“Scotland isn’t a country, it’s a state of mind. All nations are; we would do well to remember that.”
So once wrote the Scots author, comedian, TV presenter and man who penned ‘Scotland the Brave’ (for a pantomime, believe it or not), Cliff Handley. And he was, of course, absolutely correct in that estimation.
The run up to the referendum on Scottish Independence on 18 September 2014 has thrown up many arguments from those opposed to such a move. Mostly these have been negative but whenever asked to illustrate just one positive argument for Scotland remaining within the Union, they will often voice the shared culture of Britain. As well meaning as it may be, there is only one problem with this argument; there is no such thing as a shared and defineable “British” culture. In reality British culture does not actually exist.
I would ask many, on both sides of the border, and in Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall, to consider that for a moment; can you honestly put your hand on your heart and say with any honesty and confidence that you identify first and foremost as British? I would surmise that the vast majority cannot. Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall all have their own distinctive and very proud individual cultures. Yet if anyone was to attempt to define a British culture, not only would I argue that they would have a hard time doing so, I would maintain that it is impossible to give such a definition.
I asked my Scots-American girlfriend if as an outsider she perceived any British culture. She first replied “As an outsider, it appears to us that there is a British culture.” Yet when pressed a little further on this, she continued, “I looked at English as being British…not the Irish, Scots or Welsh.” That is very telling, for all too often, when people speak of ‘British’ culture, what they in fact mean is English culture. And it is nothing new either. After the Irish Free State was set up in 1922, a short poem appeared in the satirical magazine Punch;
Under Mister De Valera
Ireland changed her name to Eire.
But Britian still retains her name;
It’s called England, all the same.
Given that it was an Englishman who penned those words, as far back as 1922, tells it’s own story of just how the entire UK has been viewed in 307 years of Union. Another friend of mine has a son who was brought up by his divorced wife in Spain. He told me that during a visit to see his boy once, he picked up one of his geography schoolbooks, and was horrified to see a map of Britain with the name “Angleterre” right across it.
And therein lies the danger of supposedly identifying with a united Britain. It is no disparagement to the English people, but in calling ourselves British, the other parts of Britian – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall – effectively lose their identity. When the UK enters into agreements, treaties or talks, these are invariably prefixed “Anglo-“, which immediately assumes that Britain is England and not a collection of countries.
Many may ask if this actually matters. Well, yes, it does, very much so. Readers may notice that I have made mention of Cornwall on more than one occasion in this article, and that is very good example. Even among my Scots Nats friends, few will mention Cornwall when talking of the constituent parts of Britain, automatically assuming it to be part of England. Cornwall was for centuries an independent kingdom, as old as Scotland (perhaps older), and there is not one shred of evidence of it ever being annexed by England. Today Cornwall is in fact officially a Duchy, which it has been since 1337, with the present Duke of Cornwall being Prince Charles. It is a Crown Dependency (not unlike the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands), but constitutionally and officially is not part of Britain. Cornwall even has it’s own parliament, the Stannery, which – get this – retains the right to veto any decisions made over the Duchy by Westminster government.
I can already here the cries of “racist” and “anti-English” here. Nothing of it. Wishing to protect your own country’s culture and identity does not mean having to be against any other nation. But people must realise that being some sort of English-orientated “Borg collective” does indeed carry the dangers of loss of culture and identity. While discussing independence with a potential No voter recently, I put it to him that it is due to the Union that we have all but lost the Gaelic tongue and despite the fact that Scots evolved seperately and differently from English, it is not even officially recognised as a language. Replying that “as an Edinburgh boy” whilst he took my point about the Scots tongue, he felt Gaelic was not part of his culture and didn’t really care to it’s fate, and felt he had more in common with the people of the north of England than he did with the highlands of Scotland. Here we see the nonsense which many lowland Scots have already been brainwashed with; that Gaelic was always purely a highland language and nothing to do with the lowlands. Having pointed out to this person that Currie and Balerno in Edinburgh both have Gaelic names, as do a great many other places in the lowlands, I replied that as also an Edinburgh boy, I see things very differently and considered his views somewhat arrogant and selfish. I continued that we have already destroyed the language of the Picts, and that of the Orkneys and Shetlands – Norn, and asked him if he would really like to see Gaelic going the same way, for which we would all be a little poorer for. I am still awaiting a reply.
