Reflecting on interdisciplinarity at the University of the Highlands and Islands

When the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership was awarded university title in 2011, Professor Meg Bateman, a writer and senior lecturer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, composed the celebratory poem, Let the Northern Land Shine. Ten years on, Professor Bateman, reflects on the development of the partnership and collaboration across its sites and subject areas.

Ten years ago, Alison Lochhead kindly asked me to write a poem to mark the University of the Highlands and Islands becoming a university. I was inspired. I saw our thirteen colleges like a constellation, pulling together an area that had become fragmented and demoralised by emigration, two world wars, distance from centres of power and the brain drain of its youth. 

It wasn’t always so. It appears that the wider culture of building stone circles, and thousands of years later of building brochs, was initiated in the north of Scotland and moved south. Pictish, Gaelic and Norse culture had probed the land mass and aligned peoples with various centres of power, among them Burghead in Moray, Finlaggan in Islay (and Greece in the imagination), Orkney and Shetland, the Hebrides and Man. Far from the sea being isolating, it was enabling: of trade in gold from Ireland, wine from Spain and pigments from the Middle-East and of salvation as monks sailed to islands as far as Iceland and possibly even as far as Greenland and Canada, on sea-roads later extended by the Norse. Place-names too reveal a palimpsest of linguistic, religious, fiscal and topographic connections.

How wonderful that after generations of the young being ‘educated out’, it is now possible not only for students to remain on their native turf, but for the Highlands and Islands and its populations to become the beneficiaries and frame of reference.

By some alchemy of the ancient and modern, it is remarkable in our current environmental crisis that Gaelic poetry, lore and crofting offer a useful paradigm of man’s respectful and reciprocal relationship with nature (and there is archaeological evidence of this relationship being far older than Celtic civilisation). While the poetic trope of nature’s fertility being dependent on her satisfaction with her mate might be taught at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, its practical ramifications are manifest in the research on renewables in Shetland and Orkney and on the health of the sea at SAMS. It is often along such interdisciplinary fault-lines that understanding bubbles up. 

I teach six hours of grammar a week before embarking on literature, philosophy and what-not. I undertake this attention to detail gladly: it feels like combing the hair of the language. But over and above that daily practice, I want to describe the satisfactions of interdisciplinarity in my involvement with cultural studies and the Institute for Northern Studies in Orkney College, much of it in co-operation with that powerhouse, Donna Heddle. First we wrote a course looking at the medieval literature of the Highlands and Islands in five languages (I handled one). Then she asked me to write ‘The Gaelic Legacy’, a core module for the MLitt in Highlands and Islands literature. In this, I tried to present the most interesting and salient aspects of Gaelic culture to post-graduates of other disciplines, for example, history, psychology, theology and geography.

The results were startling. An American student wrote an essay comparing Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fenian band to a brotherhood of Vietnam war veterans, proud bikers on the edge of society. Instantly she had imbued these medieval tales and ballads with contemporary social and creative relevance. Another student looked at the archetype of the sovereignty goddess, who is both destructive and nurturing, as a precursor of the female warriors of modern animations.

The module is now taught by Iain Mac a’ Phearsain while I have a hand in supervising theses. We both feel that seeing Gaelic culture through the prism of other disciplines and vice versa has afforded us some of the deepest insights of our careers. Supervision has taken me where I would never have gone alone. My delight in selkie stories was challenged by their analysis in terms of toxic masculinity and rape apology. This year a student is showing how subjecting several Highland novels to a Jungian analysis can reveal and perhaps resolve some of our current social conflicts.  While I have been to the City of Dreadful Night with another student, I have also seen the bareness of Hoy as key to the numinous in the writing of George Mackay Brown and in Sylvia Wishart’s art.

It is a privilege to work with this institution whose backdrop is the physical beauty of the Highlands and Islands and whose work feels like a slowly opening flower – let’s say my favourite, grass of Parnassus, which grows locally in acidic soils, delicate, green-veined and honey-scented.

It is essential that we talk together more, our focus, the characteristics and inhabitants of the land, skies and waters, their ecosystems and their cultures, past, present and future.

How promising to hear our new principal Todd Walker say that Gaelic is what most excites him about coming to the University of the Highlands and Islands. Good man!

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