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.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Scottish cultural heritage and national identity

The following is draft on above theme for an oral presentation I will give to M.Litt Scottish Cultural Heritage class at Glasgow University/ Crichton(Dumfries) Campus on 6th November.

Any comments?

Oral Presentation

Scottish Cultural Heritage and Scottish National Identity

Three hundred years ago this month, on the 20th of November 1706 to be precise, construction of the Mid-Steeple in Dumfries was brought to a temporary halt. The event which interrupted work that day was no ordinary occurrence. Led by the Reverend John Hepburn of Urr, a group of armed horsemen rode up to the Mercat Cross at the foot of the Mid-Steeple and with the enthusiastic support of a large crowd, ceremonially burnt a copy of the 25 Articles of Union. They then affixed a declaration of their opposition to the proposed ‘incorporating union’ between England and Scotland to the Mercat Cross before riding back across the Nith into Galloway.

No doubt intentionally, given Hepburn’s religious and political background, this event evoked memories of a similar one which had taken place at Sanquhar 26 years before. Then, in 1680 Richard Cameron and his supporters had affixed their declaration of ‘holy war’ against Charles II and his brother, the future James the II and VII, to the Mercat Cross in Sanquhar.

However, unlike Cameron, Hepburn was working immediately with rather than against the tide of history. On 12th November an ‘Act of Security for the Kirk’ had been hastily passed to head of religious opposition to the proposed Union. This confirmed ‘the fifth Act of the first Parliament of King William and Queen Mary , entitled ‘ Act Ratifying the Confession of Faith, and Settling Presbyterian Church Government’ which was “ to continue without any alteration to the people of this land in all succeeding generations” , thus securing within the Act of Union the status of the Church of Scotland as an ‘established’ national church, equal but legally distinct from the similar national status of the Church of England.

This recognition of Scotland’s distinctive religious heritage, along with recognition of Scotland’s separate legal system, meant that the Union of 1707 was not a full ‘incorporating Union’. The Union was not, despite Chancellor Seafield’s often quoted remark on the passing of Scotland’s Parliament ‘Now there’s ane end of ane auld sang’. Indeed just as the ‘auld sang’ of the Scottish Parliament was coming to its end, the ‘auld sangs’ of Scotland were being recalled and revived.

In 1706, James Watson published the first of three volumes of his ‘Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems’. According to Michael Fry, in his just published book on the Union of 1707:

This sets out what was still then known of the older Scottish literature, at the risk of being lost because the royal court had long gone from Edinburgh, and the Parliament, also a patron of culture on a modest scale , was preparing to follow. The preface boasts it is the first printed anthology of poems ‘in our own native Scots dialect’. It too, contributed to the vernacular revival which led on top the poetry of Alan Ramsay, Robert Ferguson and Robert Burns. Each delighted to find in Watson’s collection traditional genres and metres with which to enrich his own work.

That line of intellectual descent shows how, as if by some intuition, Scotland prepared for extinction as a state with a revival of her culture. Indeed the Scots have endured, to the present, as a cultural community sustained by recurrent revivals, which also laid the foundation for their re-emergence as a political community 300 years later. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun had said : ‘If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he would not care who should make the laws of a nation’. Fry: The Union: England , Scotland and the Treaty of 1707: Birlinn: 2006: 255/6

As an aside Fry previously noted that Fletcher’s oft quoted quip was made not in Scotland, but at a meeting held in London with Sir Charles Musgrave, Tory MP for Westmorland in 1703. The context was a remark made by Musgrave that in London “ Even the poorest sort of both sexes are daily tempted to all manner of lewdness by infamous ballads sung in every corner of the street.”

To return to my theme: Fry can be understood as suggesting that for the 292 years which separate the extinction of Scotland as a ‘political community’ or state to the ‘reconvening’ of Scotland’s parliament in 1999, Scotland’s cultural heritage preserved Scotland’s national identity. Or rather, more than preserved, which implies a ‘fossilisation’ of Scottish national identity as it was in May 1707, Scotland’s cultural heritage has developed and enhanced national identity for the past 300 years. The cultural works of Robert Burns and Walter Scott, to name but two, did far more than preserve Scotland’s cultural heritage; they helped shape and create it. Yet they both did so within the context of a British rather than a Scottish state.

