David Beel
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The role of civil society in cultural heritage, digitalisation and the quality of rural life

The chapter looks at how social and cultural capital are generated through civil society by a study of historical associations on the Outer Hebrides, known as the Comainn Eachdraidh (CE) in 2011–15 and followed up in 2019. This cultural and social capital, involving a sense of local pride, is related to the strong participation in civil society found in these remote places. Digitalisation has helped to further sustain these activities, made them more globally accessible, and produced a new focus of activity for local CEs and their collective representation through the digital platform, Hebridean Connections. However, digitalisation has produced both advantages and threats. The advantages include linking these islands to a wider diaspora and community of interest worldwide and encouraging visitor flow and benefits for the local economy. Threats include the loss of control of information by local associations and the creation of a demand that small groups of older volunteers cannot always fulfil. Furthermore, local authority cutbacks meant that the centralised system developed by Hebridean Connections was not able to manage the volume of demand with a skeletal staff. The chapter illustrates how cultural transmission occurs through technology to link the past with the present and the future. Despite its shortcomings, the CE movement helped to show how local control of digital infrastructures can also help to empower local civil society and thus benefit rural quality of life


Cultural heritage can add to the quality of life in rural areas by mobilising local civil society, linking cultural with social capital formation and creating civic pride and sense of place, as we have argued elsewhere (Wallace & Beel, 2021). Here we follow up on our original research, which documented the early stages of digitalisation in 2011–2015 by looking at the impacts that had taken place by 2019. Digitalisation expands the reach of rural heritage to wider audiences nationally and internationally, thereby enabling new forms of participation and mobilisation. By this process, the ‘local’ becomes ‘global’ in a relational sense (Heley & Jones, 2012). It also enables the creation of community memory at the same time as using technology to link the future and the past (Stiegler, 2010).

Civil society is linked to social capital because the participation of people in local associations and organisations both formally (through membership) and informally (through activities such as social networking and meeting) are important elements (Pichler & Wallace, 2009; Putnam, 2000). Hence, civil society helps to generate collective social capital through value added to the community and individual social capital through networks and contacts. Social capital is intrinsically linked to cultural capital, as envisaged by Bourdieu (1983). Here we will show that the links between civil society, social capital and cultural capital can be demonstrated at a local level in communities where these factors intertwine and reinforce one another.

Drawing upon our work with local communities in Scotland, we argue that cultural heritage can provide the mobilising factor which links together different groups within the community in a common project which generates civic pride and a sense of place (Wallace et al., 2017; Wallace & Vincent, 2017; Beel et al., 2016; Beel & Wallace, 2020). Whereas until now we have looked synchronously at these factors, in this chapter we will consider the diachronical aspects by looking at how changes have taken place. We focus here particularly on historical associations in the Outer Hebrides as examples of civil society.

Civil society takes a long time to establish and become embedded in communities. It is undermined by modern lifestyles that prioritise individualised entertainment and more dispersed networking (Putnam, 2000). This is illustrated in a generational shift away from formal styles of organisation (such as clubs and associations) and towards online and ego-centred social networking (Wellman et al., 2001). The widespread closure of pubs and rural schools, exacerbated by the COVID crisis, has removed some of the traditional arenas for social networking in rural communities. The decline of rural communities based around occupational communities such as coal mining or agriculture has further undermined the basis of local social capital. Furthermore, growing secularisation means that the church is no longer the focal point of the community that it once was. The population changes towards commuters and retirees mean that the social base of rural communities has shifted (Philip et al., 2012). What can therefore hold them together nowadays?

One factor has been a growing interest in local history. As communities face an increasingly blended, globalised world, local history has started to take on a new importance to forge distinctive identities and cultures (Wallace, 2020). The ‘disembedding’ of ideas and identities allowed by globalised culture can also result in a ‘re-embedding’ of identities in local culture (Giddens, 1990). This can feed an appetite for nostalgia, a rediscovery of local traditions and even their ‘invention’ in new forms. One aspect of this has been the desire to trace personal histories through family trees and family history, often as retirement projects for an ageing population. However, this interest in local history illustrates where biography and geography intersect.

Local historical societies bring together diverse interests including professional historians, amateur historians, locals and incomers. The increasing resources available online through the Internet, through public databases and even through commercial organisations offering to help trace family histories have made this view of the past all much more accessible. Social media, including the sharing of photographs on Facebook pages and Facebook groups have helped generate shared interests in revisiting the past. The burgeoning of local museums collecting objects, photos and histories has helped to strengthen these trends. Most of this local history is managed by volunteers – evidence of an invigorated civil society. In the guise of historical societies, civil society is thus a space for agency that – although related to – sits outside the direct control of state or market (Jessop, 2020). Ageing rural societies are particularly interesting in this respect; not only do older people act as repositories of local knowledge, but they are also likely to be the most interested in local history with more leisure time to devote to it.

