Ballads of a Nation

By Harvie, Christopher | History Today, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Ballads of a Nation


Harvie, Christopher, History Today


Christopher Harvie examines Scottish cultural identity since the Act of Union, and argues that writers and intellectuals have been the real keepers of the national flame.

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE 1997 general election campaign in Scotland, the Scottish National Party's delegates were told to `play down the kilted image'. This surprised no one. The same advice was given seventy years earlier to the infant National Party of Scotland by its president, `Don Roberto' Cunninghame-Graham. This was odd counsel coming from perhaps the most flamboyant MP ever -- laird, essayist, gaucho cowboy, and socialist veteran of the Bloody Sunday riots in Trafalgar Square in 1887. But Don Roberto's career and views emphasised the gulf between the popular image of the country and the ideas and ambitions of Scottish political activists.

`Streitbar [quarrelsome] und intellektuell' was how a German commentator, Reiner Luyken of the newspaper Die Zeit in 1992, described the writers, thinkers and artists who kept Scottish national identity alive through the three hundred years of union. It is perhaps apt that the world's first purpose-built poetry library preceded the parliament building at Edinburgh's Holyrood. The intellectuals' collective shift from cultural to political nationalism in the twentieth century underlies the success of Europe's most legalistic autonomy movement, with a `civic' ethos far removed from the simplicities of ethnic nationalism.

But what about Braveheart -- the kilted image pur sang? Not a few observers have actually attributed SNP success to `the Braveheart factor' put in play by Mel Gibson's Hollywood version of the medieval wars of independence. All Scottish parties clambered onto the William Wallace bandwaggon, as they had done in the Unionist 1860s when a spiky monument was raised above the site of his greatest victory at Stirling. In 1996 it was the Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsyth, who undid Edward I's work by repatriating the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey to Edinburgh Castle. His MPs were wiped out in Scotland a few months later.

The intellectual and middle-class Nationalists who helped eradicate the Scottish Tories in 1997 kept Braveheart at a distance. In fact, the gains of the SNP in the May 1997 general election were slight and in the referenda of that September the Scots swing to home rule was outdone in Wales. But ideas of Britishness were also waning fast, not least because of the Commitment of a Scots intelligentsia traditionally stretched between local loyalties and global ideals, which proved peculiarly resistant to traditional analyses of nationalism.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci -- whose work influenced such Scots writers as Hamish Henderson and Tom Nairn -- suggested the useful categories of `organic' and `traditional' intellectuals. The first are the actors in industrial transformation -- managers, technicians or economists -- while the `traditional' intellectuals include lawyers, clergy, and the military.

Gramsci and later the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter were fascinated with the way British capitalism favoured the `traditional' intelligentsia. But did they know how intellectuals differed in each of the nations of the British Isles, while being open to offers from the English elite? Gramsci took an agreed `nation' for granted, and also a consciousness of the various roles that intellectuals might take, but in Scotland both have been problematic. The notorious `perfervid ingenuity of the Scots' had a cosmopolitan dimension long before the Act of Union in 1707, and Scots intellectuals of all stripes have taken a distinctive role in the `civic' nation which has provoked both remarkable cultural achievement and debilitating political conflict.

Andrew Fletcher (1655-1716), philosopher-statesman and defender of the old Scots parliament, said he would rather write the ballads of a nation than its laws. …

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