Scotland and the Fictions of Geography: North Britain 1760-1830.
The question "where are we?" can lend itself either to a satisfyingly precise answer or a frustrating vague one lost in recursive metaphor. For a navigator or an economist, knowing where we are is a pragmatic question that can be answered more or less satisfactorily by means of mathematics. For a writer or cultural theorist it is a question whose simplicity makes it almost meaningless, leading as it does to further questions: who do you mean by "we"; in what sense do you use "where"; are you talking figuratively here? As Penny Fielding makes clear in this stimulating book, the issue of addressing oneself to the question of where we are was a very important one to the eighteenth century. Philosophical Enlightenment and commercial culture both needed to be sure in their differing ways of exactly where they currently stood: one to ensure its trading and fighting ships didn't hit the rocks, the other to secure the solid ground on which properly rational ways of thinking and planning might be built. Fielding cites the Scottish moral philosopher James Dunbar, whose search for the representative rational subject began with the question "Where am I?" (42), and draws on the work of modern philosophers of geography such as Edward S. Casey to argue that establishing "position," that is to say, being able to locate oneself accurately in a place whose coordinates are both spatial and temporal, is one of the period's defining concerns (28).
As Fielding argues it, one very good position to be in as the eighteenth century wore on, at least culturally if not economically, was North Britain. The cultural logic of Progress Poetry, which charted the flight of the muses from the corrupt south to a more pristine northern Europe, chimed with cultural assumptions of northern vigor, independent-mindedness, and freedom from the taint of southern enervation and sophistication to make the north a particularly attractive proposition for the investment of intellectual and cultural capital. This resulted in "a sort of north-south version of Orientalism" (31), which held the north as a location privileged spatially by a climate conducive to resilience and invention and temporally by a history independent of southern intrigue and error.
This was, in other words and to put it crudely, a pretty good time to be a Scottish, or, as Fielding quite properly discerns it, a North British, writer. The cultural focus of Europe seemed to be moving inexorably northward, and if the north was now held to preserve the hidden sources of the European character, where better to look for them than in the most northerly parts of Europe's most outlying northern (or, at least, northwestern) country? The works of James Macpherson, Robert Burns, James Hogg, and Walter Scott surely held independent merits of their own, but the facts of their position, their location in a place and a time at which the European gaze was fixed firmly in their direction, was plainly very much to their benefit.
That there were Scotsmen on the make who might exploit this advantageous position had not been lost on John Wilkes in the 1760s as he railed in The North Briton against the threat of "the Scottish thistle choking the English rose" (21), and there were indeed Scots men and women who would follow in making the most of the trump cards that the time and place had dealt them. Anne Grant is one, using the Napoleonic Wars in her Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen as a pretext to proclaim the triumph of northern over southern values, even if, as Fielding points out, this requires more than a little readjustment of the facts. Grant's poem is not untypical of the time, though, in assuring its readers that with recent events "the music of liberty transfers to Britain" and, even more audaciously, that Ancient Scotland be seen as "the cultural touchstone for modern northern Britain, dominant in the political order of Europe" (38).
By means of a series of probing close readings of individual works and informed discussions of practices as varied as travel writing, toponymy, and antiquarianism, Fielding shows that the most interesting Scottish writing of the period didn't so much exploit this position as expose and explode its many contradictions. Burns might be the beneficiary of attitudes that privileged the local, but the complications that follow from writing a poetry of the universal man in a specific, localized Scottish setting, or that arise even from simple inscription verses, soon lay bare the tricky double position into which cultural assumptions placed him. The contemporary climate theory promoted by William Falconer reinforced what Burns might say about a range of Scottish traits, from independent spiritedness to drunkenness, but then the facts on the ground, so to speak, quickly destabilized this geography: Scotland is one country, but a country plainly divided topographically, economically, and temperamentally, into highlands and lowlands; yet it is also less than half a country, a nation occupying the upper, impoverished part of an island (soon to be archipelagic) state; it is a place united patriotically under its presiding national-historic spirit, "Caledonia" but which is also locked into a logic that renders it the epitome of Britishness, as "the most northerly part of a northern island becomes the most British part of Britain" (54).