Cultural and social capital in rural civil society

Our argument in this chapter is that cultural and social capital (as evinced in local historical associations) can be a focus for civil society. Obversely, the creation of these civil society organisations can serve as petrie dishes for generating the circulation of different forms of capital. Cultural capital is the set of attributes, dispositions and ‘taste’ that is valued in a given society (Bourdieu, 1984) and reproduces elite positions through the artefacts and knowledge that embody cultural goods. Bourdieu divided the concept of cultural capital into three different elements: embodied, the sense that such capital is passively acquired over time, for example due to family upbringing; objectified, which relates to the acquisition but also the knowledge of objects either for profit or show, an example being the knowledge and ability to purchase an expensive painting; and institutionalised, where some form of institutional recognition is given for achievement, often closely linked to educational success. Hence for Bourdieu, acquiring these key facets gives an individual power to act and to join specific fields.

While Bourdieu was concerned with society as a whole, we can also consider the generation of cultural capital within specific locations where the valuing of particular artefacts, expertise or knowledge has more specific meanings. Bourdieu was concerned with cultural capital mainly as a form of inclusion/exclusion in hierarchal social relations. However, in a local context, the building of knowledge around particular themes can also be a way of demonstrating an alternative cultural capital that, as will be shown, represents an embodied relationship to the history of landscape and community; an objectified relationship to the ephemera of the Gaelic island tradition in which value is placed in potentially forgotten objects by the different communities; and an institutional approach by how island communities have sought to formalise their links to historical heritage through forming social structures such as historical associations. In other words, we show how this is generated by minority communities from below rather than by hegemonic authority from above as Bourdieu originally conceptualised it. For this generation of heritage from below to be generated and shared, it relies upon social capital – something strong on the Outer Hebrides where participation in associational life has traditionally been high.

Cultural capital is circulated and reproduced through social capital. Social capital refers to the collective ‘value’ added to society from social networks and participation in civic associations (Putnam, 2000). Like cultural value, social capital is therefore intangible in itself but can be understood through the various ways it is generated. For Bourdieu, social capital is the value embedded in social networks that individuals can realise to their advantage (Bourdieu, 1983). ‘Social capital is the sum of resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 119). Putnam (2000) feared that social capital was in decline due to changes in residential, work and leisure patterns. Yet in the Outer Hebrides it was extraordinarily strong and growing, partly as a result of intense interest in cultural heritage. Both social and cultural capital can help to generate cultural value, to which we now turn.

The chapter revolves around the transmission of cultural memory between individuals, communities and then across digital technology. Stiegler is concerned with the ‘externalisation of knowledge’ and how different ‘technologies’ externalise knowledge differently. In application of Stiegler’s work, Wilson (2012) does what Elwood and Mitchell (2015, p. 150) state as:

They situate digital social and spatial media as ‘technics’ that, following Stiegler, externalise knowledge such that it can be transmitted across time and space. Within this framing, writing a letter, drawing, tweeting, or sharing a photo through Instagram are all technics that connect our knowledge and action in the present moment to knowledge and possible action in a future moment, and open the possibility of collective uptake of individual memory.

As a result, there are implications as to how and why knowledge is transmitted. Thus, the transference from older analogue technologies held within place-based archives to the digitally networked web-based ones impacts how this data is created, reinterpreted in digital form, understood and appropriated by individuals and communities. Digitalisation, then, redefines some of the socio-spatial relations that exist within, between and around these archives.

Therefore, it is argued that digitalisation provides new opportunities for cultural participation and that this development impacts upon the collective identities of those involved. This makes such activities more than just a technical process of putting collections online, but an embodied form of memory transmission with significant cultural value. Rose (2016) has highlighted that despite the often negative potential impacts or threats created by new technologies, there can also be several positive, unrealised impacts too (Thompson & Cupples, 2008) and this chapter, through its empirical materials, will highlight these. In this context we argue that historical societies, as a form of civil society, generate agency through their activity.


Our methodology involved contacting key informants and community leaders, starting in 2013 when we were involved in helping to digitise their historical records as part of an EPSRC-funded dot.rural Digital Economy Research Hub (2009–2014). This was followed by more intensive participant observation with historical associations and community events assisted by an AHRC grant on cultural value in 2015. These initial contacts were followed up in 2018–2019 with further interviews to understand how the early initiatives had developed as part of a REF Impact Case Study. We were therefore able to follow developments over time and to re-interview key informants on different occasions to help understand the flow of events. This was not so much a planned longitudinal study as a continuation of contact already made, enabling us to refine our key research aims as they evolved over time.

The Comainn Eachdraidh movement in the Outer Hebrides

The Outer Hebrides consists of a string of islands on the westernmost fringe of Scotland. Their scattered and remote populations, numbering 27,000 altogether, include a strong Gaelic-speaking element. Mostly settled into small communities of crofts and other dwellings, the historical associations form a common civil society hub.

