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Plaided or Dusky Forms: Highland Landscape in Scotland and Kenya

  • M. Mahavir Kumar


Accounts of empire in postcolonial critique largely remain silent on colonial relations internal to the United Kingdom, tending to elide the work of Scots, Irish, and Welsh within a solely English imperial enterprise. This article draws on recent reevaluations of the Scottish role in empire to outline the ambivalent place of Britain’s “Celtic Fringe” in its global hegemony. Focusing on eighteenth-century cartography and Scottish accounts of African exploration, it argues that the aesthetic practice of colonial control developed in Scotland established a pattern imperial agents could repeat in overseas territories. The colonization of the “White Highlands” in Kenya, it suggests, relied on aesthetic forms that originated in the landscape of the Scottish Highlands. By focusing on landscape's influence in a constellation of fields—in aesthetics, cartography, and natural history—this article also moves toward an understanding of landscape as a form of aisthesis, a “regime of sense perception.”



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1 Approximately forty miles south of Edinburgh by road, the Yarrow flows for only twelve miles from St. Mary’s Loch to a confluence with the larger Tweed near Galashiels.

2 Cited in Kate Ferguson Marsters, Introduction to Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa by Mungo Park, ed. Kate Ferguson Marsters (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 19.

3 John Whishaw, “An Account of the Life of Mr. Park,” in The Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa, in the Year 1805 (London: John Murray, 1815), 100.

4 “An Account of the Life of Mr. Park,” 101. Park had good reason to remain coy about sharing anything more remarkable from his adventures than he had already printed. His fellow Scot, Robert Bruce, had been roundly criticized for systemic exaggeration and dissimulation in his own Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile. Outlandishly, he “claimed to have eaten meat cut from a living cow, which continued to walk after being sewn up” and to have “awed the royal court of Abyssinia with his athletic prowess by shooting a candle attached to an arrow through three shields and a thick wooden table.” That both boasts were later proven to be true did little to spare Bruce the condemnation their perceived impossibility drew. Park, by contrast, seems to have understood the limits of credulity and morality that could not be crossed and to have censored those aspects of his journey that would have beggared belief or incited outrage. Marsters, Introduction, 19.

5 See Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, originally published in 1802. As we learn in Park’s own account of his travels, he carried similar songs from the Borderlands with him to Africa: Whishaw cites Park to note that the explorer and William Allen, a soldier from the same region, “used often to beguile the watches of the night with the songs of our dear native land.” Whishaw, “An Account of the Life of Mr. Park,” 101.

6 “An Account of the Life of Mr. Park,” 102–03.

7 Though Scott tells us of Park’s confession, he remains mum on its content in deference to his friend even after the latter’s death. As Kate Ferguson Marster’s puts it, Scott’s silence leaves “those of us who have continued to read Park’s Travels over the past two hundred years to wonder, in a narrative as packed with personal adventures and escapes as it is with information, what could have been left out.” It is a potent if unanswerable question, to which I will only add that we might also justifiably wonder at what might inhere of Park’s adventures in the development of Scott’s career, whether Scott’s silence belies traces of Park’s figure left scattered in a cast of characters that, like Park, journey into wild and unknown regions—or whether the form of the historical novel itself was shaped to obviate the burden of narrators tasked with domesticating the marvelous.

8 For the best work on imperial landscape, see especially Mary Louis Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2008), discussed following, and Ann McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge, 1995). Also important, though somewhat uneven, is Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002). Although many of the individual contributions to that volume are excellent—I rely on Ann Bermingham’s essay, for example, during portions of my analysis following—Mitchell’s own piece bizarrely claims that “landscape is an exhausted medium,” theoretically foreclosing its use by artists and authors around the world in blatant disregard of their continued, imaginative engagement with its forms.

