'Queen of the Highlanders'
Images of Albania
and Albanians in English
Literature from Edith Durham's High Albania to J. K. Rowling's
(On 12th February 2002
Dr Gëzim Alpion presented a paper at the Institute for Advanced
Research in Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham,
Dr Alpion is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute.)
State, as we know it now, was born at the turn of the twentieth
century, but the history of Albania [PERHAPS] predates that of
Greece. History has been cruel to the Albanians since the Roman
conquest. Except for the 1443-1468 period, when the Albanian national
hero Gjergj Kastrioti, Skanderbeg, (1403 - 1468) was successful
in his mammoth task to defeat the Ottomans (thus defending both
the Albanian nation and Catholic Europe), the fifteen years (1925-1939)
when Ahmed Zogolli (1895-1961) ruled Albania first as a president
and then as a monarch, and the post World War II period, for the
last two millennia the Albanians have been constantly living under
respect, Albania is the closest European equivalent to Egypt.
Like the Egyptians, who had to wait for almost three millennia
until they finally could govern themselves again in 1952, the
Albanians never abandoned the dream for self-rule. As opposed
to the Egyptians, however, when the Albanians finally succeeded
in proclaiming their country's independence in 1912, they were
not left with much of a country to govern
that resulted from the dreadful historical miscalculations and
injustices culminating in the London Conference of the Ambassadors
of the Six European Great Powers in 1913, was a dismembered nation,
something of a still-birth whose long-term survival was never
taken seriously. But survive the fledgling Albanian State did,
and so did the Albanians living in Albania territories unjustly
left outside Albania. Survival has been a basic instinct of the
Albanians since 169 BC when Gent, the last Illyrian king, was
captured by the Romans at Shkodra. This has always baffled foreign
It was this
specific Albanian characteristic that surprised and marvelled
Edith Durham (1863-1944), one of the most well known, some would
say controversial, Western Albanologists of the first half of
the twentieth century. A British woman, a self-taught anthropologist,
writer and artist, she spent the first two decades of this century
traveling in the Balkans, took up the Albanian cause, wrote seven
books on the Balkans and influenced British foreign policy. She
was adamant that it was not religious difference that caused the
bloodshed of the Balkan Wars. She observed and took photographs
of religious processions. Some, taken in Scutari (today's Shkodër)
show clearly from the clothing and headgear of the participants
that they were from different religions. And the same was true
when Pope Paul II visited Shkodra in l993. People attend religious
ceremonies regardless of which faith they belong to, as a form
of social gathering. Numerous Western travelers have remarked
Mary Edith Durham was born in 1863 in Hanover Square, London.
Her father, Arthur Edward Durham, was a distinguished surgeon
who sired a large Victorian family of eight children, all of whom
went on to excel in respectable professions. Edith manifested
artistic ambitions and, after being educated privately in London,
attended the Royal Academy of Arts. She became an accomplished
illustrator and watercolourist, exhibiting widely and contributing
detailed drawings to the amphibia and reptiles volume of the Cambridge
As the eldest
child - and still unmarried in her thirties - Edith took on the
task of caring for her ailing mother after her father's death.
Filial responsibility turned out to be the unlikely impetus for
her Balkan entanglements. At thirty-seven, Durham sailed from
Trieste down the Dalmatian coast to Cattaro and trekked overland
to Ãetinje, the capital of the exotic principality
not a scholar when she first visited the Balkans and the Albanian
territories in 1900. It would probably be unwise to consider everything
she wrote on the region's complicated history as being indisputably
not go to the Balkans to do fieldwork; she went there on medical
advice when she was ill and depressed. She left England for a
cure and found a vocation. She was one of the first Western travel-writers
to discover that the Balkans is a career
and European hopefuls are trying to emulate Durham's example,
especially recently when so much has happened in the Balkans:
the collapse of Communism, the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia,
the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosova, and the fighting in Macedonia.
to some recently self-proclaimed Western experts in Balkan and
Albanian affairs, Durham appears to have gone to the region not
with many preconceptions and prejudices. While it is true that
she wrote favourably more often than not about the Albanians,
her 'preference' for one of the most ancient European nations
was not inspired or motivated by the interests of her own country
in the Balkans or Albania.
re-emerged after the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, when an arbitrary
and unjust decision by the London Conference in 1913 assigned
Kosova to Serbia and other parts of Albania to Macedonia and Montenegro.
