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An iconography of difference: internal colonialism, photography, and the crofters of the Highlands and islands of Scotland.


Michael Hechter argues that the nineteenth century saw the consolidation of a long process of internal colonialism in Britain and Ireland, whereby Celtic populations were transformed into ethnic peripheries set against an anglicized core culture. Distinct cultural practices in peripheral areas were more or less subsumed by new forms of labor, law, religion, kinship, skills, and language associated with the dominant national culture. In the case of the Highlands and islands of Scotland, it was only after 1745, in the wake of the Battle of Culloden and the suppression of the clan hierarchies, that the region was incorporated into the newly cohering British state.

Over the following century far-reaching changes were wrought on the land and the types of agriculture and population it sustained, as former clan chiefs were either dispossessed or anglicized. Quickly the land shifted from a population base for the old clan ranks to a capitalized resource. Improvement transformed communal landholdings into the privatized estates of landowners, rationalizing agriculture through clearance, enclosure, and the allocation of former clan lands to sheep farms and, later, deer forests. Economic principles of self-interest were to supercede the "barbaric" commonality of the clan. The land itself was set the task of yielding a profit. The former clan members were reformed into a crofting community -- a population of only partly subsistence farmers who would pay a cash rent for land allotted to them by their landowner.(1) And the region as a whole was increasingly drawn into international networks of trade and communication.

Ironically, at the very point when improving discourses were at their most powerful and hegemonic in the Highlands and islands, a disapproving romanticism began to resist what was seen as the breakdown of "natural" relations between people and the land that sustained them. Peter Womack argues that the period from the suppression of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1746 to the publication of Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake in 1810 saw the mythologization of the Highlands and islands as capitalism's other -- as a repository of stable meaning in a world continually rent by social and economic change. For much of the 140-odd years after Culloden, crofters of the west Highlands and islands, among whom the Gaelic language and old clan loyalties tended to be the strongest, were represented by travelers as a naturalistic people endowed with Edenic intuition and a prelapsarian social unity. Crofters populated a geographically marginal and politically peripheral area of the country that was perceived by most leisured visitors as an "exotic" location within the British Isles. As such, the Highlands and islands were regarded as a region remote from "practical" life, where adventure and a contemplative relationship with nature could be pursued.(2) By the 1880s, however, when Scottish photographer George Washington Wilson traveled to the Highlands and islands, crofters throughout the region were in the midst of resisting the continued enclosure of former common lands and the conversion of no longer profitable sheep farms into sporting estates. In creating his lantern slide narrative, The Road to the Isles, Wilson had to negotiate the contemporary unruliness of crofters, acknowledge their often desperate poverty, and realize that distress and discontent were an unavoidable facet of the Highlands and islands landscape.

According to Steve Humphries, The Road to the Isles was one of the most popular magic lantern slide packages of late Victorian Britain.(3) Typically pointed toward a largely urban and middle-class audience, lantern slide travelogues matched reportage with advertisement, and were a highly popular form of both public and domestic entertainment in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Composed at the juncture of tourism, advertising, ethnology, and news commentary, Wilson's images depicted the Highlands and islands as a region in which a preindustrial order seemed, at least outwardly, to have survived the ravages of industrialization and the concomitant despoiling of many areas of "natural" beauty in Britain. At the same time, improved communications and cheapened costs of travel in the late nineteenth century allowed increasing numbers of tourists from throughout Britain to have direct access to the region itself. Accordingly, Wilson marketed his images toward an audience of both armchair and potential travelers, who possessed the financial means to tour Scotland.

The Road to the Isles takes viewers from Oban, the main commercial center of the west Highlands of Scotland, to the geographical periphery of the British Isles. The travelogue follows the passage of a steam ship calling at the Inner Hebridean islands of Mull and Skye before moving on to the Western Isles, and beyond to St. Kilda, the country's most remote inhabited island until its evacuation in 1930. Land travel complements the passage by sea, and the tour "takes in" all manner of sights that are commented on in the text. These sights include: the "pleasant picture" of the little town of Tobermory, which "takes heart and eye at once"; Eigg's "remarkable cave, which was the scene of one of the most hideous atrocities narrated in Scottish annals"; the "Old Man" of Storr, a pinnacle 160 feet high in which "the mimicry of a ruined city is reproduced, and wonderfully realised by the presence of clouds on the hill"; the "fantastic forms" of the Cuillin range of mountains on the Isle of Skye; Dunvegan Castle, which "is supposed to be the oldest inhabited house in Scotland"; the "megalithic, cruciform, Druidical circle, called the Circle of Callanish" on the Isle of Lewis; the site of Bonnie Prince Charlie's landing on South Uist; the birth place of the Prince's fabled helper, Flora Macdonald; Kiessimull Castle at Castlebay, "which was at one time the stronghold of the Macneill of Barra"; and the "Parliament" at St. Kilda, "the most remote and probably the most inaccessible of the British Isles."

