'Too much on the Highlands?' : recasting the economic history of the Highlands and Islands

Perchard, Andrew and MacKenzie, Niall (2013) 'Too much on the Highlands?' : recasting the economic history of the Highlands and Islands. Northern Scotland, 4. pp. 3-22. ISSN 0306-5278 (https://doi.org/10.3366/nor.2013.0049)

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This article seeks to open a new debate on the history of the evolution of the economies of the Highlands and Islands. In the process, it explores the underlying reasons for the neglect of this area and argues for a thorough examination of economic activity in the region through an historical lens, underpinned by conceptual frameworks. For the purposes of this essay, the focus is on the seven crofting counties, rather than northern Scotland as a whole. The rationale for this is to address some of the arguments advanced about Highland exceptionalism, including discussion of the influence of crofting and the associated factors on the development of both the literature and policy on the region. It also allows for comparisons to be drawn to other geographically peripheral areas, and their relationships with the ‘core’, including the Canadian Maritimes, the Italian south, and parts of Norway. However, the article’s main intention is to draw out connections with other parts of the Scottish and UK economies in order to situate the region within the appropriate context. Though this article focuses principally on the period from the nineteenth through the twenty-first centuries, it does address itself to some of the arguments made for the Highlands between 1750 and 1841. A key intention then is to give some insight into economic diversification within the region, both before and after substantial state intervention. The importance of this lies not only in revisiting a crucial aspect of Highland and Scottish history, but also in exploring current and future economic policy for the Highlands and Islands, and other peripheral regions, in view of the influence of history on public debates and policy-making. In a recent critique of ‘New Economic Geography’, Garretson and Martin observe that the ‘actual history of economic landscapes’, as opposed to a pre-determined ‘set of possible equilibrium economic landscapes’ – or put differently, the ‘real’ as opposed to ‘model world’ – is crucial to determining more representative models. This is made all the more important given both the traditional neglect of historical perspectives in policy formulation, and the growing recognition of its importance in ‘policy science’.7 In this respect, the Highlands offers an appropriate example to analyse with its experience of a variety of different approaches to economic development ranging from direct state intervention to the hands-off approach.