After losing his Glasgow-Govan parliamentary seat in the 1992 General Election, Scottish National Party politician Jim Sillars condemned Scotland as a country of “Ninety-Minute Patriots,” willing to support Scotland during a football match but unwilling to take the necessary steps to secure her political independence from the United Kingdom. While the Scottish National Party has subsequently enjoyed greater political success, Scots remain confused as to their own identity. From being leaders in manufacturing, education, and administration of the British Empire, Scotland has deteriorated into an economy overly reliant on service and financial industries.
Religious tensions between ethnically Irish Catholics and native Protestants have existed since the influx of the former beginning in the 1840s. Set against the backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the city of Glasgow has been described as “Belfast-lite” by comedians and serious commentators alike. The secular, center-left response to these divisions has been, essentially, to tell both sides that such bickering over religious differences is pointless and should be consigned to history. One might argue that such politician-activists as Donald Gorrie, a Liberal Democrat member of the Scottish Parliament, are as opposed to religion as they are to religious intolerance.
With religious tensions as they were, racism in Scotland was historically not the problem that it was in England and other parts of northern Europe. This has changed in the past decade, with growing resentment directed toward asylum-seekers and other non-white immigrants in urban areas. The secular center-left response in this instance has been to encourage and promote multiculturalism under a “One Scotland, Many Cultures” banner. The problem deepens when white Scotswhether Catholic, Protestant, or atheistattempt to define their side of the bargain.
It might be argued that no one has tried seriously to define what it is to be Scottish. Perhaps it was the case that such a definition was, until recently, unnecessary. When Britain had an empire, Scots were an integral part in running and administering it. The Union served them well, and the Irish immigrants who arrived as a result of the potato famine had little to gain from an independent Scotland. Presbyterianism in Scotland had become tied in with the sense that one was British, and Catholicism in Scotland was decidedly Irish and based predominantly in urban areas. The relative and perceived success of such other small countries (the Scottish Executive recently ran a campaign describing Scotland as “the best small country in the world”) as Ireland and Denmark, not to mention the scores of newly independent countries in Africa and Asia, forced Scots to consider whether they themselves could hold their own outside the Union.
For the most part, people who consider themselves Scottish do so by dint of geographic location, rather than for some idea of nationhood or ideology. Oddly enough, it is not the leaders of the Scottish National Party who are the major vehicle for defining Scottish identity, for they are more concerned with governing the geographic entity. Rather, left-wing secular political and activist groups, made up of both the working and middle classes, articulate what is meant by being Scottish. Unsurprisingly, they lift up Scotland as a socialist paradise, where people of all races and creeds can live in harmony. These groups do not approach a majority, but they generate a noise that outweighs their numbers.
One particularly ridiculous example of such activism can be found with a YouTube search for “Scotland the Brave,” a patriotic song comparable to “America the Beautiful.” One of the first results comes from “YouScotland,” an activist group that hopes to keep Scottish politicians of all stripes accountable. At first glance the video appears to be a light-hearted example of Scottish self-deprecation“Land of the purple heather, land of some shockin’ weather”but turns out to be a genuine celebration of Scotland’s new-found tolerance, including but not limited to guaranteed rights for homosexuals, free bus passes for the elderly, and college students being given “cash tae get clever.” Among other cringe-worthy lines is the description of the “Land of Mary and Prince Charlie [absolutist monarchs], Adam Smith [enlightenment capitalist], and Mick McGahey [lifelong communist]”. One Scotland, Many Cultures indeed.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, an English historian often thought to have been antagonistic towards the Scots, would not have been surprised by such developments. His posthumously published Invention of Scotland: Myth and History examines political, literary, and sartorial elements in Scottish history and argues that there was a series of Scottish national myths that formed the Scottish identity. These myths, he asserts, continued to play a part of the Scottish psyche in the late-twentieth century.
Trevor-Roper began his research in the 1960s, as Scottish nationalism enjoyed something of a revival, and several sections of the book were made public in journal articles and public lectures. Jeremy Cater, the book’s editor and a former student of Trevor-Roper, suggests that the increasing likelihood that Scots would be offered a referendum on establishing their own parliament in Edinburgh within the British constitutional setup, and Trevor-Roper’s belief that contemporary Scottish nationalism shared many of these myths, prompted him to develop these pieces into a monograph.