By examining the slide sequence in relation to contemporary crofter agitation we come closer to understanding how Wilson, as an agent of representation, romanticism, and tourism in the late nineteenth century, both alluded to and elided regional unrest. Wilson's photography moved from representing rural tranquillity to making social commentary on the condition of impoverished crofters' housing in Skye, from advocating certain improvements in local agricultural practice to celebrating the virtues and terrors of picturesque and sublime landscapes, and from ruminating on the myths of Highland history to considering the qualities of a "primitive" existence in far-flung St. Kilda. Beginning at the bustling town of Oban, the slide sequence threads disparate land groups through its passage out into space and back into time. The voyage ends at the geographical periphery of Britain at what was construed as its pre-capitalistic past.

Through his images of the region Wilson created an iconography of cultural difference -- difference as registered through a selective rendering of locale, landscape, and history. In order to account for the popularity of the slides, we need to ask how Wilson's narrative produced the Highlands and islands for domestic audiences at the high point of British imperialism, to consider what sort of cultural capital was invested in the photographic enterprise, to speculate on how the images were implicated in the dynamic relationship between core and periphery, and to insist that through these photographs the crofting population was not merely subjected to the unreturnable gaze of tourists and metropolitan authority.(4)

At the same time we should not forget Wilson's commercial intentions. While as modern viewers we may never know exactly how Wilson related to his subjects -- how were they posed? were they paid? how did Wilson explain his intentions? were subjects informed of how images were to be used? -- we do know that image-making involved ethnographic interaction between photographer and photographic subjects. In the images themselves, this interaction is effaced. Indeed, Wilson's photography gives the appearance of direct access to the "reality" of life in the Highlands and islands. This emphasis on ethnographic exactitude had an ironic effect, however, for in the process of photographing crofters, their homes, and their livelihood, Wilson made it obvious that crofters were neither the fabled folk of Celtic lore nor a population that could be simply ignored while tourists "enjoyed" the area. The presence of a series of crofting images in the slide sequence casts a conflicting light on romanticism, for the crofters' residual beliefs and practices straddled the divide between what was perceived as belonging to the past and to the present.

Wilson's thematic equivocation is complemented in the structure of the narrative, which is organized so as to shuttle back and forth between images that at various points complement, contradict, and disregard one another. Thus the sequential placement of slides neutralizes the impact of images and words that might appear overly favorable to the crofters' cause in ongoing unrest in the Highlands and islands. Finally, before taking a closer look at the images, we should note that implicitly, if not explicitly, Wilson's narrative raised two important questions for late Victorian audiences: first, what happens when the "exotic" other appears impoverished within the geographical boundary of the British Isles; and second, on what philosophical basis should crofters' residual practices be seen in a positive light and worthy of public aid?


The Road to the Isles is interspersed with periodic references to "the present crofter agitation." Eight images round out the "picture" of ordinary life in Skye: "Crofters Dwellings," "Washing Day," "The Spinning Wheel," "Octogenarians," "Corn Grinding," "The 'Cas Chrom,'" "Crofter and Daughter," and "Girl with Creel." The condition of housing, domestic cleanliness, the prevalence of old people in the area "notwithstanding the neglect of sanitary laws," anachronistic work procedures, outmoded craft skills, and an ironic reflection on the difficulty of women's labor compared to that of men are all commented on in the images and words.

The ninth image in the sequence, "Crofters' Dwellings," reveals Wilson's ambivalent glance on life in Skye. Here, through the reference to Robinson Crusoe, the commentary begins by criticizing a romanticized way of seeing "primitive" life. The ensuing description of "the average dwelling in the Western Highlands" emphasizes the discomfiture it affords its inhabitants (or, more accurately, the discomfiture of viewers in their imagined habitation of the homes), speaking of "the blue peat reek" of smoke, the interior's lack of light, and its general want of cleanliness and hygiene. The allusion to a "Robinson Crusoe life" also points to the implicit correlation between life in the Highlands and islands and the condition of indigenous peoples in the British colonies. By invoking the motif of an impenetrable darkness that is exactly the other side of romanticized primitivism, Wilson transfers local life to another spatial sphere and temporality -- as though such housing cannot truly exist in contemporary Britain. The image of opacity is inspired by Wilson's repugnance at the absence of a firm division between byre and human living space in the cottage. This lack of an adequate differentiation between the domestic sphere of humans and the habitats of beasts marks the limit of a visual and written discourse through which Wilson tries to look impartially at the livelihood of crofters. Here an ostensibly objectified viewing of crofting practices quickly gives way to a morally improving perspective that, in turn, resonates with late Victorian standards of property and propriety.