9 Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 7. Livingstone’s biography itself reveals the colonial dimensions of Scotland’s history examined following: born in Blantyre, a town some ten miles from Glasgow, his father was the last in a line of tenant farmers on Ulva, a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Mull, who had moved to the Clyde Valley in 1792 amid ongoing transformation of life in the Highlands and Islands. Neil Livingstone was “cleared”—that is, evicted—from his land as the traditional bonds of clanship disintegrated under the pressure of a complex of powerful historical forces that coalesced in the tumult of eighteenth-century Scotland: most especially, the expansion of capitalism facilitated through the consolidation of the union of Scotland with England and Wales, discussed at length in the following as a colonial history. Noting the distinctly Scottish dimensions of Livingstone’s background is made especially important, I think, by the appropriation of his person within the sentiment of empire, which becomes especially galling in light of the frequent anxiety, evident in late Victorian biographies of the explorer, that his racial background as a Celt explained his affinity for members of the other “low” races he met in Africa. See Joanna Lewis, Empire of Sentiment: The Death of Livingstone and the Myth of Victorian Imperialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

10 The leading historians of Scotland in empire are T. M. Devine and John M. MacKenzie. In addition to their extensive individual contributions to the historiography of the role of Scots in empire, including Devine’s To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750–2010 (London: Allen Lane, 2011) and MacKenzie’s The Scots in South Africa: Ethnicity, Identity, Gender, and Race (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), cowritten with Nigel R. Dalziel, interested readers should also consult their jointly edited volume, Scotland and the British Empire in the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). Tanja Bueltmann, Andrew Hinson, and Graeme Morton’s The Scottish Diaspora (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013) provides another excellent thematic overview of the global impact of the Scots, as well as a breakdown of the various geographies influenced by Scots abroad.

11 The “Celtic periphery” indicates the non-English nations of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales, and Ireland—as well as Cornwall in England’s southwest and the crown dependency of the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. Each of these regions is a location to which Celtic language and culture retreated in the face of invasions by Angles and Saxons.

12 These “Highlands” are located in Kikuyu, the ancestral homeland of the Gikuyu people. Though this article concentrates on the construction of landscape within colonialist discourse, there is an extensive Gikuyu tradition of landscape, which will be most accessible to non-Kenyan audiences in the writings of author Ngũgĩ wa Thing’o, Nobel medalist and environmentalist Wangaari Maathai, and the nation’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. See, among other works by these authors, Ngũgĩ wa Thing’o, Petals of Blood (New York: Penguin, 2005); Wangaari Maathai, Unbowed: A Memoir (New York: Anchor, 2006); and Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mt. Kenya (New York: Vintage, 1962). There is also an extensive, if controversial, bibliography of decolonial historiography in Kenya challenging British scholarship on the region, written not only by Gikuyu historians but by scholars from Maasai, Luo, Nandi, and other tribal affiliations. Among other works by Kenyan historians, see Bethwell Ogot, A History of the Southern Luo (Nairobi: East Africa Publishing House, 1967); Godfrey Muriuki, A History of the Kikuyu, 1500–1900 (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1974); Gideon Were, A History of the Abaluyia of Western Kenya (Nairobi: East Africa Publishing House, 1967); and William R. Ochieng, Eastern Kenya and Its Invaders (Kampala: East African Literature Bureau, 1975). My current project extends beyond the importation of Highland forms during the colonial phase of Kenya’s history to consider how these texts by Kenyan authors signal alterations to and themselves affect the “division of the sensual” in anticolonial movements and during the postcolonial period.

13 Sandra Macpherson, “A Little Formalism,” English Literary History 82.2 (2015): 390.

14 Zahid Chaudhary, Afterimage of Empire: Photography in Nineteenth-Century India (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012), 11.

15 Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, translated by Zakir Paul (London: Verso, 2013), xii. Chaudhary, Afterimage of Empire, 11. While in Rancière’s monograph, the boundary between aisthesis, understood as a transhistorical category common to all cultures, and the particular “mode of experience” characteristic of European culture over the past two centuries, is sometimes murky; the former, broader meaning is clearly marked by Rancière when he speaks of the “division of the sensual” in his later work. In conversation with Peter Engelmann in Politics and Aesthetics, Rancière remarks that “In a sense, space and time are constructed from the outset not as containers or empty directions, but already as a way of dividing creatures. It’s a form of social allocation that differs from sociological distinctions, or distinctions between individuals according to their economic situation. My thought, fundamentally speaking, is that there’s a level of sensual experience where the identity ascribed to individuals and groups is, at the same time, a configuration of space and time which they enter, and an allocation of their abilities and inabilities. I think the constitution of politics is based a priori on these forms, on this allocation, and all regimes for identifying art are connected to modifications of this allocation.” Jacques Rancière and Peter Engelmann, Politics and Aesthetics, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge: Polity, 2019), 67–68.

