Last updated: March 9, 2012 10:57 pm

Tartanry and tyranny

For those of mixed Scottish-English parentage, being asked to choose whether to lose the union is uncomfortable

The kilt I wore to Scottish dancing classes as a five-year-old was my mother’s, cut down and taken in, and much disliked by me because it became a source of mockery to my schoolmates – “Kilty, kilty, caulddoup [cold bum],” came the taunt. The classes were run as a kind of civilising mission by the Church of Scotland next door to my house on the Fife coast: I still remember the steps and the patterns of the most popular dances.

In my family, only my grandmother had any enthusiasm for the church: a former nurse, she believed she had seen many people comforted on their deathbeds by the presence of a minister. My grandfather, a retired merchant seaman, treated the institution with the swaggering contempt of a cosmopolitan craftsman who had served his apprenticeship on the Clyde. My mother, who had left my hard-drinking English father while pregnant, hated the loud gossip she suffered from pious churchgoers when, in 1946, she returned from Bristol to her parents’ home, from which she started the town’s first beauty parlour.

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Besides her anger at the moralists, she wanted respectability, at least for me. The kilt, these days worn defiantly with trainers by some of Scotland’s youth, was a symbol of social climbing back then: a claim to be middle-class, or at least lower middle-class. It was what the establishment of Scotland wore, self-consciously, on occasion – an echo of Sir Walter Scott’s fusion of this staunchly unionist country’s culture into a Celtic epic in great novels such as Redgauntlet and Rob Roy. In 1822 Scott went further, stage-managing a splashy pageant for George IV (who wore an extra large kilt over his fleshy legs) in an identification of Scotland with the bagpipes and tartan from which it has never recovered.

That a sternly Protestant church should encourage Scots dancing in Scots gear was another fusion. The kilt – invented in modern form by an English entrepreneur – originated in the plaid, a kind of cloak often belted round the waist to form a short skirt, and worn by Highlanders, the largely Catholic followers of the Jacobite chiefs who fought for Bonnie Prince Charlie and who in 1745 smashed themselves against a largely English army at Culloden. The kilt you see in the photograph above is, then, a palimpsest of the personal, the social, the mythic and the religious, part of the image that Scots have projected not only to the world but to themselves, which has, indelibly, become the way the world sees them.

Sir Walter Scott©Corbis

Sir Walter Scott, author of ‘Rob Roy’

It is more than three centuries since the signing of the 1707 Act of Union that linked Scotland to England in a United Kingdom. Yet the calls from separatists to end this union – a campaign led by Scottish first minister Alex Salmond – have never been louder. The rhetoric is no longer that of nationalist hero Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, a landowner, soldier and member of the original Scots Parliament who bitterly opposed the union. When Fletcher left Scotland for London after the 1707 Act was passed, he was reported to have said that his country was “fit only for the slaves who sold it” (bribing for pro-union votes was a feature of the Scottish Parliament). Yet the narrative still centres on the inauthenticity of a union whose warring parts give it no peace. Implicitly or explicitly, nationalists have in mind an autochthonous Scots state and culture, predating the union.

Also implicit, as the battle for independence intensifies, is the claim nationalists lay upon the loyalties that I, as a Scot, am supposed to feel. But it seems to me that in doing so they threaten what I had assumed was really my loyalty – to the UK. For Scots with mixed parentage, a forced choice is uncomfortable. Should we, on the model of American blacks, claim “blackness” – or in this case Scottishness – as our dominant identity?

James Bryce, in a series of letters to The Times in 1887, still speaks for me: “An Englishman has but one patriotism, because England and the United Kingdom are to him practically the same thing. A Scotchman has two, but he is sensible of no opposition between them.” When, as a boy, I went with my mother to see the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas put on by the East Fife Operatic Society (she did the make-up), no one thought it odd that a local chorus should sing – “For he is an Englishman!” from HMS Pinafore. We lived with it happily, sensible of no opposition.

. . .

