Saturday, 6 October 2012

What has the union ever done for us?

What has the union done for us cry the Nationalists rather like those characters in the Life of Brian wondering what the Romans have ever done for us. To ask the question is to answer it.

The trouble with most nationalists is that they actually appear to know very little about Scottish history or literature. Anyone who compares and contrasts Scotland prior to the union with Scotland after the union will immediately see exactly what the union has done for us.

A quick glance at Scottish history pre union shows an obscure European country, much poorer than the average, fighting continually with its larger neighbour or alternatively fighting with itself.  One of the most dangerous jobs in Scotland was to be king and the most notable feature of most reigns was treachery, factionalism and assassination.

There were, of course, some wonderful things which developed in Scotland, pre-eminently the four ancient universities. There are some fine thinkers and writers. Dun Scotus is one of the greatest of medieval philosophers. John Barbour’s Brus is still studied in universities as is Blind Harry’s Wallace. The people they wrote about, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace are celebrated as heroes the world over as is Mary Stuart, but there’s little else in pre union Scottish history or culture that has travelled beyond this country. To the rest of the world pre union Scotland amounts to Braveheart and Mary Queen of Scots ruling romantically, shambolically and in the end tragically. 

The union of of the crowns in 1603  immediately brought cultural and linguistic benefits. King James VI a Scottish King on the throne of England made one of the greatest contributions to the English speaking world by publishing  the King James Bible and he published it not in his native Scots, but in English. Precisely for this reason English gradually took over in Scotland bringing us one of our greatest benefits from the union, a language spoken the world over.

Up until the union people in Scotland spoke and wrote either Gaelic or Scots, the latter a divergent strain of Anglo Saxon rapidly developing into a language which would no longer be mutually comprehensible with English. If Scotland had remained independent, the likelihood is that we would now speak a language in Scotland as different from English as Dutch is from German. But instead with the introduction of the King James Bible and the prestige of the court in London, English came to be the dominant language in Scotland, leaving Scots as a language spoken on the margins less and less used by the educated, used in literature, but mainly as dialogue, poetry and song, barely used at all in philosophy or economics or history or in the church. We may regret this, but the benefits to Scotland today of speaking a world language are obvious and it can be traced to the union of the crowns. 

With the union of 1707 came further benefits. Scottish merchants, now protected by the Royal Navy and with new markets opened up to them, which had been closed before, were able to begin to prosper as never before. Prior to entering into currency union with England in 1707, 12 pounds Scots obtained 1 pound Sterling. The Scottish economy was bankrupt after the Darien scheme, but rapidly the union brought prosperity, the benefits of a strong stable currency, order and increased trade, both within the union and without.

As in England,  Scotland had been fighting a civil war since the 1630s, which amounted to a fight between Presbyterians on one side versus Catholics and Episcopalians on the other. This same civil war continued, on and off, throughout the reigns of Charles II, James II and VII and had its final battles in the attempts to restore Stuart rule during  the Jacobite rebellions. 

Many Scots, including me, love the romanticism and the fundamental justness of the Jacobite cause. But thinking Scots realise, that only with the final defeat of the Stuarts and with it the  doctrine of the divine right of Kings, did we arrive at the Scottish enlightenment and the prosperity that followed. Bonnie Prince Charlie nearly won in 1745 and without the union he may well have done so. My heart wishes that he had won, but my head realises that Scotland prospered with the Hanoverians, that parliamentary democracy and the idea of constitutional monarchy brought in with the “Glorious revolution” of 1688 was the key to us avoiding the horrors of revolution which later engulfed France and the French domination which Jacobite victory would have brought to Scotland. So while I may still romantically toast the king o’er the water, I am glad he remained there.

The end of the century long British Civil war in 1745, brought stability, boredom and prosperity and with it came Scotland’s greatest period of intellectual and cultural development. What did the union ever do for us? For one thing, it gave us David Hume (1711-1776), considered by most to be Britain’s greatest philosopher and studied the world over wherever philosophy is taught. The union, without which the Scottish enlightenment would not have happened, gave us Adam Smith (1723-1790), perhaps the world’s greatest economist. The wealth, which the union brought enabled architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) to design and build, many of the buildings which we most associate with the architectural style of Scotland. Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) painted the Scots who were prospering from the union. Scotland’s greatest poet Robert Burns (1759-1796), was a great Scottish patriot but recognised the benefits of the union and because he used the Scots language to address concerns which touched the hearts of everyone, rather than addressing narrowly nationalistic issues,  he carried that language the world over, giving the world a song sung everywhere on the 31st of December.  

