Mr and Mrs Scotland are not dead – restating scottishness.
Here's tae us - Wha's like us Damn few, And they're a' deid
Mr and Mrs Scotland are dead reads the title of Kathleen Jamie's poem. But how can a country terminate its existence if it has never been alive, argues Hugh Trevor-Roper in his book: The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History. At least not in the shape of a socio-cultural concept that would be historically and on paper substantiated. Roper questions the authenticity of Scottish origin and their cultural claims by refuting facts and figures about Scottish history written down by John of Fordun or Hector Boece; historians who are thought to have been biased by their personal attitude to the subject matter and above all, lacking reliable sources, to have based their knowledge on myths and legends. Should Roper's cry to de-mythologise Scottish history be acknowledged, it would have to be done with a great many of other countries. Take for example The Chronicle of Poland, Latin: Chronica Polonorum written by Wincenty Kadłubek on the commission of Kazimierz II Sprawiedliwy. Curiously the chronicle (four books), though known as not quite a reliable source is the main source of our knowledge about Poland up to 1202. What is more the first book contains the legends about the origin of Poland and the fourth is, among others, an open celebration of the ruler's (the commissioner) virtues. All the same Polish identity is not put into doubt for that reason. Trevor-Roper rightly points out examples of national characteristics being pure inventions of literary fiction that are so powerful that they have permeated to everyday life and are referred to as facts. The same point of view is shared by Stuart Kelly, an author of the book Scott-land: The Man Who Invented A Nation, who claims that: “Almost anything we now consider culturally, even nationally, Scottish has its roots in what Scott did and wrote. From language to dress, from how others see us to how we see ourselves, from tourists to the cash they spend, it's all Scott's doing […].” Which caused that “every Scottish writer since Scott has had to wrestle with this problematic inheritance.” Edwin Muir, on the other hand, defends Sir Walter Scott saying that it was not Scott who is to be blamed for fictionalizing Scotland but it was Scotland who provided no other choice.
A people who lose their nationality create a legend to take its place. […] Scotland provided a body of heroic legend for the genius to work upon. But it could not give him a complete framework of living experience on which to nourish his powers and exercise them; in other words, it could not give him a basis for the profound criticism of life of which there is no doubt he was capable. […] It could not give him tradition, for its tradition was melting and dissolving away; so it offered him a legend instead.
In other words, had Scott lived in an independent country with the civilization of unswerving identity, he would not have to resolve to fiction. But he “lived in a community which was not a community, and set himself to carry on a tradition which was not a tradition; and the result was that his work was an exact reflection of his predicament.”
The English historian, who accuses the Scots of usurping nobility, does not escape relativism. The term considered in an English cognitive context, which means a well-born man granted with privileges and usually leading an opulent life, will always be different to the Scottish reality where noble could simply mean free. Therefore “the craving for nobility” as Andrew O'Hagan (the reviewer of Roper's book) describes it, may well be understood as a longing for freedom. While Roper in a way derides the Scots saying that:
[…] the Scottish psyche will always be keen to upgrade the nation as it appears in its own eyes: a part of the culture that craves nobility and responds to peddled rumors of past glories as if they were not time-drunk myths but latent promises. It is a country where propaganda, in the end, can mean much more to the ravenous soul of the nation than any degree of reality.
Albert Memmi, a Tunisian essayist on the processes of colonization, explains that a colonised country will on the one hand always have “the natural tendency to exaggerate its pains” and on the other hand will grow very strong patriotism believing that “revolt is the only way out of the colonial situation […].
In the wake of the devolution process and the political struggle to secede from the Union and throw off the burden of a colonized country there are many questions concerning the cultural identity of Scotland, which inevitably leads to the need to restate scottishness.
