Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 4


Origins of Scottish Nationhood

Neil Davidson
The Origins of Scottish Nationhood
Pluto, London 2000, pp. 264

ALL nationalism is based on mythical history, and the Scots version is no exception. For example, the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath is presented as proof that Scotland is the oldest nation in Europe. The Act of Union with England in 1707 is presented as a catastrophic defeat, while the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 demonstrate that the Scots can still hope to be, ‘a nation once again’, as the song has it. Most of the time, admittedly, the struggle took less dramatic forms. The nation survived, thanks to the Gaelic language, the rich folk memory of a pre-capitalist culture, and the music and traditional dress, which lift Scots’ hearts whenever we see our Highland regiments march past. While union with England was a disaster, fragments were saved from the wreckage. Scotland retained its established church, Scots law, and its educational system, all significantly different from the English versions. So, while Scotland is still subject to the English yoke, the nation is not dead, but sleeping. Why did the sleep last so long, and what made the nation awake when it did?

Davidson’s important study provides a very different version of Scots history, showing that the signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath were asserting their claim to rule over their own tenants and serfs, not leading the liberation struggle depicted in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. The claims made for the Declaration are as spurious as those made for the Magna Carta. Davidson’s demolition of nationalist myths is very convincing. He argues that the Act of Union, usually presented as the defeat of the nation, was one of the preconditions for the emergence of national feeling. The 1707 settlement ensured that the Scots élites retained their traditional privileges. Davidson refutes the standard claim that Scots national identity was secured by the trinity of Kirk, Law and Education. Education is not mentioned in the Act of Settlement, not surprisingly as most of the population had little contact with it. The Church of Scotland failed to establish a religious monopoly, while most of the population dreaded contact with the legal system. Incorporation into the developing Empire was much more important than any of those for developing a Scots identity.

National consciousness, as distinct from nationalism, had begun to develop in the Lowlands in the period before the union with England. The social system of the Highlands, feudalism with large pre-feudal elements, was a huge obstacle to the development of Scots capitalism. To the Lowland farmer, the Highlander was a cattle-thief, not a fellow countryman. A bourgeois society was created by brutally smashing the pre-capitalist Highland social system, which was good practice for future repression further afield. When the threat from perceived Highland barbarians receded, Scottish élites invented a national identity from the romantic idealisation of the society which they had so recently helped to destroy. Davidson is very informative on Scots economic and political participation in the British Empire. Far from being junior partners, as is so often claimed, Scots capitalists were disproportionately important. Scots also played a key rôle in the Empire’s military, police and administration. The stereotype of the stiff-upper-lipped colonial official could hardly have been modelled on the relaxed and garrulous English.

Nationalist movements have to create their ideologies from such scraps as come to hand, but Scots nationalists are luckier than most. The British state promoted a picturesque Scots identity within and beyond Scotland’s boundaries. Monarchs from Victoria onwards have encouraged grotesque Highland ceremony, and no imperial occasion was complete without Scots regiments with their tartan and pipe bands. Scots national identity, a subdivision of British imperial identity, was available when needed. Radical nationalists now insist that the Scots were among the first to be colonised, and like to quote Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth to demonstrate that they were and remain oppressed, just like Africans and Asians. Does anyone in the Third World believe that story? Davidson refutes the loopy radical nationalist historians in the Scottish Socialist Party, who see early nineteenth century workers’ struggles as rebellions against English rule, although the workers made no such claims, and the employers were also Scots.

Scots nationalism is a modern phenomenon. The Scottish Nationalist Party was established only in the 1920s, and had little electoral success until the 1960s. Stories from the fourteenth or eighteenth century are used to stitch together an essentially new garment. Nationalism remains essentially limited, posing few problems for the British state or, so far, for the Scots labour movement. The SNP, which wants the British Army to retain its Scots regiments, and presses the merits of Scots airfields as bases to bomb the Serbs, is hardly a subversive force.

John Sullivan

Updated by ETOL: 5.10.2011