Last of the Westland Whigs

In the late 17th century, the 'Westland Whigs' were the radical descendants of earlier Covenanters who had defied the absolutist rule of Stuart kings in south west Scotland.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Grasping the Thistle

Grasping the Thistle: Dennis MacLeod and Michael Russell

“There is a great storm coming which shall try your foundations. Scotland must be rid of Scotland before the delivery comes.” James Renwick, 1688. [quote taken from Neal Ascherson: Stones Voices: The Search for Scotland: 2002: 154]

This is my second attempt at a review of Grasping the Thistle. There may be more. Why is it so difficult to ‘grasp’ the book?

To be as honest as I am able to get, I found it deeply disturbing. I suspect, and it may take a few paragraphs before I can articulate the suspicion, that some of my almost unconscious assumptions about what ‘Scotland’, or more precisely ‘an independent Scotland’ means have been challenged. They may even have been overturned.

“So what?” the ageing punk cynic in me responds. But these ‘unconscious assumptions’ are not personal, not individual.

To give an example from my first attempt at a review - as a young (5 or 6 year old) child I was taken to the site of the battle of Culloden and shown the spot where, I was gravely assured, my ancestors had stood before charging the English. Two or three years later, I was taken to Glentrool, the place where Robert the Bruce gained his first victory over the English and started on the path that led to Bannockburn.

Then, as a 15 year old, I helped out with George Thompson’s two 1974 election campaigns. At the second, George was elected as Galloway’s first SNP MP. He was also my French teacher at Kirkcudbright Academy and a friend of my parents. In 1979 I had just moved to London, but was able to get a postal vote and voted for George and the SNP. After 18 years in London, my move back ‘home’ to Galloway was in part prompted by Alasdair Morgan regaining Galloway for the SNP in 1997. Later I was even, briefly and not very successfully, Convenor of the local SNP branch.

That Scotland should/ must be independent is deeply embedded as a ‘fact’ - not a belief - within me. I assume that this essential conception of independence is shared with the third or so of Scots who likewise consistently support independence [but do not necessarily vote SNP].

In which case, why should a book with Scottish independence as its core theme be so challenging?

I am not sure. I suspect because it opens up the prospect of a Scotland which is ‘different’. The vision is radical rather than conservative, a Scotland which would (quite possibly painfully) become an unfamiliar place. This I feel is the critical point. I need to fact check by reading other reviews, but I suggest that to criticise (or support) particular aspects of Dennis and Michael’s quite detailed and specific suggestions is to miss this point. The Scotland which aspires to ‘independence’ is necessarily a Scotland which is willing to grasp the thistle... and then? Wrench it up from its roots?

Apology in advance - following pursues metaphor:

What is ‘the thistle’? It is the Scots prickly sense of grievance and of grudges resentfully rooted in our history. But how ‘Scottish’ is Scottish history? How much of our understanding of our history, of our identity is in fact a ‘British’ AKA United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland version of Scottish history? I am thinking here of themes Edward Said pursued in his 1993 book ‘Culture and Imperialism’. Said’s themes cannot be easily summarised, but they deal with attempts by colonisers to occupy and appropriate the physical / geographical space and to occupy and appropriate the culture and history of the colonised. The process of decolonization therefore requires that the ‘natives’ do more than simply reclaim their land. They must also reclaim their history and culture. The difficulty, as Said admits, is that this second stage is the hardest.

Perhaps significantly, although Said discusses Ireland (via Yeats), Scotland figures nowhere within his narrative. The Scots cannot realistically be described as a ‘colonised people’. The Scots actively participated in the British (never English) Empire project.

That project, as Suez revealed fifty years ago and as Iraq and Afghanistan are re-revealing is over. The Scotland which was for 300 years an essential part of that project is no more. The Scotland that will be is yet to be born. But place your hand upon the belly of that old Scotland and you can feel the new Scotland as she kicks within the womb.

Grasping the Thistle is but one such kick. There will be more.

“Scotland must be rid of Scotland before the delivery comes”.


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