"Telling old stories, and singing songs, that make me think about where I came from"

On the 3rd October, 2011, I wrote an article for Scotland’s best political blog, Betternation, entitled, ‘The use and abuse of history in the independence debate: calling all historians to the table’. In it, I made the case for Scottish historians to step up and play a part in the independence debate, if for no other reason than to debunk the myths which abound on either side of the argument. ‘Too wee, too stupid’, may seem like an outdated argument from the unionist camp, and some of you will revile at this characterisation of their position, but it is an argument that is continually employed. And harking back to the brave Scots’ patriots, the corruption and bribery of those who voted for union, and the Gaelic, Dalriada myth from the pro-independence side may, again, appear glib. But it is harked to again and again. It might often be subtle, but our national myths – our historical narrative – may I even say, ‘Scotland’s story’ – provides the framework for so many of the constitutional debates which are currently taking place in our native land. In fact, in many ways, all political parties are involved in trying to shape a story of Scotland in which they are placed into the centre of the narrative. Just think about the SNP’s claim of being, ‘Scotland’s party’. And if one takes a look at Scottish Labour’s website which has had a cosmetic make-over since the election of Johann Lamont as their leader, then you will notice that little has changed, but the saltire has been emblazoned across it like a jingoistic and slightly eccentric uncle at a family wedding.

Just a couple of days ago, on the 19th March, a historian answered my call. Boston College PHD student, Craig Gallagher, made his contribution on Betternation in an article entitled, ‘The challenge of historical preconceptions’. In it, he argued that the Darien Scheme – Scotland’s failed attempt at setting up a colony – was far more complex than the simplistic glorious failure that is so often portrayed, and as it appears in the collective consciousness of modern Scots. Gallagher claims that Darien is often harkened to as an example of what happens when the Scots are left to their own devices. In effect, the unionists cry, Scotland needs England, Scotland is indeed, ‘Too wee, too stupid’. In the comments thread, unionists and nationalists (note the small ‘n’) alike became rather heated in their responses to one another. You could be forgiven for dismissing this as the usual crass and offensive to-and-fro of political anoraks who have nothing better to do than traipse over the same old ground; over and over again. But there is something deeper going on here. If you take the time to really think about it, these are the battles – the exchanges of words – between two markedly different Scottish identities. This is not a new phenomenon and, as I argue in much of my research, it is perceptible throughout the seventeenth century. But recognising the independence debate as, at least in part, a confliction of rival identities, will, in my opinion, allow us to better understand what is going on. And if you’re partisan, as this writer is, then it may – just may – allow us to frame arguments from our respective camps which tap into the bigger picture; into the real reason certain people find the whole debate so inflammatory.

So what am I saying here. Well, not terribly much. I welcome Craig Gallagher’s contribution and commend him for what was an excellent article. I also recognise the rival Scottish identity which is currently entrenching itself, each day feeling a little more surrounded by those who would so quickly wrap themselves in a saltire. Most importantly, however, I’m making another impassioned argument for the importance of history. There is a reason why we find alzheimers – or for that matter, any other disorder where one loses their memory – so terrifying. Primarily because without memory, without a history, we are no longer who we believe ourselves to be, we are stripped of our identity. This is why history is so important in all aspects of our lives and particularly important to the ongoing Scottish constitutional debate. I just hope more historians follow Gallagher’s lead.

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Comments on: "Who cares what happened all those years ago?" (4)

  1. Thanks for the wonderful feedback, Craig. I had been peripherally aware of your blog before now, but I regret that I haven’t followed you more particularly. I’ll make a habit of doing that now, especially since you are a historian with an interest in 17th century Scotland. I studied with John R. Young at Strathclyde, and he used to describe our generation of scholars as the first “thinking nationalists”, that is to say the first people to empirically and clear-headedly challenge unionist assumptions in the historiography, unburdened by the constant dismissal such views would have garnered in the 1980s.

    I hope we’re proving him right.

  2. Not a problem, I was delighted to see your post on betternation. I have a slight confession, the hardened unionist commentator on your post is in fact one of my good friends (our conversations make for interesting listening!)

    What is the topic of your phd research? I’m currently putting together the initial thoughts for my master thesis and since Sweden has a two year master degree, I have the whole of next year to dedicate to it. I’m looking at the notion of the Scots as ‘God’s chosen people’ and how the idea (essentially, the covenanting notion) evolved from 1550-1695.

    I hope we are proving Dr. Young right. I have a class mate who did his undergraduate at St. Andrews and falls into a similar camp as ourselves.

    All the best.

    • If you mean Mr Menzies, that’s not a problem, he was one of the most engaged with the points in my post, even if he disagreed with a lot of them.

      My dissertation has not yet been finalised (long way away) but I’m interested in Scotland and other small European nations in the Atlantic World, in terms of their colonial and commercial interests, as well as to what extent they create expat communities and integrate with the larger, more familiar European empires of the period.

      For example, I’m currently writing a case study of Francis Borland (of Darién fame) and his brother John, both of whom fled Scotland during the “Killing Times” of the 1680s to make their way in the Atlantic World. Francis became a preacher in New England and later Suriname, while John operated as a merchant (with smuggling tendencies) out of the ports of Boston, New Haven and Rotterdam. Their sense of being part of a Scottish Atlantic community is what I’m really interested in: to what extent did it exist, and how (if at all) did these two men conceive of themselves within it.

      Yours would be an interesting study, particularly as many Covenanting histories tend to begin around 1625 and King Charles I. Would you seek to do it in a transnational or other methodological way? Dr. Young used to always enjoy pointing out the fact that many of those who fought for the Covenanting cause in the 1640s had been mercenaries in the armies of the Thirty Years’ War, particularly for Sweden and the Netherlands. Might be an interesting angle.

  3. That tends to be the way; Iain has a great way of looking at things, I just rarely agree with his appraisal.

    Your research sounds really interesting. I just submitted a chapter proposal about Scottish religion for a book which is also looking at the Scottish diaspora – which is not a million miles from what you’re talking about. It seems to me that it is quite difficult to talk about identity without taking into account religion in this period. For example, to what extent was there a ‘Scottish’ protestant identity and how was it intertwined with other notions of Scottishness?

    I’m guessing you are in the early stages of your phd? If you don’t mind me asking, what took you to Boston? I’m thinking about phd options at the moment and would be delighted (and very grateful) for any input you could give.

    That’s an interesting point about those who fought for the Covenanters that I wasn’t particularly aware of. I know of one chap who was a general in the Swedish army (the name escapes me right now).

    I’m not quite sure what methodological approach I’m going to adopt. The ‘History of Ideas’ is a big area of interest in Sweden, so I’m having a look at some general books on the topic. I desperately want to avoid arguing in a way that promotes notions of Scottish exceptionalism. But, to be honest, I’m at the embryonic stage. Quite simply, I want to examine whether the political ideological ramifications of Reformation thought is a useful perspective to understand the to-and-fro of the seventeenth century.

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