Prima facie, what to do with the past? Edward Said, the leader of post-colonialism, calls it “a new urgency about understanding the pastness or not of the past, and this urgency is carried over into perceptions of the present and the future.” Hamish Hendreson, the like of Burns and the Falstaffian, Episcopal libertarian counterpart of Hugh MacDiarmid, commented: “As a nation we have what Germans call eine unbewaltigte Vergangenheit – a past with which we haven't completely come to terms. (In this we are quite unlike the English, who have come to terms with their history so well that they have largely forgotten it.” Kathleen Jamie seems to be desperate to find an answer to this question and this leads to a kind of inner dialogue:
The Beltane Queen was crowned today.
But Mr and Mrs Scotland are dead.
On the one hand there is a strong voice enticing one to get rid of the past, forget about it, burn it, bury it. But after a thought she gets engulfed by doubts if that would be the right thing to do or instead should the past be preserved and cherished before it is too late, because whether it is to somebody's liking or not it is their motherland's past. But what then? The poet asks herself another question and she answers rather gravely that it will be forgotten anyway until somebody starts rummaging around in it. Kathleen Jamie is not the only Scottish writer who is bothered by this question. In Open the Doors! Edwin Morgan is in two minds about the past. He says: “All right. Forget, or don't forget, the past.” But immediately after that he adds that in order to create the present and most importantly the future something more is needed than just looking back. Edwin Morgan admits that he does not know the recipe for success, but he is fully aware of his own role and the role of other Scottish poets and writers in restating the identity of Scotland. In 1987 in the poem Lost Mandate Morgan wrote that a devolved parliament is probably a “pipe dream”. Seventeen years later in Open the Doors! he encourages new MSPs to be wise in ruling the country.
We give you our consent to govern, don't pocket it and ride away. We give you our deepest dearest wish to govern well, don't say we have no mandate to be so bold. We give you this great building, don't let your work and hope be other than great when you enter and begin. So now begin. Open the doors and begin.
In 2004 Jack McConnell First Minister for Scotland in his speech that earned a standing ovation said: “Maybe Scotland's greatest successes are no longer in the past - they just might be right in front of us.” McConnell did not distance himself from the past, but rather urged that the prospects of the country lie in the future and that young Scots should not dwell on the past, but take every opportunity that is ahead of them to build the new and not to dust the old. Seemingly the same stand point is taken by Niall Ferguson, the Scottish professor of history at Harvard University, who says that there used to be wonderful things in the history of Scotland, but past is the past and so it should remain. But then he makes a striking proposal to liquidate the country:
It's over. Over the way countries are sometimes just over. Over the way Prussia is over. Over the way Piedmont is over. Over the way the Papal States are over. […] The idea that Scotland might one day "be a nation again" should simply be dropped. We had our chance, when everyone else in Europe had it, in the 19th and 20th centuries. But we calculated that the Union and the Empire were a better bet than independence. Well, live with it.
Ferguson's poem echoes Robert Burns' words written many years after the dissolution of Scottish Parliament: “Farewell to a' our Scottish fame, Farewell our ancient glory; Farewell ev'n to the Scottish name, Sae fam'd in martial story.” with one important difference that Burns' castigates his compatriots for selling the nation for “English gold” rather than agreeably conforms to the loss of the country. Ferguson's proposal most certainly has got many allies, especially on English side, but it lies in marked contrast with nationalists such as Alasdair Gray who wrote two elaborate pamphlets explaining, on geographical and historical grounds, why and how Scots should rule themselves.
Another point of view on the past can be inferred from Alba Einstein by Robert Crawford. Here the author verbalizes his idea of Scotland as a “brand” to be recognised all over the world. We can read from the poem that it is thanks to the achievements of Scots from various fields in the past decades or even centuries that not only is the future of Scotland promising but the whole world will long be making profits out of Scottish inventions. Crawford's fervent belief leads to a humorous implication that even Albert Einstein was a Scot and Scotland itself takes the central position in the world, as if the problem of marginalization of Alba and its fruits has never existed. The poet seems to understand the strength of Scotland as deriving from its roots which will always allow new stems to grow.