Cultural heritage has a substantial role in the Western Isles, through the organisation of historical associations in every island or subregion. Almost all local people subscribe, subscription costs being kept very low, from as little as £1 per year. These historical associations are usually referred to by their Gaelic name Comainn Eachdraidh (CE) and in some of them Gaelic is the spoken language. The CE represents a medium for the cultural transmission of meaning in order to present and preserve a way of life that for islanders is seen as fragile and under threat. The CE represents a strong set of associations developed over several decades and forms one of the most important civil society associations in this region. The CE movement began in the 1970s, linked to the history workshop movement (Samuel, 1981) with a very specific political and cultural purpose: collecting and preserving Highland and Island cultures, with particular reference to Gaelic. The first phase of the project took place from 1976 to 1982, beginning in Ness. It began with the key aim to create ‘an awareness of the cultural identity and community history as a means to boosting morale and promoting a discriminating understanding of the past and of its influence on the present’ (Mackay, 1996). Over the subsequent years, due to the popularity of the project, new CE groups began to be established in different areas of the Hebrides, the latest being the recent creation of Eriskay CE on that island.

Today, twenty CE are currently active in the Outer Hebrides, all of which are entirely independent of each other. Each group has its own members, committee and collections, and is dedicated to researching its own specific geographical area. Figure 15.1 shows how these are distributed around the islands. The most active members and primarily those involved in this study are older and (usually) retired. Still, cross-generational participation does occur in many ways, often through the shared use of CE buildings. Both men and women participate in the various activities that they run, and in these often sparsely populated and dispersed small settlements, they have a central role in the functioning of island life. Local CE associations have waxed and waned over the years, with some becoming very active and others moribund and new ones forming, reflecting shifts in local populations and key actors. The situation in 2015 is reflected in the map (Figure 15.1).

The different groups collect various materials relating to both physical objects, or what Bourdieu terms ‘objectified’ cultural capital. These might include school logbooks, individual collections of diaries, notes and photographs, personal objects, industrial objects, archaeological artefacts, newspaper cuttings, paintings, crofts, buildings, boats and gravestones. However, other aspects of cultural heritage are less tangible and could include oral histories and stories, genealogical knowledge, shielings, local place names, patronymics, Bárdachd (poetry), local dialects, Gaelic dialects, Gaelic terms, and recipes. Some of these were collected and stored but others were part of the living cultural heritage of the community and were embodied in particular people or networks. The artefacts themselves represented ‘embodied cultural capital’ in Bourdieu’s terminology insofar as they had meaning for that particular community in terms of local knowledge. This reflects a form of vernacular heritage, which is embedded within its places of production. Like all community groups, they were teeming with micro-political relations both within each CE and in relation to each other. This reflects that although different CE groups have similar interests and follow similar narratives, they do not form a hegemonic movement or represent a singular community interest.

Some CEs have opened museums, and these are often housed in the old schoolhouses. The need for the schoolhouses having changed with the centralisation of the school system and the ageing of the rural population means that the schoolhouse could be given over as a meeting place, often initially formed round the local CE. The photograph in Figure 15.2 shows the Ness (Nis) CE as we found it in 2013 when it housed a local collection of objects and a small cafe staffed by volunteers. At this point it still looks like an old school building. Elsewhere collections are housed in people’s private houses or other buildings that can be communally accessed. The display of artefacts, usually donated by local people, has relevance determined by their location in the local community and might include a shepherd’s crook or spinning wheel passed down through the family. Hence, these artefacts have a meaning according to how they are embedded in local community relationships.

Some of the museums have developed further functions. For example, one CE located at Ravenspoint on the Isle of Lewis has developed further activities including Gaelic language teaching courses, a book publishing enterprise, a local shop and in 2015 was putting in a petrol station for locals who would otherwise have to travel many miles to fill their tanks. Hence, cultural heritage encourages many ancillary activities that are valued by the local community and which arise from their needs.

The CE involves volunteers who meet on a regular basis to sort through photographs and other documentation and to exchange information about them. This is cross-checked against an index of information about people living in the area, school records and so on, representing a mixing of volunteers’ ‘living knowledge’ with what has been recorded. This is a highly social activity as volunteers reminisce and tell stories about the documents.

This also highlights something else about the process of maintaining and producing archives: the sense of self-worth that members gain from their participation in the process of producing the archives. These meetings were an opportunity to develop it. Despite it being slow and highly time consuming, many still took great pleasure from these activities. For the volunteers, the contribution of their own knowledge and remembering people, places and events together with others gave them great satisfaction. Furthermore, the desire to comprehend personal and community histories and genealogies often acts as the ‘spark’ that draws people into being involved with a CE. As one of the contributors told us:

I just, again, came to Comainn Eachdraidh, I don’t know how, it’s so long ago I can’t remember! I suppose I was always interested in my roots and I had an uncle who was very interested in genealogy and I suppose I just got into it that way and here I am, decades later and that’s it: once you are in, you are in, you are hooked! Decades later and that’s it.