Curiously enough, the image itself is picturesque in composition, fitting the rudiments of that way of seeing with its combination of stacked dry stone walls and irregular thatch. As Wolfgang Kemp notes, the picturesque involves the separating out of utility and perception. It is not so much the object itself that claims the attention of the viewer, but the act of looking itself, where the individual's re-creative vision is foregrounded. The picturesque involves the smoothing out of rough edges through the balancing perception of an aestheticized consciousness. If we take the picturesque as "that which is multifarious, irregular, unevenly lit, worn and strange" (Kemp 104), then the image of the crofters' cottages surely qualifies as worthy of the category. However, this claim contradicts the import of the accompanying words, which hardly separate utility and perception. When taken together, then, the image and text embrace the dual and often contradictory function of the slide narrative. While the image is of a conventionally picturesque sort, the text takes its cue from the language of social reform and sanitary improvement that had already led to the enacting of slum clearance initiatives throughout the industrial centers of Britain in the latter half of the nineteenth century.(5)

The difficulty of reconciling curiosity with the need to intervene in the lives of others is demonstrated in a later image in the sequence. "A Poorhouse" (No. 44) depicts an old woman sitting outside the entrance to a decrepit cottage. Here there is no picturesque quality to the image and the landscape resembles a blasted wasteland. Since nature appears to be without aura, no romance can be conjured out of the scene. Instead, sheer poverty registers the end of Wilson's discourse, while also implying the beginning of another discourse -- the acknowledgement of the need to manage rural poverty. Wilson literally cannot imagine how people live in such conditions, and in his implicit recommendation for some form of change to make provision for the rural poor a certain humanitarianism comes to the surface of the narrative. However, this nascent welfarism remains couched in a groundless sympathy rather than a substantial call for action to be taken. Wilson avoids further comment on the issue by continuing the voyage outward with an image of the island of Eriskay, while the accompanying text delves back in time to consider "the forlorn days of 'Bonnie Prince Charlie.'" Thus the sequence as a whole slips across the surface of contemporary Highland and island life, taking care to balance out its newsworthy items with numerous images that depict the romantic past of the region and the "timeless" physical attributes of its landscape.

"The 'Cas Chrom'" (No. 14) provides an opportunity for Wilson to advocate agricultural improvements. The "laziness" of crofters stands in direct contrast to the unarticulated but presumed industry of photographer and audience. The commentary announces: "The haste and hurry of the nineteenth century has not taken hold of the Islesmen yet." In practical terms this means that clock time and the regulatory regime of work shifts had not yet entered into the lives of crofters. Wilson's rationale of greater efficiency and maximum yield in labor has the quality of self-assured and naturalized logic about it, although Wilson does moderate his criticism of "inefficient" farm practices by referring to adverse natural conditions. Since crofting land is so often located on "steep and rocky" ground there is difficulty in asserting that more self-discipline and greater application will actually yield substantial "profit" from the earth. This concession granted, Wilson then elides the very question of access to more fertile land and the historical process of peripheralization whereby crofters were pushed to the geographical margins of their landowners' holdings. While the commentary stakes out grounds for improvement with a small series of conditional phrases -- "yet a little more energetic cultivation would in many cases bring its own reward," "they are not careful to look after the cow droppings, which a practical husbandman considers very valuable" -- the facts of ongoing resistance to what crofters saw as landowners' abuses of their tenants rights to the use of enclosed grazing lands are left out of the account.

In briefly considering crofter agitation, Wilson suggested that precisely because crofters had not broken the old ties of dependency, they lacked freedom to pursue their self-interest. Or, put more succinctly, they lacked knowledge of what their true self-interest should be. Following the argument of early improvers, Wilson advocated the instigation of the principle of private property into the lives of ordinary people as a remedy for the Highland and island "problem." This, according to popular wisdom outside the crofting community, would offset crofters' social and moral dependency on what remained of the old clan system. First articulated in late eighteenth-century social critiques of the region, the charge that rank and file clanspeople had been imprisoned to hierarchy and slave labor and conditioned into a dependency relationship with clan chiefs remained a familiar justification for improvement until the mid-nineteenth century.(6) James Hunter argues that against the concept of private ownership as it pertained not only to the land but to all that thrived upon it (both animal and vegetable life), crofters clung to the deep-seated belief that those who worked the land had the right to occupy it. Crofter agitation, profuse by the early 1880s, focused on the occupation of lands that had been enclosed by landowners earlier in the century for sheep farms. In some cases sheep farms were later converted into shooting estates -- here the land shifted from agricultural production to a leisure resource for an elite few. For land-hungry crofters and cottars these estates became potent symbols of land deliberately left underdeveloped and kept out of circulation.

