Quotes that Take you Right into Durham’s ‘High Albania’ 

Quotes that Take you Right into Durham’s ‘High Albania’ 

TIRANA, January 30

Edith Durham’s experience in Northern Albania gave her a lot of o material to capture the soul of the people, their kindness, sorrows, strong identity, and understand how the way of life lingered under the Kanun.

“To Maltsia e madhe I first turned my steps–not to see the mountains, but to see life, history, the world, and the great unknown, as it looks to the mountain man.”

Edith Durham’s ‘High Albania’ published in 1909 includes details on folklore, custom, and tradition from the Albanian Mountains following an eight-month tour and material from previous visits to Albania.
“The land is one so little known to English travelers that I have given rather a comprehensive view of it as a whole than details of any special branch of study, and have reported what the people themselves said rather than put forward views of my own–which are but those of an outsider. Of outsiders’ views on Balkan problems we are, most of us, tired,” Durham wrote on the preface.
It’s interesting to find out that places, valleys, rivers, and torrents are the same that Durham described in her book more than a century ago. The photos used in this article were taken by Durham and other foreigners that explred Albania during 1900
Here’s a selection of the best quotes from her book on the mountain people, food, legends, fashion, blood feud etiquette, honor codes, burnesha, and everything Durhan noted peculiar, that could inspire a traveler to follow her steps on the Albanian mountains.

“There is a peculiar pleasure in riding out into the unknown–a pleasure which no second journey on the same trail ever affords.”

Edith Durham
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On relations between foreign diplomats and Albanians, and bribery

“Shkodra: the port, the customs office and the fortress” (Photo: Gabriel Louis-Jaray, 1909)

“Scutari swarms with foreign consuls, and the Albanian has acquired the bad habit of crying to one and the other for help. Austria, by lavish expenditure, strives to buy up the tribes. Italy offers counter attractions. The Albanian has learnt by long practice how to play off one against the other. He accepts money upon occasion from each and all that offer it, and uses it for his private ends. This annoys the consuls. They hate to be outwitted at their own game, to find that when they mean to use him as a pawn he cries, “Check to your king!” They call him bad names–but it is only the “pot calling the kettle black”–and they offer bigger bribes.”

Albanian Highland bajraktar of the Shkreli tribe (Photo: Hugo Grothe, 1912). Credit: Albanian Photography

On the importance of the moustache: “To be without a moustache, both in Montenegro and Albania, is held to be peculiarly disgraceful. The wicked man of Albanian fairy stories is a chosé (a hairless man).”


On Albanian law: “It is the fashion among journalists and others to talk of the “lawless Albanians”; but there is perhaps no other people in Europe so much under the tyranny of laws.”

Edith Durham’s faithful guide, the moustached Mark Shantoja (Marko Shantoya), a Catholic from Shkodra; photo taken in Kosovo (Photo: Edith Durham, ca. 12 August 1908)

A fable from Mark: “We must remember,” he would say, “the Wolf and the Fox. The Wolf and the Fox heard that Man was coming to take their kingdom and kill them. One day, when out together in the forest, the Wolf put his foot in an iron trap and began to howl loudly. ‘What is the matter?’ cried the Fox. ‘Oh, my foot! My foot!’ screamed the Wolf. ‘Is that all?’ said the Fox. ‘If you make such a noise about a foot, whatever will you do to-morrow when Man comes to hammer you on the head till you are dead?'”
Moral. However bad things are, they might be worse. It is well to remember this in the Albanian mountains–and elsewhere.”

On brotherhood: “The procedure was told me by a Catholic Albanian, thus: “I travelled through a dangerous part with a young Moslem. We became great friends. He asked me to be his brother. I asked leave of my father (the head of the house). He said it was a very good family to be allied with. We waited a short time. Then, as we still both wished it, we met, and each tied a string round his little finger tightly till it swelled, pricked the finger, and let the blood drop on to a lump of sugar. I ate his lump, he ate mine. We swore brotherhood. We were of the same blood. We gave each other beautiful socks in patterns, and I went to dinner at his house. He is dead now, but his brothers are my brothers, and our children are cousins. Of course they cannot marry, they are of the same blood. They cannot marry for more than a hundred years.”
In the case of two Christians, three drops of blood in a glass of rakia or wine is customary.”

On Lek Dukagjini: “He has left no mark on European history–is a purely local celebrity,–but must have been of insistent individuality to have so influenced the people that “Lek said so” obtains far more obedience than the Ten Commandments. The teachings of Islam and of Christianity, the Sheriat and Church law, all have to yield to the Canon of Lek.”