Scotland’s greatest novelist, Walter Scott (1771-1832), perhaps did even more than Burns to promote Scotland and virtually invented much of what we consider today to be Scottish culture. Scott who was wildly popular the world over, virtually invented the historical novel and influenced each historical novelist who came after from Victor Hugo to Lev Tolstoy. His novels helped to heal the wounds of the Jacobite rebellion, because Scott  himself was a Jacobite with his heart, a Hanoverian with his head. It is this duality which makes his novels complex and interesting. He wrote about Scotland in a way that made the English love Scotland and because he was a unionist he loved them back, sparking the revival of interest in medieval England with his novel Ivanhoe.

It is unnecessary to continue much further the list of great Scots who flourished by being in the union. Britain’s greatest writer of adventure stories Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), and Britain’s greatest writer of detective stories Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), were hardly hindered by being from the UK. There are Scots inventors, like John Logie Baird (1888-1946), Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), scientists like Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), famous the world over. What do they have in common? They were all unionists. 

It’s almost impossible to find a major writer or thinker prior to the 20th century who seriously supported independence. In fact, the only major writer I can think of who the SNP can claim is Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978). An important and fine writer, but notorious for his hatred of the English, listing Anglophobia amongst his hobbies in his Who’s who entry.

Nationalists therefore reject the point of view of nearly all those who made Scotland great and do so in a language they would not even be able to speak without the union. They romaticise an independent Scotland through figures like William Wallace, who we only know about through myth, poetry and Hollywood lies and nonsense. They want to resurrect a country, which was obscure, poor and violent and reject a country which gave us the world and made us world famous. Shame on them for their narrow nationalism and lack of patriotism.


  1. I doubt Robert the Bruce is celebrated in many Muslim countries, Effie, his heart was taken by the Black Douglas on Crusade. As for Wallace, he was celebrated in Victorian times as a great freedom fighter (though he fought for the Baliol line which Bruce crushed) but it is the Mel Gibson fantasy that is celebrated around the world.

    re Scotland and the civil wars, wiki has a great entry on Scotland and the Thirty Years War - Scotland ceclared War on both France and Spain.

  2. There was a tv show from the US called "Soap" which purported to be a soap opera about a complex & disfunctional American family. The intro to every episode each week would run a recap of events to date and always ended with the words: "Confused? You will be".

    Growing up in Scotland I was involved in a lot of student politics around the world and was always so proud to host students from many different places. My pride-filled tours of Scotland (especially my hometown of Edinburgh) would tell tales of rationalism and romanticism as tho they were the weft & warp of Scotland. Delighting in my own fierce presbyterianism and my deep attachment to the Bonnie Prince & his cause. Walking theough the physical delights of regular, reasoned restraint in the New Town down the slope to the gothic extravgance of the Scott Monument with its medieval backdrop.

    I would see, in almost every instance of a listening guest, a widening confusion as tho they were meeting the contradiction of a green capitalist for the first time. So when I'd then conclude with the relationship (I knew of as being that of most Scots) with 'the English' I invariably turned to some pithy jokes to illustrate our love-hate rivalry-comminality. I'd then - especially for American friends - offer them the quote from Soap - modifiied. I'd say "Confused - then you got it!".

    For me life is delightfully non pigeon holed. People are complex, places are complex and relationships are complex. Read anything where the characters are one-dimensional and you'll instantly weary of just how unsatisfactory that is. So being a complex Scot in a complex Britain just happens to be my lot. And I am greedy, because I want to keep the various parts of me in tact. I want to keep the elements of my identity and I want to keep both my countries. The Scotland of my heart and head and the Britain of my heart and head. (And I want SNatsis to leave me alone to decide how much of each is right for me at any given time and on any given issue - without the cheek of being called a traitor!). I'm also jealous. Jealous of that time, not so long ago, when civic in Scotland meant civic. Meant we all more or less got along because we shared in the civics of Scotland (and the UK); institutions, vaules, behavioural and language norms. Where my car had a saltire in the back window - not as a nationalist rejection of the beautiful Union Flag but as a proud badge of my locale, my constituent part of the greater whole. A Scotland where our identity was a matter of our patriotic pride, not our nature as 'ultras' choosing hatered of another as our defining characteristic (and all the phony convulsions gone through to pretend that hatred wasnt just hatred). So I miss that time, that Scotland.

