Edith Durham

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Edith Durham
Edit Durham (portret).jpg
Mary Edith Durham

8 December 1863
Died15 November 1944(1944-11-15) (aged 80)
Academic background
Academic work
Main interestsAlbanian history, Culture
Notable worksHigh Albania
InfluencedRobert Elsie

Mary Edith Durham, FRAI (8 December 1863 – 15 November 1944) was a British artist, anthropologist, noted Albanophile[1] and writer who became famous for her anthropological accounts of life in Albania in the early 20th century.

Early life[edit]

Durham was the eldest of nine children; her father, Arthur Edward Durham, was a distinguished London surgeon. She attended Bedford College (1878–82) followed by the Royal Academy of Arts to train as an artist. She exhibited widely and contributed a number of detailed drawings to the amphibia and reptiles volume of the Cambridge Natural History (published 1899).[2]

Balkan expeditions[edit]

After the death of her father, Durham took on the responsibilities of caring for her sick mother for several years. It proved an exhausting experience; when she was 37, her doctor recommended that she should undertake a foreign vacation to recuperate. She took a trip by sea down the coast of Dalmatia, travelling from Trieste to Kotor and then overland to Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro. It gave her a taste for southern Balkan life that she was to retain for the rest of her life.

Durham travelled extensively in the Balkans over the next twenty years, focusing particularly on Albania, which then was one of the most isolated and undeveloped areas of Europe. She worked in a variety of relief organisations, painted and wrote, and collected folklore and folk art.

She contributed frequently to the journal Man and became a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Her writings, however, were to earn her particular fame. She wrote seven books on Balkan affairs, of which High Albania (1909) is the best known. It is still regarded as the pre-eminent guide to the customs and society of the highlands of northern Albania.


After her pro-Serb phase (Through the Lands of the Serbs published in London, 1904), Durham came to identify closely with the Albanian cause and championed the unity and independence of the Albanian people. She earned a reputation as a difficult and eccentric person,[citation needed] and was strongly criticised by – and criticised in turn – advocates of a Yugoslav state, who supported the incorporation of Albanian-populated parts of Kosovo into Yugoslavia. She became increasingly anti-Serb,[3] denouncing what she termed "Serb vermin" for having "not created a Jugoslavia but have carried out their original aim of making Great Serbia .... Far from being liberated the bulk of people live under a far harsher rule than before."[4]

Other, more pro-Serb British intellectuals sharply criticised her views. Rebecca West included Durham in her description of the sort of traveller who came back "with a pet Balkan people established in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree and never the massacrer," (Durham sued West over this)[5] and then went on to say: "The Bulgarians, as preferred by some, and the Albanians, as championed by others, strongly resembled Sir Joshua Reynolds's picture of the Infant Samuel."[6][7] R.W. Seton-Watson commented that "the fact is that while always denouncing 'Balkan mentality', she is herself exactly what she means by the word."[5][note 1]

For their part, however, the Albanians held Durham in high regard. They dubbed her "Mbretëresha e Malësoreve" – the "Queen of the Highlanders." She was given an embroidered waistcoat by the government to thank her for lobbying the British government on behalf of the occupied city of Korçë.[8] She was well received in the Albanian highlands and passed unmolested despite being a lone female traveller. She benefited from the Albanian tradition of insuring a guest's safety, and from an ancient Albanian custom, the tradition of "Sworn virgins" – women who wore men's clothes and were regarded as protected individuals. When she died in 1944 she received high praise for her work from the exiled King Zog, who wrote: "She gave us her heart and she won the ear of our mountaineers." She is still regarded as something of a national heroine; in 2004, Albanian President Alfred Moisiu described her as "one of the most distinguished personalities of the Albanian world during the last century"[9]


Much of Durham's work was donated to academic collections following her death. Her papers are held by the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, her diaries are in the Bankfield Museum, Halifax along with her collections of Balkan costume and jewellery given in 1935. Further gifts of mostly Balkan artefacts were given to the British Museum in 1914 and to the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford and the Horniman Museum, London.[10] Some items from her textile collection were displayed in a 2020 exhibition.[8]


  1. ^ The Durham–Seton-Watson correspondence is housed in the Seton-Walson papers at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London.


  1. ^ Péter, László; Rady, Martyn C.; Studies, University of London. School of Slavonic and East European (1 January 2004). British-Hungarian relations since 1848. Hungarian Cultural Centre. p. 170. ISBN 978-0-903425-73-5. Edith Durham, the noted Albanophile, comes here to mind.
  2. ^ Harry Hodgkinson (2004). "Durham, (Mary) Edith (1863–1944)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 9 April 2014.
  3. ^ Thomas Cushman; Stjepan Mestrovic (1 October 1996). This Time We Knew: Western Responses to Genocide in Bosnia. NYU Press. p. 248. ISBN 978-0-8147-7224-9. Retrieved 30 August 2013. ...Durham turned increasingly anti-Serbian...
  4. ^ Durham, Edith M. (2008). Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle. Book Jungle. ISBN 978-1605973579.
  5. ^ a b King, Charles (4 August 2000). "Queen of the Highlanders: Edith Durham in 'the land of the living past'". Times Literary Supplement: 13–14.
  6. ^ West, Rebecca (1941). Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: The Record for a Journey Through Yugoslavia in 1937. I. London: Macmillan. p. 22.
  7. ^ "The Infant Samuel". Tate. Retrieved 9 April 2014.
  8. ^ a b Judah, Hettie (31 January 2020). "A tangled, teasing show: Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 June 2020.
  9. ^ Presidenti i Republikës së Shqiperisë Archived 27 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine at www.president.al
  10. ^ "Miss Mary Edith Durham (Biographical details)". The British Museum. Retrieved 9 April 2014.


  • Through the Lands of the Serb (1904)
  • The burden of the Balkans (1905)
  • High Albania (1909)
  • The struggle for Scutari (1914)
  • Twenty Years of Balkan Tangle (1920)
  • The Sarajevo Crime (1925)
  • Some Tribal Origins, Laws and Customs of the Balkans (1928)
  • Albania and the Albanians: selected articles and letters, 1903–1944, ed. by Bejtullah Destani (I.B. Tauris, 2001)
  • The Blaze in the Balkans; selected writings, 1903–1941 edited by Robert Elsie and Bejtullah D Destani (I.B. Tauris, 2014)

Further reading[edit]

  • Mary Edith Durham (2016). Nella Terra del Passato Vivente. La scoperta dell'Albania nell'Europa del primo Novecento. Introduzione, traduzione, note e appendice di Olimpia Gargano. Lecce: Besa. 2016
  • Elizabeth Gowing (2013). Edith and I; on the trail of an Edwardian traveller in Kosovo. Elbow Publishing.
  • Kastriot Frashëri (2004). Edith Durham : një zonjë e madhe për Shqipërinë. Geer.
  • Laura Emily Start (1939). The Durham Collection of Garments and Embroideries from Albania and Jugoslavia. Halifax Corporation
  • Gill Trethowan (1996). Queen of the Mountains: The Balkan Adventures of Edith Durham. British Council.
  • Christian Medawar (1995). Mary Edith Durham and the Balkans, 1900–1914. McGill University.
  • John Hodgson (2000). "Edith Durham, traveller and publicist". In John B. Allcock, Antonia Young (ed.). Black Lambs & Grey Falcons: Women Travellers in the Balkans. Berghahn Books. pp. 9–31. ISBN 9781571817440.
  • Marcus Tanner (2014) Albania's Mountain Queen I.B. Tauris ISBN 9781780768199

External links[edit]