Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Bookshelf: Highland Homecomings by Paul Basu

Paul Basu, now a Reader in Material Culture and Museum Studies at the University College London, was working on his Ph.D. in anthropology when I first arrived at the University of Glasgow. Although, I heard him speak at a conference and had a brief email correspondence with him - I asked a question and he answered - I never met him properly. I found his work on the way in which the Highland Diaspora interacts with and thinks about their ancestral homeland intriguing. Highland Homecomings.Genealogy and Heritage Tourism in the Scottish Highlands is the published version of his dissertation.

Basu identifies two dominant stories about Scots emigrants “one predicated on exile and banishment, the other on emigration and expansion.” These twin tales take on stark differences in our post-colonial era.  If your ancestors were exiled then they were victims and not complicit in the dark side of colonialism. If your ancestors were emigrants, then they were agents of colonialism and totally culpable. This is one reason he believes many now chose to identify with Highland ancestry and with the Clearances. His discussion of these differences and how people incorporated them into their family narratives was one of my favorite parts of the book. Most stories of the Clearances are not family memories, but learned from books like those by John Prebble. One woman lamented how her family was pushed out of the Highlands by the Clearances and grafted it into her family narrative. Upon further investigation Basu learned that the two branches of her family emigrated 50 and 90 after the last Clearances in their respective parishes.

He shares the fact that many roots tourists collect stones and other souvenirs from ancestral sites to take home. He suggests that these items are similar to relics, a little piece of something sacred we can have in our everyday lives. Do you do this? I collected stones, shells, and sea glass from places I visited in Scotland because I couldn't afford “proper” souvenirs. Or at least that’s why I thought I did it. However, since they are all lined up in a sunny windowsill, perhaps I really was collecting relics.

In another chapter, he explores the idea that many roots-seekers are trying find “a place of uncomplicated belonging” a place where their ancestors had been for centuries. Many who responded to Basu’s questionnaire felt called to Scotland. More importantly, because of their ancestral ties to the land, they emphatically rejected the label “tourist.” The roots-seekers kept photos and created websites to document their trips. One man, whose wife died before they could visit Scotland, created a website and the counter of site visitors was a digital memorial cairn for his wife.

Highland Homecomings provides interesting insight into roots tourism, genealogy, and the connection between the Highland diaspora and Scotland. However, I must warn you, not only is the book expensive, it is difficult reading for a layperson. He uses words like heuristic, etic, and emic. At times, I hardly understood what was going on. On the other hand, several chapters do not use many technical terms and are easier to grasp. So, if the topics intrigue you, get the book from inter-library loan and be sure to have a dictionary handy.

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