By Joan McAlpine
My English friend was only half joking when he expressed his gratitude to Sir Walter Scott. Being a liberal, left of centre sort, he worries that the break up of the UK will leave him and his Labour voting North London friends, marooned forever on Tory island. Not that they are the type to deny a country its right to determine it’s own destiny. It’s just terribly inconvenient that it could be Scotland.
This is where Sir Walter comes to the rescue, like the gallant Lochinver coming out of the west on his steed. “Yes, it’s very reassuring for us to know that Scotland didn’t exist until Walter Scott invented it. We can rest easy!” quipped my pal.
Scott himself may be a seldom read author whose views are far too reactionary for the dinner tables of 21st century Islington. But as a topic of conversation, he is suddenly all the rage. The trend has been trigged by the success of the book Scott-land,, by Stuart Kelly, the literary editor of our sister paper, Scotland on Sunday. It is currently book of the week on Radio Four and was the topic of a sell out session at the Edinburgh Book Festival earlier this week.
The book is a thoughtful, exploration of Scott’s life and work. But it is his legacy which most interests Kelly. The world’s first blockbuster novelist did not just shape the way Scotland was seen by others, he constructed a self-image which is at once a blessing, a crutch and a curse. The provocative subtitle, not the subtle light and shade of Scott-land, has caused much excitement. It reads “The Man Who Invented a Nation” and the publishers knew exactly what they were doing when they put it on the cover beside a wildly romantic Horatio McCulloch landscape. Put crudely, Scotland didn’t exist before the portly Georgian gentleman came along with his tales of Celtic chivalry, mock pageants and tartanalia. Our nation has about as much substance, according to this interpretation, the Lady of the Lake, the Loch Ness Monster and Brigadoon rolled into one. As the headline on a review of Kelly’s book in The Economist gleefully put it “A sham country but not a sham bard”
Scotland the sham. It has a certain ring, doesn’t it? And it is music to the ears of anyone concerned about the effect on the rest of the UK of Scotland gaining more political autonomy. The establishment of the Scottish parliament should have put paid to Scotland the Sham. Yet we continue to be taunted about our national credentials. Remember the post-humous attack from the historian Hugh Trevor Roper a man who, given his role as the authenticator of the notorious Hitler Diaries, knows a thing or two about fakes? Trevor-Roper’s The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History, was penned during the devolution debates of the 1970s but published in 2008, several years after his death. It received blanket coverage and positive reviews. Trevor-Roper took the myth fabricated by medieval scribes that Scotland’s kings could trace their lineage back to an Egyptian Princess, he then throws in the Ossian embarrassment and suggests the kilt was invented by a Lancastrian blacksmith. Ergo, Scotland is a figment of its own wild imagination.
Every country is to some extent a cultural construction, just as every country has its divisions, contradictions and inconsistencies. But only in Scotland do we use them to beat ourselves up to this extent. Kelly’s book points out that Walter Scott also gave England her myths, particularly in Ivanhoe. He coined the term Wars of the Roses, greatly embellished the Robin Hood story and totally invented the anecdote about Sir Walter Raleigh laying down his clock for Elizabeth I.
All great fun, but of absolutely no political significance. Nobody suggests that England is suffering from a collective delusion about its origins and has no claim to be a sovereign nation because King Arthur was probably French, if he existed at all. The current campaign for a Robin Hood Tax on banking transactions is not trashed because it exploits the mythology of a character who probably never lived and if he did was certainly just another murdering outlaw.
For the record, let’s just remind ourselves that while Scot invented many traditions, Scotland was not one of them. We were asserting our national identity in the Declaration of Arbroath several centuries before he started his storytelling. Tartan was worn long before Scott draped it around the ample royal posterior of George IV on his infamous jaunt to Edinburgh in 1822. Its wide use in the Highlands was recorded by the first travellers there such as Martin Martin. Scott certainly had a huge influence of the growth of “tartan tat”, and the kilt today is very different from the garments worn by the clans in his books. It is now no longer seen as a caricatured, fancy dress either. Scots have reclaimed the kilt. Culture is a living, dynamic thing. Gospel music has only a tenuous connection to the west African lands that supplied America’s slaves. Indeed it is a product of the slave owners’ religion. Does that mean Gospel and related traditions like soul, blues and R ‘n B are inauthentic?
There are a number of reasons why we recoil from Scott’s vision of Scotland. But Kelly’s reappraisal of the man shows him as a patriot who believed that his beloved Scotland could well melt into North Briton unless it was championed. This was a time, remember, when elocution was booming in Edinburgh. David Hume had urged his publishers to strip out any “Scotticisms” that might creep into his prose. Walter Scott might have been His Majesty’s most loyal and deferential subject, a true believer in the 1707 Union, he was also the Hamish Henderson of his day, travelling through The Borders to collect the Scots ballads he loved as a child. His books include many characters who use the vernacular, and Scots speakers praised the accuracy of his language.
The problem with Scot was he romanticised and distorted the past to such an extent that he neutered Scotland. As Kelly says, “The past flickers sentimentally without ever catching fire..” Just as his beloved Jacobites were reinvented as a noble, but lost cause, the survival of Scotland as an independent political entity becomes an impossibility, something that belongs in the past. This is the real problem with our most famous writer after Burns. He did not invented Scotland. But he did create a way of looking at the country which today seems as old-fashioned as his novels.