Here we find a glaring error: Cater apparently claims that the Labour Party’s plans to give Scots a referendum on the matter, as proposed by the Scotland Act (1978), were canceled with their defeat by Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative Party in January 1979. In fact, the vote did go ahead in March of that year, with the proviso that 40% of the entire electorate had to vote in favor of devolution for the proposition to succeed. While over 51% voted for devolution, this amounted to only 32.9% of the electorate. At the very least his wording is unclear. At worst Cater fails to realize that at that point in history two of three Scots chose, of their own accord, to retain the Union as it had stood since 1707.
In September 1997, a similar referendum passed by a margin of 74--26. At any rate, Cater believes that the defeat of devolution allowed Trevor-Roper to turn his attention to other projects, and the manuscript remained unfinished at his death in 2003. Indeed, Cater mentions in his foreword that Trevor-Roper had hinted at the inclusion of other sections on more than one occasion.
Roper’s research on the subjects he chose to examine is sound, despite the likelihood of political motivation. Undergraduates reading Trevor-Roper at British universities, probably his 1969 European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, do so with the warning from their tutors of his tendency to make generalizations about a given subject based on a small sample of history. On a micro-level, this trend presents itself during his discussion of George Buchanan, a sixteenth-century Scottish scholar, whom, Trevor-Roper states, developed an interest in religion late in life. Trevor-Roper questioned Buchanan’s sincerity, declaring that “a man who only begins to concern himself with religion in middle age cannot be said to be very spiritual.” While this was likely true in Buchanan’s case, it is hardly a sound litmus test and offers further ammunition to Trevor-Roper’s detractors.
On a macro-historical level, The Invention of Scotland is disappointing not because Trevor-Roper chose relatively easy targets to prove his point. Contemporary “Scotland the Brand” does market itself to, and does brisk business with, the outside world via some of the ideas that Trevor-Roper describes, particularly that of the clan and tartan. But the idea of monarchy, which he argues helped validate the identity of Scotland in distinction from England or Ireland, is now anathema to many Scots.
A more robust critique of Scottish history, culture, and society would have been possible had Trevor-Roper adopted a more wide-ranging view of the country. He appears to view Scotland as being content with isolation from the outside world, while Scotland’s significant role in both the Reformation and the American War of Independence are just two counterexamples. Additionally, the importance of immigration since the 1840s means that Scots have had to deal issues that extend beyond their border with England.
It is also puzzling is that Trevor-Roper only briefly touches upon the Reformation. One would think that a serious examination of Scottish identity would require an examination of a phenomenon that saw the transition from a supra-national to a national church, albeit one with significant ties to other parts of Europe. This would lead, in turn, to a discussion of how the Protestant identity dealt with, and was affected by, mass Catholic immigration.
The author had little excuse for this omission. Sectarianism has been such a problem in Scotland that a full-scale riot erupted after the victory of the Catholic Celtic football team over their Protestant rival Rangers in the 1980 Scottish Cup Final in Glasgow. The dynamics of sectarianism in Scotland have changed since that day to be sure, but an interested outsider (and, I'd hope, a Scot as well) would surely attempt to understand the overriding reasons for these events. This is particularly the case when it is considered that the continued presence of sectarian bigotry in Scottish society, especially within the realm of sportsnot to mention the inaction of the Scottish Executive and football authorities over such recent songs as “The Famine is Over, Why Don’t You Go Home?”suggests a malaise within Scottish society, the eradication of which requires significant soul-searching.
Such a liberal approach to Scottish history would have likely validated much of Trevor-Roper’s conclusion that Scottish identity did notand does nothave solid foundations. But the book would have been more useful in understanding the issues facing the country today. Why is monarchy, once so crucial to Scotland’s identity, now of far less significance? How did the several waves of non-Protestant immigrants affect the indigenous Presbyterian self-identity? Did the demise of the British Empire simultaneously bolster hopes of independence and also knock Scottish self-confidence? Why did a country once so proud of its protestant work ethic so eagerly embrace socialism?
Granted, variations of these questions could be asked of several European countries, and the answers might well differ depending on the region, but they are valid and important questions to ask about Scotland. While it would be unfair to describe The Invention of Scotland as a hatchet-job, there are other authors such as Tom Devine, who offer a more reasoned critique of Scotland over the years.
John Joseph Shanley, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, is director of conferences and the Undergraduate Honors Program at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History by Hugh Trevor-Roper