16 See Karl Marx’s “Private Property and Communism,” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. The translation here is Chaudhary’s in Afterimage of Empire, xii. Where extant treatments of imperial aesthetics locate their representative forms within the ideology of empire, I follow Rancière in circumventing Althusserian frameworks to return to the early Marx: as Rancière notes in Politics and Aesthetics, the early portion of his career was defined by his rejection of Althusser—Rancière’s intellectual mentor until the tumult of 1968—and his theory of ideology, which itself had been built on a disparagement of the then newly rediscovered Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In Rancière’s own narrative of his intellectual development, the framework of “the division of the sensual” can be read as the culmination of a movement away from the contradictions and ethical stagnation of his old master’s “ideology.”

17 Raymond Williams defines “structure of feeling” in his essay, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory,” collected in Raymond Williams, Culture and Materialism: Selected Essays, Radical Thinkers Series (London: Verso, 2005). Though for clarity this article moves away from Park to focus on a particular form of landscape (Highlands) in limited geographic regions (the north of Scotland and the White Highlands in Kenya), I want to mark the relation to Park’s border landscape to the argument that follows. The Borderlands in which Park meets Scott are themselves an imposing physical boundary and a marker of ontological difference, more so the further we move back in time. Crossing into Scotland from Berwick-upon-Tweed, for example, Daniel Defoe writes in the early eighteenth century, “Mordintown lying to the west, the great road does not lie thro’ it, but carries us to the brow of a very high hill, where we had a large view into Scotland: But we were welcom’d into it with such a Scots gale of wind, that, besides the steepness of the hill, it oblig’d us to quit our horses, for real apprehensions of being blown off, the wind blowing full north, and the road turning towards the north, it blew directly in our faces: And I can truly say, I never was sensible of so fierce a wind, so exceeding keen and cold, for it pierc’d our very eyes, that we could scarcely bear to hold them open.” Daniel Defoe, Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, vol. 2, Everyman’s Library (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1966), 362. For its part, the border geography described in Scott’s Rob Roy, set during the 1715 rising, is remarkably similar to the demarcation of the Highland line that appears in Waverley, set thirty years later. The Highlands therefore are not the only boundary line of note in Scotland: depending on the moment and the perspective, Scotland holds a palimpsest of boundaries and figures of difference. Park’s sensation of Africa along the Yarrow, then, draws out these earlier associations of the Borderlands, when they, and not only the Highlands, embodied alterity.

18 Defoe, Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, 410.

19 For a discussion of Defoe’s secret activities in the Crown’s service, see Paula R. Backscheider, “Daniel Defoe and Early Modern Intelligence,” Intelligence and National Security 11.1 (1996): 1–21.

20 Pat Rogers, “Defoe’s Tour and the Identity of Britain,” in The Cambridge Companion to Daniel Defoe, ed. John Richetti (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 103.

21 Each of these measures was included in the legislation passed by parliament in 1746 as “An Act for the More Effectual Disarming of the Highlands in Scotland,” and is touched on in the remainder of its title: “and more effectualy securing the peace of the said highlands, and for restraining the use of the Highland dress; and for the further indemnifying such persons as have acted in defence of His Majesty’s person and government, during the unnatural rebellion; … and for obliging the masters and teachers of private schools in Scotland, and chaplains, tutors, governors of children or youth, to take the oaths to His majesty, and successors, and to register the same.”

22 See Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, rev. ed. (London: Transaction Publishers, 1999).

23 William Roy, “An Account of the Measurement of a Base on Hounslow-Heath,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 75 (1775): 386.