The main work of the CE groups revolves around the production and maintenance of their individual physical archives and the collecting of history and heritage related to their own areas. Archives such as those collected by a CE are generated as an articulation of ‘heritage from below’ (Robertson, 2012). They represent spaces of ‘marginalised memory’ (Cresswell, 2011) by attempting to give a counterpoint to more top-down and mainstream articulations of history (Mason & Baveystock, 2008). They in themselves represent ‘mechanisms’ or ‘technologies’ for preserving memory across spacetimes (Stiegler, 2010). As Stevens et al. (2010, p. 68) suggest, their relevance and value extends well beyond the physical site of the archive itself: it is ‘the active and on-going involvement in the source community in documenting and making accessible their history on their own terms’. This makes understanding the practice of archive production among volunteers central to comprehending their broader value as it produces both cultural capital in terms of local knowledge/expertise and social capital in terms of collective involvement (Beel et al., 2016).

This generation of heritage from below ‘is both a means to and manifestation of counter hegemonic practises’ (Robertson, 2012, p. 7) based upon the lives of ordinary people. Central to these arguments is place, identity and a notion of dwelling (Ingold, 2000) that builds over time and reinforces each in relation to the heritage the communities wish to create. In the context of the Western Isles, this further builds upon a relationship in the Gaelic communities between sense of place, identity and possession whereby ‘attachments to place are intrinsic to identity, rather than to buildings or monuments’ (Robertson, 2012, p. 154). The Gaelic language infuses names of places and the people who inhabited them with a rich sense of meaning, both past and present. This rich heritage was often lost in translations into English. For example, the limited repertoire of people’s names in English used by census recorders or by public administration fails to distinguish the diversity of lineages denoted by nicknames and patronymics. The communities on the Outer Hebrides had a strong sense of their histories being misread or mispresented by outsiders, especially those that did not understand Gaelic. This built on the sense of historical injury which grew out of dispossession through the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when landlords evicted Gaelic communities from their land and the subsequent suppression of the language until the late twentieth century. In this sense it was a form of oppositional cultural capital embodied in the traditions and places from which it has emerged.

The key way in which the CE present a historical sense of place tied to the land is through documenting the crofts and the people who lived on those crofts, often connected genealogically to the current members. Crofting rights emerged from legislation at the end of the nineteenth century aiming to repopulate marginal land emptied through the clearances and emerged from a popular movement (Mackenzie, 2013). Crofting still holds a privileged place in Scottish Agricultural Policy as forming an integral part of the rural economy in marginal locations. This relationship between land, people and place is what makes the CE so interesting and often so different to other historical societies throughout the UK; very few other places are able to represent such a lineage. It also makes a strong political statement with regard to land tenure, an exceptionally contentious issue in the islands both in the past as now (Hunter, 1976). In this setting, the archive stands as a statement of endurance, ingenuity and perseverance for the families that have maintained their connection to the land, and which has continued through previous generations. This longevity of knowledge for CEs is particularly valuable to these communities as it shows their continued embeddedness in the landscape.

Hence, local knowledge enriches the experience of place and in part highlights why some of the CE activities of collection take place. This is in terms of wanting to ‘know’, in detail, about the place they are from and how that has produced the landscape in which they live. What may seem a simple observation to ‘look out for’ shows an attention to detail to observe and be in a landscape. This is a key part of how CEs value local knowledge about place and expand into a series of other activities that attempt to codify space as ‘known’ as well as it being culturally significant. A number of CEs have chosen to map out all the distinctive Gaelic place names which relate to agricultural land where sheep would have been previously kept by crofters. To a certain extent these names went out of use due to changes in agricultural practices, but to remap and reclaim them is to again symbolise the landscape in terms of the past practices of crofters and helps maintain their Gaelic names. These processes are bound within notions of dwelling (Rose, 2016) in terms of a set of processes that attempt to mark and claim the landscape.

Although cultural capital in this sense embodied local knowledge, it is also linked to social capital in the way in which heritage activities and meetings of CEs help to value and reproduce this knowledge. Despite this emphasis on traditional communities, in fact many of the residents of the Outer Hebrides are ‘incomers’, reflecting trends in retirement and counter-urbanisation, which can cause resentment (Jedrej & Nuttall, 1996). Yet through participating in cultural heritage work and the CEs, incoming members of the community are able to form links with the surrounding community, both social and symbolic. It helps them to establish themselves in the local landscape and participate in this embedded knowledge. Indeed, the strong sense of community is one of the factors that attracts them there.

Hence, in Bourdieu’s sense, embodied cultural capital was managed through the intergenerational transmission of knowledge, genealogies and names, while objectivised cultural capital was embodied in the archives and artefacts themselves. These forms of cultural capital were institutionalised through the CE itself, which also represented one of the main forms of social capital. However, in contrast to the kinds of elite or hegemonic cultural capital that Bourdieu was mainly concerned with, the forms of cultural capital described here were embedded in the history of a particular locality.