Hugh MacDiarmid one of the most prominent representatives of the Scottish Literary Renaissance is far less enthusiastic about the scale of Scottish achievements seeing the “broukit bairn” in the poem “The Bonnie Broukit Bairn” as “the representative of Scotland's suppressed and unfulfilled potential”. Despite that, Arthur Herman in The Scottish Enlightenment takes the idea of the key role of Scotland further than Crawford, suggesting that Scotland was the cradle of Enlightenment in Europe, and that had it not been for the bright minds of Scottish men and women, the modern world would not be so culturally and technically advanced. It is however not exclusively due to the modern ideas that radiated from behind the Scottish border, but also the constructive power of hundreds of Scots who were forced to emigrate to different parts of the globe, since, in accordance with post-modernist thinking, it is not the country that shapes our identity, but a great number of other factors, because the country no longer means only the territory within boundaries.
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. […] The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory […]
Hence, being Scottish is not “just a matter of nationality or place of origin or clan or even culture. It is also a state of mind, a way of viewing the world and our place in it.” As the last stanza of Maurice Lindsay's Speaking of Scotland reads:
Scotland's a sense of change, an endless becoming for which there was never a kind
of wholeness or ultimate category. Scotland's an attitude of mind.
That is why post-modernists, such as Caryl Phillips in Crossing the River observe the phenomenon of colonization of the mind as being far more dangerous to the identity of the country than “mere” occupation. The clear and unencumbered message of the Phillips' novel revolves around the complicated and long lasting process of rejecting the enslaved mentality and all the difficulties connected with reaching the state of freedom. Drawing the history of the three children sold to be slaves, Phillips clearly shows how difficult it is to break what Albert Memmi called the grip of a “colonial relationship” that chains the colonizer and the colonized “into an implacable dependence, which moulded their respective characters and dictated their culture”. Though Phillips concentrates on Afro-Americans, an analogy to the enslaved Scottish state of mind caused by the crown and parliamentary unions or the clearances can easily be found.
On that ground Herman's preface to The Scottish Enlightenment advocating the role of Scots in building up the history of the world, may be a complete surprise to a reader who sees it as a daring retort to Samuel Johnson's patronising attitude towards Scotland in which Herman shares his astute observation that it was not England who saved Scotland by the Act of Union 1707 but quite the opposite. The crux of the issue lies in the lucidness of a nation's identity, which in the case of England has always been difficult to give shape to. The problem with Scottish identity is not its clarity and distinctiveness but time caesura. Where in time should the process of restating scottishness begin? Is it enough to go back to the Victorian Era and Sir Walter Scott's creations that popularised romanticised Scottish culture or should literary research go back as far as the poetry of the XIVth century with its blazing cry for freedom?
A! Freedom is a noble thing!
Freedom makis man to have liking;
Freedom all solace to man givis:
He livis at ease that freely livis!
[…] The third is that we for our livis
And for our children and our wivis
And for the freedom of our land, […]
Should Edwin Muir's point of view be accepted, the quest would have to start before the XVI century and the acceptance of the English translation of the Bible, which marked the disintegration of the Scottish language. As “when a nation looses its language it looses an essential unifying element in its life, and as soon as that happens the things which divide it begin to take precedence over the things which unite it.” The disintegration of the language did not only affect Scottish literature but also the unity of the nation and, as Muir points out, “[...] where national unity is lost the past is lost too, for the connection between the present and the past has been broken, and the past turns therefore into legend, into poetry of pure memory.” Hence if the real not the fictitious identity were to be analysed the research should embrace the times before the Scottish language, and as a result the Scottish identity, got disintegrated.
To forget or not to forget about the past? Paraphrasing Hamlet's question seems to be fitting. Herman has no doubts that the past should not be neglected, as thanks to those who cherished it, the national revival is at all possible. The similar point of view is shared by Edward Said who advocated co-existence of past and present. In Culture Imperialism he commented:
Appeals to the past are among the commonest of strategies in interpretations of the present. What animates such appeals is not only disagreement about what happened in the past and what the past was, but uncertainty about whether the past really is past, over and concluded, or whether it continues, albeit in different forms, perhaps. This problem animates all sorts of discussions – about influence, about blame and judgement, about present actualities and future priorities.