With the rebirth of Yugoslavia in 1945, Kosova was annexed to
Serbia by the decision of the Great Powers. In 1908 the famous
Albanologist, Edith Durham said: "Empires
came and went, and passed over the Albanian as does the water
off a duck's back."
however, the twentieth century's indispensable interpreter of
Albania, and arguably the most important writer on that culture
since J. C. Hobhouse journeyed through the Albanian lands with
Byron. She was adored among the Albanians themselves,
who knew her as "Kralica e Malėsorevet" - the Queen
of the Highlanders. "She gave us her heart and she won the ear
of our mountaineers", the exiled Albanian king,
Zog, wrote to The
Times on her death in 1944 (even though she was not on good terms
with him, either). The only other Briton to have been so lionised
was, improbably, Norman Wisdom,
whom the Communist dictator Enver Hoxha found uproariously entertaining.
involved in Albanian affairs for the rest of her life and was
secretary of the Anglo-Albanian society. In fact, with Aubrey
Herbert (a relation to Lord Carnarvon, who discovered the tomb
of Tutankhamun), she is credited as having Albania finally recognized
by the League of Nations in 1920.
a scholar by instinct rather than by trade. She based her judgments
on her own observations. She wrote about what she saw. In this
respect she is different from the nineteenth-century German writer
Karl May, who offered to the German readership an almost entirely
fictitious picture of the Albanians
many of her contemporary, one-sided and often blinkered Balkans
experts because she championed the cause of a long-neglected people.
But this was not done for reasons of self-interest. Despite her
initial reason for visiting the Balkans, Durham benefited the
region more than it benefited her. The Albanians were so impressed
with her relentless efforts on their behalf (in Albania and the
UK) that they expressed their gratitude by referring to her as
their Kratlitse (Queen).
and vigorously defended the Albanian question primarily as a humanist.
As opposed to some recently self-proclaimed Western experts in
Balkan and Albanian affairs, Durham appears to have gone to the
region not with many preconceptions and prejudices. While it is
true that she wrote favourably more often than not about the Albanians,
her 'preference' for one of the most ancient European nations
was not inspired or motivated by the interests of her own country
in the Balkans or Albania.
her own spokesperson when she defended the Albanians. With her
determination to speak her own mind, she set an example seldom
followed by her contemporary British and Western Balkanists and
Albania, especially Northern Albania, the country was perceived
as being in a state of hibernation as a result of successive invasions
by the Celts, the Romans, the Slavs and the Turks. The Albanians
appeared ossified. Although geographically near, they were politically
and economically far from the European Powers that had perpetually
chosen to ignore and often abandon them in favour of their own
political and economic interests.
visited Albania, Europe had little time for the long neglected
country. She found the Albanians isolated, but not of their own
volition. They had been forced into isolation. Cut off from Europe,
the Albanians had no alternative but to ensure their survival
by relying on their ancient mythology, laws and traditions. These
were bound to change and in some cases to become distorted in
order to suit the often extraordinary circumstances the Albanian
nation had experienced during the previous two thousand years.
The Canon of Lek Dukagjin, for instance, is probably the
best example of the need the Albanians felt to revive, preserve,
update and to some extent 'spoil' their ancient traditions of
self-government in order to meet the challenges of surviving under
Turkish rule and the constant threat of assimilation by their
she regretted the Albanians' imposed isolation from Western Europe,
Durham makes no secret of her exultation at discovering the exotic
Albania and Albanians. While it is true she differs from many
former and contemporary European 'experts' in Albania for the
unfashionable sympathy for the Albanians, the exotic is as central
in her writings on Albania as it is in the work of other Western
travel writers, past and present.
Durham travelled widely throughout the Albanian territories, her
most inspired work High Albania (1909) concentrates on one of
the most isolated and as such, one of the most exotic parts of
Albania and the Albanian nation.
offered Durham a unique opportunity to see a 'backwater of
life' at the heart of Europe, which has 'primitive virtues,
without many of the meannesses of what is called civilisation.
It is uncorrupted by luxury' It was in this particular region
of Albania, well known for its breathtaking and epic landscape
and its people's proverbial hospitality, that Durham felt transported
into an alien yet majestic world of living myths and legends,
about which her European education had taught her almost nothing.
been well received in the Albanian uplands, and although it was
unusual for a woman to travel to the remoter mountain districts,
the notion of a lone female wanderer actually fitted with Albanian
custom: the tradition of Albanian "Sworn
Virgins"* - women who assumed the responsibilities
of manhood and wore men's clothes and held a protected status
in tribal society - meant that Durham travelled unmolested.
by a reality she had never thought it existed, Durham remarks:
I think no place where human beings live has given me such
an impression of majestic isolation from all the world. It is
a spot where the centuries shrivel; the river might be the world's
well-spring, its banks the fit home of elemental instincts - passions
that are red and rapid.
a fervent promoter of the Albanian national cause all over the
world. I looked her up to see that, "many thought her
at best wildly eccentric and at worst completely mad."
And yet, her most famous work High Albania published in 1909,
is still one of the leading guides to the culture and customs
of this area. She was much loved by the Albanians, who gave her
the name "Queen of the Highlanders."
Durham that she often 'forgot all about the rest of the world'.
In High Albania Durham came into contact with an enchanting wilderness,
which explains why when she was there she commented: 'I
never want books. They are dull compared to the life stories that
are daily enacted among the bare grey rocks' .
part of Albania was for Durham something of an exotic oasis at
the heart of Europe, which at times she felt was better left unspoilt.
