The invention of Scottish identity and the referendum for independence
Everyone knows the symbols of Scottish identity: the kilt – the woollen skirty whose tartan motifs represent the ‘ clan ‘ of belonging – or the bagpipes, a musical instrument typical of the Highlands. Then There is the linguistic element, the Scots language, of Germanic origin but distinct from English, spoken in almost all of southern Scotland, and the “Gaelic-Scottish” language spoken in the north. These items are however not as authentically Scottish as you think.
In The Invention of Tradition, a compilation of essays curated by Eric Hobsbawn and published by Cambridge University Press in 1983, there is a fundamental analysis of Scottish tradition, signed by Hugh Trevor-Roper. The author explains how the elements recognized today as symbols of Scottish identity are a retrospective invention. This must not be surprising because cultural identities are born out of opposition and until Scotland has been an independent nation has not produced distinctive elements. There were certain “characters” of the Scottish being but they were not absurd to symbols of nationality. These symbols begin to form during the Romanticism which, with its re-invention of the Middle ages, has in fact created many Identitarian elements then converated in the nineteenth-century nationalisms.
The kilt, as we know it, is in fact an invention of that Thomas Rawlinson, English entrepreneur of ‘ 700, owner of furnaces in Scotland. During a visit to the Highlands he saw that the poor of the place wore a long blanket in rough wool with tartan motifs that, falling from the shoulders, covered the entire body and was stopped alive by a belt making it look like the lower part a skirt. Rawlinson had the idea of making a skirty, detached from the blanket, and invented a tradition for purely commercial purposes. The Kilt is therefore a modern garment that the Romantic movement imposed as a sign of “antiquity”.
A recent history is also that of tartan, the reason known as “Scottish”. Typical in the blankets of the poor people of the Highlands, it began to spread thanks to the invention of the kilt, but it was only in 1820 that the tartan became a real fashion. To make it famous was a visit to Scotland by King George IV (1762-1830) who, to cope with the popular riots of the so-called Radical War, decided to travel to Edinburgh as a sign of closeness to the population. The visit was organized by Sir Walter Scott, author of the famous historical novel Ivanhoe, who undertook that the path of the sovereign was covered with a rug made in tartan motifs, in vogue at that time. The realization of the rug gave work to many local craftsmen and the visit of the sovereign rekindled the monarchical zeal of the Scots by defusing the riots. That visit is remembered as the birth act of the modern Scottish identity, proud of its diversity but faithful to the crown, which has in kilts and tartan its “symbols”.
To help create a Scottish cultural identity was mainly the work of James Macpherson, author of the famous Songs of Ossian, data to the prints in 1761 and fundamental work of the pre-Romantic European literature. Mecpherson claimed that those songs were the translation of an ancient Celtic poem of the THIRD century, which he found in the Highlands. The work, which tells the story of Fingal, a character in Celtic mythology, by the mouth of his son Ossian, would testify the existence of a remote civilization, fair and Guerresca, forerunner of modern Scots. The authenticity of the alleged translations was questioned right from the start by Samuel Johnson, one of the most distinguished English literati of the EIGHTEENTH century, and today we know that it was a fake: the Songs of Ossian are in fact the brainchild of Mecpherson’s imagination. This Nothing detracts from the literary value of a work that ushed in European Romanticism, but plays completely against the alleged Celtic identity of the Scots, an identity that, however, asserted itself during the Nineteenth century in an instrumental way in order to claim An irreducible diversity compared to the English and, therefore, to be able to advance requests for autonomy.
But diversity is very difficult to demonstrate. The Celtic language, still spoken by just 60 thousand people (out of 5 million Scots), represents a minority within the framework of the language spoken in Scotland where, after English, the most widespread is the Scots, a language of Germanic origin probably developed in Medieval period from an English dialect of the north. Spoken by almost 2 million people is the true local Scottish language, to the point that today the BBC dedicates a channel to the language programming Scots, but are the same speakers to consider it a dialect: in 2010 the Scottish Government published a research entitled “Public Attitudes towards the Scots language “in which it was reported that 64% of respondents believed the Scots to be an English dialect. In Short, the Scots language is little to be the distinguishing element of Scottish identity, so close to English: better – as Mecpherson did – to address the Celtic language and the mysterious and suggestive cultural heritage of the Highlands.
However, the Celtic language does not have much to do with Scotland. In The Invention of Tradition, Hugh Trevor-Roper explains how the Highlands were, in the High Middle ages, “ethnically and culturally an Irish colony.” The Celtic populations of Ireland – writes Trevor-Roper – crossed the Fifth century the strait arm of the sea separating the island from Scotland and settled in the “Highlands” giving rise to a Celtic kingdom, known by the name of Dalriada. Traditionally Considered a Scottish kingdom, due to a territorial extension prevailing in what is now Scotland, the kingdom of Dalriada actually had its base in Ulster.
It Was the necessity of building a national identity to be opposed to the English one, and on which to build claims of freedom and independence, to motivate the invention of certain distinctive elements. And We must reiterate how they developed only after the act of Union with England of 1707. Before that date they existed in less codised forms and were seen as the legacy of a barbaric culture that was to be rejected, especially in an Edinburgh that was becoming one of the capitals of the European Enlightenment earning the nickname “Athens of North: Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, David Hume, worked here. Perhaps even thanks to the Enlightenment heritage, Scottish nationalism has never been characterized by radicalism.
Even Today the debate revolves around economic issues and there is not the slightest hint of “ethnicisms” or other radicalism. What is now interested in Edinburgh is shaking off a London perceived as oppressive. The discrimination of foreigners is not on the agenda as it is in England, where the Cameron government – with its rhetorics against Romanians, Bulgarians and other European immigrants – seems much more “nationalist” than the Scottish Nationalists.