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From The Province of the Cat #21 – Day of the Dead

Neil Gunn Circle

The first of November is Samhain which in the old Celtic calendar is the first day of Winter. It is also traditionally the Day of the Dead when the shades of those who have gone before walk the roads of life with the living. So this is as good a time as any to ask that question which will not die: is it possible to believe in independence for Scotland and not be a nationalist? Or to summon up its doppelganger: is it even conceivable that you can be a nationalist and not believe in independence?

To attempt to deal with the last question first: it all depends on what kind of nationalist you are. The Unionist parties are by definition British national parties; however they used to be differentiated by social and economic policy in the past. The Conservatives, Social Democrats and Labour have all morphed into the same right wing, market driven consensualists who assert that wealth, financial services and globalisation are the orthodoxy of both political delivery and social organisation. They all see Scottish independence as a threat to this singularity and I, for one, would like to think that they are absolutely right. An independent Scotland at least offers an alternative base on which the Scots can begin to build a nation which offers its people an inclusive future in which every citizen, as opposed to “subject”, has a place, a value and a contribution to make. In other words within an independent Scotland each citizen is independently free to produce, not dependent on what is increasingly seen in the UK press as “state charity” to live. In a nation of five and bit million, with the equitable tax take which subsequently accrues, social security should mean exactly that; so all the anxiety of living on the breadline in the second decade of the twenty first century can be removed so that the individual, with their dignity intact, can enable themselves into a meaningful life. British nationalism, as espoused by the Unionist parties, with its continual and unjust taxes on the poor, the constant humiliation of the disadvantaged and the weak, governmental championing of the selfish and the wealthy, is premeditated against this. No individual or nation can be independent in Britain. Those who wave the Union Jack and shout “No” at the referendum are whispering “Yes” loudly to this continuing nihilism. In time they will have to reap the fruit of what William Blake called “a fearful symmetry”.

To believe in Scottish independence and not be a nationalist is a much more difficult idea to unpick. It was a conundrum which preoccupied the novelist Neil Gunn all his life. In his 1940 essay “Why Are Writers Nationalists?” he discusses a quote from Edwin Muir’s autobiography, The Story and the Fable. Muir writes,

“…I believe that men are capable of organising themselves only in relatively small communities, and that even then they need custom, tradition and memory to guide them. For these reasons I believe in Scottish Nationalism and I should like to see Scotland a self governing nation… I am for small nations against large ones, because I am for a kind of society where men have some real practical control of their lives. I am for a Scottish nation, because I am a Scotsman.”

This statement flies in the face of the popular idea of Edwin Muir as being somehow anti-Scottish, derived mainly from his book “Scott and Scotland” in which he puts forward a counter-blast to MacDiarmid’s life-eruption of political, cultural and linguistic UDI from all things English.

Of this remarkable passage Gunn notes,

“If out of that wise and characteristically lucid declaration I, as a matter of personal predilection, were to choose any particular word for further consideration, I should choose the word ‘tradition’.”

He goes on to say,

“Efforts made from time to time to ignore tradition and write as if we (the Scots) had no past – or so iniquitous a past that it had better be forgotten – have failed.”

If only that were true in 2013. When Neil Gunn wrote these words in 1940 he was also writing his great masterpiece The Silver Darlings and the war against the Nazis was raging in its darkest place. Why on earth, you might ask, was he bothering with such trivialities as home rule and tradition at that time? The answer must be that like all true artists, Muir similarly, he was looking at what was to come after the catastrophe. The Angel of History may be blown backwards by the winds from Paradise, incessantly and unseeing into the future, with her wings outstretched and the chaos and debris of human folly piled up at her feet but the artist has to glimpse beyond this into that imagined possibility where a just and equitable life is possible.

Neil Gunn was a committed nationalist who believed in an independent Scotland. Edwin Muir was for independence but detached from it and in practice uncommitted – despite what he wrote – to political nationalism. That other giant of pre-World War Two Scottish literature, James Leslie Mitchell – or Lewis Grassic Gibbon – rejected nationalism in favour of socialism and yet what is his Scots Quair – that sublime trilogy of novels – but a cry for a reconstituted, re-imagined Scotland? Grassic Gibbon was determined that the Scots should be aware of their traditions and realise that without an understanding of the past there is no possibility of achieving a radically different future: without memory we can have no imagination. Without a historical tradition there can be no political alternative, just a continuation of the present.