A message to European politicians: “An Albanian once gave me a message to European politicians in general: “If a man tells you that he knows about the Near East, ask him what is the difference between Lek Dukaghin and Lek Kapetan? If he cannot tell, he should let the Near East alone. We suffer from people who interfere and know nothing.” The question, I fancy, would “plough” many a Foreign Office.”

On women taking blood: “A woman is never liable for blood-vengeance, except in the rare case of her taking it herself. But even then there seems to be a feeling that it would be very bad form to shoot her. I could not hear of a recent case. I roused the greatest horror by saying that a woman who commits a murder in England is by law liable to the same punishment as a man. Shala is a wild tribe; it shoots freely. But a Shala man said, “It is impossible. Where could a man be found who would hang a woman? No mountain man would do it. It is a bad law. You must be bad people.”

Sworn Virgin Albanian
Selca. A young Sworn Virgin surrounded by men of the Kelmendi tribe, at Selca in Kelmendi territory (Photo: Edith Durham, 17 May 1908).

On Sworn Virgins: “In Maltsia e madhe a girl who has sworn virginity–”an Albanian virgin”–can, if her father leave no son, inherit land and work it. At her death it goes to her father’s nearest heir male. These women as a rule wear male dress and may carry arms.” 


Traditional clothes and xhubleta: “Girls and women are differently dressed. The girls’ dress is of thick, stiff, white wool with horizontal black stripes. The skirt and bodice are joined, and the bodice is open at the sides. The outer garments of both men and women are commonly open under the armpits for ventilation.
Under the dress the girls and women of these parts wear a shirt with long sleeves, and no other garment save the long stockings knitted in fancy patterns of red and black or black and white. Married women wear a black bell-shaped skirt of stiff, heavy wool, striped with dull crimson (native dyed) or purple (bought in Scutari).”

On religious harmony: “Christians and Moslems, of which there are a good many in Lower Kastrati, live together on perfectly friendly terms. Religious persecution never takes place within a tribe. It is intertribal when it occurs.”

bread salt and heart
Buk’, kryp e zemer

Bread, salt, and our hearts is all we can offer: “…an old man at once asked us to his house, a miserable one-roomed hut with a mud floor, and windowless. The loom, with a strip of cotton half-woven, stood in the doorway, where alone there was light enough to work by. The ragged lean old man led us in with a courtly grace, gave us the only two stools, and set his son to make coffee. I meanwhile drew the loom. They were delighted. They had never before seen a woman who could write, and never any one that could “write” a loom. In the mountains folk never differentiate between writing and drawing, I am not sure if they realise they are different processes. One suggested that a “writing woman” would be a good sort to marry, but Marko said that kind would not fetch wood and water, which damped the enthusiasm.
When I rose to go the old man asked if we had a roof for the night. “We are poor. Bread, salt, and our hearts is all we can offer, but you are welcome to stay as long as you wish.”
It gave me joy to know that even in the bitterest corners of the earth there is so much of human kindness.”

On a true Albanian Day:
“We had passed a true Albanian day, said the Padre of Toplana:
“Duhan, rakia,
Pushke, dashtnia”
(Tobacco, brandy, guns, and love). I suggested that dashtnia should come first, because maxima est caritas. But they said, not in Albania.
And so ended St. John’s Day.”

Albanian men
Bzheta. Tribesmen visiting the feast of Saint Nicholas at Bzheta in Shkreli territory (Photo: Edith Durham, 10 May 1908)

The best medicine is rakia: At Bridzha I had a room to myself and could undress. Supper, of course, was late, but I meant to sleep out my sleep next morning.
It was but 5:30 A.M. when I was waked by a thunderous banging at the door.
“What is the matter?” I asked.
“Are you ill?”
“Ill? No. What do you mean?”
“The sun has been up more than an hour. Why don’t you get up?”
“Because I want to sleep. Go away.”
“But it is so late. You must be ill. Let me fetch you some rakia.”
“Go away.”
I fell asleep at once only to be roused again at seven, This time by a whole party. “Are you still ill? Here is some rakia. The sun has been up,” &c. &c.

To the reader: “And lest you that read this book should cry out at the “customs of savages,” I would remind you that we play the same game on a much larger scale and call it war. And neither is “blood” or war sweepingly to be condemned.”

Read also: How did Albania Look like One Century Ago?

Discover Selca Village in the Albanian Alps

Tours in Albania

Books to Read Before Visiting Albania

Source: High Albania, published 1909

Main photo: Shkodra Postcard from the Purger Postcard collection from Albania during 1914-1918.


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