Historical associations and civil society

Cultural and social capital are embedded in this example in community knowledge, and this sense of community is kept alive by the civil society associated with it. The process of developing these community archives is centred around social relationships and is the process by which ‘value’ is attributed by community members that are involved. The CE groups enjoyed the process of reminiscing as they sifted through these collections, such as remembering their past schooldays and those of others. This was the reason why old photographs, rolls of honour (a record of those lost at war) and school records were particularly treasured. It was also how the conversation moved to draw out the memories of older volunteers so that they could then be written up or drawn upon for others to gain a stronger sense of the history of the area. Thus, narratives play a central role in making cultural meaning transmissible in different ways (Stiegler, 2010). This process is more than simply handing down objects from generation to generation, as the narrative itself is the first kind of externalisation that then allows following things to happen. Hence, the shift from oral narration to textual archive (which constitutes the primary work of the CE movement to date) is the foundation upon which digitised content can be created; this in turn allows a whole set of other things to happen (Wilson, 2012; Stiegler, 2010). Therefore, this means such processes contribute to something bigger, something more fundamental, that continues to lead to an ongoing production of the history of place for the Western Isles: if this did not happen, such memories and knowledge would be lost. The narratives also create meaning out of the collection of objects found in the museums (such as milk churns, old domestic equipment, spinning wheels and shepherd’s crooks) whose value is created by the narratives which have meaning in that community due to their ‘externalisation’. For example, the spinning wheels were often passed down through female lines of descent, as the shepherd’s crooks were through male ones. Hence by meeting and reminiscing in the CE groups, embodied cultural capital could be inscribed in the collection of artefacts and their meaning preserved.

The process itself, the shared experience of participating, collecting and listening with others, the sense of producing something of worth for the community and its ability to bring people together, contributed to a sense of well-being and cohesiveness:

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.

However, it was also the way in which the community constituted itself. The non-inclusion of uncomfortable memories such as religious schism, divorce, crime and incest means that representations of island life were circumscribed. Hence a representation of community cohesion was part of the way in which the communities constructed themselves (Wallace et al., 2017). It is also how the groups define and decide what knowledge is valuable to them and what is not. This process, like in any cultural institution, reflects their practices, or what Hetherington refers to as the ‘regime of curiosity’, which is attuned to ‘pick out’ the things, objects and narratives that other collections or historians have missed, chosen to ignore or seen as irrelevant, but which are also selective in their representation (Hetherington, 2006). Hence this history is no less ‘true’ than the larger academic narratives, but forms part of the social relations of the community itself. A large proportion of this reflects how, as has been mentioned, the CE groups want to develop their own sense of history and identity, which they collect and narrate (selectively) on their terms. This has, to date, been created collectively and resulted in vast repositories of materials for the different communities.

For CE members it is important to value ‘things’: objects, stories and genealogical knowledge that others might have missed, chosen not to keep or which have simply never been recorded. Hence this sense of historical loss was part of the motivation to record and collect:

Well if it’s not recorded it will go, it will just be oral history and there has always been a tradition of oral history which is why there’s a lot of things you know but you have no record of … it’s just something you’ve always heard but it’s never been written down anywhere and I think these things should be recorded. And I think they have as much value as written history, while they are still oral. I think some people denigrate oral history as something that doesn’t have the same value because it’s hearsay, in a way, and it doesn’t – there’s nothing to verify it but it’s still extremely valuable I think, in local history.

Therefore, the process of collecting is a form of social memory (Nora, 1989) that creates a repository of community knowledge which others can use to learn about their history and heritage. The process therefore reflects a central ontological angst that the CE groups share and partly drives their activities. If they were not to collect this information, it would be lost:

I’m in my mid-seventies now so growing up, there was no television or even radio, a couple of people had radio so it was either playing outside or else in the taighean [ceilidh] and listening to the stories … It was really to give it a proper status and start recording stuff because we were realising that the stories were being lost and it’s only people like myself now, who is [recognised] as the older generation – I still feel, going looking for older people to record and then I realise, ‘Well that’s me!’ But that’s really how it started; trying to record as much as possible before any more is lost.

And we were given a sense that the oral tradition was beginning to break up. And I suppose a key driver was to get … we had, for instance, we had people who had spent a lot of time in Patagonia, we had people who had come back from Australia and it wasn’t one or two people going out, it was maybe fifteen, twenty men from the community going away to Patagonia, there was a real sense we had to get some information on that before these people passed over. And I think that was one of the key drivers.

The respondents above highlight how such community knowledge was previously passed on and how this has had to change due to ways in which people no longer gather or retain information as they had in the past. Therefore the archive becomes the cultural repository for this knowledge and memory, acting as a point of reference for communities to trace back and gather their histories. Once recorded and documented it could become ‘institutionalised social capital’ and therefore preserved.

In this way respondents help to create a representation of community. However, community is a contested concept (Mulligan, 2015) and while cultural heritage helps to create a sense of historical continuity, it belies the fact that the population of these communities has changed over time with population decline followed by more recent counter-urbanisation. This has brought an influx of a retirement population, many of whom are not Gaelic speaking, but are nevertheless keen to belong. The loss of younger families is reflected in the availability of schoolhouses for conversion to cultural heritage centres. The keen sense of nostalgia and potential loss that emerges in the interviews perhaps reflects an awareness of a particular chapter of history and residents’ lives coming to an end. And yet the work of CEs has also helped to revitalise these small, remote communities.