In the run-up to September 2014 we have heard and will continue to hear from people who maintain that they are not nationalist but will be voting “Yes” and from people who say that they love Scotland but will vote “No”. Even the SNP insist that they are not a “nationalist” party. The Unionists, of course, call them “nationalists” in the pejorative sense and when they really want to start swearing use words like “narrow” or “separate”. This is the meta-grammatical world of political language where adjectives become verbs. To be or not to be “national”, or a “nationalist”: is that the question? In 1928, in an article published in the Scots Magazine, Neil Gunn had this as answer,

“45 percent of us (Scots) live more than two in a room; we have the highest death rate, unemployment rate, sick rate, infant mortality rate, emigration and immigration rate in the British Isles.”

In 2013 is our current general position much different form that so starkly laid out by Neil Gunn in 1928? For Gunn an independent Scotland would arrest the process of social and economic decline and moreover would see Scotland become, once again, a major contributor to world culture. Grassic Gibbon would not have argued, had he lived, against any of that. The nationalism which emerges after 1932, when the Scottish National Party was formed, was a more humanitarian and liberal form of political philosophy than the harder contemporary alternative dichotomies of communism and fascism. In this it was criticised, perhaps justifiably, as being dominated by the bourgeoisie who promoted nationalism as a distraction from class struggle. Gunn was instinctively not one to be tied down by dogma and yet as anyone who has given even a cursory reading to The Silver Darlings will be aware he fully understood class struggle. In the nineteenth century the people of Caithness and Sutherland were not evicted by shopkeepers and school teachers but by landed aristocrats and capitalists. As Gunn’s biographer J.B. Pick has written,

“At times he (Gunn) described himself as a socialist, at other times a Nationalist and to Margaret MacEwan he wrote ‘I was once an anarchist’”.

Whatever he was politically his chief concern was for the freedom of the individual and even if his anarchism was based on Peter Kropotkin’s theories of mutual aid his primary instinct was for the practical and material improvement of the Highlander, the crofter, the ordinary person. Sometimes this concern, as Margaret MacPherson of Skye was quick to point out to him, did not go that radical extra mile required to support her proposition to the Taylor Commission into Crofting Conditions in the early 1950’s that the crofters “difficulties” could be overcome by all the land being nationalised. He may have failed in that regard but Gunn was a staunch supporter of the Scottish Secretary Tom Johnston and his plans for Highland regeneration such as the Hydro Electric scheme. Neil Gunn was a nationalist but he was not a romantic. He knew that electricity to the straths and glens would help alleviate poverty and stem, to a degree, depopulation and he also knew that even if the land was nationalised in the 1950’s there was no practical financial initiative in place which would have benefited the crofter at that time.

Neil Gunn at least understood the ground beneath his feet and the people who lived, worked and walked upon it. How strange would it be to him if he was to learn that a Scottish “nationalist” government put the 6,356 acre Rosal estate in Strathnaver, which it owns, on the open market thereby perpetuating a system of concentrated land ownership, a system the Scottish people have made manifestly clear time and time again they want to see abolished? When they were criticised for doing this by the Scottish Crofters Federation and others the government said there was no community interest registered in the Rosal Estate. This is hardly surprising considering the “community” was cleared off the land in the nineteenth century, breaking a tradition of continual human settlement going back five thousand years. On the other hand what would Neil Gunn have made of the multi-millionaire Paul Lister’s idea to “reintroduce” wolves and bears into his Alladale estate and to create a game reserve in East Sutherland?

People are the common denominator so spectacularly absent from both these propositions. Each adds to the myth of landscape as an antidote to civilisation as corrosively as does Walt Disney’s film “Brave” and both do absolutely nothing to achieve the Scottish Governments own pledge to bring one million acres of land into community ownership by 2020. According to the Development Trusts Association Scotland only about 2.38% of Scotland’s land area is owned by community controlled organisations, an estimated 463,000 acres. One million acres represents only 5.14% of Scotland’s land. Whether you are a nationalist or not, whether you desire independence or not, this is a depressingly modest amount. There are those who profess to love Scotland and who can tolerate such a condition and there are those who wish her to remain in the shackles of a political union who struggle to do something about it.

No one who had an ounce of social justice in their bodies could not have been moved by the sight of the workers walking out of the Grangemouth plant on October 23rd. Despite the venal nature of Ineos, the Swiss based owners, and the supposedly naïve strategy of Unite, the sight of Scottish workers filing out the gates to the possibility of oblivion, yet again; the vulnerability of our own people to hard edged forces out with their control was exposed, yet again – and the echoes of the miners strike of 1984/5 and the subsequent demolition of Ravenscraig, drummed heavily in the skulls of all of us who lived through those truly dark days when the real cost of the Treaty of Union was being paid by the working class of Scotland. For that memory to become a possible reality was for many, I suspect, too horrific to contemplate. For those who were too young to have a memory of the 1980’s what have they got, as Edwin Muir attested, to guide them if they do not have history, if their tradition is denied them?