In his slides Wilson clearly did not set out to explain crofters' grievances, although unrest had excited widespread public interest in the region; instead, he capitalized upon that interest in framing the slide sequence. Consequently, Wilson's narrative was constructed so as not to be overtly partisan in terms of politics and ideology. The continued movement of the sequence away from the mainland and the Western Isles toward remote St. Kilda, whose population of 77 showed few signs of rebellion, allowed Wilson to avoid a more overt confrontation with the issues at hand in conflicts over land ownership and land use in the Highlands and islands.


Forty-five miles west of the Uists, and 110 miles from the mainland, Wilson's sequence ends its voyage to the geographical and cultural margins of the British Isles. St. Kilda, a tiny archipelago in the midst of the often tempestuous Atlantic, appealed to the touristic imagination precisely because of its remote location and the adventure that was an inherent part of getting there -- for example, it was not uncommon for visiting ships to fail in offloading summer tourists at Hirta, the group's main island, because of unfavorable sea and weather conditions. Wilson's slide sequence deliberately plays up the remoteness of St. Kilda in order to bolster its appeal to viewers. Such a gesture necessarily implies the increased capacity of a core culture to claim its periphery through improved communication systems and such technological apparatuses as the camera. The major sign of Wilson's incorporative claim on the St. Kildans is not to be found in the simple fact of photographing islanders for commercial profit, but more precisely in how he manufactured a sense of danger to audiences in the final image of the sequence, "Group With Queen." Here depicted are five women and two girls whose bold gazes back at the camera appear not to allow for a sentimentalized view of their remote island culture. Can the steadfast quality of the women's look back at the camera be viewed today as the sign of more generalized resistance to the outside codification of island life? Or does the image flirt with a notion of sexual danger in order to boost the touristic appeal of St. Kilda as an "exotic" and semi-"barbaric" location? I will come back to these questions at the end of this section.

Tourist visits to St. Kilda began in the 1830s, but until the 1870s were mostly reserved for the well-to-do. The popular tourist trade began in earnest in June 1877 with the introduction of a steamship, the Dunara Castle, which made regular passages from Glasgow to St. Kilda. The Victorian response to life in St. Kilda mixed touristic fascination for an exotic other with an impulse to inquire into and codify the domestic economy, customs, and "superstitions" of the islanders. Travelers desired to see St. Kilda as the repository of "real" cultural difference, as a uniquely distinctive culture that should not be quickly compared with "primitive" communities elsewhere in the world.(7) Wilson wrote in the commentary for the image "Boreray":

Being so isolated it is not to be wondered as if in many things they are behind the age, and the occasional tourist who would treat them as they would South Sea Islanders gets a poor reception, but one who lives amongst them for a time will find them hospitable and trustworthy, and, like all Western Highlanders, they are very superstitious. They also wear an extraordinary load of flannel clothing, and declare that the arrival of a stranger gives them the cold. (No. 55)

The first sentence consists of a curious piling up of conjunctives: instead of the last clause qualifying the assertion that the St. Kildans are "hospitable and trustworthy" with an observation of such behavior, we are told of their superstitiousness. Here we see how "fact," observation, truism, and cultural comparison follow one another in such a way that the structure of an individual sentence complements that of the image narrative as a whole in its sequential piling up of clauses and visual statements.

Of particular interest to viewers was the annual harvest of fulmars, a sea-bird found in thousands around the archipelago, which islanders gathered for food, oil, and feathers. In the absence of diversified husbandry and because of the meager return the soil gave on the few crops planted on Hirta, the St. Kildans were reliant on the fulmar as an essential foodstuff. In the words of the commentary: "Instead of using the crooked spade, and in return receiving a miserable crop of potatoes and oats, you will find through the aid of the hair rope combined with their unparalleled agility in scaling the precipitous cliffs, thousands of Fulmar are secured and salted down for the season's use" (No. 54). By the end of the nineteenth century these "natural" gymnastic abilities had become staged in simulated harvests by the island men for tourist audiences.(8) This theatricalization of island life, and the revenue such displays afforded, did much to undermine the finely balanced culture of the St. Kildans. In time, with greater exposure to mainland goods and cultural values, the islanders grew self-conscious about the limitations of their own isolated lives and became aware of their home culture as marginalized and different from that of the tourist incomers.