    And I am angry. Angry at the damage done in the SNP focus on false narratives. On the work done to destroy rather than build, where we lose ourselves in eternal grievance and conspiracy, where even rational assesments of matters such as election results, fiscal numbers and trade relations become alt-facts, matters of opinion backed up by hostile theories of ulterior motives and machinations.

    But I am not confused. I see Scotland for the delightful mess she is and I know that she will again regain a common political language with the rest of the family. Its just going to be hard work - that we gave ourselves - after the tremendous losses of this decade & more failed experiment with ultra nationalism.

    That's a very long way to say thank you for your blog, Effie. For the reminders of who and where we truly are - and how we got here. For your eloquent illustration of the anchors that can pull us back to saner water, eventually.

  3. This is an excellent post. Your argument is so sound that I think it can be only added to. I would point to David Hume's The History of England (note the title) that aimed to hone a pure "plain" English which could be read all across this island. Reading it today, you can see that its clarity influenced Jane Austen and Walter Scott. Another Scot, John Reith, the creator of "BBC English," suscribed to the same project. These Unionists fought for greater comprehension and understanding, because they were Unionists.

  4. I do not know if you hold an academic qualification but you are very good at making lists. Scott gets a mention in Irvine Welsh's The Bedroom Secrets of the Masterchefs. Within this novel he is bracketed as a Toady. As the central character searches for his father he finds out that one of the candidates has no genitalia. Therefore, he is out of the equation in relation to being the central character's Dad. The central character asks this dismembered figure how he lost his penis. This Edinburgh Citizen explains that he was sick of all the plaudits that Scott had got in Scotland's capital. He was fed up looking at erections such as The Scott Monument and stated that he thought the Socialist, Hibernian supporter and Irish Freedom Fighter Jame Connolly deserved more praise than Scott. He was so angered by this that he started his own Scottish Liberation Movement. Unfortunately, he was the only member. With no comrades to aid him he made an armed attack the Edinburgh establishment. However, he ended up blowing his balls off. This is symbolic of previous attempts at Scottish Liberation being abortive like the Jacobite Rebellions and the failed attempt to get a scottish Assembly in the 1970s. The highlighting of James Connolly suggests that Scotland would benefit from taking aleaf out of the books of their fellow Celts in Ireland who managed to liberate most of their country through unity in armed struggle. However, maybe I'm wrong and I just don't understand it. On second thoughts it is fair to suggest that this symbolism reinforced my belief in Scottish Independence. You go on to mention Robert Louis Stevenson and this is another literary figure who you clearly know little or nothing about. Stevenson had plenty of time for Scottish Independence and his work certainly shows this. Any decent analytical mind realises that Treasure Island is a critique of the British Empire. Why else would there be a Union Jack on a pirate ship? This is another novel that reinforced my views in relation to Scottish Nationalism. Stevenson also lauds the great Irish patriot Robert Emmet in his writings. Thus he had admiration for those who fought to liberate Ireland too. Obviously your bigotted followers have no time for figures like Emmet. Thus, it seems like something of a paradox that you are lauding him. Scottish Nationalists that read Treasure Island would recognise that there is plenty of treasure in Scotland which is part of a British Island, however they would recognise that this is be controlled by the English in London. Scotland's oil in the North Sea is a prime example of this treasure. In Stevenson's Kidnapped he criticises the role of the Scotland's Protestant religion for its role in the slave trade and its role in empire building too. In this instance the central character escapes being trapped overseas on the Brig Covenant. He enjoys a much more liberating and exciting time with the Jacobite figure that he encounters whilst escaping. Here Stevenson is suggesting that Scots would enjoy greater freedom under the Jacobites rather than under the protestants. Another Scottish novel that I clearly never understand was Irvine Welsh's Marabou Stork Nightmares. You could argue that this is a critique of the football casual culture that exploded in Scotland in the 1980s. In one incident the weird figure of Roy Strang batters a hideous looking Celtic fan whose Celtic scarf is decorated horrendous badges saying that the Pope should be blessed along with the IRA. Via this part of the narrative Welsh is stating that being a football casual is stupid and pointless but not recognising the corruption of the Catholic Church is just as futile. He is also accentuating that it is silly for Scottish citizens to be throwing their weight behind Irish Nationalist movements when they could be supporting Scottish ones.

  5. "Our language was wiped out, and replaced with someone else's - and that was a good thing. Because imagine how stupid we'd sound if we still all spoke our own language?!"

    Well, I suppose you'll always find one turkey willing to laud Christmas.