I, Highland Warrior, Identity Nuances

I am a teaching artist, producer, and opera librettist. I am inspired by people and place to create and facilitate work that opens dialogue about how we tell stories about ourselves. Much of my work is participatory, as I believe that lived experience is best understood by doing and sharing in an inclusive community of becoming. At the heart of my practice is a desire to participate in the creation of a new, more nuanced, collective imaginary in response to an increasingly complex world. 

Harry Ross, University of Dundee

You may find him on Instagram @harryross_eanraigros and Twitter @eanraigros.


I have relocated to the Highlands to unpack my ancestry and its relation to my current privilege. My approach looks at my own family journey which started with my Great Grandfather’s transition from Dornoch ploughman to cavalry trooper guarding the concentration camps of the second Boer War and beyond. By taking a personal line through some of the most defining moments of our national military identity I seek to present a more easily fathomable entry point to complex political and cultural issues.

The British collective consciousness is still enthralled by the hagiography of the supremacy of the Scottish warrior. I will research my connection to a subaltern Highlands, which, following its colonization by the Presbyterian-Dutch in the 17th Century, joined the race for global violence and horror. The confederate flag flies the cross of St Andrew. The (post) colonial dominant must research his own roots as a violently overpromoted subaltern in order to humbly suggest the transformation of the (post) colonial world to a new equity.

As a new proposal for Scottish independence enters the public sphere, I feel there is more to do than simply identifying the statues and street names that link Scotland to British colonialism. I want to use this disruption as an opportunity to propose a new social imaginary by undertaking a shared examination of our collective cultural memory.

a picture of a painting by John Millais a landscape of a croft, with loch in the background. In the right foreground a Highland soldier pays a visit to a seated woman. Chickens are in the foreground. On the left in the middle distance another soldier, the protagonists friend sits on a rock, looking away
Flowing to the Sea by Millais. Photo CC by Martin Beek

I will do this by writing and creating performances that deal with four time periods to create a body of diverse practice that is focused on four war memorials.

I choose war memorials as my performance space since they project a sanctified idea of whiteness in public space which is in itself plays ‘a key role in the identity formation of whiteness—a power structure that regulates racial, class, gender, sexual, and ableist social hierarchies and relations to land—through dispossession, private property and speculation, segregation, and displacement.’ (Jackson, 2017)

I will draw on military, imperial, cultural and oral histories and then, by using an ever-narrowing autoethnographic lens, I will pull focus on the questions at the heart of my practice: How can we embody complexity in an age of polarisation and shift power dynamics away from unthinking social norms?

My use of autoethnographic tools serves as inspiration for a critique of (post) colonialism. As a white male I research and confront my own position and journey in society through my family history, and the history of Scotland which is intertwined with the British Empire’s colonial history. The autoethnographic tools I am using include the creation of performative contexts that relate to and are inspired by the actions of my ancestors, both living and long dead.

In Marina de Chiara’s Essay A Tribe Called Europe she states:

‘But it is precisely the researcher’s tent, as the indisputable dispenser of meanings, that raises […] one of the key questions of the post-colonial dilemma: who is the real observer when the ethnologist pitches his tent at the centre of the village?’

(De Chiara, 1998: page 231)

My approach looks at my own family journey from tenants of the land to unwitting (post) colonial agents. In Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s seminal essay Can the Subaltern Speak she quotes Foucault:

‘To make visible the unseen can also mean a change of level, addressing oneself to a layer of material which had hitherto had no pertinence for history and which had not been recognized as having any moral, aesthetic or historical value.’

