The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History.
The Road to Independence? Scotland since the Sixties, by Murray Pittock. Contemporary Worlds series. London, Reaktion Books, 2008. 206 pp. $24.95 US (paper).
Scottish historiography has flourished in post-devolution Scotland. The fundamental change in the relationship within the Union, which has seen the establishment of a parliament in Edinburgh and the formation of a government by the Scottish National Party, clearly encourages historians to seek to explain recent events, even if sometimes they take the long view. These two books, published in the same year, are very different in content and method, and in political stance. Indeed, their writing is the product of two different "epochs"--one before and the other after devolution even though their publication coincides to take advantage of widened interest in Scotland (increased at the time of this writing by the release from jail of the Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi by the SNP justice secretary). One author opposes devolution, while the other welcomes and celebrates it.
Hugh Trevor-Roper died in 2003. The Invention of Scotland was left unfinished at his death, and has been admirably completed and edited by Jeremy J. Cater to produce an exciting and fast-paced narrative of the construction of a number of Scottish "myths" since the middle ages. Trevor-Roper was an Anglo-British establishment historian, educated at Charterhouse and Oxford and married to the Scottish daughter of General Douglas Haig. Trevor-Roper was ennobled by Margaret Thatcher, an arch-unionist, as Lord Dacre in 1979. He was a broad ranging historian, dismissive of specialization, as The Invention of Scotland shows in its discussions of Scottish history from the third to nineteenth centuries. It is an impressive book, opinionated yet historically rigorous. It explores the invention of three myths across Scottish history: a political myth of Scotland's ancient constitution, contrived in medieval Scotland; a literary myth of ancient Scottish poetry, invented in the eighteenth century; and a sartorial myth of the antiquity of kilts and tartan, developed in the nineteenth century.
Trevor-Roper suggests that in a successful attempt to win back history from the Picts and then to establish independence against England, medieval Scottish historians such as John of Fordun, Walter Bower, and Hector Boece engaged in "the replacement of history by myth" (p. 14). He shows also that while others, like the Welsh antiquary Humphrey Lhuyd, rebutted the fabrications of these historians, Scottish society continued to believe in them until they were no longer needed, when new myths could replace theirs. Hence after the Union with England in 1707, Scotland found itself in need of a literary culture to confirm its autonomy. Trevor-Roper shows how, none being round, an ancient literature was invented in the "discovery" of Scotland's Homer, Ossian. About half of the book is devoted to the deception played on Scotland from the 1760s through to the mid-nineteenth century by James MacPherson, who concocted an epic poem he claimed was written by Ossian about the ancient hero Fingal. This is a detailed, intriguing, and exciting story, drawing on Trevor-Roper's strengths as an investigative historian, to elaborate on the intellectual debate about the authenticity of the Ossian poems in the eighteenth century. Dr Johnson, for example, doubted the poems' genuineness and called for the manuscript to be produced, which MacPherson refused to do (or rather allowed such limited access as to make it impossible to see what did not exist). In the meantime, while others argued, MacPherson conducted a successfully venal career in Indian imperialism and served as an MP for seventeen years, though he never spoke in the House of Commons.
Again, Trevor-Roper suggests that this myth only passed as another came along to replace it. He suggests that the kilt and the tartan, those continuing symbols of Scottishness, were established as defining features of the whole of Scotland rather than just the Highlands, and as ancient, despite the invention of the kilt in the eighteenth century by an English industrialist, Thomas Rawlinson. Seeing traditional Highland dress as "a cumbrous, unwieldy habit," Rawlinson sent for a tailor who designed the philibeg or small kilt (p. 199). Spurred on by romanticism, Walter Scott's novels, the establishment of the Celtic Society of Edinburgh, and the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, tartan was assigned to clans (rather than different patterns to different localities as previously), and a retail industry of epic proportions was established. Two brothers, who styled themselves as John Sobieski Stewart and Charles Edward Stuart, and who claimed that they were the only legitimate descendants of the Young Pretender of 1745, participated in the false designation of tartan to clans through their publication of The Costume of the Clans (1844). As MacPherson had done before, they based their claims on fabricated historical documents. The brothers were discredited as heirs to the Scottish throne in 1847 in an anonymous essay in the Quarterly Review, but the notion of kilts and tartan as ancient and Scottish flourished with Queen Victoria's interest in the Highlands.
Trevor-Roper picks apart these fabrications. He asserts, wholly convincingly, that "what people believe is true is a force, even if it is not true." and this is the point of the book (p. xix). So far so good. The unravelling of the past's falsehoods is part of the historian's task, as is understanding why societies believed in them. Yet Trevor-Roper's ancillary purpose was the rebuttal of the claim of increasing numbers of Scots to political autonomy within the United Kingdom. The writing of the book, or rather the series of essays that comprise it, paralleled the rise of Scottish nationalism from the 1960s. Hence the first article coincided with the election of Winnie Ewing of the Scottish National Party to Parliament in 1966, and much of the rest was written in the 1970s, as the minority British Labour government sought to buttress its weak position by gaining Scottish support through the introduction of devolution. Trevor-Roper was a public opponent of devolution, and this book can be seen as part of his support for the Union in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1979, the devolution referenda in Scotland and Wales ended in failure. With the threat gone, Trevor-Roper's attentions fell elsewhere (in 1983 he declared the authenticity of the forged Hitler diaries), and hence this book remained unpublished until now.
