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.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

C ulture Heritage and Nationalism

This is third and final version of Oral presentation.

The Influence of Scottish Cultural Heritage on the development of Scottish Nationalism since 1707.

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: 2002: 80/83]

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 cultural or 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. But 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 every one 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. [2002:86]

If anything, popular support for the Scottish Parliament is diminishing. In 1999, 58% of the electorate voted in the Scottish Parliament election. In 2003, the figure was only 49%. It is feared that even fewer will vote in 2007. In response to this fear, the Scottish Executive and the Electoral Commission have set up a ‘votescotland’ campaign designed to encourage popular participation in democracy.

The 2007 election to the Scottish parliament will be held on the 3rd May. On the 1st May 1707, the Act of Union between the parliaments of Scotland and England came into effect. With a total electorate of approximately only 2400 in 1706 [Whately : 2006: 56] there was little scope for ’popular participation in democracy’ in the Scottish parliament which passed the Act of Union. As a result, popular opposition to the Union took other forms, the most dramatic of which occurred in Dumfries on the 20th November 1706. 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. Hepburn then affixed a declaration of his opposition to the proposed ‘incorporating union’ between England and Scotland to the Mercat Cross before retreating back into Galloway. [Whitelaw: 1907]

Hepburn was a strong (even extreme ) Presbyterian. His opposition to the Union was based on the fear that Union with Anglican England would encourage Episcopalianism in Scotland and thus the return of church government by bishops rather than elders. There may have been a personal aspect to this. Hepburn became minister of Urr by popular proclamation in 1681 rather than official appointment. Along with his friend, the Cameronian supporting Reverend John Macmillan of Balmaghie, Hepburn claimed to represent ‘the poor, wasted, misrepresented remnant of the suffering, anti-popish, anti-prelatic, anti-erastian, anti-sectarian true Presbyterian Church of Scotland’. [Whately: 2006 and Reid: 1928]

1706 also saw the publication by James Watson in Edinburgh of the first of three volumes of his ‘Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems’. As the ‘auld sang’ of the Scottish Parliament was coming to its end, the ‘auld sangs’ of Scotland were being recalled and revived.

According to Michael Fry, in his new book on the Union of 1707:

[Watson] 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 to 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. As 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 : 2006: 255/6]

But, when Fry’s description of Watson’s book is compared with that given by Christopher Whatley in his new account of the Union [ Whatley: 2006: 12] an immediate problem emerges. According to Whatley, Watson was “ a renowned patriot, Episcopalian and opponent of the union who had been accused of publishing anti-government pamphlets on at least two earlier occasions.”, and compares Watson to Gaelic bards like Iain Lom who also opposed the Union. Both Watson and Lom, Whatley suggests, “were contributors to the cultural nationalism that emerged as a result of the loss of Scottish political nationhood caused by the union”. For Whatley, this ‘cultural nationalism’ then overlapped with ’popular Jacobitism’.

In which case, if, rather than being Fry’s ‘intuitive’ ( implying ‘unconscious’) response to the Union, the Scottish cultural revival of 1706 was deliberate and conscious, was a political response to the threat of Union, then a form of Scottish nationalism already existed in 1706. Yet, whilst Fry and Whatley find evidence of early 18th century ’nationalism, Graeme Morton has drawn attention to the absence of Scottish nationalism in the 19th century :

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: 1998 : 158]

At the end of his analysis, Morton suggests that what emerged in Scotland at the end of the nineteenth century was ‘a thoroughly modern civic nationalism’, or a ‘cultural nationalism’. Can this ‘cultural nationalism’ be equated with that of Watson and Lom in the early 18th century ? I suggest not. Whilst Watson and Lom were part of a Scottish ’cultural resistance’ to the Union of 1707, late 19th / early 20th century Scotland was represented by the parochial ‘kailyard‘ stories of J.M. Barrie and S.R. Crockett and the imperial adventure novels of John Buchan. By way of contrast, the same period in Ireland produced Yeats and Joyce and a powerful nationalism which tore apart Gladstone’s Liberal Party and led to the Easter Rising of 1916.

Looking back from 1977, when the SNP had 11 MPs and a Scottish Devolution Bill was grinding its painful way to ultimate failure in 1979, Harvie [1977] traced the emergence of the Scottish National Party (founded 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’ (note 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.
[Harvie: 1977, quote from MacDiarmid: 1926]

Yeats was a contemporary of MacDairmid and was also part of a nationalist movement. In 1928, Yeats wrote :

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare

We are closed in , and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere a house is burned,
Yet no clear fact can be discerned;
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood;
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

[from Yeats: Meditations in Time of Civil War : 1928: Everyman edition: 1997: 54]

Although MacDairmid helped found a ‘radical’ National Party in 1928, when it amalgamated with the moderate Scottish Party to form the Scottish National Party in 1933, MacDairmid was thrown out. Nor, since Scotland did not achieve independence in his life time, did MacDairmid have to deal with the conflict between fantasy and reality as Yeats had to.