(Spivak 1988: page 285)
a Victorian military medal from the 2nd Boer War, with a ribbon with red and blue stripes and an orange stripe in the centre. Three clasps on the medal that say, from top to bottom, Belfast, Driefontein, Relief of Kimberley
My Great Grandfather, Pvt. John Ross’s 2nd Boer War Campaign Medal. Photo by Ian Ross

Admitting to and dealing with my privilege to create a more ethical practice is at the heart of my work, and I am conscious that failure in this task is more likely than success, indeed I am not sure whether success or tasks are appropriate concepts so use in this process.  

a group of military officers and diplomats wearing UN berets posing for a formal photograph on the deck of a ship
My Father, Col. Ian Ross at Queen’s Birthday reception 1994 on RFA Fort Grange in Split standing centre, behind special Representative for the former Yugoslavia, Mr. Yasushi Akashi;  Commander UNPROFOR, Lt Gen Betrand Guillaume de Sauville de Lapresle;  Commander UNPROFOR Bosnia, Lt Gen Sir Mike Rose. Photo by Ian Ross

RESEARCH FRAMEWORK

Late 18th Century to Early 19th Century; Ossian and Union

To what extent could the romantic texts that popularized Scotland be considered products of a ruling class looking to ingratiate themselves to a new Hanoverian Britain that aspired to dominate global trade, and how might awareness of this interpretation impact current Scottish Identity?

I will create a performance work that responds to James Macpherson’s (1736 – 1796) The Poems of Ossian and Walter Scott’s (1771 – 1832) The Antiquary. Some of this performance work will be written in Gaelic, which I am learning, in part as a political act of re-appropriation of the culture of my ancestors, in part to highlight the difficulty I have in learning to speak the language. I will situate these responses between William Playfair’s (1759 -1823) unfinished National Monument atop Calton Hill in Edinburgh, and the completed Napoleonic Monument to French Prisoners of War commissioned by Alexander Cowan (1775 – 1859) in Penicuik.

a picture of the rear of the National Monument, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, a building which is a replica of the Parthenon and has twelve doric and ionic columns
The unfinished side of the National Monument, Calton Hill. Photo Harry Ross
Late 19th century to Early 20th Century; Empire and Adventure

Why did my Great Grandfather, who came from Dornoch, join the Royal Scots Greys rather than a local regiment? What happened in the last decades of the nineteenth century that made all of my family leave Sutherland, how typical was this, and what new historiographies would an autoethnographic work dealing with this propose?

I will create a performance work that examines Scotland’s role in the Boer War, the changing attitudes towards Empire that the campaign engendered, and the role of Scottish highlanders in the growth of the Empire. I will draw on my Great Grandfather’s records in the Royal Scots Greys regimental archive and I will situate this work around certain memorials sculpted by William Birnie Rhind (1853-1933) using his 1905 Monument to the Royal Scots Greys as a starting point.

picture of the rear of the Royal Scots Greys Memorial, Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, a statue of a soldier on a horse wearing a tall ostrich feather hat
The back side of the Royal Scots Greys Memorial, Princes Street Gardens. Photo by Harry Ross
Late 20th century; Oil and Devolution

Growing up I always had a strong perception of my Father’s embarrassment at his Father’s attempt to curate a Scottish identity for himself. To what extent is this true to my Father’s reality, and to what extent are these perceptions a reflection of my own conflicts about my identity, background and relative wealth? How can an artwork which deals with this promote discourse on the subject?

I will create a work that is based on conversations with my Father. I will start this conversation at Alexander Carrick’s (1882 – 1966) war memorial in Forres and we will cover the ground between there and Carrick’s war memorial in Dornoch.

a picture of a statue of a kilted soldier from the first world war, sculpted in bronze on top of a cairn
Forres War Memorial. Photo by Harry Ross
picture of a statue of a kilted soldier from the first world war, sculpted in bronze on top of a cairn
Dornoch War Memorial. Photo by Harry Ross

The Forres memorial is updated with the names of servicemen fallen in the Gulf War, and there is a separate memorial to servicemen fallen in the War in Afghanistan…

Fourteen-sided tapering stone cairn with commemorative tablet inset at front of stone above a segmented base of fourteen sections, each inscribed with a name of the fallen
Memorial in Forres to Nimrod XV230 Crew whose aircraft crashed in Afghanistan 2005. Photo by Harry Ross

…both conflicts which occurred during my Father’s service. Dornoch is where our unknown ancestors hail from.

Early 20th century; Brexit and Belonging

How can I perform a Scottish identity in the 21st Century? To what extent is a Scottish Identity an unwitting performance of Britishness? What new identity can be performed?

