Even before Margaret Hasluck, the Scottish scholar and author, made her expeditions to Albania, Edith Durham had spent many years travelling around the Balkans, living among the people and recording what she experienced. Today, her books are considered among the most important of their age in describing the lives and customs of Albanians at the turn of the 20th century and the fledgling years of Albania’s independence.
Mary Edith Durham was the eldest of eight children born to distinguished surgeon Arthur Durham. From her birth in 1863, she led an affluent and privileged life, being privately educated before going on to study at the Royal College of Arts, in a time when women were not expected to pursue an academic life. Her talents for illustration and watercolouring however saw her succeed in a male-dominated world.
When her father died, unmarried Edith took over responsibility for looking after her ill mother, though this eventually took its toll on her own health and in 1900, her doctor suggested she take a long holiday to recuperate from her duties.
She took his advice and went on a cruise along the Dalmatian coast, before heading inland to Cetinje, the capital of Montenegro, where she first encountered Albanians. This was the first of many subsequent trips to the Balkans. In 1903, she travelled to Albania for the first time and in 1908, embarked on a long trip through the country’s remote northern highlands, a trip that resulted in her seminal 1909 book, “High Albania” (still in print).
She became involved in humanitarian work at the time of Albania’s struggle for independence and became a significant voice in the international political scene in trying to resolve the Balkan conflicts of the time and following the First World War, she became secretary of the Anglo-Albania Society, promoting the interests of Albania’s on the political stage of the UK. Her passion and tenacity irritated many, but endeared her forever to the hearts of Albanians and on a trip to Albania in 1921, she was feted by politicians and clansmen. She became known as “The Highlanders’ Queen” (“Krajlica e Malësorëve” in the Albanian language).
That trip was cut short by ill-health and it turned out to be Edith’s last to the country. Albania never forgot her though. She was awarded the Order of Skanderbeg and a home in Albania by King Zog and as recently as 2004 as “one of the most distinguished personalities of the Albanian world during the last century” by President Alfred Moisiu. Today there are many streets and schools in Albania that bear Edith’s name and while some of her works are now out of print, an anthology of her letters and essays called “Albania and the Albanians” was published around a decade ago and is still available.