Saturday 13 June 2020

A shared history vandalised

I watched Braveheart when it came out in a packed Danish cinema and enjoyed it. I explained to the Danes who I’d gone to the cinema with a little bit about the history of the period, but none of us much cared about that. The film was like Robin Hood with a Scottish bunch of merry men and the English were the Normans. Anyone who has read anything about the real history of the period knows that the English really were the Normans and the Scottish nobles were the Normans too.

Robin Hood is a good story, but it is a tale of heroes and villains for which reason it is mainly myth. So too the story of Wallace and Bruce has become mythologised particularly by Scottish nationalists. When I saw the film, it was a story about me and my country and that is why I enjoyed it. I’m sure most Scots who saw the film at the time enjoyed it too. Only later did half of us view it with derision. The SNP politicised our shared history and turned it into a story about them and their supporters. From then on much of Scottish history has been alien to British Scots. It was not always so.

Most of the Scottish history I know comes from reading Walter Scott. I decided to read him because no one else did. I read all of the Waverley novels just like everyone did in the nineteenth century. I read some history books too to better understand the context of the stories. I came to love Scottish history. There are so many great stories. There is violence, romance and complex characters. Hardly a king dies in his bed.

What we think of today as Scotland was invented by Scott in the same way that Dickens invented Christmas. Scott put Edward Waverley an Englishman into the Jacobite Rebellion and was able to both show his love for the romanticism of the Jacobite cause while also showing why it was better that it lost. This is the genius of the novel. It shows history as something complex with many sides. It shows characters who have aspects that are good and bad and in between. It shows that we can support both sides of a war. One from the perspective of the past the other from the perspective of sixty years since. Waverley brought reconciliation and created a shared history without resentment. It also became the prototype for similar reconciliations through historical fiction all over the world. Examples include all those Civil War novels loved equally by North and South. 

Waverley was wildly popular and made the Scottish landscape a place that people from all over Europe wanted to visit. Without Waverley Queen Victoria would not have spent her summers at Balmoral.

A love of Scottish history was an expression of love for Britain. People all over Britain read Scott because his message was unifying rather than divisive. He made Scottish heroes British heroes. Waverley united Britain far more as a novel than as a railway station.

It was Scott that led the Victorians to celebrate figures like William Wallace. There were almost no Scottish nationalists until the SNP crept out in 1934 inspired by events in Mitteleuropa. The nineteenth century nationalist movements on the continent did not spread to Scotland because we were content with our shared Scottish/British identity. It was the expression of this that led to the creation of the Wallace Monument in 1869. The heroes in the hall of fame apart from Wallace and Bruce were the major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment and reign of Victoria not one of whom wanted Scotland to be independent.

The monument was built by British Scots as a means of celebrating each aspect of our identity. Wallace and Bruce to Victorians all over Britain were as much British heroes as Boadicea or Alfred the Great. There was no distinction between this history of Scotland and England. Scots didn’t think that Magna Carta was part of the history of a foreign land, nor did English people think Mary Queen of Scots was from abroad.

Scott invented medieval England with Ivanhoe and gave new life to Robin Hood.  He brought chivalry and knights in armour to life not merely in Britain. The Victorians staged jousting tournaments and became fascinated by half-forgotten battles which no one much had thought about for centuries. In Scott’s last novel Castle Dangerous he resurrects Robert the Bruce and shows both English and Scottish knights behaving with honour and reaching a kind of reconciliation. Bannockburn and Bruce might be as obscure as much else in Scottish history if it were not for Scott. Not one Scot in a million knows the date of the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh.

The Bannockburn monument to Robert the Bruce was created by a British sculptor Pilkington Jackson who was born in Cornwall. It wasn’t a monument to Scottish nationalism. It was built in 1964 and the SNP had yet to win a seat.  

It is ironic that the ultimate place of pilgrimage for Scottish nationalists was built by an Englishman and that no one who built it thought it had any contemporary political significance whatsoever. Not one independence supporter contributed a penny to the cost of the statue. 

I realised when I saw the statue of Bruce vandalised that I was upset in a way that surprised me. I had become estranged from my love of Scottish history and Scottish heroes. I realised that the SNP had taken them from me, and it was time to take them back.

Bruce and Wallace are heroes of British history and an attack on them is an attack on all of us. Scottish nationalism has no more right to vandalise Scottish heroes by making them exclusive to independence supporters, than anyone else has the right to write slogans on our statues in white paint.

The monuments that have been put up in Britain belong to all of us, they express our shared history. The monument to Bruce belongs to everyone in the United Kingdom. He is the hero of all wherever we live and wherever our parents came from.

History is full of complex characters. They were human beings. Just as we each have good and bad qualities so did, they. The vandalism of statues is to view history as if it is Braveheart or Robin Hood. It is to see heroes and villains, when the truth is much more complex and much more human.

A slave trader can be a philanthropist, just as a murderer can be a saint. An owner of slaves (serfs), Pushkin, Tolstoy, can be great writer. Each of us is a combination of morality and immorality for which reason we dare not judge others and certainly cannot judge the past by the standards of the present.

Robert the Bruce had patience with spiders, but rather less patience with John Comyn. He had cunning and could be treacherous but won in the end. There is hardly another figure in Scottish history who is as famous as Bruce and that itself is an achievement. But the whole interest in medieval history is due to the most British of writers Walter Scott, without whom neither Bruce nor Wallace would have monuments.

First they came for Edward Colston
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a slave owner

Then they came for the Winston Churchill
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Conservative

Then they came for the Baden Powell
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Scout

Then they came for the Robert the Bruce
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Scottish Nationalist

Then they came for me
And there was no one left

To speak out for me