I have joined the Army Reserve as a military musician in a Scottish Regiment.

I am journaling my experience of training and of learning and performing Scottish and British military music. I am doing this to share my feelings about becoming one of the soldiers who comprise the public face of the British Army. In doing this I aim to examine to what extent the culture of the British Army has become, according to their HR doctrine: an organisation that, at all levels, appropriately represents UK society, and that is recognized as a force for inclusion in wider society.

a portrait of a British Soldier from the Royal Regiment of Scotland wearing a Tam o’ Shanter and working dress
The researcher wearing No8 dress. 
Photo by Helen Scarlett O’Neill

I will create a participatory artwork that deals with the controversies that surround the installation of Robert Warrack Morrison’s (1890 – 1945) war memorial in New Elgin, and Ashgrove and Moycroft, and the vandalism of a new, mass produced, “Tommy Figure” memorial that was installed in the same site in 2018 and then removed in 2019. 

picture of a statue of a kilted soldier from the first world war, sculpted in Granite on top of a cairn
New Elgin, and Ashgrove and Moycroft War Memorial. Photo by Harry Ross
a picture of the pavement with a black metal plate screwed on that says There But Not There in off-white serif capitals
Remnants of the vandalised Tommy Memorial. Photo by Harry Ross.
FIRST EXPERIMENTS

Here are excerpts of rough footage from my most recent experiment, which took place at the National Monument on Calton Hill over the course of three days. The intention of building the National Monument was, according to its architect, William Playfair, ‘to commemorate the victory at Waterloo’.

As Kirsten McKee writes: ‘the genius loci of Calton Hill not only legitimized the role of the Scots nation in the protection of the British state, but also, by bathing itself in the celestial light of the Greek allegorical idiom of the nineteenth century, it allowed Scots to retain a separate cultural identity from their neighbours in a manner that would not be considered a threat to the overall construct of the Union and particularly the ambitions of state and empire’ (McKee 2015: page 68).

I am trying to read from a Gaelic Poem, Albin and the Daughter of Mey, collected and translated by Jerome Stone and published in 1756. This poem pre-dates MacPherson’s Ossian Translations. 

This is a performative experiment connected to the first phase of my research, Ossian and Union. Here, I try to convincingly perform in Gaelic. I decided to declaim this poetry in a National Language to find out where Ossianism (an interest in Celtic antiquity and folklore sparked by Macpherson’s work) might have fitted within the context of the Ancient Greek inspired National Monument. I found it quite incongruous. I found the endless chattering of tourists in aural juxtaposition an interesting and unintended result of the experiment that I will probably build on more.

I am attempting to mark out the unbuilt replica Parthenon. It would seem that Scotland’s ruling class, when egged on by Lord Elgin and others, were willing to suggest a monument, but not willing to pay for it in full (but at least Lord Elgin did pay for the Marbles…). 

This performative rehearsal act sees me mark out the unbuilt territory of the monument. In so doing I highlight the failure of the original vision of this National Monument. During this performative action I decided to run to increase the effort and to create conditions for failure in my own performance.

I am improvising, speaking to and of the National Monument.   

I am trying to say what the monument means to me. However, I end up saying not what it means to me but saying what it means in a more abstract political sense. In this early stage of my auto-ethnographic process I am finding it hard to immediately connect with my research on a personal level.


References 

de Chiara, Marina (1998) ‘A Tribe Called Europe’, in Chambers, I. and Curti, L. (1996) The post-colonial question : common skies, divided horizons . London: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780203138328. pp. 228-234. 

Jackson, Lisa Kim (2017) ‘The complications of colonialism for gentrification theory and Marxist geography.’ Journal of Law and Social Policy 27. (2017): 43-71. 

Mckee, Kirsten Carter (2015) ‘THE GENIUS LOCI OF THE ATHENS OF THE NORTH: THE CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF EDINBURGH’S CALTON HILL’, Garden History, 43, pp. 64–69. 

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1988) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Nelson, C. and Grossberg, L. (1988) Marxism and the interpretation of culture. Urbana, Ill: University of Illinois Press. pp. 271–313.