To his political purpose can be added Trevor-Roper's own myth-making or prejudice. He invented a version of Scottishness that is as false as those he refutes. Throughout the book he argues that significance lies not primarily in the fabrication of the myths, but in their acceptance as real by the Scottish. This involves suggesting that Scottish susceptibility to myth amounts to an inherent characteristic. The book implies the essential nature of Scottishness as character rather than as historically-shaped, imagined, or constructed identity. Hence Trevor-Roper argues that:
The several races of the British Isles have contributed unequally, but distinctively, to our common culture. Political and intellectual initiative has come mainly from the Anglo-Saxons or Anglo-Normans. Myth, fantasy, and the traditions that are the crystallization of such myth, have been supplied by the Celts (p. 191).
Murray Pittock, professor of literature at the University of Glasgow and author of a string of books on Celtic and British identities, asks whether Scotland has been travelling the road to independence since the 1960s and suggests that whether Scotland moves towards independence probably depends on the English "and whether there is a will, not simply to reassert tired and outmoded concepts of Britishness, ineluctably tied to English manners, society, politics and culture, but to develop a multi-centred polity in these United Kingdoms" (p. 182). Trevor-Roper's perspective suggests that an English change of attitude is not a foregone conclusion.
Pittock's book is also shaped by the historical context in which it was written and published. It is in many ways a guide (and parts of it read like a book for tourists) to how Scotland has got to where it is now, with a parliament with tax-raising powers and a SNP government. It is written with a desire to bring Scottish history before "everyone, not just Scots" (p. 11). He argues that this is necessary because of continuing metropolitan English attitudes that see Scotland as a region rather than a nation, and in particular criticizes the BBC and electronic media for not reporting Scottish news or showing Scottish-made TV programs more widely.
In his first two chapters, Pittock presses a clear argument that two main forces have propelled Scotland towards a greater national consciousness that has resulted in devolution. He argues that Scotland's integration under the Union of 1707 rested upon its domestic autonomy and a separate civil society that enabled the existence of its own legal, religious and education systems alongside the potential for Scottishness to be expressed through full and vigorous participation in the British Empire. After 1945, the British state extended its intervention into the lives of its citizens through the development of the welfare state and the nationalization of a major part of industry, which had the effect of centralizing power. Accompanied by withdrawal from empire, the "balance between domestic autonomy and imperial partnership was undercut" (p. 39). Pittock applies this argument to the economy and society in his first chapter and to politics and identity in the second, with much of his emphasis being placed on the rise of the SNP. He argues that the party, while experiencing limited electoral success in the 1960s and 1980s, forced nationalism onto the agendas of Labour and the Conservatives, who, "disparaging the Nationalist leadership, ridiculing Nationalist economics, all the time ... drift[ed] gently towards a more nationalist reading of Scotland" (pp. 65-6). Pittock provides an admirably lucid narrative of developments towards devolution in 1999 and an impressive description of arrangements for governance and the travails of party politics in Edinburgh since the transfer of power.
The third and fourth chapters emphasize that this is a guidebook of sorts. They examine urban Scotland (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, and Stirling) and Scotland's developing cultural independence, which has culminated in the declaration of 2009 as the year of Homecoming, the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns's birth. In the fifth chapter, Pittock considers immigration. He adopts the widely used phrase "New Scots," which has the implication of welcoming inclusiveness, yet the chapter does not neglect "Scotland's shame" of anti-Catholic Irish sectarianism, nor the more limited anti-English racism. Nonetheless it is an optimistic chapter, discussing the "New Scots: Attracting Fresh Talent" initiative of the Scottish government in 2004, the election of Bashir Ahmad as the first Asian and Muslim member of the Scottish Parliament in 2007 (he died in February 2009), and the desire to attract the Scottish diaspora back to Scotland.
The final chapter provides a balance sheet of Scotland since devolution in 1999. Pittock obviously welcomes devolution. He has argued extensively in his previous writings that Scotland has a history separate from England's, that Britishness has often been Englishness enlarged, and that academics have been inclined to allow Anglocentrism to swamp their work in the pursuit of a "new British history." He is a harsh critic of attempts at metropolitan dominance, and sees what happens in London as critical in determining the response of Scots to their future. To that extent his book does not provide an answer to the question in its title. Scotland's journey down the road to independence depends on English actions as well as Scottish desires, and the future is unknowable.
Both these books are responses to commercial concerns, driven by the topicality of Scotland. Scottish history is marketable. Yet they are very different books, expressing on Trevor-Roper's part a desire to oppose a distinct political nationalism and, on Pittock's part, an aspiration for Scots to be able to decide their own destiny. Both are tremendously good reads, but Pittock feels much more of our time and of the future.
University of Huddersfield
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|Title Annotation:||The Road to Independence? Scotland since the Sixties|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2009|
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