For our New Year post it seems appropriate to look at some quintessentially Scottish images. There are some images of the Scots that we prefer to avoid, however, so rather than look for pictures of drunken parties or whisky bottles, we’ve opted instead for a quick look at the way the Scots have portrayed themselves over the last 300 years or so.
The Union of England and Scotland took place in 1707, and was followed just under 40 years later by the final defeat of the Jacobite cause with the defeat of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ at the Battle of Culloden, which led effectively to the demise of the traditional highland society, the highland clearances and subsequent mass emigration.
In this period there was also a trend in ‘polite society’ towards the adoption of a British identity, partly characterised by the eradication of ‘rough’ northern inflections of behaviour and speech. Obvious association with Scotland or the Scots was seen as parochial and uncouth. Samuel Johnson’s famous comment that “the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England” was satirical, of course – but amply demonstrates the received view of any overt display of Scottish identity.
But of course the identity and aspiration of the Scots did not die in the 18th century. Many Scots left their homeland, but the innate strength of the emigré’s desire for connection with home brought about a rekindling of the very identity which the Union had threatened, and the coincidental flowering of intellectual and cultural activity which characterised the Scottish enlightenment encouraged pride in Scottish achievement. The same Samuel Johnson recognised the continuing national pride: “a Scotchman must be a very sturdy moralist who does not love Scotland better than truth”.
But national pride born out of absence and a fundamentally backward-looking notion of identity led to a view of history and society which was skewed, romantic and full of mawkish sentiment. The writings of Sir Walter Scott (who so ably stage-managed George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822, and in so doing almost single-handedly created the modern notion of the clan system and the tartan industry) were founded on an antiquarian fervour which was typical of the period. The result was a view of history imbued with romance, which was to be the basis of a popular view of Scottish history and culture which, although not uncontroversial, still infuses attitudes towards Scotland today.
In particular, our tourist industry, which started in earnest with the favour shown to Scotland as a holiday destination by Queen Victoria and subsequent monarchs, still depends on a marketed image of idealised romantic scenery, tartan, pawky working-class humour and traditional home-spun hospitality which are at odds with both historic and modern reality.
So maybe we do still swig the whisky too enthusiastically, but we are not really the be-kilted, maudline haggis-hunting, caber-tossing romantics that we sometimes portray ourselves as!