Sunday, March 09, 2008

Where are the Highlands?

A passenger alighting from a cruise ship once asked me what altitude we were at and I replied that we were at sea level.
'But I thought we were coming to the Highlands!' she replied indignantly.
Perhaps she thought that the Highlands, along with the laws of physics, should be suspended a little for the benefit of tourists!

But the question as to what constitutes the Highlands is not a straightforward one.

Many historians have drawn lines on a map of Scotland (often called Lalland lines), showing the Highlands on one side, the Lowlands on the other. The problem is that any such line must include as part of the English speaking Lowlands all of the coastal strip north of Aberdeen. This coastal strip ultimately arrives at Inverness, capital of the Highlands and so begs the question of where the dividing line should be drawn.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England he remarked playfully to his English courtiers that he had a town in Scotland so large that people at one end could not understand those at the other since they had a different tongue. That town was Nairn, 16 miles east of Inverness. A Gaelic-speaking market town, Nairn had seen an influx of English-speaking fisherfolk who had spread round the coast from Aberdeen. So Nairn has traditionally been considered the dividing line. But of course it is not as simple as that.

Last week I gave a lecture on the Campbells of Cawdor, an influential Nairnshire family whose castle is between Nairn and Inverness. Whilst researching, I was amused to come on the following quotation from 1691 in a letter by Sir Hugh Campbell, 15th Thane of Cawdor - and, you would certainly think, a Highlander... "Just upon the back of this there came two or three parties of Hielanders, one of them carried away above an hundred head of cattle out of Aitnoch. The people were secure and without fear; in short they were surprised and the cattle were carried into Lochaber."

Lochaber. Now THAT's definitely the Highlands. Despite much of it being at sea level!
See also my post on the Clans of Lochaber.


Deb Callahan said...

My family crest is on a flag flying at Cawdor Castle and as my ancestor is Duncan Campbell McPhail, I suppose there is more family history there for me! Do you have any suggestions as to how I can research that connection? THis is SO exciting and I want more than ever to come visit The Highlands. I fly the Scottish flag at my home in Harrisburg, NC proudly! Deb Callahan

Alastair Cunningham said...


Concerning genealogy, you may like to have a look at

The flag at Cawdor Castle shows a Gyronny of Eight, Galley of Lorne and Hart’s Head. The crest also includes three buckles. Which part is your family crest? Or is the same?