Yeats’ ‘Easter 1916’ was written in 1921, just as Ireland had gained her long sought for independence. Or at least, the 26 southern counties had. The 6 counties of northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom. In 1922 this division of Ireland triggered a civil war between southern Irish ‘realists’, who accepted the division as a political fact and the ‘idealists’ who did not. Yeats’ lines -‘Last night they trundled down the road/ That young dead soldier in his blood’ and ‘We had fed the heart on fantasies/ The heart’s grown brutal on the fare’ from ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ may be less often quoted (and hence less well known) than his refrain ‘All changed, changed utterly/ A terrible beauty is born’ from ‘Easter 1916’ . Perhaps the lines from ‘Meditation in Time of Civil War’ should be as well remembered..

Although the southern Irish aspect of the civil war lasted only 11 months [Tanner: 2003: 291], the ‘Troubles’ of northern Ireland have yet to be fully resolved. Northern Ireland’s devolved Assembly remains in suspension. One important factor in the complex negotiations around ‘power-sharing’ (between Republican and Unionist parties) is the strong anti- Republican position adopted by the Protestant politician Ian Paisley, born in Armagh in 1926. According to Tanner:

Paisley’s childhood was steeped in the traditions of the sixteenth-century Scottish Calvinist opponents of episcopacy… Paisley’s daughter, Rhonda, was to recall happy times spent with her father rooting around the hills of south-west Scotland and looking for their graves: ‘Many a holiday we spent trekking over the moors to be photographed at some Covenanter’s grave in Scotland.`…[Paisley’s] politics, theology and entire thought process appear to be located in the ecclesiastical battlegrounds of the sixteenth century… [Tanner:2003: 360/1]

This image of Paisley as successor to Macmillan and Hepburn as representing ‘the poor, wasted, misrepresented remnant of the suffering, anti-popish, anti-prelatic, anti-erastian, anti-sectarian true Presbyterian Church of Scotland’ may provide an answer to the questions posed by Ascherson.

Perhaps the ‘failure’ of Scotland’s middle-class civic nationalism to engage with Ascherson’s ‘hurricane survivors’ reflects a fear of what might emerge. Football is deeply embedded in Scottish popular culture, but unique to Scotland [Harvie: 1977:208] the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow and Hibs (Hibernians) and Hearts (Heart of Midlothian) in Edinburgh is expressed as a ‘political- religious’ sectarian conflict. Supporters of Celtic and Hibs wave Irish tricolours and sing nationalist songs like ‘A Nation once Again’ and proclaim their support for the IRA whilst Rangers and Hearts supporters wave the Union Jack and sing Unionist songs like ‘The Sash my Father Wore’ and proclaim their support for the UDA (a Unionist paramilitary group). However, although England experienced acts of violent terrorism during the ‘Troubles’ [ between 1969 and 1993] Scotland did not. The violence of Scottish ‘sectarianism’ remained part of Scottish popular culture and did not cross over into the sphere of political violence.

Perhaps it is this ‘spectre of sectarianism’ which has haunted, even halted, the development of Scottish nationalism beyond its nineteenth century ‘Unionist nationalism’ roots? That the sombre echoes of Yeats’ ‘Meditation in Time of Civil War’ have had a sobering effect on all but the most enthusiastic ‘assertors of Scotland’s liberty and opponents of Union‘. [From Latin inscription on gravestone of Robert Johnston, MP for Dumfries in Union parliament of 1706]


TDGHNHAS - Transactions Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society.
Ascherson, N: Stone Voices, The Search for Scotland: Granta: London: 2002
Broun, D., Finlay, R. and Lynch, M.: eds: Image and Identity, The Making and Re-making of Scotland Through the Ages: John Donald: Edinburgh: 1998
Cowan, E. and Finlay, J. :eds.: Scottish History, The Power of the Past: Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh: 2002
Donnachie, I and Whatley, C, : eds: The Manufacture of Scottish history: Polygon: Edinburgh: 1992
Ferguson ,W. :The Identity of the Scottish Nation:, an Historic Quest: Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh: 1998
Fry, M: The Union, England, Scotland and the Treaty of 1707 : Birlinn: Edinburgh: 2006
Harvie, C.: Scotland and Nationalism, Scottish Society and Politics 1707-1977: Allen and Unwin: London : 1977
Kehoe, S. and MacPhail ,I. : eds : A Panorama of Scottish History, Contemporary Considerations: University of Glasgow: Glasgow: 2004
MacDairmid, H. : Selected Poems: ed. Craig, D. and Manson, J.: Penguin : London: 1970
Morton, G. : What If, The Significance of Scotland’s Missing Nationalism in the Nineteenth century : in Broun, Finlay and Lynch, eds: Scotland Image and Identity: 1998
Paterson, L: The Autonomy of Modern Scotland : Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh: 1994
Reid, H.M.B.: The Hebronites : TDGNHAS: Series III : Vol.7: 1928

Tanner, M. : Ireland’s Holy wars, The Struggle for a Nation’s Soul 1500-2000: Yale University Press: London : 2003
Whatley, C. with Patrick, D.: The Scots and the Union: Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh : 2006
Whitelaw, H.: The Union of 1707 in Dumfriesshire : TDGHNAS: Series II: Vol. 19: 1907

Yeats, W. B. : Everyman’s Poetry: selected and edited Kelly, J: Dent: London: 1997


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