Like most people’s childhood, mine has mixed family, place, language and the attitudes of others into an often turbulent, constantly reimagined cache, stored in a cloud that is sometimes tiny on the horizon, sometimes overhead and dark. Picking out what “Scotland” means from within that cloud is to remember certain things: the thick dialect I spoke as a schoolchild (though not in the classroom, on pain of the tawse, or leather strap, on the hands); the conservative unionism of my grandparents, mixed with a strong belief in Scots superiority: “There’ll aye [always] be an England, as lang as Scotland’s there,” was my grandfather’s favoured saying. And the more serious taunts of my schoolmates for my having no father – and, worse, for the no-father figure being English.

The presence of the Scottish National party was, at this time, small – membership grew in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the Conservatives were replaced by Labour as Scotland’s main political party and anti-Labour voters sought another political home. But early on, I developed an instinctive and ingrained hostility to nationalism. Thinking about this now, I wonder whether these feelings came from a kind of yearning for completion – a sense that an exclusive Scottishness would threaten my buried but mongrel identity.

More rationally, it seemed to me that the SNP’s once-dominant leitmotifs of tartanry and tyranny (of the English) were ridiculous, as were claims of English oppression. This was put best in a passage in Magnus Merriman, Eric Linklater’s tremendous satire on 1930s nationalism: “The normal preamble to a revolution or separatist movement is a phase of violent oppression by some foreign power or social minority, and the Scottish Nationalists were unfortunate in not being able to point to any gross or overt ill-use at the hands of England ... The stolid temper of lowland Scotland was not inclined to waive the material advantages of stability for the gambler’s increment of change.”

In the nationalist story, the surge of economic growth that began in the 18th century, as Scotland was joined to a richer country embarking on a vast industrial expansion, is passed over. So too is the union’s provision of openings for the country’s super-abundance of educated young men (Scotland had four universities where England had two, and produced 20 times more doctors). As historian Linda Colley argues in Britons (1992), “A British imperium ... enabled Scots to feel themselves peers of the English in a way still denied them in an island kingdom ... the empire has always emphatically been British.”

Colley believes the union was strong when the empire offered advancement, and the threat from Catholic states gave both countries a common purpose in defending Protestantism. One should add to that the comradeship in adversity that the second world war produced in all parts of the UK. But not much of that remained by the 1950s; a narrative of British decline began to establish itself alongside the idea that the creation of the UK had been a disaster for the Scots psyche. In an address to the SNP conference in 1999, nationalism scholar Tom Nairn described the previous three-century union as having created a “sundered mentality” in the Scots, who were condemned to live in a “maimed state-nation” with one emotion above all others: “shame”.

Mel Gibson in Braveheart©Allstar

Mel Gibson in ‘Braveheart’

In the mid-1990s, I interviewed Alex Salmond in his Edinburgh HQ – greeted by him under a huge poster for Braveheart, the 1995 Mel Gibson film that depicted William Wallace as a saintly warrior tortured to death by the English. Salmond had said of Braveheart that “there are not many films which are truly important but this is one”. He was right about that: in The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland under Nationalism, Tom Gallagher described how screenings caused outpourings of anti-English hatred in cinemas, where youths cheered each time an English soldier was killed. Salmond’s own 1995 SNP conference speech owed much to Braveheart, as he declared that the party was “With Wallace – head and heart – the one word that encapsulates all our hopes – freedom, freedom, freedom!”

I thought then, and still do, that freedom was a British birthright, not just a Scottish one. To be asked to choose between the “Scots” and “British” (and in my case “English”) parts of one’s make-up seems narrowing rather than liberating. When I attended Edinburgh University in the late 1960s, I learned that the men who made late 18th-century Edinburgh the intellectual capital of the world – Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid, William Robertson, Adam Smith – all believed that freedom to think had been boosted by the intellectual as well as geographic expansion that was the United Kingdom.