The big N, small n nationalist; the pro and anti independence conundrum will be, to an extent, partly unravelled next September. In many ways it is a bit like a Zen koan: there is no solution on the outside and no problem on the inside. There must come a day, do you not think, when the dead ideas of political history, such as the union between Scotland and England, will finally just lie down and die?

© George Gunn 2013

Light In the North. A celebration of the Life and Work of Neil Gunn.

Alistair McCleery discusses Neil Gunn and Nation and Nationalism, Dunbeath Heritage Centre, Dunbeath, Caithness.  Friday 8th November at 8.00 pm CONTACT: info AT dunbeath-heritage.org.uk

Neil Gunn Circle:  Nation and Nationalism. Edited by Alistair McCleery. Whittles Publishing £8.99

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  1. bellacaledonia says:

    Another incisive and necessary column for Bella, George. Cheers.

    I sometimes worry that the Unionist thought police – who NEED our history to be denied in order to make their own British project plausible – have convinced some in the Independence movement to turn away from the past and make everything about the bawbees of the present. Its like saying the dreams and aspirations and hardships and struggles of your parents, your grandparents, and their parents, and so on back, have no relevance and its all about whether the Me Generation will be £500 better off.

    We stand on the shoulders of giants: our parents, grandparents and those who went before them. Imagine if they could hear their own families deny their lives and struggles! For that’s what it amounts to. You use the aphorism by Milan Kundera at the beginning of your recent (brilliant) poetry collection ‘A Northerly Land’: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Wise words.


  2. umbra13 says:

    An interesting article with much that could be unpacked and debated. Fastening on Neil Gunn’s own emphasis on tradition is useful. It is a factor which can make him seem old-fashioned in his concerns as a writer. But it is likely to have been key to Gunn’s sense of possibility of the self-governing community – the understanding of geographical space and the mutual interdependence of people within it.
    The difficulty of pinning down Neil Gunn is there, closer to an Oakeshottian conservatism than the progressivist consensus of his times. But where are we now after a further half-century of Capital’s intensifications then abandonments, of dormitorisation of our towns and cities, erasure of tradition, erosion of civics?
    This is our place and our problem: the atomisation and disconnects that erode a sense that things could – or even should – be different and confidence in the means to make them so.

  3. umbra13 says:

    The article comments that Neil Gunn’s “anarchism was based on Peter Kropotkin’s theories of mutual aid his primary instinct was for the practical and material improvement of the Highlander, the crofter, the ordinary person”. By way of offering an expansion on that point, it is worth drawing attention to two articles that he contributed to Colin Ward’s “Anarchy” magazine in April 1968, in an issue on “Fishermen and Workers’ Control”.

    Gunn’s main contribution was a historical article on the development of the herring industry in the Moray Firth. He also provided a previously-written “Footnote on Co-operation”, in which he calls for the fishermen to form cooperative ventures as had happened in Ireland:

    “I know prewar Eire fairly well and all I can say is that if the Irish can do that sort of think at home, a cooperative association is no dream for Scottish fisheries. I regard self-government for Scotland as cooperation on the national level. (…) The debt on our fishermen-owned Scottish drifters before the war was as real as was the ever-increasing power of the English drifters owned and run by shore syndicates.”

    Gunn concluded with what could be a more general point, as appropriate now as then:

    “History will repeat itself unless we undertake to mould it nearer to our interests and desires. We can do so; but it means doing, action, on a basis of association or cooperation.”

  4. George Gunn says:

    It is true what you say. Indeed Gunn’s reflections on fishing in the Moray Firth and the necessary co-operative nature of it are prescient, I think, in light of the debacles of Grangemouth and the ship building industry where control and purpose of our industries is far away from the interests of the people and his call to keep things “near” is wisdom indeed. The madness of the pelagic fishery of Whalsay in Shetland with their destroyer sized ships costing millions and throwing everyone into debt and criminality is an example of a sustainable industry forced into self destruction by the greed of banks and individuals. Why independence for Scotland is necessary is that we can begin to build an equitable, cooperative society where freedom, if it is anything, is freedom from poverty, debt, exploitation and conflict.

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