A lifelong fling with Highlands and Islands

June 16, 2006

Olga Wojtas meets the man who fought two decades for a university in his region and now leads its history centre

Jim Hunter, genial and soft-spoken, appears an unlikely 21st-century Highland Braveheart, but his loyalty to the region is every bit as fierce and passionate as that of his forebears.

Professor Hunter grew up in a small village near Glencoe, where the only locally available education was at primary-school level. "It was a one-teacher school with about two dozen pupils, and the teacher was my auntie," he says, adding: "We got a great education."

It was taken for granted that the only way to get on in life was to leave the area, and communities became so depopulated that their survival was in doubt.

But in his inaugural lecture as director of the UHI Centre for History, Professor Hunter underlined that, for the first time in centuries, more people are now moving to the Highlands and Islands than moving out.

He has long believed that locally available higher education is crucial to the region's development; for almost two decades he campaigned for a university of the Highlands and Islands. The fruits of that effort can be seen in the UHI Millennium Institute, a federation of 15 colleges and research institutes that aims to win full university status next year, with research part of its remit.

Professor Hunter's inaugural lecture, UHI's first, was held at Dornoch Cathedral, where pop icon Madonna married in 2000.

He is only now resuming, in his fifties, an academic career that he was forced to abandon in his twenties. After taking a history degree at Aberdeen University and a PhD at Edinburgh University, he returned to Aberdeen as a research fellow. But he left due to poor career prospects in higher education at the time.

He shifted to journalism, specialising in rural and environmental issues, which led him to a radical venture, arguably a turning point in the region's revitalisation - becoming the founding director of the Scottish Crofters Union.

Crofting, a form of agricultural smallholding, is widespread in northwest Scotland. It was established in 1800 by exploitative landlords relocating the population to make way for sheep farms. They deliberately made crofts too small to be a sole source of income, obliging the crofters to undertake other work for them.

Professor Hunter says that crofting, a way of life once dismissed by politicians and historians as hopelessly inefficient, is now seen as a potential model for rural areas across Europe.

In his work as a historian, Professor Hunter has been alert to colonial resonances. As a child, he heard from his grandfather tales about the Highland Clearances and the Glencoe Massacre, but he initially failed to recognise this as history.

"I thought history was the Corn Laws and the foreign policy of Queen Elizabeth I, and stuff about crofting and the clearances was just old stories. It's a reflection of the fact that our own heritage had been so debased that we didn't see it as history at all."

In the late 1960s, there was little academic emphasis on Scottish history, and Professor Hunter's award-winning PhD thesis on crofting was a new departure. "What little academic study of the Highlands there had been seemed to me not to take account of the sense the people in the area had of their own past," he says.

When Professor Hunter arrived at Aberdeen's history department in 1967, it was led by John Hargreaves, a leading historian of West Africa and one of the people who shifted the focus of African history from white colonisers to the indigenous population.

"John was one of the guests at my inaugural lecture. I've long felt I learnt more about the history of the Highlands from studying African history than I ever learnt from Scottish and British history," he says.

It is a theme he returned to in his inaugural lecture, claiming that from the Middle Ages onwards, those who oversaw the region's incorporation into the Scottish and then British state "made it their business to denigrate, devalue and dehumanise our area's inhabitants".

Constantly reminded of their alleged inadequacies, the Highlanders lost self-esteem, he says.

Professor Hunter has been tireless in boosting regional self-esteem, not only through the Scottish Crofters Union but also as chairman of the development agency Highlands and Island Enterprise and the author of 11 books linked to the region's history.

A number of research projects are under way at the centre, and next year it plans to launch an honours BA.

But Professor Hunter is not planning to redress the marginalisation of the past with a narrow academic focus on the Highlands.

"I hope the UHI Centre for History will one day be just as well known for its expertise in, say, the history of Asia or Africa as it is known for its commitment to the Highlands and Islands," he says.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM

Aberdeen and Edinburgh universities.

MY FIRST JOB WAS

as a research fellow at Aberdeen, but my first real (and much more enjoyable) job was as a feature writer with the Press and Journal My main challenge is trying to find the funding to ensure that UHI colleagues with an interest in history get the chance to develop and deliver the first-rate degree course they're more than capable of providing

WHAT I HATE MOST

is the delight Scots take in rubbishing Scotland, which is much the greatest little country in the world

IN TEN YEARS

if I'm spared, I hope to be still in the Highlands and Islands - ideally doing something constructive but settling happily for just being here

MY FAVOURITE JOKE

When invited to Skye to talk about my first book, The Making of the Crofting Community , I was approached by an elderly crofter who said:

"I've bought your book and I want to congratulate you." I endeavoured to look suitably modest when the crofter went on: "You're the first man I've met who's made any money out of crofting."

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