names but never gone further to find out more. It was only during my fieldwork on Tiree, where the main settlement is called Scarinish, that I was reminded of Hushinish & finally asked a Gaelic-speaking friend if it had a particular meaning in Gaelic. She looked at me somewhat bemused and explained: ‘it’s not from Gaelic, it’s from Norse. Anything with ‘nish’ at the end is Norse, it means ‘headland’ or ‘point’’.
Suddenly the way I saw Harris changed slightly. Not only did I begin to realise the layers of history & heritage that had shaped the island, but I also began to understand how much more engaged you feel with a place when you can ‘read’ the landscape. On this trip, I had great fun with my family pointing out common Gaelic or Norse place names and understanding that it denoted a river, or headland, or beach. On Lewis they even had leaflets explaining the meanings of some of the most frequently used Gaelic place names – a fantastic way to engage visitors with both the natural and linguistic heritage of the islands.
Surely one of Scotland’s greatest tourism resources is the friendliness of the people who live here! It makes such an enormous difference to a holiday to be treated with genuine hospitality, and I experienced this in bucket-loads during my trip. There were little things like the staff at the Sports Centre in Tarbert cheerfully charging our phones behind the desk while we went for a swim, and the Harris Hotel offering us a seat and the wi-fi password even though we weren’t buying anything.
There were bigger gestures of hospitality too – I visited the spectacular Seallam! Centre at Northton, which focuses on emigration from the Hebrides. After asking a question of one of the staff and explaining my project I found myself speaking to the founder of the Centre, Bill Lawson, who has specialised in genealogy and Hebridean history over the past 40 years. Not only did he talk me through the exhibition, show me their genealogy records system and explain more of the history of the Centre and the people who visit – he also offered me a desk and computer at the Centre! The kindness and generosity I’ve been met with during my research on Tiree and on Harris is an indication of the hospitality many tourists have also enjoyed. It’s no wonder the Hebrides are such a popular destination: Tha e breagha!