And I shall reiterate that it is not anti-English. I recall a question coming up on a Scottish social networking website once, whether there was such a thing as English culture. A great many people were saying no, with few others countering that there was. I waited my time, and simply put the question “If there is no such thing as English culture, then just which language are you all typing in exactly?” Of course there is an English culture, a long and proud one, which is every bit as distinct as that of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall.
I love the English language. It is to my mind one of the most beautiful languages in the world, whose grammatical rules make it simple to understand and communicate with. And of course, those of us in these isles all need English to communicate. The danger lies however in with English being the dominant language in Britain, of others claiming it is the most important language, which in turn leads to the assumption that it is the only language. See the attitude of the No voter I mentioned above, and the fact that Scots is not even officially recognised as a language for the proof of that. Consider also that we have indeed destroyed the tongue of the Picts (and we Scots did that – we have no-one else to blame), to the point that we cannot now decipher some Pictish carved stones. Consider also that we Scots did indeed destroy Norn. Welsh certainly is making a comeback, and in the Irish republic at least, there are now a great many fluent Erse (Irish Gaelic) speakers. Yet Cornish is hanging on by it’s teeth and despite attempts to keep it going, there is every danger that Scots Gaelic could go the same way. Is this important? Well, don’t ask me; rather ask the communities in the highlands where the bilingual locals choose to speak Gaelic among themselves, rather than English – just as naturally as most of us in Scotland speak not English, but Scots to each other.
It is interesting to note also that this predominance on standard English (which never existed until the Wycliffe Bible and the plays of Shakespeare in the 16th century) has only really been pressed upon the Scots in as little as 150 years. In the Advocates Library in Edinburgh – a vast library of Scots Law, there are books with cases in them where Scots was plainly spoken in the 19th century by those well known Scots radicals, ermm, lawyers. Indeed, one passage which was once highlighted concerned a case in which two accused were involved in a trial for breaking into someone’s house while they were at home. The prosecuting council stated, and this is recorded in the transcript of the case, “Cam awa, cam awa Meester Magistrate. Let us hingit thae twa demned scoondrils for the henious crime o’ hamesucking.” Use that sort of language in the Sherrif Court in Edinburgh today and you could be banged up for 30 days for Contempt of Court.
And as language is deteiroated, so it reflects in other parts of our culture. There is a street in Edinburgh today called “Wright’s Houses”, which is an Anglicisation of the original name “Wrychtishousis”. A tenement in the Royal Mile once collapsed, and when the rescuers were about to give up, they heard a voice calling out “Heave awa lads, we’re no’ deid yet.” They pulled a 10 year old boy, Joseph McIvor, out of the rubble. Today Paisley Close marks the spot of the “heave awa hoose”, with an engraving of Joseph, with the Anglicised version of his words “Heave awa’ lads, I’m not dead yet.”
Of course, we retain other parts of our culture, including the tartan, highland games, and all that goes along with that. Yet even that is all too often downplayed. I know that American readers will be well aware of 6 April, the day upon which Tartan Day is celebrated across the USA. It may surprise them to learn that Scotland does not actually have a Tartan Day. When first set up, it was officiated over by the then Labour Party First Minister of the devolved Scottish Parliament, Jack McConnell. Yet that same First Minister, along with his party, whilst claiming to be “proud to be Scottish, proud to be British” have all too often played down their Scottishness, as if it is something to be ashamed off. Moreover, they are all too willing to force that upon others. In Labour-controlled Fife Council, one man in the coastal town was ordered to pull a flagpole down – because he was flying the Saltire upon it. Similarly the Labour group on the City of Glasgow Council once tried to stop the Scottish National Party (SNP) group from displaying a Saltire in their office windows facing onto George Square. The trouble being that Scottish (?) Labour, like so many unionists, see a Saltire and, instead of recornising it as the flag which represents all Scotland (and the oldest national flag in the world incidentally), they see it as a nationalist symbol. A more poignant example of this was when Edinburgh had a Cow Parade in 2006, where over 100 brightly painted fibreglass cows were put in public places, and later auctioned off for charity. One of the cows, Salty, was painted with Saltires either side of it. It was beheaded by unionist vandals.