The nature of these developments reflects the landscape of living in the Outer Hebrides, whereby outside the main town of Stornoway, the population is sparse and amenities are limited. Hence many CEs have sought to fill many of the gaps in provision that this brings, consequently extending the role the CEs have in different communities. This comes from both a desire to improve the amenities in an area but also represents the need for CEs to find other forms of income to support their activities. As the CE member below states, the need to generate revenue to sustain the CE’s activities causes them to move beyond the activities of collecting histories and into other areas:

My lead role at the moment in the Comainn Eachdraidh is looking at ways to widen it to make it sustainable. So that the museum, which I see as very important and the archive, may not generate money in themselves, they will generate massive interest and bring people in and it’s looking at things like having a cafe on the site or something so we can get some money. We’ll get some money from the heritage, historical side, in terms of book sales and things like that but only probably enough to justify having done it; we’ll break even on them. We’re not going to make massive profits on anything in that.

As well as this, CE members have been strongly involved in the move towards the community ownership of land, which is possible under Scottish law, whereby surrounding land is acquired by the local community. Comainn Eachdraidh members have often played a strong role in making these kinds of community-led initiatives happen (Skerratt & Hall, 2011), which is often generated by their strong understanding of local history and the historical vulnerability of land tenure in a crofting system. Therefore, although starting with a focus based upon cultural heritage, the activities involved spill out into other things within their communities, giving CEs an even stronger and more central role than a historical association would normally have in the UK. It can also be realised in terms of economic value as the respondent above makes clear.

Although the focus might be primarily on collecting community history, due to the cultural and social capital that this produces, it becomes so much more within the locations, offering amenities, employment (both paid and voluntary) and educational opportunities. This is a key component to how all CE groups develop and consequently bring a form of cultural value to their communities that builds on their core activities. This in turn nurtures community ties and guarantees that such archive spaces are active the majority of the time.

Embracing digital opportunities

In 2011 a team of us at the dot.rural digital hub at the University of Aberdeen was invited to help the nascent digital platform ‘Hebridean Connections’ to develop a new online platform. This initiative to link the different CEs across the islands by providing a common, searchable database had run aground by being dependent on commercial software, which had in itself become obsolete. Therefore, a research team at the University of Aberdeen helped to set up a new database using free open-source software. Using semantic web technology, it was able to link to other archives and databases as well as conjoining the material across the islands. In this way, it was able to link residents, crofts, fishing boats and other information (Tait et al., 2013). However, this required that volunteers at the local CEs were trained to provide and validate data on the database. This meant that for the first time, genealogies could be linked across different CE regions. By providing a network linking the various CE organisations and a method for linking their various collections, Hebridean Connections took local cultural heritage to a new stage. It forms a new era of the institutionalisation of local cultural capital. Not all communities wanted to form part of Hebridean Connections, however, whether or not they digitised their collections, as they were concerned about losing control of their material as it moved into a digital dimension. Digitalisation was not seen as a universal positive by all the groups or by members within CEs that had decided to contribute to Hebridean Connections.

I definitely hope to have a greater understanding of the local community. And I suppose through Comainn Eachdraidh, definitely, I will meet more people. Even that day sitting in that room, because I didn’t know who half the people were … I suppose I’ll get to know who more people are, locally, so that’s definitely something that I’ll gain from it.

The above quote highlights two things about the use of digital technology, both how knowledge (for the individual) is through digital activity and how their relationship to the local community is also (re)produced by their participation. Thus, the mixing and meeting with other CEs through the training provided by Hebridean Connections has created a space through which stronger connections between communities and individuals can be built. The system itself, and the need to collaborate in the production of digital records, has also meant that much more dialogue between the groups has been facilitated. This is interesting in itself as Putnam (2000), in his articulation of social capital, suggested that digital technologies were partly at fault for the loss of such relationships. Here, collaboration and participation in the project show something different is taking place, suggesting that digital activities such as these need not be isolating and the very practices that produce digital forms as in themselves reconstituting socio-spatial relationships (Rose, 2016).

Second, for newcomers to island communities, the ability to help on the project has been a significant ‘bridge’ into CE groups, allowing ‘outsiders’ to bond and integrate into pre-existing communities more easily:

Well I’m learning new skills. It’s on a very simple level at the moment, just being taught how to create records and now that a bit more time is becoming available, I hope to become a bit more active with the local historical society. So gaining knowledge and contacts.

I don’t know, I think if you live in a community you have to give something back to the community. So to me, it’s a two-way street; I get lots of knowledge and information about the actual community that I live in and in return I can give something back: data entry is not a complicated job to do. Having done research in my own family history, it’s a complicated thing to understand, a lot of the records and things don’t make sense or add up but for me, I think it’s nice to be part of the local community.

As we can see, the digitalisation of heritage was also a way of generating new kinds of cultural and social capital. Perhaps this outside view helped to prompt the institutionalisation of embodied cultural capital that was otherwise locked in the heads and memories of some local community members and in danger of dying with them. People wishing to understand local history or research their ancestry would be referred to particular individuals who might know. Digitalisation encouraged the institutionalisation and transmission of embodied knowledge.

