BOOK REVIEW: Scotland’s Northwest Frontier: A Forgotten British Borderland

In today’s guest post, we present a book review by Stephen Kostes on borders and frontiers in the UK. Stephen is a Stony Brook History M.A. recipient (2015) and is interested in the British empire’s use of colonial troops and how these soldiers eventually created their own martial borderland culture. He is contemplating a dissertation that would study this concept of martial borderlands as they existed in the 18th and 19th century. 

Alister Farquhar Matheson, Scotland’s Northwest Frontier: A Forgotten British Borderland. Matador Press, 2014.

Scotland’s Northwest Frontier is a massive but accessible work that traces the history of Scotland from roughly 1,000 C.E. to the twentieth century. It focuses specifically on the Northwest frontier and analyzes the roles of both the Hebrides and Highlands in shaping the cultural and political landscape of Scotland.

The book is split into four major segments, each containing several chapters that chronologically trace the development of Scotland. The first segment gives the reader a virtual tour of the landscape of the Highlands. Though Matheson lists the names of various Scottish territories, he makes the mistake of never giving the reader a map, making it difficult for someone unfamiliar with Scotland to keep track of every territory. The first segment is by far the shortest, and is more of an extended introduction that introduces the book’s core themes. The main one is how the Northwest frontier helped shape, divide, and unite different Scottish clans from the medieval to the modern era. Secondary is the frontier’s role in cross country trade, and the eventual destruction of the Highland way of life.

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The second segment of the book begins in the 13th century, following the history of Scotland until 1746 with the final defeat of the Jacobite uprising. This segment relies on both political and military data gathered from a mix of primary sources, clan histories, and modern secondary sources to provide a close look at the regions of Ross and the Hebrides. This segment reads like very traditional history, focusing on important men and how they shaped Scotland’s national history. Matheson lets his remarkable prose down again, however, with a lack of maps and embedded clan lists (lists of infamous clans are located at the end of the book for those who realize it). This is a minor grievance, though, since Matheson beautifully weaves larger histories of Scotland together while never losing his particular focus on the Northwest frontier. This section ends with the failure of the Jacobite Rebellion and the final phase of the Highland era. With this final death blow, the Frontier of the Northwest was forever changed.

Matheson then focuses on the frontier itself, particularly the coastline and the “land of the Three Sea Lochs” or Alsh, Duich, and Long. He traces the development of and interactions between different Highland towns, and the development of the Highland clan system. Matheson highlights in particular the “Lordship of the Isles,” a position filled by different ruling clans in the Hebrides. A prime example of borderland culture, the Hebrides were different even from their Highland counterparts. Descended from Viking Raiders, the men of the Hebrides were long considered independent and free from both the Lowlands and Highlands. The forced incorporation of the Isles into the larger Scottish kingdom was the first blow to Highland independence, and one that Matheson stresses as the beginning of the eradication of the Highland frontier. First done by Scotland itself, under King James I of England and Ireland, or King James VI of Scotland, this policy of incorporation would become the foundation for England’s dealings with Scotland from the 17th century on until the destruction of the final Jacobite Uprising in 1746.

The book’s final segment discusses how England forcibly incorporated Scotland into the wider British Empire during the 19th century. By this time the Highland way of life had become a memory, the clans were broken, and only in the military could one see the vestiges of the Highland’s former self. Rather than clan strife and battles over cattle, the Highlands were constructed as “modern” by the Scottish government, with oil refineries replacing fishing villages and modern roads paving over old Highland tracks. The loss of the old Highland way of life is often a theme in many Highland histories, but Matheson does not so much mourn the loss as merely remarking on how life continued and the Highlands transformed.

For those interested in borderlands history, Matheson’s work is a good example of how one can perform deep analysis on a particular borderland while still providing a nation-focused narrative. Matheson demonstrates just how much power the Northwest frontier held over the rest of Scotland and even England by way of the Hebrides, which maintained their independence for centuries. For those who know little of Scottish history this is an excellent book to begin learning more, and for Scottish scholars it provides a detailed examination of one of Scotland’s lesser known frontiers.

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