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 ‘Too wee, too stupid’, may seem like an outdated argument from the unionist camp, and some of you will revile at this characterisation of their position, but it is an argument that is continually employed.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.