The Dynamics of Heritage: History, Memory and the Highland Clearances

by Laurence Gouriévidis. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. 232 pp. $124.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-4094-0244-2.

In The Dynamics of Heritage, Gouriévidis explores the ways that 15 Scottish museums, comprised of two national, one local, and 12 independent institutions, have represented and interpreted the period of the Highland Clearances over the course of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Her assessment is based on a combination of physical visits to the museums as well as a questionnaire that was completed by staff at ten of the institutions. Some of the museums were visited multiple times over a period of twenty years, to document how the museums have evolved their treatment and representation of the Clearances over time.

From the beginning, the greatest challenge when reading this book is that it presupposes knowledge of the subject matter on the part of the reader. Gouriévidis opens the book with quotations alluding to the horror of the Highland Clearances. However, after reading the front matter, the best I could determine about this event is that it was a period in Scottish history from the mid-18th century to late 19th century when peasants were forced to relocate off their land. I do not wish to diminish the impact or trauma of the event, but with no context, timeframe, etc. in which to frame the book, the reader begins on rather unsure footing. It was not until Chapter 2 that I was able to gain a better sense of the nature and scope of the Clearances. This was a period when the Enlightenment ideal of “Improvement” was applied by aristocratic landowners in the Scottish Highlands to a re-distribution of land, making room for large-scale sheep farming, and resulting in forced relocations of tenant farmers to the sea coast, the Scottish Lowlands, and overseas.

The first several chapters are largely foundational, setting the stage for Gouriévidis’ study by providing a multi-faceted literature review of the multiple components of this emotionally charged issue in Scottish history. In Chapter 1, Gouriévidis explores the role that museums play in both history and memory, including their role in “collective memory,” or the memory of groups. She contemplates the distinctions that have traditionally been made between history and collective memory, including history’s “assumed dispassionate and detached character,” (8) when in reality both approaches are influenced by the emotional toll of traumatic events. In the next chapter, she studies other documentation and representation of the Highland Clearances beyond the scope of museums, but also how these narratives influenced museum interpretations of the period. Chapter 3 is a discussion of the museum system in Scotland.

Chapter 4 is where the earlier themes of the book begin to converge, grouping museum narratives about the Clearances into three distinct strands: local, national, and emigratory (63). Although the majority of institutions focus on narratives from a local perspective, the two national museums included in the study craft their narratives to cover the country of Scotland as a whole. Several of the institutions also explore emigration and the connections of the Clearances to other overseas issues.

The chapters that follow describe the evolving methods and strategies used by the museums within their exhibitions to represent these three strands of narratives, as well as the surrounding economic and political issues. In the conclusion, Gouriévidis ultimately labels the Clearances as a “national trauma” in Scottish cultural heritage, with far-reaching influence, historically represented by a variety of narratives with very different objectives and motivations behind them (175). She then discusses the role of museums and their exhibitions in promoting notions of memory and cultural heritage related to emotionally-charged events like the Clearances. She also lays the foundation for future publications by introducing the contributions of Scottish emigrants to other countries, such as Australia.

In terms of format, Chapters 1-3 are comprised solely of text, and thus rather dense. Beginning in Chapter 4, the photographic images that Gouriévidis includes make the book more engaging. Given the sensitive subject upon which the book is focused, it would have been nice to include some color plates, because restricting the images to black-and-white photographs does compromise the level of detail and associated emotional impact to a certain degree.

It is worth noting how thoroughly Gouriévidis has researched the relevant literature for her subject, which is evident in the number of references present throughout the text and the extensive bibliography. The text is also well indexed, allowing the reader to quickly locate the most salient topics. Overall, The Dynamics of Heritage serves as an interesting case study, examining the role of museum exhibitions as media for transmission of cultural heritage and the exploration of memory.

Jennifer K. Sheehan, Ph.D., University of North Texas