By Katie Barclay, The University of Adelaide
When I was born, my parents were living in the outbuildings of an early nineteenth century gentleman’s farmhouse, Auchlochan House, built on the ruins of an even older farm, in rural Lanarkshire in Scotland. My grandparents also lived there and when we visited as children, we were told of the tunnel that went from the basement of the old house to the nearby river. It was boarded up, so we couldn’t see it, but others said they had. It had been used by the seventeenth-century occupants, ‘Covenanters’, to escape from their enemies. The Covenanters were a group of Scottish Presbyterians who had been persecuted in the late seventeenth century for refusing to conform to the religious settlement made as part of the Restoration of the Stuarts to the throne in the 1660s. As children, we spent many hours hunting along the river bed, looking for a tunnel entrance.
In her house, among many others on religious themes, my grandmother had a book ‘Notable Women of the Covenant’ (1883) that told the stories of the women involved in this religious movement. One – Lady Grisel Baillie – was a teenager when her father hid in the local church vaults to escape his enemies. Every day, at risk to her own life, Lady Baillie sneaked food to her father to ensure his survival. This was a story that captured the imagination of a young Scot; a woman to aspire to. Someone to pretend to be, as we searched the fields around our village for the elusive caves where yet more Covenanters were meant to have lived. Many years later, Lady Grisel Baillie’s portrait would appear on the front cover of my first edited collection.
The Covenanters continue to play a significant role in the heritage of my community. Across the village and further afield are plaques and monuments dedicated to significant individuals or events; their history forms the basis of heritage interpretations in museums and listed buildings. The local regiment, the ‘Cameronians’, were set up to fight for the Covenanting cause; they were not disbanded until the 1960s. Even during the World Wars, the regiment performed ‘conventicles’, outdoor religious services, designed to mirror those performed by the community during a time of persecution. The Covenanters are also critical to the production of the sectarian identities that mark the region, where Protestant and Catholic are central dividing lines that shape not just belief, but associational activities, friendships and ongoing conflict. My family stood outside this somewhat. They were not Church of Scotland, as most ‘Protestants’ were. But the martyrologies of this group suited a minority Protestant faith, who wished to align themselves imaginatively with those persecuted for their beliefs. Seventeenth-century histories did not remain in the past but were how we made sense of ourselves in the present.
The physical markers of these histories—the caves, the churches, the buildings where people lived—that littered the landscape of my childhood provided opportunities to tell stories of our past and provided narratives in which we rooted our identities. They were objects of memory, but also of emotion, providing the markers that rooted us not just in geographic space but in culture and identity. Auchlochan House was demolished in 2014. My family had not lived there for some years. If it was old, it was not an especially unique example of this type of heritage in the region. The stories of Covenanting heroes associated with the building were not significant enough—in an area littered with such tales—to rescue it. I can’t say that this event was without a nostalgic pang, however, as an adult, it was not a critical loss. I still had my memories, of rivers and Grisell Baillie, and caves that we never quite identified.
Histories of covenanters are not the same as those of slave owners (although there may certainly be some overlap for individuals). My community chooses to remember them largely as romantic victims of religious persecution. Yet, as in any war, there are multiple sides to this story, and not everyone shares this nostalgic vision of a group who fought a war for their beliefs. There might be a case for removing Covenanting heritages from the Scottish landscape for political purposes. Sectarian conflict is not an insignificant problem in our communities and heritage items survive for communities of all faiths, not always with ease. ‘Bloody’ George MacKenzie, the famous prosecutor who executed many of the Covenanters, had his grave vandalised in 2003; although, whether the teenagers who did it knew his significance is unclear. Removing such sites, however, is unlikely to happen.
If Scottish history remains a contested space, and there is certainly opportunity for a critical engagement with our heritage sites, sectarianism and religious representation is something that communities have spent many years grappling with, as we seek to remake our communities in more peaceful forms. Moreover not all heritage sites are statues. Houses, buildings, caves, and so forth are not just commemorations to one person or one moment, but are remade through reuse. Their histories evolve over time, as their stories are adapted to new purposes, to new identities and selves, even to religious groups who do not descend in an obvious lineage.
Our emotional attachments to the past are often separated along an axis of pride and shame, a narrative of emotion produced by nationalist priorities where history is deployed for the benefit of the nation. For many new to histories of emotion and heritage, this shame-pride axis can become debilitating, as to reject those emotional objects that litter the landscape of our childhood is to suggest we should be ashamed of those childhoods, those adulthoods that were formed through the stories of our youth. But for most people in everyday life, our emotional connections to our heritage are messier than this language allows. The history of the covenanters is part of my identity not just because I am Scottish and protestant, but because they provided me with the games and adventures of my childhood, and because they are bound up in relationships with grandparents and siblings. Heritage is critical to family memories that are much harder for individuals to distance themselves from.
The attachments of a Scottish child to the heritage items of her community is probably not dissimilar to how many people think about the statues of slave owners: those familiar figures of our childhood and youth, those items that spurred conversations about who we are and where we came from. Removing them brings up similar and complicated emotions and memories. A key difference however, is that community engagement with such objects has largely been from the perspective of white communities, for whom such histories might be discomforting or ‘useful warnings’, but not symbols of the horrors committed on our parents. Moreover, there are few alternative markers on our landscape to mark the heritage of slaves or their descendants that might act as a counterpoint to these stories. Part of the reason for this is that many white communities are only just now starting to grapple with the history of race and racism – a blindness that is reflected in our ongoing unwillingness to deal with racism in our contemporary world. For other communities, resistance to the removal of such imagery reflects deep investments in a racist status quo, from which many of us benefit every day.
Heritage sites are always contested, but not the least when they symbolise current injustice. Rather than seeing the destruction of monuments today as a loss of history, or even a demand for us to be ashamed of our histories, they are the making of a new history where white and black communities have to grapple with their past as we work to a better future. Just as family histories are not static, but remade and reimagined over time as new information and new stories emerge, so too can the histories of our formative years be subject to reinterpretation. Such actions do require us to return to the histories of our childhood and youth, to a reconsideration of the heritage sites that were formative in our making, and to look at those experiences anew, attending to their impact on others and to the world we want to create. Rather than a rejection of our history however, such moments can become opportunities to tell different stories and remake identities anew.
Katie Barclay is Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions and Associate Professor in the Department of History, The University of Adelaide. With Dolly McKinnon and Dianne Hall, she is currently exploring how childhood memories of early modern histories shape adult selves.