24 Roy, “An Account of the Measurement of a Base on Hounslow-Heath,” 386–87. In evaluating Roy’s assessment, we should also keep in mind that in 1785, he had been arguing publicly for more than three decades for a new, substantially enlarged cartographic project in a complete map of the whole of Great Britain. Capitalizing on reactionary fear in the early years of the French Revolution, Roy had finally been able to complete the “base measurement” that would be needed for such a project as a means of defense against a suspected invasion of the island by revolutionary forces. His characterization of the earlier Military Survey as not a “very accurate map” should be read with his personal investments in a remapping and his concern for Britain’s self-defense in mind. The survey’s map is, indeed, a remarkable and remarkably accurate document in its own way, a literally huge accomplishment—its scale of 1 inch to 1,000 meters pushes the size of the whole map to twelve-by-eight meters. Cut into equal-sized panels to manage its expanse, it is held today in the King’s Topographical Collection at the British Library.

25 Although the mathematics that underlie geodesic cartography contribute to later mapmaking’s universalist veneer, part of what I mean to suggest here is that the development of the mathematical techniques that would allow empire to accurately represent its far-flung possessions within a single map are inextricably tied to the manifestation of colonial power within Scotland, so that while imperial mapmaking would eventually become sufficiently abstract to subordinate the entire globe within its mathematical system, the production of that system itself bears the marks of Scotland’s colonial experience.

26 Gainsborough’s position, however, was far from completely altruistic. Misspelling his beneficiary’s name, it is Sandby’s pencil he commends, an instrumental distinction that raises his own situation (and his brush and oils) beyond the less-refined sphere of topographical art in which Sandby moved. John Barrell’s reading of the language used in Gainsborough’s letter is exceptional in bringing out this meaning: “The name for an artist who would agree to paint the real places, however tame or scruffy, that Hardwicke’s ignorance might lead him to admire, was ‘Mr Sanby.’ Sandby, Gainsborough concedes, is nevertheless a man of genius, but he seems to be pretending to believe that only in order to claim the same status for himself: among us men of genius, he implies, only Sandby is sufficiently obedient or mercenary to do what no man of genius should ever do.” John Barrell, “Topography v. Landscape,” London Review of Book 32.9 (2010): 9–12.

27 Thomas Sandby was himself already an employee of the Duke of Cumberland, the “Butcher of Culloden,” who ordered that the Highlanders fleeing the site of the 1745 rising’s ultimate demise be chased down and killed. The battlefield on a moor outside Inverness remains a resonant site in the geography of nationalist sentiment. On its website the National Trust for Scotland, which maintains the museum on-site, describes Culloden Moor as “powerfully emotive and atmospheric.” “Culloden,” National Trust for Scotland. Accessed December 14, 2019.

28 Thomas Paul Sandby, “Memoirs of the Late Paul Sandby Esqre.,” Monthly Magazine 213 (1 June 1811), 437, reprinted in Paul Oppé, “The Memoir of Paul Sandby by His Son,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 88.19 (June 1946) 142–47.

29 James Holloway and Lindsay Errington, eds., The Discovery of Scotland: The Appreciation of Scottish Scenery through Two Centuries of Painting (Edinburgh: National Gallery of Scotland, 1978), 34.

30 Cited in Ann Bermingham, “System, Order, Abstraction: English Landscape Drawing Around 1795,” in Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 88.

31 James Crowley notes that Sandby also had a direct influence in the production of imperial landscape across the globe. After becoming chief drawing master at the Royal Military Academy in 1768, Sandby trained a generation of engineers who would spread throughout the empire, whose “careers depended on skills that were not specifically military (drawing and geometry) … The ability to draw specific terrains was crucial to their work, and commanding officers were keen to have highly finished maps and drawing to commemorate successful battles.” In Crowley’s argument, through his position at the academy, Sandby in effect globalized the aesthetic style he developed as a young man in Scotland and initiated a worldwide fashion for sketches done “on the spot.” James Crowley, Imperial Landscapes: Britain’s Global Visual Culture 1745–1820 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 44.

32 Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) 7.

33 For the dramatic history of the origin of the “Ordnance Survey Theodolite,” as it came to be called, in the mapping of India, see Anita McConnell’s exhaustive history of its maker, Jesse Ramsden (1735–1800): London’s Leading Scientific Instrument Maker, Science, Technology, and Culture, 1700–1945 series (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007), 212–14. The work of the device that finally made it to India is described by Matthew H. Edney in his excellent history of colonial cartography in India, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India 1765–1843 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), which explores at length the problems inherent in deploying a mathematical system of measurement in a real-world project.