Said also points to T.S. Eliot's perception of the past for whom the understanding of the present depends on “how we formulate or represent the past.”
Having accepted Said's overlapping character of past and present and Herman's cogent argumentation referring to the necessity of preserving the past we get confronted with another equally contentious problem of Scottish identity and that is whose Scotland and from which perspective should we look at it to be able to thoroughly understand it. “Scotland. Whit like is it?” asks Liz Lochhead in her play Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off. And one of the characters seeking the answer says:
It's a peatbog, it's a daurk forest.
It's a cauldron o'lye, a saltpan or a coal mine.
If you are gey lucky it's a bricht bere meadow or a park o'kye.
Or mibbe … it's a field o'stanes.
It's a tenament or a merchant's ha'.
It's a hure hoose or a humble cot. Princes Street or Paddy's Merkit.
It's a fistfu' o' fish or a pickle o' oatmeal.
It's a queen's banquet o' roast meats and junketts.
It depends. It depends … Ah dinna ken whit like your Scotland is.
As will be shown in the subsequent chapter the answer to the above question depends on who ponders upon the matter. Scotland seen through the eyes of a superior Englishman will appear to be a savage land that can only be saved by taking over political, economic and cultural control by a “more advanced civilisation” that is English. A romantic patriot on the other hand will try to eclipse the injustice experienced from the hands of the oppressor and will put the grandeur of the motherland into first place. Whereas, for a socialist, (see John McGrath) Scotland will evidently be a milky cow in the claws of capitalistic compatriots (both Scottish and English). If these perceptions of Scotland did not come from three different people, it would probably be regarded as a cognitive dissonance, since how can one country simultaneously evoke such contradictory ideas. On the top of that were an average tourist, baffled by the luxuriant duvet of superficiality, to be asked what Scotland is like, they would most likely repeat widespread elements of Scottish culture, which only leads to the infringement of the fallacies, which if ricocheted back to Scots take them by absolute surprise. However, akin foreigners, Scots also seem to have a certain problem with defining themselves, which makes the matter even more complicated.
Many aspects of Scottish identity are depicted in XIXth century paintings. The themes of those works of art varying from Highland landscapes to Scottish heroes and heroines give ground to the thinking that the search for a new identity leans towards “nostalgic […] independent identity”. Take for example Glencoe by Horatio McCulloch portraying a groupof stately deer embraced by the grandeur of magnificent Three Sisters or The MacNab, the archetypal feudal chieftain immortalised by Sir Henry Raeburn (His Majesty’s Limner for Scotland) who showed the clan chief Francis Mor in absolute magnificence hiding the poverty he lived in and was largely responsible for.
Romantic as the trend in Scottish painting may appear, the notoriety of the clearances is not forgotten by the artists (ex. The Last of the Clan by Thomas Faed,1826-1900), which only proves how deeply the clearances afflicted the minds of the Scots. Having said that I must admit that it is easy to relent to the idea that the pictures presented above are the representatives of the real 'national art' and not like the Professor of History of Scottish Art, Murdo Macdonald, sees them, the ones of the “reality within a stereotype”. According to the professor:
Such stereotyping is a method of concealing cultural realities, but at the same time creating a powerful imagery that seems to reflect the culture. What is wrong with stereotypes is not that they exist (indeed they normally correspond to some aspect of reality), but that they are selective and inflexible, that is to say they fail to reflect the plural nature of any culture.
Nonetheless, stereotypical imaging of Scotland is so deeply grounded, take for example the Scottish Section in Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, where the visitor is exposed to such paintings as The Monarch of the Glen or Robert Burns whispering something to his lover's ear, that one would rather think that they are the true national works of art, whereas the others are less faithful or even poor representations of Scottish identity.
