The World Is Not Scottish
One of the souvenirs to be reliably found in the gift emporia on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, alongside the See You Jimmy hats and the Princess Diana memorial tartan, is a nasty little tea towel bearing that old Scots toast.
‘Here’s tae us, wha’s like us?’ it boasts, ‘damn few, and they’re a’ deid’.
The dish rag catalogues the inventiveness of Scots as a kind of index of superiority over their southern neighbours.
The average Englishman in the home he calls his castle slips into his national costume, a shabby raincoat, patented by chemist Charles MacIntosh from Glasgow, Scotland. En-route to his office he strides along the English lane, surfaced by John Macadam of Ayr, Scotland.
And so the linen litany continues, via car tyres, adhesive stamps, the telephone, the television, penicillin and the breach-loading rifle. ‘Nowhere’ it says ‘can an Englishman turn to escape the ingenuity of the Scots.’ Behold the small nation complex at its most creepy.
Okay, I know it’s supposed to be a comedy tea towel but such jokes, as Freud taught us, are always a serious business. And all the more so this year, when attempts to amplify Scotland’s sense of self have become mixed up with the campaign for a Yes vote in September’s indyref.
For the most part, the independence campaign has managed to rise above this kind of petty nationalism; the vote in September is, as Elliot Bulmer argued last year, more obviously about popular sovereignty rather than identity or nationhood.
Of course there has always been a seam of banal nationalism in Scotland’s public life. But I was taken aback to see it promoted in the National Library of Scotland, which has opened a new exhibition to celebrate ‘what Scotland has given the world’ called, unbelievably, Wha’s like us?
This framing of Scotland’s history as a gift to the world is insidious and myopic and remains widespread across the political spectrum. It has become a national myth of origin, fed by boosterist accounts like that of the conservative historian Arthur Herman, whose book is titled – with nary a trace of sarcasm – How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It. It was, alas, a bestseller.
A not dissimilar sentiment is also subtly manifest in the recent Declaration of Radical Independence that was lately delivered to the growing ranks of an umbrella coalition of socialists, greens and republicans. “For centuries Scotland’s ingenuity has been a gift to the world” proclaimed the actor David Hayman to the Radical Independence Convention, “Now let it be a gift also to ourselves.” I’m broadly sympathetic with the Declaration but this ‘gift’ historiography risks founding a newly independent Scotland on the same egocentric exceptionalism that characterized the British Empire.
The Scottish Enlightenment and our advances in science and engineering need to be situated within a more troubling imperial geography, in which our intellectual and industrial development was part and parcel of an expansionist British project. This aspect of Scotland’s past is ambivalently figured in the pro-indy debate. On the one hand, the political legacies of empire are precisely what are being renounced; on the other hand, attempts to big up Scotland’s place in the world tend to repress the knowledge of its own darker history.
Recently I was reading a children’s book of Scottish history to my kids. On the last page was a map of the world overprinted with the placenames of Scotland, carried by its global diaspora to every continent. ‘It’s a Scottish world!’ declares the caption, as if the projection of these names was something to celebrate. It isn’t.
This kind of Wha’s like us? cartography looks rather different from the perspective of Dunkeld, Australia where I spent New Year. Nestling in the Western Districts of Victoria, Dunkeld sits at the southern end of the Grampian Mountains, just down the Glenelg Highway from the Trossachs. You get the picture.
It was the Scots surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell who, travelling through the region in 1836, overlaid this Gaelic toponymy onto the lands that the Jardwadjali people called Gariwerd. There is a strong historical consciousness in Dunkeld (pictured below), which to this day maintains active links with its namesake in Perthshire. But a wider sense of Aboriginal history before the arrival of the Scottish squatocracy is eerily curtailed. I searched the local museum in vain for any mention of the massacres and displacements that went into turning Gariwerd into a satellite simulacrum of Scotland.
The Koori writer and historian Tony Birch, a former colleague at the University of Melbourne, has shown how attempts to restore indigenous placenames have met entrenched resistance among diasporic Scots. ‘To name spaces,’ he says, ‘is to name histories’. We need to acknowledge that such placenames and their allied political violence are as much part of Scotland’s gift to the world as tyres or Tarmac. As Nicola Sturgeon noted discussing future negotiations of UK debt and the retention of Sterling, ‘assets and liabilities are two sides of the same coin – you can’t have one without having the other’. Quite.
The world does not need another puggish little state with an inflated sense of its own beneficence. But a new sovereignty, founded on a de-colonized sense of self and alert to its own discrepant histories, might, in time, prove a worthy member of the international community. That, at least, should be our aspiration, even if it doesn’t quite fit on a tea towel.