When it comes to the narrowing of Britain, however, I fear the Scots less than I do the English. During a conversation with a British banker in Moscow in the 1990s, he once referred to our common country as England. “You mean Britain,” I gently corrected him. “Now, now”, he said waggishly, “none of your Scots nationalism!” For him, as for many English, Britain was a generous extension of English culture; in return they got an early multicultural society that, I believe, most found more invigorating than enervating. Like the Edinburgh enlighteners, I thought that was just fine: we both became more capacious in our statehood, and could imbibe our national culture as deeply as we wished.

Increasingly, however, the English find it less than fine. For them, believing in an extended England with accents and kilts, was more essential than the details of the West Lothian question. But the Barnett formula, which fixes the ratio of public spending alloted to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and arguably (it’s much contested) gives Scotland disproportionate benefits, is a source of real resentment. A January poll in the Daily Mail showed that 29 per cent of English think Scotland should leave the union, as against 26 per cent of Scots.

My own small experience is that if the subject is broached in England, the English assume I am now nationalist (like all Scots): that we are no longer “all in it together”.

. . .

When the Act of Union was signed, the pro-union Scots Chancellor, the Earl of Seafield, said: “There’s the end of ane auld sang.” Songs are more central to the Scots experience than the English, in part because of the prolific and lovely output of Robert Burns. But one song has remained dear to many English, bellowed out each year at the Last Night of the Proms. “Rule Britannia!”, written in 1740 by James Thomson, Scottish-born son of a Presbyterian minister, and later set to music, was an attempt to defuse the anti-Scots feeling in England, proposing a Britishness that would unite the nations and give them such freedom that they never, never, never would be slaves.

The central hypocrisy of Scots nationalism is that it insists that Britain is a foreign, or English, construction that has distorted the Scots experience for 300 years. But we made it too: it is now ours. And to renounce it in a Pilate-like washing of the hands would be to do even greater damage to history than even Sir Walter could nerve himself to do.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

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Understanding the underdog: AL Kennedy on the real Scottish heroines

Scotland is that land of Jekyll and Hyde, the divided self, and I am therefore genetically obliged to be both delighted and alarmed when I hear Pixar is releasing Brave with a Scottish princess as its heroine, writes AL Kennedy.

Pixar's heroine in 'Brave'

I’m alarmed, because I grew up as a traditional Scot with dark masses of savage insecurities and a devotion to avoiding success. Everybody loves an underdog. But simply being an underdog until just before you triumph and get the guy, girl, trophy, or fortune suggests shilly-shallying and half-heartedness. Scotland has hitherto tried to specialise in the production of underdogs who nearly triumph over adversity and then manage to not win at the last moment, thus retaining the moral high ground.

This kind of scenario is unpopular with Hollywood – because it’s depressing – but will Pixar’s princess truly be Scottish if she doesn’t end up alone, weeping into the heather? Or will the world still love us when we are portrayed on screen and, perhaps, in picture books, games and action figures, as potentially successful?

I grew up with little idea that Scottish women could ever be anyone to admire or emulate. I was taught about Mary Queen of Scots: dodgy sex life, nasty death and a surviving rhyme calling her contrary and listing instruments of torture. I was taught about Saint Thenew: lost her virginity against her will and thrown off a cliff by her dad.

I didn’t learn until much later about all the women who made good: Mary Slessor who brought herself up out of poverty in 19th century Dundee and went on to become a missionary and women’s rights campaigner in Nigeria. She’s now on the Clydesdale Bank £10 note, instead of David Livingstone.

I didn’t learn about Frances Wright, the radical reformer, feminist, abolitionist and writer; or about Elsie Inglis, medical pioneer and suffragette. I mainly learned about Flora MacDonald, feminine and supportive to the Bonnie Prince Charlie while he hid, then ran away in drag. My most insistent role model played assistant to a narcissist drunk.

Casting my Caledonian caution aside, I’m hoping that Brave is something a young Scottish girl could find encouraging. It has a proper cast, so the characters won’t all sound like The Simpson’s Groundskeeper Willie. I wish it well. Although not too well, of course. I wouldn’t want it to ruin our reputation.

AL Kennedy’s sixth novel ‘The Blue Book’ is longlisted for the Orange Prize

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