I often think that unionists make a rod for their own back in this vein. I am a veteran of a great many Bannockburn Rallies, which traditionally take place on the Saturday nearest to Midsummer, the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Officially billed as the SNP Bannockburn Rally, unionists have claimed that it is a nationalist event. Yet I have always argued that every Scot, regardless of their politics, who can attend the Bannockburn Rally, should do so, for the simple fact that Bannockburn was one of the most important decisive moments in Scots history, which defined us as a nation and people. The repercussions of the cultural impact of the Battle of Bannockburn ripple down the centuries to this very day, and anyone who denies that is denying their own background and nationhood. If the Bannockburn Rally was at all hijacked by the SNP, it was unionists who refused to attend it who made it so. Whilst they are also pro-independence, there is often no love lost between the SNP and the Scots cultural organisation, Siol nan Gaidheal (seed of the Gael), yet they attended the Bannockburn Rallies every year and have even set up their own Bannockburn rallies. Likewise, the Grand Priory of the Knight’s Templar in Scotland have always attended these rallies, recognising the fact that the ancient order of the same name fought alongside Bruce at Bannockburn, yet not all Knight’s Templar support independence.
Just how deep does this go? A friend of mine is a Convenor for Clan Gunn, and helps set up and officiate at one of the largest Scots festivals every year; not in Scotland, but rather the Texas Highland Festival in the USA. There has only been one event of the size of that festival in Scotland in living memory, the 2009 Gathering and Homecoming, which my Clan Gunn friend also attended. The unionist parties, Conservative, Labour and Liberal-Democrat, were all completely opposed to the Homecoming even taking part, and had they been in power, it would never have happened at all. Needless to say, all three parties wrung their hands in glee and threw all sorts of mud at the SNP when it was announced the event had made a loss, but they missed the point; hundreds of Scots, from all over the world, who attended the Homecoming and Gathering were passionate (as they are passionate about their culture and background) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Yet that fact will fall on deaf ears of unionists who, again, not only deny their own Scots culture, but who by stopping the gathering, would happily have imposed their views and politics on others – on a worldwide scale.
The unionists will counter that it is 300 years of being British which has defined us. They trawl out the old arguments of going through so many things together, including fighting two world wars. Well the First World War was a piece of utter insanity with no winners, only millions of losers. And what thanks did the Scots get for that? In 1919 British Army tanks and soldiers were sent into Glasgow’s George Square to put down rent protests. These were all English forces; the Scots forces were kept under armed guard in Maryhill Barracks, for fear they may start an armed insurrection. This is no reflection on the English soldiers forced to do this. I am sure many felt black burning shame at holding guns over men that only a few months previously they had been in the trenches with. Rather I blame the Westminster government which promised homes fit for heroes, then never delivered upon that (just as no Westminster government has since) for putting the English soliders in such an awful situation. My fight is not with poor English squaddies but those who command them from on high.
Yes, we did need to put down the Nazi menace in World War II, but anyone who thinks that we did it because we were “British” has been watching too many John Mills movies and episodes of Dad’s Army. Victory in Europe was an allied effort in what was a world war. Whether many like it or not, the fact remains that without the clout and resources of the USA behind them, the allies simply could not have won the war. Using the same logic of the unionists, that we did it “together” does it therefore logically follow that we should all be American? Or given that it was the Red Army who were first into Berlin and who took the surrender, does it therefore logically follow that we should all be Russian?