These are the confused coordinates that locate Burns's poetry and which also disorient the travel writers drawn to the British north. What travelers such as Henry Skrine and Richard Warner experience, in Fielding's compelling account, is a country similar to that found in the novels of Smollett and Scott: a country in which space and time are out of joint, where the four successive stages of Adam Smith's stadial history occupy the same place simultaneously, and in which the promises of continuity offered by Enlightenment accounting and geographical theory, and seemingly guaranteed by such apparently concrete vectors of modernity as roads, are continually disrupted and deranged by transit through a series of discontinuous locations, each of which fails to fit the larger facts in its own particular way. And when, as Fielding puts it, "the sense of geographical totalities becomes relaxed" (130) in the case of those, like the Shetland poet Margaret Chalmers, who inhabit a north Briton beyond the shores of the British mainland, or others who travel in actuality (Walter Scott) or imaginatively (James Hogg) into the regions of Ultima Thule, then the dislocations of Romantic geography become ever more apparent.
In Fielding's notably sensitive reading, Chalmers inverts and collapses the spatial hierarchies of center and periphery in her "optical north," mploying an ostensibly conservative patriotism to enact an extraordinarily "complex and radical" (160) reviewing of the nation from the perspective of its most remote location. Hogg confronts a totalizing Enlightenment geography from another angle, insisting, as Fielding argues, on a singularity that paradoxically resists the possibility of ever fixing the local: a singularity that is defined as "whatever is not explicable through relations of difference" (163). This recalcitrant singularity finds its ultimate, unfixable location in the Arctic of Hogg's The Surpassing Adventures of Allan Gordon, where the "Enlightenment geometries" that are supposed to certify the knowledge of exactly where one is are reduced to "bizarre propositions which cannot be absorbed into human experience or which can only be understood by transformation into absurd comedy" (183).
Scotland and the Fictions of Geography is a very valuable addition to a growing and distinguished list of books on Scotland in the period. This is a book which is all about the mismatch between the particular and the general, between the empirical and the theoretical, yet it is particularly impressive for the way it manages to balance its own general arguments with the probing, often ingenious, close readings of the texts it chooses to localize. This is nowhere better seen than in the quite brilliant reading of Scott's The Antiquary in the context of an argument that encompasses a diverse and sometime recondite range of sources, from the theory of topographic language advanced in George Chalmers's Caledonia to the discourses on medals and currency made variously by Joseph Addison, David Jennings, and John Pinkerton. For many readers, Fielding's theoretical sophistication will be very welcome, bringing as it does a series of sharp critical insights into the factors that divide and, as Fielding sees it, unite the Enlightenment and Romanticism, though some readers might feel, as I do, that just very occasionally this element obtrudes and occludes the analysis: that the complexities of the historical relationship between writing and speech articulated in the period, say, or the slippery interrelationship of geography, economics, and politics produced in Scotland as a consequence of the Act of Union, are perhaps intriguing and rich enough in themselves to have little need of the further enrichment, or perhaps restriction, of a reading that defers so explicitly to Derridean notions of the precedence of writing, or supplementarity, or which tries to make proleptic deconstructionists of characters such as Scott's Edie Ochiltree. The book contains a couple of very minor flaws--a confusion of historical Grahams on page 38, where Fielding conflates James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose, with "Bloody Claverhouse," John Graham, the 1st Viscount of Dundee, and, what is very rare for Cambridge University Press, a proofing error on page 37--but it is otherwise admirably accurate in its handling of a wide range of historical and theoretical material. This is a work that will be valuable to any reader trying to make sense of Scottish or North British Romanticism and indispensable to those who wish to delve deeper into that contested, contradictory territory.
University of Strathclyde