Scottish Nationalism before 1789: An Ideology, a Sentiment, or a Creation?

By Walton, Kristen Post | International Social Science Review, Fall-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Scottish Nationalism before 1789: An Ideology, a Sentiment, or a Creation?

Walton, Kristen Post, International Social Science Review


   Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
   Scots, wham Bruce has often led,
   Welcome to your gory bed
   Or to Victorie!

   Now's the day, and now's the hour:
   See the front o' battle lout,
   See approach proud Edward's power--
   Charles and slaverie!

   Wha will be a traitor knave?
   Wha will fill a coward's grave?
   Wha sae base as be a slave?
   Let him turn and flee!

   Wha for Scotland's King and Law
   Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
   Freeman stand, and freeman fa',
   Let him follow me!

   By oppression's woes and pains,
   By your son's in servile shains,
   We will drain our dearest veins,
   But we shall be free!

   Lay the proud usurpers low!
   Tyrants fall with every foe!
   Liberty's in every blow--
   Let us do, or die!

--Robert Burns (1759-96) (1)


At the University of St. Andrews in the early 1990s, students (including myself) used to ring the telephone of the Scottish National party in order to demonstrate our support and to hear the voice of Sean Connery on the answer phone. Several years later, in 1995, Mel Gibson's Braveheart appeared in movie theaters across the globe, offering an inaccurate view of history while providing an excellent demonstration of the strength of Scottish nationalism in the late twentieth century. In 2001, that nationalist sentiment swept across the country, finding a political outlet when almost seventy-five percent of Scots voted in favor of re-establishing a Scottish Parliament for the first time since the union of the crowns (1707). Scottish nationalist sentiment remains strong in the first years of the twenty-first century. Books such as Arthur Herman's How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001) have worked to establish a global significance for the relatively small land in the northern part of the Isle of Great Britain. (2)

Current Scottish nationalist ideology has its roots in the post-Culloden cultural nationalism that largely developed during the nineteenth century. Over the past two hundred years, the Scots have glorified many aspects of their history as they strove to maintain a separate identity from their English neighbors. Being a part of the United Kingdom encouraged the Scots to define themselves and their unique culture and history in a definitive manner. The nationalist sentiment embraced by the Scots in the nineteenth century, though, was not new. Nor did a Scottish identity develop overnight. Rather, Scottish nationalism matured over a long period of time and had become a force in Scotland well before the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden in 1746. This study offers a general introduction to the growth of Scottish nationalism from the late 1200s through the Union of 1707. Contrary to claims offered by many scholars in the field, Scottish nationalism had fully developed and became significant both politically and culturally by the end of the early modern period.

Proving the existence of Scottish nationalism before the French Revolution is a difficult task. Most scholars of nationalism, with exceptions such as Liah Greenfeld, believe that revolutionary France signified the emergence of nationalist thought. Many Scottish historians disagree. Several claim that Scotland was the first nation, and that the Scots wrote the first European nationalist document more than four centuries before the overthrow of the ancien regime. Are these claims justified? A traditionally poor nation, Scotland exists on the periphery of Europe and, as a result, has not figured prominently on the world stage. Indeed, not many universities outside of Scotland (with the exception of many in Canada) offer classes on Scottish history. Few world civilization, or even western civilization, textbooks introduce any significant discussion of Scotland before it joined the United Kingdom. As a result, Scots have written much of their own history and often paint a picture tinted by rose-colored glasses.

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Scottish Nationalism before 1789: An Ideology, a Sentiment, or a Creation?


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