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Public History conference : Whose history is it anyway?

2013 September 6
Badbea stones

Natural stones and flowers or traces of human histories in the landscape?

I am just back from speaking at the very interesting conference ‘Whose history is it anyway?: Public History in Perspective’ organised by Andy Gritt and Keith Vernon at the University of Central Lancashire, where a new MA in Public History has recently been approved. I drew upon Brecht’s wonderful poem ‘Questions from a worker whilst reading’ to think about the materials for the writing of history including material culture, and structures in the landscape. I had used the poem when writing London Stories as a framework for questioning the nature of conventional history. I concluded that book (and my talk yesterday) by drawing on Brecht’s words:

So many reports

So many questions

Brecht had suggested that answers to the worker’s questions were given by silence, by what wasn’t said. The experiences of those apparently without a literate voice had been marked in the landscape. Because cities had been built etc then other histories could be written.

A poignant example of such potential histories in the landscape can be found at Badbea in eastern Scotland about five miles north of Helmsdale, which I came across a few years ago. It is a very remote abandoned village and the grass leading to the cliffs is very steep.

The rocks with the flowers above might be seen as pleasant natural  features. More likely, these are some of the remains of the houses of the tenants evicted in the Highland Clearances before they subsequently emigrated to New Zealand (as the nearby memorial explains). Surely these stones are  as eloquent as contemporary writing about the plight of tenants in the early 1800s?

Highland Clearances memorial

Memorial at Badbea to the Highlanders who then migrated to New Zealand

(I can highly recommend David Craig’s wonderful oral history of the descendants of people forcibly removed from their land : On the Crofters’ Trail. In search of the Clearance Highlanders – reprinted by Berlinn.)

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