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, November 06, 2006

Cultural/ Political Constructions: Scottish Identity

This is revised version of Oral presentation- for first draft see blog below

Cultural and Political Constructions of Scottish Identity since 1707.

Three hundred years ago this month, at 1pm 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. 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.

Despite this dramatic, almost theatrical, intervention by Hepburn, on 1st of May 1707 a union between Scotland and England was established. And yet, despite fears raised at the time and subsequently, Scotland never became ‘North Britain’. Thus in 1999, Winifred Ewing could proclaim that “ The Scottish parliament , adjourned on the 25th day of March 1707, is hereby reconvened.”.

The structure of this presentation is historical, beginning with a suggestion by Fry that the re-emergence of Scotland as a formal political community in 1999 can be traced back to a Scottish cultural revival which began in 1706. I then discuss, following Morton, the puzzling absence of a Scottish ‘nationalism’ in the 19th century. However, as Harvie shows, following a Scottish literary renaissance of the 1920s, ’modern’ Scottish nationalism did emerge in the 1930ies. Finally, drawing on Ascherson’s challenging description of a Scotland still deeply traumatised by enforced urbanisation and industrial collapse, I pose the question: XXXXXX

I will now return to 1706. In that year, James Watson published the first of three volumes of his ‘Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems’. So just 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: The Union: England , Scotland and the Treaty of 1707: Birlinn: 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: Scots and the Union: Edinburgh: 2006] 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.


This leads directly on to a question which our previous discussion of Benedict Anderson’s theme of nations as ‘imagined communities’ touched on. According to the ‘standard’ models of nationalism, a Scottish nationalism based on cultural or ethnic constructions of national identity should not have emerged until the mid 19th century. 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: 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]

Why is this ‘missing nationalism’ significant? A photograph in Morton’s book ’ William Wallace: Man and Myth’ [Sutton : Stroud : 2001] provides an illustration. It is of a collection of letters written in 1868 by European supporters of the National Wallace Monument. Included are letters from the Italian nationalists Garibaldi and Mazzini. Yet in 19th century Scotland, nationalist heroes like Wallace and Bruce were invoked in support of the Union, the argument being that by securing Scotland’s independence, they ensured that (unlike Ireland and Wales) when Union came, Scotland could join as an equal partner in the United Kingdom. At the same time as this ‘Unionist Nationalism’ was being promoted, Scotland’s industrial workers, soldiers, emigrants, traders and administrators were contributing the emergence, through imperialism, of Britain as a dominant world power.

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 Morton’s late 19th century ‘cultural nationalism’ be equated with that of Watson and Lom in the early 18th century ? I am suggest not.. However, whilst Watson and Lom were part of a Scottish ’literary renaissance’ in 1706, no similar renewal existed 1906. Instead, there were the ‘kailyard‘ stories of J.M. Barrie and S.R. Crockett and the imperial adventure novels of John Buchan. In contrast, the same period in century Ireland produced Yeats and Joyce and a powerful nationalism which tore apart Gladstone’s Liberal Party and led to the Easter Rising of 1916.

The ultimate convergence between an ‘independent’ Scottish cultural identity and anti-Union nationalism did not emerge until the Depression years of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Writing in 1977, when the SNP had 11 MPs and a Scottish Devolution Bill was grinding its painful way to ultimate failure in 1979, Christopher Harvie’s ‘Scotland and Nationalism’ [ Allen and Unwin: London: 1977] traces the emergence of the Scottish National Party 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...

But when the ‘radical’ National Party, which MacDairmid helped to found in 1928, amalgamated with the moderate Scottish Party to form the Scottish National Party in 1933, MacDairmid was thrown out. However, although Harvie compares MacDiarmid to Yeats, unlike MacDiarmid, by 1928 Yeats had to confront the descent of the idealist nationalism he had helped to create into bloody civil war:

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]

Reflecting on the Irish experience of nationalism, perhaps it was just as well for Scotland that what Harvie describes as the ’treacly effluent of the Kailyard’ held back the development of Scottish nationalism for a generation. But this still leaves the question of why it took fifty year from their formation in 1933 for the SNP to achieve political break through in 1974. That this was done under the slogan - “It’s Scotland’s Oil !“. rather than ’It’s Scotland’s Culture!’ leads on to Neal Ascherson‘s contribution to my theme.

Ascherson is a journalist rather than a historian. Back in 1979, he reported on the first devolution referendum. In his book ‘Stone Voices’, Ascherson wonders why this failed to deliver a Scottish Parliament? He then goes on to wonder why , despite the success of the 1997 devolution referendum, popular support for the new Scottish Parliament is so weak.

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 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.

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.

To summarise: although there are apparent continuities of cultural heritage and national political identity between Scotland as it was in 1706 and Scotland as it is today, I suggests these continuities are ‘narrative constructs’ rather than innate features. I am thinking here of the ‘Hilton of Cadboll’ case discussed by Angela in her lecture. Whilst museum curators and nationalist politicians ( if not Ascherson’s university lecturers!) may claim to be presenting such continuities as objectives facts, key figures like James Watson, Robert Burns , Walter Scott and Hugh MacDairmid were (in their very different ways) conscious of their roles as active ’creators’ rather the passive ‘curators’ of Scotland’s cultural and political identity.

But, despite the ‘votescotland’ campaign, the problem identified by Ascherson remains. How can the ‘hurricane survivors’ be persuaded that they are creators rather observers of Scotland’s history and identity? This is a question I have puzzled over. I believe that the part of the answer lies in promoting the study of ‘history from below’. To give an example, Chris Whatley includes John Hepburn in his study of the Union of 1707. From my research, I have found that Hepburn’s followers helped spark the Galloway Levellers’ uprising of 1724, an uprising against Ascherson’s hurricane. But why, I wonder, have the actions of the Galloway Levellers been relegated to local rather than national history? Why, I wonder, are the voices of the ‘hurricane survivors’ still not heard?

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