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Edith Durham



'Queen of the Highlanders'


Images of Albania and Albanians in English
Literature from Edith Durham's High Albania to J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter

(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, UK.
Dr Alpion is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute.)


The Albanian 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 occupation.

In this 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

The Albania 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 Albanologists.

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 on this.

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 Natural History.

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 Çetinje, the capital of the exotic principality of Montenegro.

She was 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 correct.

Durham did 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

Many British 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.

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.

The problem 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."

Durham was, 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.

She remained 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.

Durham was 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

She upset 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).

She approached 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.

Durham was 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 Albanologists.

She'discovered' 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.

When Durham 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 neighbours.

Much as 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.

Although 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.

High Albania 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.

She had 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.

Charmed 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.

She became 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' .

This mountainous 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 not do.

Her patronizing 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.' (Durham 1985)

Durham was 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!'' (Ibid., 197).

Durham understood 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 Tea-party.

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

High Albania 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.

Edith Durham's 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.

She continued 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:- "Open-minded 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".


Very few 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.

Durham came 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..

She was 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 of Albania.


With thanks to:
Besa Journal
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.


Further 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

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