Tom Steel claims that by the end of the nineteenth century islanders had grown wise to extracting a maximum of profit from the tourist trade. Prices charged for blown egg shells, homespun gloves and stockings, and permission to take photographs steepened according to the market tolerance for the purchasing of "authenticity" and cultural novelty. Photography, which marked the visualized trace of the tourist's visit to places far from home, became pervasive on St. Kilda. In time, caught between the insatiable desire of the tourist to possess a product of living anachronism and a growing sense of their geographical and cultural remoteness, the islanders became more dependent on the petty cash that the tourist trade provided to buy off-island goods and move out of their localized economy.

In the mid-1880s, however, tourist visits by steamers were limited to four or five each summer. Since between October and May islanders generally received fixed communications from neither their proprietor nor tourists, it is fair to say that at the moment of Wilson's slide narrative islanders remained isolated. This claim is corroborated by the fact that in the testimonies of two local men to a Government commission in 1883, neither Donald MacDonald nor Angus Gillies made anything but a passing reference to island visitors.(9) It seems that in 1883 the 77 islanders were far more interested in maintaining their own way of life than comparing their lot to that of outsiders. This is not to say that they lived completely secluded lives, however, for St. Kildans relied on their proprietor, MacLeod of MacLeod, for the delivery of essential foodstuffs and to pick up the feathers, oil, cloth, and cattle with which their rent was paid. But it does mean that when Wilson photographed St. Kilda in the mid-1880s, he was at the beginning, rather than the middle, of what became an established practice of image-making by visitors to the island.

In his images of St. Kilda, Wilson was at pains not to compare the islanders' livelihood with "primitive" populations elsewhere. Far from being made into a synechdoche for a more general primitivism, their lives were inquired into at the micrological level. Commenting on the text for the "Parliament" image, Ian Spring notes that although Wilson probably described the operation of the island's governing body of men accurately, he did so only with reference to concepts originating outside of St. Kilda. Wilson at once appealed to a long tradition of "Golden Age" representations of St. Kildans, starting with the traveler Martin Martin in 1697, that stressed the Utopian aspect of "simple," isolated island life, while he also alleged that the actual governance of the island naturalistically followed the form of Britain's democratic Parliament. Consequently, in making his image of the St. Kilda men, Wilson yoked together a series of what would normally be thought of as oppositions. Thus, while insisting on its geographical isolation, Wilson arrived at St. Kilda by way of a modern steamer, then proceeded to register the cultural antiquity of the Gaelic St. Kildans through the mechanized lens of the camera, and finally explained "their Parliament that fixes matters beyond appeal" by referring to contemporary anglicized democracy.

It is exactly this act of bridging the constructed domains of dominant and marginal cultures that late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tourists thrived upon in later visits to St. Kilda. In the text for an image of gannets' nests, Wilson comments on the disruptive role of tourists: "They |the islanders~ also use largely as an article of food, wild fowls' eggs; many of these egg shells they preserve and sell to the insatiable tourist, who occasionally visits this remote Island" (No. 58). The insatiable tourist who visits only occasionally: although the statement may at first seem contradictory, it does express a simple recognition of the fragility of life on St. Kilda. Arguably Wilson foresaw the disruptive impact of continued visits by tourists and fellow photographers to the island, yet this did not prevent him from capitalizing upon the trade that his own photography encouraged.

The sequence ends with an image of five women and two girls that is entitled "Group With Queen." What are we to make of it? Did these women come to Victorian viewers as enigma personified? Were contemporary audiences meant to take seriously the threat of castration that resounds in the prospect of the "queen's" revenge on a certain "faithless" male should he return to St. Kilda? If we claim that the women's resolute gaze back at the camera caused the discomfiture of (male) viewers, is it too much to speculate that the sexual anxiety provoked by the one image evokes the larger fear of potential rebellion among "native" populations throughout the empire? For viewers were informed that "the natives have a significant way of enforcing their disapproval of any body's misconduct" (No. 62). These questions aside, however, we can assert with confidence that with the final comment the narrative ends on a nervously facetious note.

