The Road to Tobha Mòr (continued…)

In the second installment of this two-part essay, Professor Hugh Cheape, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, shares an experience from ‘The Edge’ which sharpened perceptions and shaped a view of the relevance and vitality of the ‘heritage’ of the Highlands and Islands going forward. Read the first part of ‘The Road to Tobha Mòr’ here.

The existence of a university on the Atlantic edge of Scotland in the first millennium challenges concepts of civilisation and periphery.  That challenge was crystallised for me on a visit to An Tobha Mòr in South Uist in 1984.

So how can we bury the concept of periphery? An informed view today tells us that Scotland’s Islands are not ‘peripheral’, and are less ‘remote’ than places deep inland; and these places which may be perceived as perfectly accessible from modern conurbations then serve to reinforce the core/periphery model. If not a periphery then, is this somehow a ‘place apart’? Arguably yes, because the Gaelic world of Scotland and Ireland had its own civilisation – and still has. More to the point for a modern audience, it has an autonomous history, generated in its own right and from within. This gives legitimacy to the ‘university’ recalled by the man on the road to Howmore. But how accessible is this and how do we valorise it? More than a hint of an autonomous history came to me on the Atlantic coast of Uist. It was something real and yet as startling as any new ‘world-view’. How startling this might be is a product of our conditioning. Gaelic civilisation was considered eccentric or peripheral and largely off the map of the known world until the first publications of ‘Ossian’. The bombastic Dr Johnson on his Hebridean tour in 1773 tells us so:

To the southern inhabitants of Scotland, the state of the mountains and the islands is equally unknown with that of Borneo or Sumatra: of both they have only heard a little, and guess the rest. They are strangers to the language and the manners, to the advantages and wants of the people, whose life they would model, and whose evils they would remedy.’  

Chapels at Howmore © Copyright M J Richardson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence (

Our conditioning and intellectual inheritance derive from Classical and Renaissance models of learning and civilisation which grew up in the metropolitan centres of the Mediterranean world – in medius terrae, and the middle of the ‘Old World’. But there was always a yet older world, and, well before the European Renaissance, traditions of learning were as highly respected and as carefully nurtured on the edge of Europe as at its centre; and here on the edge was a major European language with a literature drawing in its origins on the oldest literary tradition in Europe beyond Latin and Greek. It evolved one among a range of intellectual strategies in the hands of the clerics of the celtic church and its earliest historical manifestation in Scotland is associated with the landing of Calum Chille in the mid 6th century. Research has shown, however, that the traditions of learning fostered by the celtic church, which in turn made such a significant contribution to European learning, drew on and embraced pre-Christian and vernacular traditions in Gaelic to a unique degree, the clerics themselves natives of a society which had always honoured its learned folk – An t-Aos Dàna. If centres of learning had earlier been dispersed, a conventional view consolidating in the 18th and 19th centuries came to hold that such centres of excellence equated with the schools and universities of metropolitan Europe. This old hegemony is now challenged by the University of the Highlands and Islands. The rigour of academic models and constructs and the links with established disciplines can be devolved from end-product to points of origin.

In contemplating this from a Uist beach, a starting-point was to lay aside the conventional literature and assemble some analogues of tangible and intangible culture towards an autonomous history. We are captivated by the drama of Viking sea travel while forgetting about the skills of Bronze and Iron Age boat-builders and earlier maritime cultures, of which the Brendan stories are symbolic. Voyage tales of course extended the concept of the sea-journey to an ‘Otherworld’ region or regions whose imagery, credibility and message depended on a familiar framework of material culture.

Boat model in the Boighter Gold Hoard, first century BC [National Museum of Ireland IA.1903.232](Image from

Other themes, perhaps still dimly perceived, can supply cultural analogues, for example,  for mobility and ‘connectivity’ which nudge rather than conclude any argument.  Prionnsachan na fairge   –  the ‘Princes of the Sea’ – were the Phoenicians who were the navigators and traders of the Mediterranean world between about  3,000 and 300 BC, extending commerce from the Dardanelles to Iberia and beyond. There is evidence also that they traded along the west coast of Africa and, if they went south, they might also have gone north, supposedly also trading tin from Cornwall. As masters of navigation, they used the Pole Star – Reul-iùil and Solas nan reultan.The Atlantic Drift must have been familiar to them and their goods included timbers, metals, glass, ivories and ‘luxuries’ as a language that spoke to all. 