The ability to take part in an activity in which you could be helpful to a pre-existing group, by bringing externally acquired skills but not be viewed as in some way ‘overbearing’, was an opportunity that a variety of participants really benefited from. Therefore, the nature of the voluntary ‘digital work’ that creating archives like these produces has allowed people to integrate into a community more easily. Here, cultural activity and the ability to participate creates different forms of cultural value for those involved. The community acquires more members who can make a meaningful contribution despite not having an in-depth knowledge of the locale. Those coming in can further develop their sense of connectedness within the community. It also represents how the CE movement is not just indigenous islanders remembering their past but a vibrant series of communities attracting incomers who bring skills as well as bridging social capital to institutions outside the island.

Third, digitalisation also fostered another kind of social linking – to the Scottish diaspora communities. The keen interest in Scottish heritage and in tracing ‘one’s roots’ that is found among Scottish descendants elsewhere provides a new set of users and contributors to the digital platform. These more geographically scattered people could link in to cultural heritage information through the use of Hebridean Connections websites and databases which provided information about former residents, their fishing boats, marriages and crofts and places where they were born and died.

Therefore digitalisation was seen as a way to preserve historical records of value to the communities. Crumbling papers, obsolescent tape recordings and fading photos could be preserved, enhanced and given a new life online. This again picks up upon the work of Stiegler (2010) but seeks to extend it too. Stiegler highlights how this form of pedagogical memory works and seeks to transmit cultural knowledge across generations, only here, through the different and new ‘connectivities’ being created, the transmission of cultural memory moves beyond generational transmission, to encompass people external to that ancestral relationship. To caveat this, to some, this was also seen as a threat to local communities who would thereby lose control to some extent of ‘their’ historical narratives and property. Additional and contested narratives could arrive from outside the community (for example from diaspora communities) and materials become submerged in the great global ocean of communications and subsequently remashed in unknown ways. This was why some CEs refused to participate in the online platforms created by Hebridean Connections.

The project enabled the creation of a database of records, which could be cross-referenced and accessed openly based upon individuals, crofts, fishing boats or other reference points (Tait et al., 2013) enabling online searches and constructing new information and narratives around local sources as they were connected in new ways both internally and externally. This therefore represents what Rose (2016) terms as the movement of cultural ‘artefacts’ into digital form and this chapter seeks to consider the changing geographies created by such a transition to collective way of knowing (Elwood & Mitchell, 2015). Central to this, as has been to various geographers interested in transference to digital technology, is the work of Stiegler (2010) who frames this chapter in addition to the more arbitrary notions of cultural value above.

The Comainn Eachdraidh – six years on

A set of follow-up interviews in 2019 illustrated some of the successes as well as the pitfalls of the digitalisation of cultural heritage. The database, which had been running from 2015 to 2019, generated ‘hits’ from an astonishing 151,096 people from 153 countries. Hence, while the database helped make local records more manageable and sustainable for local communities, it also helped link those communities with a wider world. So the ‘local’ became ‘global’. In doing so, it was evident that the wider diaspora was also invested in a sense of local community with which they identified through their sense of history. In the words of one respondent: ‘It starts with the local and it makes it international if you like … People from all over the world have connections with the place.’ Many anecdotal stories about how people who had been researching their family ancestry in North America were put in touch with the local Comainn Eachdraidh, whose members welcomed them and introduced them to relatives and showed them where their forebears had lived. As one key informant put it: ‘People who emigrated are very interested in what happens locally. What they do. They come back to visit. A lot of people get in touch with requests mainly about family history.’

This global exposure also generated new materials as people arrived with correspondence or news from people who had emigrated:

We’ve had increasing numbers of people coming from Canada and America wanting to research their families … One particular lady had some notion that there was a connection to the place and tapped in connections (digitally) and through Hebridean Connections got in touch with me. We were able to take her to that croft where her great-grandparents were born. She came here from Virginia. And she was absolutely delighted …. I would say that aspect of what we do is certainly important and increasing in frequency. And I think part of that is Hebridean Connections.

This use of digital infrastructure also helped to engage younger people and the wider community in curating local history. The use of the schoolhouse also helped to connect to sports, fitness, mothers and toddlers and other groups which brought economic as well as social benefits to these communities. In the words of one respondent, ‘It is about forging links between heritage, the arts and tourism as economic drivers’. The links with the wider diaspora helped create opportunities for local communities to share their knowledge. The interest turned out to be more than had been expected. In the words of one local CE secretary:

We get about three inquires per month, something of that order. About one a week. For instance, we had one person from New Zealand who subsequently came here to live in the area and trace his relatives. Seven of his family came back here for a week and we set up a couple of meetings with his family down here. So one inquiry can generate a massive amount of contact further down the line.

However, it also revealed some problems with this kind of digitalisation for local historical associations. The management of the Hebridean Connections website had been taken over by the islands local authority who employed 1.5 people with historical training to do this. This was a reflection of the local importance of the initiative. However, its popularity generated its own problems as this small number of workers were inundated with requests for information, not all of which could be followed up.