Some unionists may wish to bring up other wars in the 307 history of the union. What were most of these wars however? Was Britian fighting anyone who was a threat to the existence of the UK? Or was it more likely that the vast majority were wars of British imperialist expansionism, in which both sides were squabbling over land which they had no right to in the first place? That was particularly true of the Napoleonic Wars, where it was just one megalomaniac empire against the other. And given the long and close ties between our two nations, I for one take absolutely no pride in Scots fighting French. I particularly take no pride in the Battle of Quebec of 1759, where the English General, Wolfe, rode up to the Seaforth Highlanders, the only Scots regiment there, and told them “We’ll send you in first. If you fall, it’s no great loss.” (a mentality which Whitehall has displayed all too often since).
So, militarism, war and imperialism apart, what else do the constituent nations of the UK share that make us culturally British? Many unionists will claim that the Union was of great benefit to Scotland, as it paved the way for the Scottish enlightenment; the argument being that no union, no enlightenment. This is not only unproven and highly spurious, it is also downright insulting to the Scots people, for the inference is that we would be too unintelligent without input from south of the border. But then, we are talking about people who are all too willing to put every Scottish achievement down at the slightest opportunity. Consider that at one point Scotland actually had more universities than England did. Consider also that the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh (the oldest of it’s type in the world) was founded by Royal Charter of James IV, King of Scots, in1505; predating the union by 202 years. Consider finally that, while the Scottish enlightenment made Edinburgh the seat of learning – known as The Athens of the North – the French Enlightenment and the Age of Reason took place at around the same time as the Scottish one, completely independent of any input from England, or any other country. It is not input from other nations which drives enlightenment but better education. And given that Scots education has always been seperate, even under the auspices of the Treaty of Union, the claim that only the union could have given us the Enlightenment is completely fatuous. Indeed, given that there were many learned men in the Scots parliament and elsewhere in Scottish life before 1707, it is more likely that the Enlightenment grew out of the superior Scots – free – education, started up by John Knox creating Presbytery schools during the 16th century Reformation.
Of course, some unionists will claim that it was the financial input from England which made the Enlightenment possible. There may be some truth in this, but consider that Scotland went into the Union absolutely bankrupt. And why was the nation bankrupt? Because of the disastrous Darien Scheme, an attempt at empire, which English financiers and politicians pressed Scotland to attempt, and then point blank refused to help the Scots when it all went disastrously wrong. What followed that was Westminster banning trade bound for Scotland travelling through England or through English waters, further entrenching our financial ruin. The whole Darien Scheme and the measures by England, leaving Scotland financially ruined, made union not just possible, but downright probable. Had Scotland not entered into the Darien Scheme, there would have been money aplenty without having to rely upon English funds. But then, had there not been the Darien Scheme, it is doubtful Scotland would have entered into the union in the first place. Asides from which, whatever financial benefits Scotland may have enjoyed in the early days of union were inevitably very short lived. What followed the Enlightenment were the Napoleonic Wars, which all but bankrupted the whole of the UK (and led to Pitt the Younger imposing the ‘temporary’ measure of Income Tax), and there have been few, if any financial benefits of union for Scotland ever since. If anything, Scotland, like much of the rest of the UK (including the more depressed parts of England), has lived in poverty and squaler ever since, while a select few in London and the south of England have raked in all the benefits.
Alongside the claim that Scotland would have had no enlightenment in the UK, lies the claim that we would have had no industrial revolution. Really? Scotland has always been the land where necessity is the mother of invention (bloody shame they never found out who the father was), and whether there is truth in the claim that James Watt got ideas from watching his mother’s kettle boil, the fact remains that while Newcomen invented the steam engine, it was Watt, a Scotsman, who made it reciprocating, thereby making it far more efficient. And that one invention, more than anything else, was what sparked off the industrial revolution. I’m sure that Watt’s genius was not lost on one of his apprentices, a boy from the north of England called George Stephenson. And as Stephenson grew, improved steam locomotives (invented by a Cornishman, Richard Trevithick, not an Englishman) and kicked off railways as the most important mode of transport, he wanted his son, Robert, to get the best education possible, so he sent him to Edinburgh University.