In modern re-assessments of Indo-European linguistics, the emphasis has moved from a European ‘heartland’ to the ‘Atlantic Celts’ and to a time-period reaching back before the first millennium BC. The study is of ‘continuity’ and ‘connectivity’, of migration and mobility, and this has tended to replace theories of waves of invaders and mass settlement. ‘Connectivity’ is demonstrated spectacularly through megaliths such as Calanais; and other challenges to paradigms of liminality and stasis are to hand, that is, that the Neolithic ‘revolution’ or transition to cropping and the domestication of animals originated in the North and West and spread eastwards and southwards (rather than the other way round). The suggestion is made also that a ‘celtic’ language developed in Northern Iberia about 5000 years ago and that it was the lingua franca of the western sea-lanes. A re-worked ‘identity’ for ‘Celtic Britain’ wasn’t to hand on the beach at Tobha Mòr but perhaps it was glimpsed on the horizon!

Beach near Howmore, South Uist Copyright Graham Hewitt and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence (

Fast-forward several centuries to when the learned poet, Rev John Maclean (c. 1680- 1756), Minister of Kilninian in Mull, composed Rainn (‘verses’) for Edward Lhuyd. He started: Air teachd on Spàin do shliochd an Ghaoidhil ghlais (‘when the descendants of Gaedheal Glas came from Spain’), and when another Maclean poet celebrated his dead chieftain with ‘your origin went back to Pharaoh’. In a period of still copious oral tradition, the information that the Gaels came from Spain and beyond was core rather than eccentric, though today it is counterfactual and relegated to ‘pseudo-history’. A different mindset identified the Rev John as Maighstir Seathan, and his ‘origin legend’ formulated that the ancestor of all Gaels was Gàidheal Glas, son of a Greek prince, who partnered Scota, the daughter of Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. In this alternative view, is it just happy coincidence that this maps conveniently onto modern linguistic theory?

A vital aspect of this autonomous history for us today is that the Hebrides have been connected to a wider European culture and especially throughout prehistoric and early historic times. Though ignored in Scottish History, the Atlantic littoral and its north-south axis of movement was ‘central’ to Highland and Island history. So this area of the Atlantic littoral has its own history, distinct from the neo-classical civilisation of the Mediterranean, and can be best viewed (and assimilated) with a conventional map turned upside-down. The edge then appears as a great highway, stretching “up the map” from the North Cape to Iberia, and the Highlands and Islands centre-stage and linguistic and cultural cross-roads which they undoubtedly were. Details can be teased out of Gaelic literature about Atlantic links with the Crusades and Islam, about trade and commercial life in Europe’s ‘12th century renaissance’ and continuing links with Spain which in turn linked into conduits of culture and learning from the Eastern Mediterranean. Ireland was a golden link in this chain and, with Spain, an intellectual source for other areas of learning such as philosophy and medicine, and material culture such as currency, precious metals and weaponry, textiles and wines. This world-view is a constant in Campbell of Islay’s international folktales where the hero voyages effortlessly from Tobha Mòr to Turkey or Ludag to the Levant; this was a ‘given’ for the audience who understood intimately how their heroes came to be carried on the ocean current  –  air druim a’ chuain.

“Township of the Bards”, Stilligarry (Hugh Cheape)

Uist was a good spot to think about a connected, successful and assertive culture, developed here in the Lordship of the Isles and sustained by the Clanranald MacDonalds, the patrons of Tobha Mòr. This was a ‘kingdom’ within a Kingdom whose power was so great as to bring about its downfall at the hands of the Kings of Scots. Though small perhaps in comparison with some others, this was a European nation whose success and very existence is overshadowed by ‘modern’ events. If a process of questioning and re-visiting, for me, began on a Uist beach in 1984, it is to my eternal regret and shame that I do not have the name of the man I met on the road to Howmore.

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

An t-Ògmhios 2020

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2 thoughts on “The Road to Tobha Mòr (continued…)

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