34 Hechter, Internal Colonialism, xx.

35 Hechter, Internal Colonialism, xix.

36 A. H. Birch, “The Celtic Fringe in Historical Perspective,” Parliamentary Affairs 39.2 (1976): 232.

37 Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland,” in The Invention of Tradition, eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 15–42.

38 Trevor-Roper, “The Invention of Tradition,” 17.

39 Trevor-Roper, “The Invention of Tradition,”16.

40 Walter Scott, review of The Culloden Papers, The Quarterly Review XXVIII (1816): 331.

41 Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa,” Research in African Literatures 9.1 (1978): 2.

42 See the previous note on the colonial dimensions of Livingstone’s biography.

43 M. P. K. Sorrenson, Origins of European Settlement in Kenya (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1968), 9.

44 Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, 3.

45 Kenya is neither the scene of Scotland’s first arrival in Africa nor the space with the highest concentration of Scottish colonial activity, but as I suggested previously it is the region where the representational forms developed in Scotland are seen to have the greatest range of historical effect. Despite the region’s relative lack of Scottish settlers, who were much more likely to move into South Africa than Kenya, however, there was a strong Scottish presence in both scientific expedition (including Thomson, discussed following) and in Christian missions. For the extensive work of Scottish missionaries in Kenya, as well as the connections between Scottish missionary societies and the Scots at the head of the Imperial British East Africa Company, see Brian G. McIntosh, The Scottish Mission in Kenya, 1891–1923 (PhD diss., University of Edinburgh, 1969). The influence of the Scottish missions in Kikuyu, particularly through the schools they set up there, is also frequently discussed in the fiction and memoirs of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. See especially his first novel, The River Between (New York: Penguin, 2002), and his childhood memoirs, Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (New York: Anchor, 2011), and In the House of the Interpreter: A Memoir (New York: Anchor, 2015).

46 J. B. Thomson, Joseph Thomson, African Explorer, 2nd ed. (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Company, 1897), 8.

47 For the complex relation of Lowland landscape to the history of Highland forms discussed here, see previous note on Park and Border landscape.

48 Thomson, Joseph Thomson, African Explorer, 16–17.

49 Joseph Thomson, Through Masai Land: A Journey of Exploration Among the Snowclad Volcanic Mountains of Eastern Equatorial Africa, rev. ed. (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1887), 222.

50 Thomson, Through Masai Land, 179.

51 Walter Scott, Lady of the Lake, Canto V, lines 208–09, emphasis added.

52 Thomson, Through Masai Land, 176–77.

53 Cited in W. T. W. Morgan, “The ‘White Highlands’ of Kenya,” The Geographical Journal 129.2 (June 1963): 140.

54 Morgan, “The ‘White Highlands’ of Kenya.”

55 Alison Bashford, Global Population: History, Geopolitics, and Life on Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 147.

56 Charles Eliot, The East Africa Protectorate (London: E. Arnold, 1905), 3.

57 Eliot, The East Africa Protectorate, 78.

58 Eliot, The East Africa Protectorate., 80.

59 Samuel Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (New York: Penguin, 1984), 60. Walter Scott, Waverley: or, ’tis Sixty Years Since (New York: Penguin, 2007), 77.

60 Johnson, Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, 62–63.

61 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, vol. I, eds. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 416–17.

62 Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa (New York: The Modern Library, 1992), 3, 4.

63 Eliot, The East Africa Protectorate, 7, 21.

64 For scholarly works on the politics of hunting in Kenya, see Edward I. Steinhard, Black Poachers, White Hunters: A Social History of Hunting in Colonial Kenya (Oxford: James Currey, 2006) and John S. Akama, “Neocolonialism, Dependency, and External Control of Africa’s Tourism Industry: A Case Study of Wildlife Safari Tourism in Kenya,” in Tourism and Postcolonialism: Contested Discourses, Identities, and Representations, eds. Michael C. Hall and Hazel Tucker (New York: Routledge, 2004), 140–42.

65 Abdul R. JanMohamed, Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983), 50.


Plaided or Dusky Forms: Highland Landscape in Scotland and Kenya

  • M. Mahavir Kumar


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