Why history can help make you happier.

Why history can help make you happier.

History, in the form of cultural heritage, is a much about the present as the past.  Here we argue that the way in which people engage with local history can help to promote community wellbeing – and their own wellbeing along with it.

The reasons for this is that it helps to develop cultural and social capital, it helps to mobilize community members and resources (for example through volunteering) and it helps to create place identity and civic pride. In addition it can help to boost economic prosperity in marginal areas. Here we demonstrate how this happens with reference to two very different rural communities: the Outer Hebrides (a string of islands on the Western coast of Scotland) and Portsoy (an old harbour town on the north coast of Scotland).

In the Outer Hebrides, a series of local history organisations were set up in local settlements to document the links between past and present through people, the crofts they lived in, the land they farmed, the boats they fished from, the landscape and language they shared.  Starting in the 1980s they were termed the Commain Eiachdriadh, reflecting the use of the Gaelic language on these islands.  This interest in cultural heritage brought together members of the community to reminisce, to collect stories and to sort through documentation as a collective project.  This was used to help visitors to the villages, who were often researching family history and for whom the Commain Eichdriadh formed an invaluable source of local knowledge.  Some of the Commain Eichdriadh became so successful that they took over the local school house and turned it into a community resource. This included opening museums, cafes and in some cases local stores to serve the scattered population.  In one case (Ravenspoint) it led to the construction of a petrol station and a community land buyout.  A website Hebridean Connections was set up to digitize materials and make them publicly accessible. With a large Scottish diaspora community in the New World this meant that there was keen international interest in this local heritage.  Hence, cultural capital was generated and shared from community knowledge, social capital was enabled by encouraging meetings and local connections, whilst civic pride and identity was generated through this interest in local heritage.  This had economic spin offs.  People visited, grants were obtained for the various projects  and one  Commain Eiachdriadh created a thriving publishing house for local materials. As one participant put it:

I think the word in itself says that: ‘community’; because it is bringing something together which is common to us all. We don’t get together that much, as a community, as people here – as they used to in the past. And if you’ve got something like this and it will drag people together, then it’s a good thing. We need something in our communities actually to keep the people coming together as a community and if we didn’t do it, it would be just another bit that was lost.

And another participant told us:
Not people looking in and telling you what you should be doing or exploring your differences and making out that you are freaks because of what you believe in, what you do, way of life and so on. So I think that’s the strength of a Comain Eachdraidh – showcasing ourselves.

In Portsoy, the rundown nature of the seventeenth century burgh town with an aging population in a marginal area on the Moray Firth reflects the fate of many seaside and former fishing towns  in Britain.  But in 1993 a boat festival was set up to celebrate the renovation and 300th anniversary of the opening of the “new” harbour (built in 1825).  Starting as something very small and localised at first, the Portsoy Traditional Boat festival has grown over the years to attract upwards of  16 000 visitors over a weekend in June.  There are races and displays of lovingly restored boats and newly built ones using traditional skills. As in the Outer Hebrides, this participation in cultural heritage soon led to a variety of other community activities.  It lead to the restoration of some old buildings, including an old salmon storage facility which is now a fishing museum.  Above the museum a meeting room houses a magnificent tapestry of the harbour knitted by local people.  The meeting room also hosts music sessions, knitting club, film screenings….. as well as meetings related to local history. A facebook pages shares old photos and discusses them.  More recently, Portsoy Community Enterprises was formed and has taken over a camping site from the local council, then restored an old sail house for bunkhouse accommodation (opened by HRH Prince Charles in 2017). Now Portsoy is a thriving town, many of the local businesses have had a new lease of life and the Boat Festival is recognised as one of the main events in the region.  It has further generated activities for local youth and funds are used for improving and maintaining footpaths and other amenities. As the CEO of Portsoy Community Enterprises told us:

Yes, it started off as boats….it was very much about boats and round the harbour there were stalls which included community organisations, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboats Institution) and others…Music was also there, but incidentally..the music developed steadily… I am not sure when food first appeared…So it kind of, yeah, grew like Topsy, I can’t think of any other way to describe it.  But I think, wittingly or unwittingly, the intention was always for it to be a celebration of the cultural heritage of the area.  I think it’s taken a while for that to be put down on paper but I think it had naturally become that and the music was always focused more on traditional music and of course the area is very rich in traditional music.  And the food was always local.  What I term ‘artisan’ companies demonstrating and selling their products.  So it kind of grew by chance and then again, probably more unwittingly than wittingly, it began to evolve into this encapsulation of the cultural heritage of the North East (of Scotland).

Or as a Community Councillor told us:

I mean, come the Boat Festival, there must be circa 300 people [out of 2000] involved in the community and that’s fantastic…We’re just very lucky – we’ve got a lot of people who are prepared to put in a lot of very hard work.  People who are very competent as well…. I think it’s involvement, I think it’s because it is something that people can involve themselves in and truly contribute ….. and there’s pride in it – people who like to say “Yeah, I’m from Portsoy.”  To see how often almost across the country now and increasingly overseas people say “Portsoy – yes the Boat Festival”.  I think all those things mean that there is an energy and it’s self-driving.” (Community  Councillor Portsoy)

Cultural capital is generated and disseminated from the interest in local history.  Social capital is thriving as a large proportion of the population of around 2000 people volunteer for one thing or another or are involved in one or other event.  The interest in cultural history has raised the profile of the town and helped to restore it, giving it a sense of pride and identity. 

Hence an interest in local cultural heritage helps to create a better quality of life for residents in remote and economically marginal rural locations.  Of course there can be others ways of generating cultural and social capital, but an interest in local history does seem to galvanise large parts of the population, especially if there are many older and retired people (as there are in rural communities).  Furthermore, an interest in local cultural heritage bridges the divides between locals and incomers, between younger and older members and between the local community and the outside world. 

The research on which this material is based is published as:

David Beel and Claire Wallace „Gathering together: social capital, cultural capital, the value of cultural heritage in a digital age“  Social and Cultural Geography (with David Beel)

David Beel, Claire Wallace, Gemma Webster, Hai Nguyen, Marsailli Macleod, Elisabeth Tait and Chris Mellish, “Cultural resilience: the production of rural community heritage, digital archives and the role of volunteers” (2017) Journal of Rural Studies 54:459-468

 Claire Wallace, Kathryn Vincent, Cristian Luguzan, Leanne Townsend and David Beel “Information Technology and social cohesion. A tale of two villages” (2017) Journal of Rural Studies 54: 426-434

David Beel, Claire Wallace, Gemma Webster and Hai Nguyen “The Geographies of Community History Digital Archives in Rural Scotland” (2015) : Scottish Geographical Journal.131 (3-4) :201-211

Elizabeth Tait, Marsaili MacLeod, David Beel, Claire Wallace, Chris Mellish, Stuart Taylor “Linking to the past: An Analysis of Community Digital Heritage Initiatives” (2013)
e proceedings ASLIB

Claire Wallace and David Beel “How cultural heritage can contribute to community development and wellbeing” in Researching Happiness: Qualitative, Biographical and Critical Perspectives” Edited by Mark Cieslik and Laura Hyman) Policy Press, Bristol,  forthcoming

We wish to acknowledge funding from dot.rural Digital Economy Hub funded by the Research Councils UK between  2009 and 2015 EP/GO6651/1 and Culture and Communities Network+ EP/KOO3585/1, 2012-2016  and EVIDANCE “Exploring Value in Digital Archives and Commainn Eiachdriadh” AH/L006006/1 2012-14

Photo of Portsoy Traditional Boat Festival taken from BBC News 26th June 2010
Photo of Ness Museum (old school house) taken by the author


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