Exactly how audiences in lantern slide lectures across late Victorian Britain reacted to the image of the St. Kilda women, it is hard to say. Through one scenario, we might characterize lantern slide lectures as shows in which St. Kildans' clothing, mannerisms, customs, and "arcane" practices were scrutinized and remarked upon, shows through which the islanders were drawn into discourse and incorporated into bourgeois society via the image made commodity. It is probable that Wilson paid the women to pose for the image and that they were willing to cooperate with his instructions, sitting patiently until he had taken the photograph. Yet what the women thought of Wilson, of the camera, whether they had any comprehension of how their images would be displayed in photographic albums and projected on to large screens in lantern slide shows, it is impossible for us, now looking at the "same" women, to know.

The final image culminates a slide sequence that simultaneously expresses and elides "native" unrest throughout the Highlands and islands. Having found crofter agitation amid the spectacle of picturesque and sublime natural scenery in Skye, the sequence moves on to the Western Isles only to find poverty spoiling the general view, and beyond to St. Kilda, where in the process of representing the island's population Wilson creates a symbolic danger out of the stern appearance of the women before the camera lens.


In 1883 popular rebellion among crofters did much to push William Gladstone's Liberal government into appointing the Napier Commission to report on the livelihood of the crofting community. Its commissioners "convoked, by public invitation, 71 meetings at sixty-one stations, and received the testimony of 775 persons" (Report 1). The following year, official findings were published in the Report and Evidence of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the Conditions of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In framing the subsequent Crofters Act of 1886, Gladstone's Government had to wrestle with the central ideological problem of how to reconcile crofters' collective belief in their right of access to land enclosed in the aftermath of Culloden with Liberal support for the rights of property owners. During the infamous Clearances, most of which took place between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, crofters had lost communal land holdings through the application to the region of laissez-faire capitalism, with its strict principles of maximized agricultural and industrial production. But toward the end of the century, when crofters collectively asserted their "right" to land they judged had been stolen from them, it was the morality rather than the legalistic substantiality of their claim which the Report and Act responded to.

For crofters, the Report with its several thousand pages of appendices, statistical evidence, and painstakingly recorded oral testimonies put their voices, both as individuals and as a collectivity, into public written discourse for the first time. The respect with which crofters' grievances were heard and the co-equal status of their testimonies with statements made by landowners, their factors (landowners' agents), and clergymen is itself telling, and a vital sign of a democratizing of procedure in the collecting of state information. However, it would be naive to suggest that crofters simply gained complete cultural enfranchisement through the Crofters Act.(10) Instead, Government aid was contingent upon crofters' greater participation in the British economy.(11) In the final part of the essay I will briefly examine the language of the Report so as to understand why the commissioners appeared to go against the Liberal Government's prevailing belief in free market economics in order to make the "anachronistic" gesture of supporting the crofters' political struggle.

I opened the essay by referring to Michael Hechter and his suggestion that nineteenth-century Britain witnessed the consolidation of a process of internal colonialism that had begun in sixteenth-century England. As Hechter notes, "differences in language, kinship structures, inheritance systems, modes of agricultural production, patterns of settlement, legal systems or the lack thereof, religious beliefs, and most generally styles of life" (5) marked the distinction between the practices of the anglicized core culture and its peripheral cultures. Hechter continues by providing a general model for national development: "The core and peripheral cultures must ultimately merge into one all-encompassing cultural system to which all members of the society have primary identification and loyalty" (5). If this is true, then why, among other recommendations favorable to the support of crofters' cultural identity, did the Report actively encourage the use of Gaelic in church and schools? Surely the prevalence of a separate language in a geographically marginal area of Britain would hinder the more complete incorporation of crofters into a single national culture?

In answering this question we should remember that the Report was constructed so as to propose a pragmatic solution to prevailing unrest in the Highlands and islands. Anxious to avoid violent rebellion on the scale of the recent Irish troubles, where the exemplary struggles of the Irish Land League had resulted in peasant farmers' security of tenure and the right to fair rent in 1881, the commissioners recognized the value of crofters' residual beliefs, but only by framing the crofting community as a national cultural resource. Thus, the commissioners argued, crofters' sedimented values and "natural" relations with the land needed to be supported so as to avoid "lasting traces of resentment and alienation" (Report 110) against landowners and authority. Specifically, if "restored to tranquillity, confidence, and the exercise of their natural good sense" (111) crofters would return to a condition of calm morality. In other words, the commissioners demonstrated a greater governmental capacity both to acknowledge and administer cultural difference for the greater "good" of the nation as a whole.

