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29 May to 30 September 2020

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*In Scots Law, ‘Real Rights’ are rights in ‘things’ such as property and land and based on Roman law principles.

tradition is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the flame’ [1]

Real Rights pursues alternative narratives to map the history of our parish of Kildonan, in East Sutherland,  and examines the policies, mythologies and economic and political ideologies which have shaped its subsequent (under)development. Redefining this heritage, and the process of its historicisation, departs from a dogmatic and singular understanding of heritage embedded in modernist values, to activate it for emancipatory future potentials and to question dominant systems of knowledge.

We consider our history through the intersection of colonialism and climate change to investigate land ownership and management, and the fishing and leisure industries, to understand how these legacies reverberate in our present conjuncture. Real Rights moves between the molecular and the macro, including the technical modifications of soil and the architecture of Scot’s Law.

Real Rights breaks from the romanticised image of the Highlands as sublime empty landscapes of brooding heather and mighty stags, and considers the economic and political imperatives which justifies the mythologisation of the Highlands as a singular place of leisure, and the complex entanglement of cultural identity with power, ideology and state. We confront the truth that our region has profited from the extraction of earth’s natural resources and the exploitation of colonised peoples and discuss geo-specific reparations which need to be actioned.  We question the Scottish ancestry industry and its role in promoting a mono-economic tourism strategy for the Highlands, while ignoring the colonial genesis of the Scottish diaspora and marketing a fetishistic national identity.

We investigate land ownership and management at three major periods of disruption and fundamental shifts in society, to question how we are governed by archaic laws written to protect the gentry and why ‘Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world’ [2]; the expansion of regional agricultural provinces in the later Iron Age to part-feudal landlord tenancies of the early 19th century; the implementation of the crofting lot system, which was developed centuries earlier and transplanted into the plantations in the West Indian colonies; land agitations of the late 19th century and estate sell offs at the beginning of the 20th century.

The fishing and agricultural industries are analysed through their asymmetric divisions of labour and ownership and the complex legislation which acts against sustainable practice and common ownership models. The story of trade and migration in Europe and across the Atlantic, and Kildonan’s position in this network, is told through three locally excavated shards of pottery from three different periods.

Working in partnership with nine European partners, we have faithfully reconstructed three digital models from archaeological, archival and theoretical evidence; Iron Age Roundhouse Settlement (500BC-500AD); Highland Clearances Longhouse Settlement 1813 and Helmsdale Fishing Village 1890, as part of digital heritage research project Connected Culture and Natural Heritage in a Northern Environment (CINE). These models visualise the societal conditions across these periods and are a tool to think through broader questions of climate change and colonialism. This research is led by questions about the impact of digital heritage on engagement, participation and education, and how it can contribute to our constituents’ actively taking a role in producing culture, far from pure spectacle and consumption.

Real Rights is instructed by Walter Benjamin’s model in Theses on the Philosophy of History; history cannot be complete or understood in relation to only itself, but exists as a constellation of past and present with immediate interruptions of revolutionary possibility (jetztzeit), not as a progressive trajectory of continuum. If tradition needs to be rescued from a ‘conformism that is about to overpower it’ [3], Real Rights seizes a multiplicity of images from the past to set them alight for the future.

Real Rights will be activated by a series of multidisciplinary workshops, discussions and responses throughout the project.

[1] Proverb attributed to composer Gustav Mahler.

[2] Jim Hunter Scottish land reform to date: By European standards, a pretty dismal record, 2013

[3] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940) in Illuminations, ed. and with intro. by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, New York 1968, p. 255.