One jarring conversation in a Highland town this summer led me to reflect on the nature of a Scottish national identity and on what would constitute a just sovereign order in an independent – or, indeed, non-independent – Scotland.
I was speaking with a Glaswegian who had lived in the town for nearly half a century and become a prominent citizen there. When we spoke about language he told me that Gaelic is “superfluous”; it is not a modern language and is useless. He felt it was better for children to learn French and German in primary school, but maybe those who wanted could learn Gaelic in secondary school.
He said he had worked with islandmen who didn’t know how to sign their names, implying that Gaelic had made them ignorant. However, he added: “It wasn’t their fault – I looked after them.”
When it came to crofters, he told me: “They’re lazy. Nobody keeps cattle anymore. There’s no crofters. Throwing a few sheep on the hill – that’s not crofting.”
Each time I asked about the structural conditions in which crofting and Gaelic were declining he responded with what to me was invective, concluding: “People say that if you are anti-Gaelic you are anti-Scottish, but that’s not true.”
It brought to mind another uncomfortable conversation, this one with a lady from Edinburgh a few years ago. She was criticising the fact that there was a Gaelic-medium-unit at a school in the cit, asking: “Why are they forcing our young people to learn Gaelic?” (The answer is that ‘they’ are not.)
The man’s claim that one can be anti-Gaelic without being anti-Scottish reminded me of the lady’s use of the language of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
In debating the consequences of independence, Bella Caledonia has not shied away from the difficult issue of Scottish identities, repeatedly posting articles which are superficially about the Gaelic language but which, in fact, draw out some of the assumptions and prejudices that come with our messy cultural inheritance. During the commentary on an article discussing the absence of Gaelic from the referendum debate one poster appeared to want to close the whole topic down because it was, they claimed, anti-independence.
However, another poster, called ‘mrbfaethedee’, outlined why he felt that many people seemed to be struggling with the issues that the article had raised:
large numbers of Scots don’t see gaelic as being as particularly relevant to them while the gaelic community obviously and rightly do…Sitting here in Dundee I don’t feel that gaelic makes up a great deal of my ‘culture’, and that its depth and infuence over on the east coast is grossly overstated, historically as well as currently. So when it’s touted as Scotland’s true language and culture by others, it simply ignores the fact that we’ve been ‘mulit-cultural’ for a long time, and the lingua franca has long since moved on.
On the same thread Stewart Ingleby had posted:
As a lowlander I could actually get equally angry about the whitewashing of my own cultural history with the arrogant and inaccurate assertion that gaelic is the universal native language of Scotland.
Here, Ingleby argues that assertions about the Gaelic language are being used to present Scotland as having one culture. His argument represents a concern that this universalising cultural force could wipe out the ‘cultural history’ of the Lowlands to which he belongs. It is possible, I think, that he can be understood as invoking a kind of Lowland nationalism – this is what the claim of a ‘cultural history’ for a people (‘lowlanders’) in a territory amounts to.
From a different Scottish perspective, the Hebridean scholar Dr. John MacInnes has written in nationalistic terms of the historical experiences of the Gàidheal in Scotland, concluding that “during the last two and a half centuries processes of decline have produced what can only now be regarded as the detritus of a nation”. Yet while the historical decline of the Gàidheal as a nation is real enough, in his important recent book ‘Voicing Scotland – folk, culture, tradition’ Dr. Gary West of the School of Scottish Studies can still contrast the singers of what he calls ‘Gaeldom’ with the singers of ‘Scotland’.
If we think of a nation as being what the 19th century French philosopher Ernest Renan called “a large scale solidarity” formed fom a “rich legacy of memories” held in common, then I would argue that the examples above demonstrate that a notion of Scottish nationhood is not straightforward.
Renan famously wrote that “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle”. He added:
Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.
In these terms, the soul of Scotland is doubly divided. It is divided not only in terms of the debate on how we consent to live together in the present. This is the independence debate; a debate on political ‘issues’.
No, the soul of Scotland is also divided at its ‘origins’: there are radically different senses of what being Scottish means, and these differences have reached the present from far, far back in our messy, long-contested past. Whereas one stream of national memory might recall the dates of 1603 and 1707 as the years when a sovereignty was lost, another stream might invoke the years 1266 and 1493 to the same end.
In our past and in our present these mighty streams of cultural memory divide us, and when a sovereign Scotland is being collectively imagined the assumptions and prejudices carried in each stream can meet and clash, creating division and anger.
It might help us to understand and come to terms with these powerful feelings of division and anger if we consider the possibility that Scotland is more than one nation; that is, if we begin to think of Scotland as a multinational society as well as a multicultural one.
According to the Canadian political philosopher James Tully, a multinational society is one “that includes more than one ‘nation’, or, more accurately, more than one ‘member’ of the society demands recognition as a nation or nations”. This recognition includes a right to self-governance.
Tully describes Canada as a multinational society on the basis of the claims being made by the government of the province of Quebec and by Aboriginal peoples to be recognised as nations. The same argument has been made for the present United Kingdom on the basis of the claims being made by the four nations that constitute it.
However, Tully points out that within Quebec itself there are 11 Aboriginal peoples demanding recognition as First Nations. He concludes: “A member of a multinational society that demands recognition as a nation may itself be a multinational society”.
In this regard it may be telling that the Scottish islands, the areas most closely associated with ‘Gaelic’ and ‘Nordic’ Scotland’, have already sought and, through the Lerwick Declaration, won the promise of greater powers in an independent Scotland.
In announcing the SNP’s commitment to self-determination within Scotland, Alex Salmond said:
We believe that the people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to make decisions about our future – the essence of self-determination, therefore we support subsidiarity and local decision making. It follows, therefore, that any government committed to that policy should listen to the views expressed across all of Scotland – as we are doing here in Lerwick.
In this article I have suggested that the territory of Scotland contains a multiplicity of nations. If this is the case, and if it is the case that these fundamentally different senses of the Scottish ‘nation’ can lead to divisiveness and anger when each claims ‘Scotland’ as its own, then it seems to me that this principle of self-governance should be applicable beyond the basis of localities within a homogenous Scottish nation.
The principle of Scottish self-determination should also recognise the deep diversity of Scotland’s cultural histories and in doing so seek to respect and to nurture the multicultural and multinational nature of Scottish identities. Then we might be able to acknowledge ‘us’ and ‘them’ without being anti-anyone.
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