This leads on to a question which our previous discussion of Benedict Arnold’s theme of nations as ‘imagined communities’ touched on. According to the ‘standard’ models of nationalism, a form of political Scottish nationalism should have emerged in the 19th century. But it did not. As Graeme Norton puts it:

In many ways the student of nationalism in Scotland is not helped by the tools available to do the job. The search for a universal theory has proved increasingly fruitless, and the discipline remains fragmented into communicative, elitist, modernist and ethnic theories (to name but a few). This is despite a convergence between those who regard the nation- state and nationalism as inherently modern - an invention of the late eighteenth century - and those who stress the ethnic sentiment which all ‘nation-states’ use to legitimate their existence. Yet Scotland’s pre-modern identity (with the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 at its pinnacle) has not become the ‘blood and belonging’ of ethnic cleansing or genocide or xenophobia or emancipation characteristic of modern nationalisms. [Morton: What if?: The Significance of Scotland’s Missing Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century: in Broun, Finlay, Lynch: eds.: Image and Identity: The Making and Re-making of Scotland Through the Ages: John Donald: Edinburgh: 1998]

At the end of his analysis, Morton suggests that what emerged in Scotland in the nineteenth century was ‘a thoroughly modern civic nationalism’, or a ‘cultural nationalism’. What enabled this form of nationalism to develop was the survival, embedded in the Union Treaty itself, of national Scottish institutions - a Scottish legal system, a Scottish educational system and a Scottish religious system along, with the structures of Scottish local government. Lindsay Patterson in his ‘The Autonomy of Modern Scotland’ (published in 1994) takes this theme as the core of his book. Patterson argues that despite the loss of her parliament in 1707, Scotland retained a sufficient level of independence to limit the appeal of full-blown nationalism.

But if Scotland has retained and extended her cultural heritage alongside a substantial degree of political autonomy, why did a Scottish National Party emerge in the 1930s? And why has it only been since the 1970s that the SNP has emerged as a significant nationalist threat to the Union of 1707?

Writing in 1977, when the SNP has 11 MPs and a Scottish Devolution Bill was grinding its painful way through Westminster to ultimate failure in 1979, Christopher Harvie’s ‘Scotland and Nationalism’ [ Allen and Unwin: London: 1977] traces the emergence of the SNP in 1933 to its roots in a Scottish literary renaissance in the 1920s. According to Harvie this 1920s renaissance involved ‘talents considerably superior’ to those of late 19th century Scotland : Neil Gunn, Edwin Muir, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Bridie, Compton Mackenzie and Eric Linklater, as well as ‘the genius of Hugh MacDairmid, a figure comparable to Yeats and Joyce’.

In particular, Harvie draws attention to the importance of MacDairmid’s 1926 poem ‘ A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’ (please excuse Harvie’s gendered language)

The Thistle, mutating throughout the drunk man’s vision, is not a symbol of nationalism; it is the eternal negation of man’s present state, on which his mind must act, as thesis on antithesis, to secure his liberation. The nation on the other hand is a human construct, a necessary matrix of traditions and institutions, which can be -indeed has to be - used to cope with and homogenise this process:

Thou Dostoevski, understood,
Wha had your ain land in your bluid,
And into it as in a mould,
The passion o’ your being’ rolled
Inherited in turn frae Heaven
Or sources for abune it even.

Is Scotland big enough to be
A symbol o that force in me,
In wha’s divine inebriety
A sicht abune contempt I’ll see?

For a’ that’s Scottish is in me,
As a’ things Russian were in thee,
And I in turn ‘ud be an action,
To pit in a concrete abstraction
My country’s contrair qualities
And mak’ a unity of these
As my love owre its history dwells
As owretone to a peal o’bells.

And in this hiecher stratosphere
As bairn at giant at thee I peer...

However, when the more ‘radical’ National Party, which MacDairmid helped to found in 1928, amalgamated with the more moderate Scottish Party to form the Scottish National Party in 1933, MacDairmid was thrown out. At the risk of over-simplifying Harvie and against Fry’s claim, whilst the 1920s and 30s literary renaissance may have helped lay the foundations for today’s Scottish nationalism, this particular aspect of Scottish cultural heritage was too complex to be easily transferred into the sphere of political nationalism. Or, put another way, the SNP’s winning slogan in 1974 was ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil!’ not ‘It’s Scotland’s Culture!’.

Why then did the rising tide of Scotland’s oil fail to lift the boat of economic nationalism in the 1979 devolution referendum? Neal Ascherson, who was a journalist at the time has suggested a possible reason.

