Edith was born into a large wealthy London family in 1863. Her father and brothers were both doctors and Edith attended Bedford College and the Royal Academy of Arts, training as an artist. As the eldest daughter, she was expected to care for her ailing mother but became ill from the stress of it and was advised by her doctor to take a holiday abroad.
In 1900 she travelled to Dalmatia but found it too European and wanted more of an adventure, so later that year, she visited the Balkans. She travelled over difficult mountain terrain on horseback in all weathers wearing a waterproof Burberry Skirt and Scotch plaid golf cape. She returned to the Balkans nearly every year for twenty years, exploring different places including modern day Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia, encountering many strange customs and beliefs including practices such as headhunting and cutting off the noses of enemies.
She began to record the way of life of the people in diaries, drawings, photographs and recorded folk songs she heard on wax cylinders. Edith’s documentation of these customs proved popular and in 1928 her book Some Tribal Origins, Laws and Customs of the Balkans was published. She studied Balkan history and customs and learned to speak Serb so that she could communicate with the locals in their native language gaining her much respect and enabling her to discover much more about unwritten customs and beliefs.
She learned that each Balkan region has its own culture with distinctive traditional costume design. Different clothing and hairstyles were worn to identify the tribes, religions and a person’s status. Each village had its own decorative embroidery patterns, which were often also functional, for example strengthening cuffs and collars from wear and tear. She began to collect these handmade traditional textiles and formed an extensive collection of Balkan costume.
Wherever she travelled she was always welcomed, offered food and shelter and greeted with the saying ‘Bread, Salt and our Hearts’. She came to love and care for the people she met, who led very harsh lives.. She worked hard to help people and through her English connections raised funds. In 1903 she was asked to join the Macedonian Relief Fund and in 1911-13 she helped Albanian refugees in Montenegro, raising funds for food and medicine. She nursed wounded soldiers and provided food, medicines and roofing materials to the homeless, sick and starving. Edith brought the plight of the Albanians to the world as they wanted to become be a separate nation. It became a country in its own right in 1912. Edith was awarded a medal by the Albanian King Zog for her hard work and support. She befriended many communities and was held in high esteem in these places, where today streets and schools still bear her name. Former Albanian president Alfred Moisiu described her as "One of the most distinguished personalities of the Albanian world during the last century".
Edith recognised the cultural importance of collecting traditional hand-made clothes, shoes and jewellery. Even then knowledge of the local crafts was disappearing. The instability of the area during the 20th century resulted in further decline and when war broke out in the region in the 1990s, many refugees fled to Britain. Edith donated her collection of textiles, photographs, notes and drawings to Bankfield Museum in 1935, possibly because she knew Hilda, sister of the Keeper of the museum, George Carline. She carefully labelled each item with brown parcel tags, recording what it was, when it was obtained and where it was from. The collections provide an important record of the cultural heritage and traditions of the Balkan Region.
Find out more:
High Albania – M. Edith Durham
The Blaze in the Balkans: Selected Writings 1903-1941 – M. Edith Durham
Albania’s Mountain Queen: Edith Durham – Marcus Tanner
Edith Durham in Albania - http://www.albanianhistory.net/1941_Durham/index.html
In 2020 a selection of the Edith Durham Collection was loaned to Two Temple Place for their exhibition Unbound. This exhibition featured the collections of seven extraordinary women who preserved textiles of significant historical and cultural importance. You can learn more about the exhibition here: https://twotempleplace.org/exhibitions/unbound/