The mines, steelworks, and shipbuilding of Scotland which grew out of the industrial revolution became the backbone of Britain. In shipbuilding “Clyde-built” became a byeword for quality and excellence, and Glasgow became known as the Second City of the Empire. Yet given that a great many advances in industry came out of the union is as equally unproven and spurious as the similar claim for the Scottish Enlightenment and academia. In fact, given our massive resources and hardworking ethos, there is every chance that Scotland outwith the union would have had an industrial revolution equal to, if not surpassing, that of England.
And even those who claim that the industrial strife and fight for common suffrage was a joint struggle are incorrect. The Society of the Friends of the People, an organisation devoted to parliamentary reform, not only had separate English and Scottish branches, but membership cost less north of the border (you get your revolution cheaper in Scotland). Similarly the first workers co-operative society in the world was that of the Fenwick Weavers, founded in 1769. In 1820 there was a workers uprising in Scotland of men demanding higher wages, common suffrage – and the repeal of the union, marching under a banner proclaiming “Scotland free or a desert.”
Even in matters of sport we cannot truly be seen to be united. As Scotland and England are constituent nations of the UK, they maintain their own national teams in many sporting events. We may send a “Team GB” to the Olympic Games, but mostly these teams are made up of English competitors. Even when Scots do compete, the view of their nationality is often made perfectly clear. In the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, skier Alain Baxter won bronze for Men’s Downhill Slalom, and was championed in the media as “the British skier, Alain Baxter”. Following this victory however, he failed a drug test. Baxter had unwittingly used a nasal inhaler containing a banned substance, and was forced to return his bronze medal. Despite Baxter’s actions being purely accidental, the media immediately reverted to referring to him as “the Scottish skier, Alain Baxter”.
And that is a common malaise with the union. It is all very well to claim we have a unified British culture, but all too often anything successful which emnates from Scotland is claimed to be as a direct result of the union, yet any misfortune or failure which befalls Scotland is claimed to be of all our own doing and our own (deserved) fault. The unionists cannot have their cake and eat it as well.
I therefore defy anyone to show me a clearly definable example of “British culture”. Moreover, I maintain that none would be able to do so, as none exists. Scotland and England, as well as Wales, Northern Ireland and Cornwall, have their own distinct cultures, none of which make for a unified British culture. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is these differences which make us all unique, and that is a strength, not a weakness, whichever side of any border it be upon.
The only reason we are called British at all is purely down to historical, political matters, and has no actual cultural basis. Whatever it says on your passport or any other documentation, the fact is that each and every one of us is British only on paper. If anything, the only people in these isle who can rigthly claim to be ‘British’ are the Welsh and Cornish descendants of the ancient Britons – and a great many of them don’t want to be British in the modern sense.
The No camp in the independence debate will often claim that the Yes camp are parochial, inward looking, and portray the uglier side of nationalism. Snide comments about banging on about Bannockburn and even that God-awful Braveheart movie abound, as they claim that our entire argument for independence is one based upon identity, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, I do identify with Scots culture. That is after all what makes me a Scot in the first place. And yes, I shall mention Bannockburn, due to the enormous importance of that battle which shaped Scotland and helped to make us what we are today. I make no more excuse for that than English people who recognise the Battle of Hastings of 1066 for the same reason, or for that matter unionists who bang on about VE Day. No nation can ignore it’s history, for it is only by seeing where you have been that you can understand where you are going.
But if anyone attempts to claim that the cultural and historical background of those of us who support independence are what our entire argument is based upon, then that is not only incorrect, it is a downright slur. The many arguments in favour of independence in fact rarely make mention of historical or cultural aspects, as their are largely unimportant to the present, and more importantly, the future we forward-thinking, outward-looking Scots nats see. There are times you have to forget about what happened in Bannockburn in 1314, and start asking what the people of Broxburn want in the 21st century.
Yet when one looks at the arguments of unionists, banging on about 300 years of union, wrapping themselves in the flag, proclaiming all we have achieved together with the tubthumping jingoism famous of British nationalists everywhere, it is actually they who base their arguments upon identity – and who all too often exhibit the nastier side of nationalism.
Scots independence is about the future – the union is the past.