In High Albania Durham the humanist and champion of the rights
of small nations is at times subdued by Durham the selfish Western
tourist who seems to believe that the world and other nationalities
exist primarily for her own recreation and entertainment. Thus
Durham emerges as judge and jury; she alone knows best what is
good or bad for the Albanians and what they should and should
attitude is seen especially in the comments she makes when hearing
that the farmers in one of the most fertile regions in Albania
would welcome the building of a new railway: I looked at the room
full of long, lean cat-o'-mountains, and wondered whether it would
benefit anybody - let alone themselves - to turn them into fat
corn and horse dealers 'Civilisation
is vexation, And progress is as bad, The things that be, they
puzzle me, And Cultchaw drives me mad.'
not the only one who would have preferred the Albanians to remain
'uncivilised'. 'God cast you into Hell,' a priest once
said to her, 'that you might tell of it in England - that you
might cry to every Catholic in England: 'Save these people!''
the Albanians well enough to realise that they were no t'wild'
and 'uncivilised'. She tried hard to comprehend and explain, sometimes
successfully sometimes not, why they were lagging behind other
European nations. Occasionally, however, Durham glorifies the
'primitive' life in which contemporary Albanians lived. Dazzled
by the festive atmosphere she witnessed throughout the feast of
St. John, she remarked: I thought how dull London dinner-parties
are, and wondered why people ever think they would like to be
civilised. This was as good as being Alice at the Mad Hatter's
If not taken
out of context, Durham's remarks on the Albanians' lack of civilisation
are on the whole light-hearted. I personally enjoy reading her
work not because she wrote, and in most cases favourably, about
Albania. She had the ability to rediscover Albania, to reinterpret
the country, the people and the culture not just for the European
audience still largely ignorant of this terra incognita, but also
for the Albanians. Her independent mind, her eye for details and
her sincere and fresh narrative are bound to continue to attract
the attention of open-minded readers who do not judge Albania
and the Albanians
depicted only one Albanian region. Durham made it clear from the
beginning of the book that the conditions there 'are very different
from those in South Albania, and it is with the wildest part of
High Albania alone that this book deals' (Ibid., 1). Did she offer
this explanation simply because she wanted to clarify to the readers
the scope and focus of her book, or because she was afraid lest
her work would be seen as the 'definitive' picture of all Albania?
Whatever her reasons were, it cannot be disputed that in High
Albania and other works, Edith Durham introduced Albania and the
Albanians to the British readers in a sympathetic light (although
at times patronisingly) hardly seen before.
work belongs to the best tradition of the British travel writing
where foreigners are depicted not as the alien and hostile 'other'
but as fellow human beings who try hard, at times against all
odds, to retain and protect their individual and national identity
and integrity. Writers like Edith Durham, D. H. Lawrence, George
Orwell and E. M. Forster presented a new picture and perception
of overseas peoples and cultures to a largely ignorant and at
times misinformed British readership.
her campaign throughout the 1930s and befriended many Albanians
driven into exile in London. On "Black Friday" (Good Friday 1939)
after hearing that Mussolini's forces had invaded Albania, the
outraged 76 year old Edith Durham paraded the London streets wearing
a placard with the slogan "Hands off Albania!"She died in November
1944. An obituary containing an emotional tribute written by a
leading Albanian politician appeared in the Daily Telegraph:-
and generous as she was, she speedily understood Albania's soul
... Fearlessly and without compromise she told the world and its
rulers what she had learned... Albanians have never forgotten,
and never will forget this Englishwoman. In the Albanian mountains
she knew so well, the news of her death will echo from peak to
peak, the news of the death of one who was loved there".
A SPEECH GIVEN BY PRESIDENT MOISIU IN 2004:
people have done for Albania and Albanians, for the defence of
our human and national rights than the ethnographer, historian
and known publicist that chose our land to spent the most active
part of her life.
to Albania at a time when we did not have a state, when we did
not have friends or Western allies. Through her words and work
she became the best ambassador for Albania and Albanians..
indeed an Uncrowned Queen of Albania, who not only continued the
excellent tradition English travellers such as Lord Byron, but
also became the advocate and faithful spokeswoman for Albanians
and Albanianl interests. She never stopped writing and talking
and working for the Albanian cause, even at the age of 76 she
took to the streets of London to protest against the fascist invasion
With thanks to:
whence this text has been rceived
and adapted by my friend Anthony Weir.
* see WOMEN WHO
BECOME MEN: Albanian Sworn Virgins, by Antonia Young. Oxford
and New York, Berg, 2000.
read on:" High Albania"
High Albania. Edith Durham, with a new introduction
by John HodgsoOriginally published in 1909.
Reprinted 1985 Beacon Press, Boston
*Queen of the Highlanders*
Edith Durham in "the land of the living past"
by Charles King