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Scotland - a hand on history

"The mark of a Scot of all classes is that he ... remembers and cherishes the memory of his forebears, good or bad; and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation."

Robert Louis Stevenson

As a Scot living in London I often think about what it is exactly that makes me so strongly identify with my home country. Before Brexit it was good to be British, but after somehow it felt better to be a Scot, a nation with vision and potential. With the leadership wrangling among the nationalists feeling like it is setting the national purpose adrift and everyone wondering how independence will turn out for Scotland if another referendum is called, questions remain about what is the best direction of travel for our nation. As an ex-pat I confess to being torn between heart and head. Being passionately pro-European I see the sense of staying together but as a patriot my heart tells me Scotland can thrive as a small country.

Historically this conundrum is nothing new and has seen many expressions in our history. On this day 420 years ago James VI of Scotland received the news that Elizabeth I had died. Two weeks later he embarked on the journey that would take him south to the English court and the English Crown. After 300 years of bitter warfare, that nation in the south would be joined to Scotland. Eventually the concept of a United Kingdom would emerge from the marriage.

James did see it as a marriage. He believed not only in the divine right of kings but in the body politic. Neither king nor country can be divided. And before he left James insisted on his loyalty to both thrones, ‘my course must be betwixt both the countries. And as God has joined the right of both my kingdoms in my person, so ye may be joined in wealth, in religion, in hearts, and affections.’

The point that most British politicians today don’t understand is that we are a different people with a different history. They can’t appeal to us without understanding that. Which got me thinking. In my experience there is also something that we Scots fail to see. We are supposed to be proud of our country and everything that it stands for. But sometimes it feels like few of us agree on what that special quality of Scottishness is?

Scotland has always had a crisis of identity. There is no single version of who we are. Though certainly argumentativeness seems to have been at the heart of our story. For centuries, we have been divided by loyalties and factionalism, geographical, social and cultural. From the times of Wallace and Robert the Bruce to the present day, these oppositional characteristics remain endemic in our national psyche.

James was convinced that Scotland and England were ‘two twins bred in one belly’ and once he had acceded to the throne, his sole aim was to bring the nations and their churches together. But this was not in the gift of James’ nor has it been for any monarch since. He made the intellectual leap but could never convince others of it and consequently, James and the British monarchs since have hardly had much directly to do with Scotland, apart from as a late summer holiday park.

In his biography of James,The Cradle King, Alan Stewart asserts that the Scots were well aware that once he got to London and had the status he always sought, James' interest in Scotland and politics generally, would waver. While art, literature and education flourished, James was fearful of political confrontation and left the governing of the country largely to the Privy Council. He preferred chasing stags and his courtier bedfellows. Then the problem was that the sexually favoured, seeing their opportunity, were all too often allowed to interfere in state affairs.

Meanwhile Scotland’s independence was steadily weakened. There were few remaining powerful men to protect its interests at the English court. James had taken most of his loyal barons with him and Scotland came increasingly under the yoke of English sovereignty. Despite his promise to visit every three years, there was only one royal visit in 1617. And much of that was spent indulging in the distractions of hunting and haranguing the Kirk.

The General Assembly was well aware how keen James was to expedite a parliamentary union, and worse still, they knew he wanted power over Scottish clerics. Although thoughts of this were scuppered for another century, his growing contempt for the Kirk resulted in a long-drawn-out campaign between Episcopacy and Presbyterianism. And the next two hundred years in Scotland were scarred by the heavy-handed tactics of James and his son Charles I, a spiritual battle that has waged ever since.

This set in motion the tide of dogmatism and spiritual schism which has ebbed on the shores of Scottish religious faith since these attempts to control the beliefs of the people. It’s always a mistake to tell people how to pray. When Charles I came to the throne in 1625, the liturgy used in the Kirk of Scotland was vastly different from the one used in England. And the bloody struggles for the religious ascendancy of the Covenant began. Though these religious ties may no longer have doctrinal significance they still surface on the football terraces. Not connected with any confession of faith, covenant or godly wisdom, these struggles are still fought for the ascendancy of sectarianism.

So where does our sense of ourselves as nation, our identity as Scots, come from? Partly as a nation subjugated against our will, betrayed into bankruptcy by our aristocratic masters, we want to believe in a Scotland that has always been united against the English oppressor. But some would say that Rob Roy Macgregor was not a latter-day Robin Hood but a conniving fraudster who sold the Jacobites out to the Hanoverians. History makes the man’s resourcefulness quite explicit. Historian David Stevenson writes that ‘Rob Roy’s main achievement has been the way in which he managed to get his own version of events, with himself a terribly wronged man, accepted for so long’.