The key to understanding Scottish modern history is to grasp the sheer force, violence and immensity of social change in the two centuries after about 1760. No country in Europe, and perhaps no country on earth until the European explosion into the interior of North America and Australia, underwent a social and physical mutation so fast and so complete. Tidal waves of transformation swept over the country, Lowland and Highland, drowning the way of life of hundreds of thousands of families and obliterating not only traditional societies but the very appearance of the landscape itself. ...[In the Lowlands] a countryside of open, hedgeless fields, with tenant farmers and cottars living n small communities of a dozen or so families known as ‘ferm touns’ now came abruptly to end... Within a generation, the very placenames and locations of the ‘touns’ were sinking out of memory, as if a new map had been laid over the surface of the land.... Somethings, however, did not change, or at least they stayed recognisable. It depended on who you were. Most people in Scotland experienced the arrival of capitalism as the inset of an obliterating, scattering cyclone...But if you were and advocate or a minister, a university lecturer or a banker, it was different. For the professions and for Scotland’s small middle class, the cyclone was no worse than the bracing Edinburgh wind...for this minority there was a continuity about what they did , and what they thought they were doing. [Ascherson: Stone Voices, The Search for Scotland: Granta: London : 2002]

This ‘deep discontinuity between the experiences of the ‘hurricane survivor’ majority and the ‘healthy breeze-blown’ minority’ is a useful distinction. It is also very challenging. Is it not the case that the ‘Scottish Cultural Heritage’ we are studying is the cultural heritage of Ascherson’s ‘healthy breeze- blown’ minority? How far into the Scotland of the ‘hurricane survivor majority’ does Scottish cultural heritage really extend? Not very far, I suspect.

Nor, which is more directly to Ascherson’s point, does Harvie’s ‘civic nationalism’ extend much further into the Scotland of the hurricane survivors. Yes, after 18 years of minority ( in Scotland) Conservative rule, a Devolution Settlement was reached and a Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999. As Ascherson puts it:

A strong tide of public opinion brought it into being between 1997 and 1999; the Scottish middle class, or governing stratum, or intelligentsia or what everyone may call it finally succeeded in rallying the majority into decisive political action. At the same time, the division has not gone away. The minority are pleased and proud at much of what the Scottish Parliament has done, whilst admitting to its severe teething problems. The majority are much more reserved about what the Parliament may do to change their lives now and in the future... Their support is astonishingly tepid.

Is it possible to move beyond Ascherson’s rather depressing analysis? I am certain it is. One way forward is to show that Ascherson’s historic hurricane did not sweep away all in its path. This can be illustrated by returning to my starting place, to Dumfries’ Mid-steeple in 1706.

The Reverend John Hepburn of Urr, who led the anti-Union demonstration in 1706 knew what it was like to live through more than one hurricane. In 1681, he was in London and accused of taking part in the ‘Rye-House Plot’ to assassinate king Charles II and was lucky to escape execution. He then held illegal conventicles in Galloway before emerging (without offical approval) as the minister of Urr post- 1688. The General Assembly challanged his status, but his parishioners refused to accept his removal. But, unlike John MacMillan of Balmaghie who became a Cameronian minister, Hepburn did not totally reject the established church.

In 1715, as he had done in 1706, Hepburn armed and drilled 300 of his parishioners and marched them to Dumfries - but this time he claimed to be doing so in support of the burgh against a threatened Jacobite seige. Finally, although Hepburn himself had died in 1723, Hepburn’s ‘army’ is alleged to have played a key role in the Galloway Levellers uprising of 1724.

Although, as I have found through my researches, the Galloway Levellers uprising was much more than a simple peasants revolt against enclosing landowners, it was the first and strongest act of resistence by any Scots against Ascherson’s ‘hurricane’. Furthermore, despite the subsequent and total transformation of the local landscape and farming practices, memories of the Levellers survived for a hundred years as oral history, to be recorded in the 1820s and 1830s by John Nicholson and Joseph Train.

Train passed on his information to Sir Walter Scott, but although Scott used Train’s research in several of his novels, he did not use the Galloway Levellers material. Equally, although Nicholson’s material, which can be found at Broughton House in Kirkcudbright, was re-used extensively by A.S. Morton in his paper on the Galloway Levellers in the 1936 Transactions of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society, it has been overlooked by Scottish historians in their occasional mentions of the Levellers.

Why should this be? Why should this opportuntity to connect across Ascherson’s divide between the ‘people of the hurricane’ and the ‘people of the healthy breeze’ have been so neglected ?

With these questions I conclude my presentation on the relationship between Scottish cultural heritage and national identity. I hope that I have provided sufficient material for a fruitful discussion of my theme.


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