Local authority spending cuts had cut the service to the bone and even the 1.5 people employed also had to spread their time with other projects. The Facebook page in particular had generated a lot of interest and through the Facebook page people were redirected to the database and eventually to the relevant local CE branch. However, the database still relied on volunteers to upload and validate information, which was a painstaking and time-consuming piece of work that only trained volunteers could take up. There were not enough of them and therefore there was a backlog of materials that were on the database and not yet validated. This is where the Facebook pages took on a life of their own, because it was relatively easy to upload and discuss photographs or other data. The Facebook page provided a very fast turnaround of information, was more easily accessed and enabled strong participation – in contrast to the Hebridean Connections database where all entries have to be laboriously and manually validated.

This led the Hebridean Connections management to develop a revamped and easier database whereby materials could be uploaded for public information and only later validated. However, due to lack of funding, the launch had been delayed at the time of our interviews in 2019.

A further complication was that since our initial contact in 2011, European Union GDPR legislation came into force, limiting what personal information could be held digitally. This meant that all living persons had to be expunged from the database and only information about deceased persons could be uploaded. This was sometimes a problem for those trying to find information about living relatives.

It became clear that the value of this database was a product of it constantly being updated and validated. Yet this activity was under threat due to the lack of trained volunteers (the training had taken place in 2015 and some of those trained had dropped out, died or moved away, so more training was needed). The whole project was under threat due to lack of funds and the uneven nature of project funding, which tended to be time limited. We had already discovered that the timing of project funding did not always coincide with what was needed, which was why there had been a two-year delay between initially setting up the Hebridean Connections project and actually implementing it, which was only possible when a grant had allowed two project officers to be employed for a year to go round and train volunteers in the CE branches.

However, many of the local CE branches had meanwhile thrived. The local Ness CE boasted 3,500 visitors in the month of July, had completely rebuilt the old schoolhouse and now had an elegant cafe, spacious meeting space, shop and exhibition space in addition to the local archive. These activities spawned other ones and it now has a youth club, kids’ after school club, men’s shed, day club for seniors, Happy Ness (another seniors club) and a football club. In this way (and through the judicious use of grants) it spread its uses and resources to wider groups in the community. The photograph (Figure 15.3) illustrates the rebuilt schoolhouse as we found it in 2019.

With these examples, we can see how what begins as cultural heritage can lead to many other activities that help to bridge different generations of men and women. The local museum becomes a community focal point. This also helps to generate economic benefits for the community, even if that was not the first principle, even in fairly remote islands: ‘And the idea has always been that with that information (from the database) they’ll then come and visit Bernera itself and spend money and provide a bit of income that way.’ Digitalisation helps to preserve cultural heritage and to make it available to a wider world. However, it is also dependent upon affordable and accessible technology – the reason we became involved in the project in the first place was that the previous database could only be maintained by a professional service – something which was unsustainable in the longer term. Therefore, the Hebridean Connections project was in some ways a victim of its own success as it created a demand that could not always be fulfilled. It also widened the idea of ‘local knowledge’ with keen contributions from the diaspora community who also added their materials in the form of letters, photos and information about families who had emigrated.

A further dimension may have taken place with the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented travel but increased the importance of digital connectivity. The islands had their own digital networks and infrastructure, sometimes better than on the mainland, thanks to the judicious deployment of grants and other resources, including self-help for communities that were familiar with managing on their own (Wallace et al., 2015). Therefore, remoteness did not necessarily mean that they were cut off. However, this happened after our later data gathering project and would need to be the topic of further research.


We have shown how local historical associations on the Outer Hebrides known as the Comainn Eachdraidh have helped generate cultural and social capital within their localities and across the islands. An important part of this is their sense of uniqueness of place represented in the Gaelic language. This cultural and social capital, involving a sense of local pride, is related to the strong participation in civil society found in these remote places where people have had to fall back on local resources for their sustainability.

Digitalisation has helped to further sustain these activities, made them more globally accessible and produced a new focus of activity for local CEs and their collective representation through the digital platform, Hebridean Connections. Digitalisation has produced both advantages and threats. The advantages include linking these islands to a wider diaspora and community of interest worldwide and encouraging visitor flow and benefits for the local economy. Threats include the loss of control of information by local associations and the creation of a demand that small groups of older volunteers cannot always fulfil. The follow-up research in 2019 illustrated the evolving tendencies in these connections with some CEs unable to keep up with the digitalisation programme and a new platform needed to be created to manage the large numbers of inquiries.

The research illustrates how social and cultural capital are connected at a local level, something that is vague in Bourdieu’s own formulation of the issues. It also illustrates how cultural transmission occurs through technology to link the past with the present and the future as Stiegler (2010) intimated. He argues that media technology has come to dominate memory and consciousness as a form of ‘telecracy’, although he was writing before the widespread use of social media enabled the mass participation of people in generating media. However, while Stiegler emphasised the centralised top-down nature of media technology and was critical of the commercialisation of digital infrastructures as part of the political economy of capitalism more generally, the CE movement helped to show how local control of this infrastructure can also help to empower local civil society and thus benefit rural quality of life.


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