It is a strange dichotomy too, how rheumy-eyed we get at the mention of Culloden. Albeit a dreadful massacre, it’s clear that it was the very divisiveness between the clans and the betrayal of one against the other that caused this battle of almost total self annihilation. As cultural commentator Paul Harris states, Culloden was ‘a monument to the ambiguity of being Scottish.’ The defeat of the Young Pretender may well have prevented a far more internecine bloodbath.

So much of what modern Scotland means to different people is still riven by geographical and economic parochialism. The most well-rehearsed being the breach between vying capitals Edinburgh and Glasgow. Sure, the background of both cities has always been marked by divided loyalties. At the time of James VI, west tended towards the north and the east towards the south. But by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the need for all that changed. Glasgow was an equal contributor in the intellectual think-tank that was the Enlightenment. And the industrial revolution made the city the workshop of the world, built on shipbuilding and the massively profitable whisky trade. Meanwhile Edinburgh burgeoned in its medical and legal skills. Clichés perhaps, but true nonetheless. And to this day still only a fragile cultural and social relationship bridges the life of the two cities.

Once the threat of Jacobitism had passed, the intellectual establishment, influenced by Rousseau, looked to the Highlands for inspiration and Scottish romanticism was born. Nobody minded much about the hoax of the Ossian manuscripts because the forgeries suggested an authentic ancient and universal Caledonian culture. So by the time Queen Victoria bought her Deeside estate, this nostalgia for a nonexistent romantic past burgeoned during what became known as the ‘balmoralisation’ of Scotland.

The wearing of plaid had been illegal since the Jacobite uprising, but with this new patronage o Scotland, suddenly tartan burst forth in myriad patterns, accompanied by frills and lace. Traditions long abandoned were revived and a new version of Scotland’s past was created. With Walter Scott as its chief historian and highland dress and dancing it’s true expression. To this day, hundreds of Scottish societies all over the world triumph in this shortbread tin picture. And when they visit the homeland it’s what they want to find but sadly this Brigadoon has no pipers on the hill, stags roaming free or burns running with whisky. Well not unless you can afford to stay at the Fife Arms, today’s idealised postcolonial simulacram of Scottishness. Nationhood as art.

Even the man charged with being Scotland’s great radical poet was a divided self. Robert Burns, who, like John Clare in England, had only enjoyed minor success as a 'ploughman poet' during his lifetime was elevated in death to the heady heights of national bard. His poems became to symbolise what Scottishness meant to the rest of the world. In fact he was all too keenly aware of the dilemma of Scottishness. He too could be all things to all men. Burns knew his audience well and was just as accomplished in the formalised Augustan verse couplets of the day as in the obscene verse, the folk songs and the reactionary pithiness of his finest Scots poems. His letters to ‘Clarinda’ exercised a literary polish, doubtless spared for the less refined seductions of his more rustic conquests. All in all, he was a man who could turn his pen wherever he wanted to appeal.

Many of the issues around land reform too, can be traced back to departure of the Scottish Crown which left a vacuum of real power. When James left he took most of his nobles with him. These socially and politically ambitious gentry had to ingratiate themselves into the English establishment. They sought aggrandisement and the advancement of their coffers and many found it in England. The remaining powerful men in Scotland tended to be political stooges for the southern supremos. Men like Henry Dundas, who under the patronage of his friend Pitt the Younger, became the ‘uncrowned king of Scotland’.

Even then Scotland was suffering from the absentee landlord syndrome still so prevalent today. Here lies yet another uncomfortable paradox. The wilderness highland landscapes we so enjoy today, over which the eagles soar and wildcats roam, were the by-product of a careless and distant guardianship of the land and its people. The Highlands were once densely populated and one might argue that today we would be a richer country culturally and socially had the landlords not wanted sheep before crofters. The Clearances ensued. And they are today both a blight on our conscience and much of the reason why there are so many Scots abroad.

In the 1970s John McGrath wrote The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. It was one of the most successful pieces of theatre during the 1970s. Written and performed by the 7:84 Theatre Company, it was a provocative polemic, railing against revisionist Highland history, the Clearances, North Sea oil and the culture of absentee landlords with sporting estates in Scotland. The play forces us to look more rigorously at our sense of history. Arguably, a nation that has no sense of its past, as it really happened, can have no real constituency in its future. The trouble is that many of the myths are unchallenged. However simplistic the arguments and generalising the historical assertions, the verdict is the same. Being Scottish today is plainly not about dialect, racial origins, level of affluence or creed. Perhaps we need, as any good pyschotherapist will advise, to merge our disparate identities in a common cause to escape the oedipal grip of our Stuart past. Whatever choices Scots make next, our decisions must always be informed by the broadest sense of our history.

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