By the time the Napier Commission visited the Highlands and islands, crofters had been emigrating to British colonies for almost a century and a half. In the conclusion to their report the commissioners directed their attention to the channeling of emigration to a productive and ameliorative end:

The crofting and cottar population of the Highlands and Islands, small though it be, is a nursery of good workers and good citizens for the whole empire. In this respect the stock is exceptionally valuable. By sound physical constitution, native intelligence, and good moral training, it is particularly fitted to recruit the people of our industrial centres, who without such help from wholesome sources in rural districts would degenerate under the influences of bad lodging, unhealthy occupations, and enervating habits. It cannot be indifferent to the whole nation, constituted as the nation now is, to possess within its borders a people hardy, skilful, intelligent, and prolific, as an ever-flowing fountain of renovating life. (110)

Thus the report ends by invoking the language of not only economic production but also of environmental influence in order to justify a positive government initiative, or "artificial remedy" (108), to keep crofters on the land. The reference to "exceptionally valuable" "stock" makes it clear that one of the fundamental considerations behind the commissioners' acknowledgement of crofter grievances was the extension of capitalistic principles to the reproductive capacity of the crofting population as a whole. Taken in their totality of "40,000 families or 200,000 souls" (108), crofters could produce a significant surplus population with which to service the empire at both home and abroad. Government recognition of crofters' right to their continued livelihood, then, was contingent upon them maintaining stability, morality, and productivity in agriculture, fishing, and human reproduction.

In conclusion, I suggest that while the language of productivity is pervasive in the final pages of the Report, the incorporative strategy of the Napier Commission did not have a wholly detrimental effect for crofters. Although the commissioners' official recognition of crofters' livelihood was too late for the thousands of people who had been expelled from former common lands and forced to emigrate during the Clearances, it was the first time that crofters' right to the land gained legitimacy in the eyes of the British government. Grass roots political organization and agitation continued in the aftermath of the Crofters Act, and helped forge political and cultural unity among Highlanders and islanders that, while hardly without tensions, remains particularly strong in the late twentieth century.(12)

Returning to Wilson's photography, we should realize that precisely because the production of his images was rooted in a particular historical moment, the images are liable to counter-hegemonic viewings. As Raymond Williams reminds us, "The residual by definition, has been effectively formed in the past, but it is still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present" (122). This statement should serve as a reminder that while the crofting population was represented by Wilson as a residual rural population, in the 1880s crofters could not be simply sentimentalized as other-wordly. At the same time, we see that through his images of St. Kilda, Wilson strived to end the slide sequence by taking viewers beyond the fringe of crofting unrest and stranding them in Britain's geographically and, arguably, culturally most peripheral place. Viewing The Road to the Isles today enables us to see how Wilson struggled to rein in the cultural contradictions of the Highlands and islands at the very point when crofters began to collectively assert their dynamic and politically emergent cultural identity.


1 In the Report the Napier Commission defined the word "crofter":

By the word crofter is usually understood a small tenant of land with or without a lease, who finds in the cultivation and produce of his holding a material portion of his occupation, earnings, and sustenance, and who pays rent directly to the proprietor. The term cottar commonly imports the occupier of a dwelling with or without some small portion of land, whose main subsistence is by the wages of labour, and whose rent, if any, is paid to a tenant and not to the landlord. (3)

Hunter explains further: "|T~he crofter is not a subsistence agriculturalist but a man who, while retaining his stake in the land, has always had to have an occupation ancillary to that of farming his holding" (3). For detailed discussion of the emergence of the crofting community in the context of Scotland's fuller incorporation into the British empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Hechter; Hunter; Richards; and Smout.

2 For critical analysis of how the Highlands and islands and Gaelic people became mythologized in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Chapman; McArthur; and Womack.

3 The images reproduced in this essay were made from the original glass-plate slides in the possession of L. M. H. Smith, and appear by his kind permission. They and the accompanying text are to be found in Smith's The Road to the Isles: The Hebrides in Lantern Slides. All references are to the image numbers in the slide sequence rather than their pagination in Smith's book. The slides were found by chance in the early 1980s, after Taylor's critical biography of Wilson was published. I thank Smith for permission to reprint images and for information on the slides. In a personal letter, he has informed me that slides, in the form of 3 1/4-inch glass plates, were printed from Wilson's vast repository of glass negatives and handcolored by his staff before being distributed through Riley Brothers of Bradford, England.

4 The idea of "production" is borrowed from Pratt's study of European travel writing, Imperial Eyes. For a somewhat similar use of the idea of internal colonialism to explain the use of the folkloric past in nineteenth-century novels, see Armstrong.

