Venture North Discovery - Dr David Worthington

Dr David Worthington is Head of the Dornoch-based Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. Among other themes, he researches, writes and lectures on ‘Coastal History’, often exploring this from the perspective of eastern Caithness and Sutherland and their connections across the Moray Firth. This has included a 2011 article in The International Journal of Maritime History and two journal articles coming out this autumn, in The Scottish Historical Review and Rural History respectively. David also runs the ‘Firths and Fjords’ blog, which explores the history of adjacent coasts on a comparative, global basis, a project that emerged from a spring 2016 Dornoch conference for which he was the lead organiser, and ensuing from which he is also editing a book. He would welcome email correspondence with readers of these articles and blog posts, and those interested, more widely in firths and their pasts! For those who don’t have subscription access to the journals mentioned but who would like to learn more, he will also soon be able to provide links to “author’s versions” of the articles, so please do contact him and send him your thoughts on the research at:


I’m lucky enough to witness ever-changing views of the Dornoch Firth within a minute of stepping into my car each morning. Once in the office, I have an outlook eastwards that, on most days, allows me to peer over to the Tarbat peninsula. Sometimes I can see beyond that, to Moray. Given all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that the pasts of marine ‘corridors’ are often on my mind as the day gets going. Sometimes this happens during those few minutes heading northwards on the A9. On other days, it’s a few minutes later, in those absent moments of gazing out of the window that occur between switching on my work laptop and waiting for it to install its updates. 



Historian Michael Pearson has asserted that coastal peoples ‘have more in common with other shore folk thousands of kilometres away on some other shore of the ocean than they do with those in their immediate hinterland.’[1] For another leading scholar, Isaac Land, coasts ‘parallel the diverse experiences of human beings in their confrontation with water, and each other.’[2] Much has been written about islands and islanders and what they have in common. But it’s my belief that the pasts of all sorts of neighbouring, adjacent coasts, and the communities they have sheltered, supported, encouraged, or had coerced upon them, require more examination by historians. Here in the north Highlands, we might ponder whether to define the communities of our indented mainland firths, sea lochs, sounds and bays, in terms of geo-political conflict or else with respect to social, economic and cultural cohesion. Narrow strips of sea have acted to unify as well as divide.



Over the years, I’ve come to agree with historians like James Miller that there is a history which connects the fringe of south-eastern Caithness and east Sutherland (Machair Chat) with that sometimes-visible edge of land between Beauly and Fraserburgh.[3] The Moray Firth is a term that has ‘as many meanings as an onion has skins’.[4] But recent work, and the activities of bodies like the Moray Firth Partnership show that, today, as in the past, it is a place that people associate not only with the Laich, the fruitful seaside edge of the modern district of Moray. The firth is a complex environment in which Highland interacts with Lowland, and Gaelic with Scots. It is a multi-ethnic space. At times, its more northerly settlements have been viewed as social and commercial hubs, or as intellectual, religious and cultural centres. Despite economic imbalances in modern times, a wide chronology reveals that the women, men and children who have lived within the many coastal settlements of Caithness and Sutherland that lie between Wick Bay and Bonar Bridge, for example, have impacted on the history of what we now call Moray as they have also been impacted upon by Moray.  



When, from my office, I see Tarbat Ness lighthouse poking skywards or hear the regular, dull thudding associated with the RAF Tain bombing range, I can’t help considering to what extent earlier peoples considered the northern firths as frontiers? Did smoke, fire and other signals transmitted from the other landed edge appear mysterious or threatening or did they signpost friendly, mutually beneficial trans-firth communications? 



I would argue that even the treacherous navigation of the sandbanks of Gizzen Briggs, for instance, didn’t prevent a common history from emerging around this coast at times, one communicated by ordinary people and their livestock via firth crossings just a few miles west.

Loch Fleet and the Dornoch Firth might still seem like very different historical settings to those occupied by the peoples of distant gulfs, or straits and sounds such as the English Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar or the Bosphorus. However, historical evidence reveals that many of what are now the most contested ‘sea lanes’ on our planet have actually brought people together at times. Estuaries, ports, beaches and dunes require historians’ careful attention as locations for environmental problems, being flash points for ethnic and social conflict, refugee crises and the other forms of involuntary, forced migration that trouble our age. Yet, here in the north Highlands, coastal settlement has, on occasion, sustained vibrant, firth-spanning communities. 



[1] Michael Pearson, ‘Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems’, The Journal of World History, 17(4) (2006), pp. 353-4.

[2] Isaac Land, ‘Tidal Waves: The New Coastal History’, Journal of Social History, 40(3), (2007), pp.731-43.

[3] David Worthington, ‘The Settlements of the Beauly-Wick Coast and the Historiography of the Moray Firth’, The Scottish Historical Review , 95(2), (2016), pp.139-63; David Worthington, ‘Ferries in the Firthlands: Communications, Society and Culture Along a Northern Scottish Rural Coast (c.1600-1809)’, Rural History, 27(2) (forthcoming, 2016); David Worthington, ‘A Northern Scottish Maritime Region: The Moray Firth in the Seventeenth Century’, in The International Journal of Maritime History, 23(2) (2011), pp. 181-210.

[4] Cuthbert Graham, Portrait of the Moray Firth (London, 1977), p.11.