Interestingly, when Ron O'Donnell exhibited his humorous and sinister at the same time photographic print titled The Scotsman it appeared to be very controversial and led to a countrywide debate over the “true” character of the Scottish nation. Most of the critics (random visitors to the gallery) nevertheless agreed that narrowing the essence of Scottishness to the kilt, football, and a beer can is too far fetched. However, as the author kindly explained to me: “It's just everything no self respecting Scot would have in their house, the idea is that the wall has fallen down and before the Scotsman can react we the viewer can look in and become a voyeur.” My understanding of the picture is that the man surrounded by the attributes of his own culture ignores them. Books of national bards are scattered all over the room, the shreds of the Lion Rampant are hanging scruffily on the wall and the tartan wallpaper is coming unstuck. The man does not seem to notice that at all, he is watching television, presumably football match, drinking beer. It is as if two identities met in one room, past and present. It is a clash of two myths one of romantic Scotland so much abundant in symbols, and another, modern one, completely devoid of romanticism, shallow and almost vulgar in its simplicity. The work in a way corresponds to the deliberation on what to do with the past. Even though the relics of the past are neglected, they are there waiting, either to be dusted or disposed of, but the only man who would be capable of making any decision does not seem to care. He is not going to get rid of them as he does not notice them, they have always been there so why to bother?
An interpretation of the above work remains open for a dispute. However, if we recollect the already mentioned MacDiarmid who some half a century earlier expressed his concern about the state of the Scottish nation in his magnum opus A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, we arrive at the conclusion that Scots, feeling comfortable in the veil of the image of a romantic country transmitted to the world, overlooked the moment in which their motherland started to be consumed by the disease of degeneration.
You canna gang to a Burns supper even Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o a knock-knee Chinee turns roon to say, 'Him Haggis - velly goot!' And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.
No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote But misapplied is aabody's property, And gin there was his like alive the day They's be the last a kennin haund to gie -
The focus of MacDiarmid's scorn is on people who take part in Burns suppers, but are not even acquainted with his verses not to mention being able to speak his language. “A Drunk Man” casts a new perspective on Crawford's Alba Einstein hailing Scotland as a high-quality brand. MacDiarmid does not question the distinctiveness of Scotland but points to two problems. First of all that the brand has fallen into decay
Forbye, the stuffie's no' the real Mackey.
The sun's sel' aince, as sune as ye bagan it,
Riz in your vera saul: but what keeks in
Noo is in truth the vilest “saxpenny planet.
and secondly that the brand still sells well, therefore, nobody bothers to reflect on its genuineness or more importantly to what extent the Scots identify themselves with the brand. In other words, Scotland as a brand is the luring gift-wrap paper for a rotting parcel that is not easy to handle for its owner, or for the visitors who will rarely go deep enough to discover what is inside, and risk being surprised. It is a rather gloomy portrayal of Scottish identity, but it corresponds with Bill Kay's observation concerning Scottish opportunism when it comes to choosing who they are when benefits come into play. Just to support Key's remark I will quote Robert Burns who in the sought of fame went to Edinburgh where he shed his Highland dress: “My Highland bonnet, once my proudest dress, is at present exchanged for a ten shilling hat. So hey brave Robin lad, cock up your beaver!”
Inasmuch as the observation is true for a great many Scots, it depends on the cultural and political awareness of the individual. For as it will later be shown, through the example of No Mean City, there were times in which some people did not view themselves as an important part of a nation or a country, but their cultural context was bound to one district in a city or even to a few streets. Hence, their identity was their street. What is more, opportunism cannot be mistaken for the struggle of survival. Take for example Mark Renton from Trainspotting fully aware of his Scottish identity subordinated to and colonized by the English one. He abandons Scotland and goes south not for the sake of a more comfortable life, but for the sake of getting away from restrains and marginalization of his own country. His pursuit of freedom naturally goes beyond the borders of the colonised motherland. This desire and hopelessness at the same time repeats in many Scottish novels like How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman or Lanark by Alasdair Gray or Growing up in the Gorbals by Ralph Glasser. What distinguishes those novels is the attitude and awareness of the main characters connected with the understanding of their place in the society and whether they are strong enough to cross the borders of their streets, cities or countries and to reject (consciously or unconsciously) their colonized minds, the social structures and strictures that would determine their life choices.