5 It is worth noting that Wilson's photographs share their historical moment with fellow Scots Thomas Annan, who photographed Glasgow's slum areas, and John Thomson, famous for his journalistic photo/text series Street Life in London (1877) -- produced in collaboration with writer Adolphe Smith -- and a number of images of China taken in the aftermath of the Opium Wars. Arguably, the urban poor of major cities constituted another internal colony. For discussion of the uses of photography in late nineteenth-century slum clearance initiatives, see Tagg.

6 For a discussion of this motif of ideological imprisonment within the hierarchy of the clan, see Womack. The liberation of the individual from clan sentiment -- or, according to Thomas Newte in 1791, "voluntary slavery" -- in real terms meant the unconditional suppression of Gaelic cultural difference. As Womack puts it: "The freedom which is caught in this paradox is of an ideologically peculiar kind; and the case of the poor Highlander, for whom it meant new labour discipline, new state power, and new rights of private property, was calculated to strain its limits" (14).

7 For an invaluable, although somewhat romanticized history of St. Kilda, see Steel.

8 Spring notes that in the nineteenth century, "a tradition of representation developed whereby the particular practice of cragsmanship is transferred in meaning from a simple acquired skill to an inbred propensity" (160).

9 When the Napier Commission visited St. Kilda in June 1883 to hear the testimonies of Free Church minister Reverend John McKay and two crofters, Donald MacDonald and Angus Gillies, its members were at pains to assess not only the economic condition of the islanders but also their morality. Thus McKay was asked if any "spirituous liquors" (Report 865) were sold to islanders by steamer passengers. He answered in the negative, but added: "Some of these passengers are very loose in their character, and some of them are drunk when they come ashore, but the people avoid them as far as they can" (865). When asked what some of the troublesome visitors did, McKay replied: "They go about the hills, and go seeing through the windows and striking the dogs and one thing and another" (865).

10 The Act gave crofters security of tenure and the right for compensation from landowners for improvements made on their crofts, but did not address crofters' and cottars' major grievance, the lack of available land. Cottars, in particular, continued to agitate well into the twentieth century. For details, see Hunter; and Richards.

11 For thorough historical analysis of the operations and reportage of the Napier Commission, see Hunter; Richards; and Smout.

12 While conceding the popularity of crofter agitation, the Napier Commission was at pains to emphasize the role of outside agents (especially those of the Highland Land League) in helping crofters articulate their complaints to the commissioners: "Intervention from without of this character was to be expected in a free country, and it may not have been without justification, and even utility, among a population in a dependent and precarious condition, unused to combination for a public purpose" (Report 2).


Armstrong, Nancy. "Imperialist Nostalgia and Wuthering Heights." Emily Bronte. Wuthering Heights. Ed. Linda Peterson. Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism Series. Boston: St. Martin's, 1992. 428-49.

Chapman, Malcolm. The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture. London: Croom Helm. Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 1978.

Hechter, Michael. Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966. Berkeley: U of California P, 1975.

Humphries, Steve. Victorian Britain through the Magic Lantern. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1989.

Hunter, James. The Making of the Crofting Community, Edinburgh: John Donald, 1976.

Kemp, Wolfgang. "Images of Decay: Photography in the Picturesque Tradition." 1978. Trans. Joyce Rheuban. October 54 (1990): 102-33.

McArthur, Colin. "The Dialectic of National Identity: The Glasgow Empire Exhibition of 1938." Popular Culture and Social Relations. Ed. Tony Bennett, Colin Mercer, and Janet Woollacott. Milton Keynes: Open UP, 1986. 117-34.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Report of Her Majesty's Commissioners of Inquiry into the Condition of the Crofters and Cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland With Appendices. 1884. British Parliamentary Papers (Agriculture) 21-25. Shannon: Irish UP, 1969.

Richards, Eric. A History of the Highland Clearances, Vol. 2: Emigration, Protest, Reasons. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

Smith, L. M. H. The Road to the Isles: The Hebrides in Lantern Slides. Loanhead, Scotland: Macdonald, 1983.

Smout, T. C. A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950. London: Collins, 1986.

Spring, Ian. "Lost Land of Dreams -- Representing St. Kilda." Cultural Studies 4.2 (1990): 156-75.

Steel, Tom. The Life and Death of St. Kilda. London: Fontana, 1975.

Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. Amherst: U of Massachussetts P, 1988.

Taylor, Roger. George Washington Wilson: Artist and Photographer, 1823-93. Aberdeen: Aberdeen UP, 1981.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.

Womack, Peter. Improvement and Romance: Constructing the Myth of the Highlands. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Padget has just received his doctorate from the University of California, San Diego. His dissertation is "Cultural Geographies: Travel Writing in the Southwest, 1869-97."
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