Occupy Rockall: on plagiarism, patriotism and ‘heroic science’

Dealing with plagiarism is one of my least favourite aspects of academic life. Today’s case, however, is much more fun. And as it doesn’t concern any of my own students, it involves no additional admin. That’s already a win.

Yesterday I came across a sentence, that I once wrote in a paper for the Journal of Historical Geography, attributed to somebody else in the Guardian. To be honest, my surprise was not that someone had lifted my expression than that they had actually read my obscure paper about Rockall in JHG. I’ll take all the readers I can get.

The purported author of the sentence is Nick Hancock – a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society – who is going to live on Rockall for over two months in 2013 (plenty of time, one might think, to reflect on appropriate attribution).

Hancock is an ‘adventurer’ – or, when he’s not wearing a dayglo drysuit, an Edinburgh property surveyor – who is aiming to break the record for the longest occupation of this unwelcoming rock. As Hancock intends to be there for 60 days, living in what looks like a yellow septic tank lashed to the rock, I guess the obvious question is: why?

Rockall Solo is rather hazy on this, aside from a bid to raise money for the forces charity Help for Heroes which, Nick tells us, “does not seek to criticise or be political” but rather to simply support “those wounded in the service of our country since 9/11”. Founding patron: Jeremy Clarkson.

This theme of heroism takes us back to another rationale as articulated in my purloined sentence (from MacDonald, 2005: 632), now oddly turned into a tagline on Nick’s personal website:

“To have visited Rockall was the epitome of heroism and reflected well on the bravery and moral character of the traveller”

A painting from Rev. W. Spotswood Green, Narrative of the cruise introducing notes of Rockall Island and Bank, Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 31, 3 (1896) 39-97, p. 46.


And here is the nub of it. In my paper (here: pdf 0.4mb) , I detail the slow emergence of a scientific professionalism that sought to distance science from mere thrill-seeking. At the same time, however, I argued that scientific accounts of Rockall were interesting in that they showed how science still retained the influence of the sublime – a bourgeois male aesthetic that celebrated heroism.

In the original paper, I was not trying to say that Rockall’s early explorers were a cut above the rest (splendid chaps – all of them). Rather, I meant that inside the paternalistic and imperial values of Victorian society, a landing on Rockall was to enact the perceived virtues of manly science.

In short: it was an argument about class and gender in the making of scientific knowledge; it’s definitely not an endorsement – not then, and not now.

If all of this sounds a bit grumpy, this is less about missing footnotes than about a wider complaint I have about the modern expeditionary culture that is shared among many of the non-academic members of the Royal Geographical Society. Many favour old-fashioned ‘discovery’: the search for geographical knowledge providing the scientific legitimacy for getting there first or staying there longest (for which read: secure the territorial claim).

The British annexation in 1955: Corporal A. A. Fraser watches First Lieutenant Commander Desmond P. D. Scott hoist the Union Flag on 18th September

And to be honest, there isn’t much discovery on Rockall Solo. The scientific rationale is, at best, wafer thin.

It was always thus. When naturalist James Fisher helped the British state annex Rockall in 1955 he used science to authorize a brazen geopolitical claim, all so that Britain could test its shiny new nuclear missiles over the Atlantic.

British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden, who that same year was to be found bombing his way through the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, could be afforded this small advance amid a worldwide imperial retreat.

As I established in the paper, Rockall was the last ever territorial extension of the British Empire. All 83 feet of it.

This leaves Nick Hancock FRGS as just one of a long line of British occupiers – James Fisher, Andy Strangeway, Tom McClean – bearing the Union Jack and asserting the values of military heroism.

I don’t really mind the odd moment of bibliographic forgetfulness. But I find it much harder to overlook the pith-helmeted patriotism. After all, if the British claim to Rockall is so well founded, surely the rituals of discovery – settlement, flag-waving – are all a bit beside the point? Just ask the wildlife.

© Steve Bell If… 1985 The Guardian



A Muddy Testament: Finlay Munro’s footprints and other Calvinist landscapes

For all the contemporary interest in cultural landscape interpretation and conservation, there are plenty of sites that elude official attention. Many are just too awkward or too obscure.

Finlay Munro’s footprints at Torgyle, Glenmoriston is arguably one such: a set of footprints imprinted in the clay since the 1820s as a muddy testament to the religious truths proclaimed by an itinerant evangelical preacher.

The Footprints, from GNM Collins, Principal John Macleod D.D. (1951)

Finlay Munro was, by all accounts, a strange and charismatic figure. Born in Tain, he became famous for tramping the byways of the Highlands and islands preaching an evangelical gospel to anyone who would listen.

“The clergy were mad against him,” recalled Rev Alexander Maclean of North Uist, “and the ignorant and wild people dealt brutally with him in every place”.

And yet Munro had his followers – despite the disapproval of the ministers who resented this unkempt upstart distracting their own flocks.

In Lewis, an immense congregation gathered on the low hill of Muirneag where people often met for worship. Such were the multitudes gathered on the slopes, that Munro in his sermon addressed the hill itself: “Muirneag, Muirneag, it is you that may feel well pleased today with your new coat on” (a pun on the Gaelic name, ‘little pleasing one’).

In a short portrait of Munro, Free Church Principal John Macleod (1872–1948) quotes an old crofter friend of his – Archie Crawford – who, as a boy, had heard Munro preaching in his father’s barn. “He [Crawford] formed the opinion” writes Macleod with some understatement, “that there was something unsettled about him, and, indeed, that he was odd”.*

Though by no means unaccustomed to ridicule, Finlay Munro was subject to some particularly disruptive hecklers when preaching in Glenmoriston in 1827. That his tormentors were allegedly Roman Catholics from Glengarry surely adds to the currency of the tale.

Munro stood his ground. He told them that the very clay would testify to the truth of his words; that his footprints would endure – until his hearers met their judgment or, in some accounts, until the Day of Judgment.

And there they remain – an epistemic imprint. They are not, despite their protective cairn, very easy to locate. The most reliable means of finding the site is to use the OS grid reference – NH 311138. A map can be found here.

© Copyright John Allan and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Such landscapes are invariably awkward for the appointed guardians of heritage. For one thing, they tend to commemorate or evoke traditions, values and stories that don’t readily translate into the secular world.

An unthreatening veneration of Celtic Christianity is all very well but who, in officialdom, wants to recall spiritual intensities, conversions, callings, judgments, liberties in prayer and convictions of sin?

And yet these aspects of Highland experience arguably occupy a large part of the oral tradition in the last two hundred years and they, in turn, find their expression in the storied landscape.

This sort of lore stirs us – but uneasily; it draws out our aversion to the uncanny. Nothing in modern Scotland is more familiar and more foreign than Calvinism. That’s why it is interesting.


*John Macleod, ‘A Highland Evangelist’ in GNM Collins, Principal John Macleod D.D., Free Church Publications Committee (Edinburgh, 1951).