The power and mythology of collective memories of place in understanding Scotland

Andrew Blaikie, The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory: Representations of Belonging, Edinburgh University Press.

The 1980s and 1990s was probably the heyday of Scottish cultural studies with the work of Colin MacArthur, Tom Nairn, Lindsay Paterson and others engendering a constant critique and (generally) healthy debate about historical and contemporary representations of Scotland nurtured by journals such as Cencrastus and the New Edinburgh Review.

However, this century, there have been important contributions to issues around Scottish cultural production and national identity in, for example, the works of Cairns Craig, Andrew Blaikie, Gerry Hassan, Scott Hames and others. This review focuses on Andrew Blaikie, The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory, published in 2010, an important work which has largely gone under the radar in Scottish historical debate.

It is a work of cultural history: meaning, history that deals with cultural representations of a nation or a people rather than the dominant ideologies of political or other authorities. Cultural history is often written by sociologists, geographers or literary scholars rather than traditional historians.

Blaikie addresses contemporary cultural theory about memory, notable the work of Pierre Nora, whose influential study Les Lieux de Mémoire, considers how national identity is formed through a process of communal memorisation of the past. This process is articulated through places or sites of memory that inform the communal imagination. In a simplistic way this could refer to monuments or material memorials, but these ‘places’ can also be non-material and can become recognisable through representations in a wide form of media.

Modernity and H. V. Morton

Blaikie’s concern is largely with modernity. Examples largely come from the first half of last century. Taking the lead of Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson in identifying a ‘mythic’ homeland that is more significant than actual geographic territory, he looks at, for example, the Films of Scotland documentaries of John Grierson, the ‘Kailyard’ tradition continued and realised in the publications of D. C. Thomson, and tourist travelogues exemplified by the enormously popular In Search of Scotland, by H. V. Morton.

In each case, close examination of cultural outputs reveals something beneath the surface. In the case of Morton, it is revealed that, in search of some sort of past idyll, he deliberately stages his tour to avoid modern cities as much as possible (although he does admire ‘progressive’ examples of industrialisation). Strangely, as Blaikie notes, the illustrations in In Search of Scotland are scenic shots that hardly feature people. Of course, this was partly a result of Morton’s time. His travelogues in Scotland and England serving to some extent as a prophylactic to the trauma of the Great War.

In Blaikie’s section on Kailyard literature (intriguingly titled ‘Among the Wee Nazareths’), he balances the mythic rural nostalgia of popular novelists against the sceptical reaction of the anti-Kailyard school in, for example, The House with the Green Shutters and Gillespie. If this is the product of a peculiarly Scottish imagination, he also notes that Grierson’s philosophy, whilst founded in committed socialism, had a particularly Scottish flavour: ‘Grierson exemplifies that curious breed of Scots intellectual who saw no contradiction in fervently supporting democratic socialism while simultaneously believing in the Calvinist doctrine that ‘the elect have their duty’ to impart their superior knowledge in making the world better for the unenlightened masses.’

Presbyterianism may, of course, have its part to play in this. To digress, in a recent interesting article on the 1911 Scottish Exhibition in Glasgow, (1) Neil Curtis discusses An Clachan, the reconstructed highland village at the exhibition populated by real (sic) highlanders (such a reconstruction has been present at all the major Scottish exhibitions including, most recently, the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988). The dominant ethos of the Exhibition was Presbyterian and aristocratic and An Clachan serves to consign Highland history to a scenic memoralisation of a timeless rural idyll that elides any consideration of the real problems of depopulation in the Highlands. (He also points out the urban life in the Exhibition focuses on small towns and burghs ̶ Kailyard communities perhaps ̶ rather than the problems of poverty and industrialisation in the larger cities).

Nostalgia, Island Culture and St Kilda

This directly connects with another section of The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory on representations of the islands and, notably, St Kilda. Blaikie notes, ‘as localism disintegrates with migration, transport advances and the rise of broadcast and visual media, the uniqueness of island cultures becomes both a rare commodity and an untenable reality. Nostalgia kicks in.’ (2) He demonstrates the mythologising of the St Kildans and their way of life and other islanders through an examination of photographs (over a period of time; although photographs of St Kildans date back to 1860, he considers also more recent images, such as the photographs of Shetland in the 1870s by Tom Kidd: ‘a more upbeat version of remembrance’).

Of course, the relatively limited critical literature on the representation of St Kilda, notably by Blaikie and myself, is overwhelmed by a massive, and increasing, volume of nostalgic and romantic writing, film and other media which, as emphasised above, memorialise an entire people in the form of a timeless and idealised past.

The two myths most often perpetuated about St Kilda are that it was a unique place and way of life (it was not, there were many other island communities all over the world that existed and survived much in the matter of St Kilda) and that its story is somehow ‘lost’ in the past. In fact, the problems of isolation and depopulation of small islands continues today. Throughout the massive literature on St Kilda there is scarce a mention of the economic status of the islanders. St Kilda was owned in its entirety by the MacLeods of Skye and the islanders paid them rent. Today, some remote Scottish islands, such as Gigha, have been subject to buyouts by the occupants, and this is an ongoing process in, for example, Berneray.

Why did the Gorbals become a by-word for poverty?

Another area close to my own interests is covered by Blaikie in a section titled ‘Remembering ‘The Forgotten Gorbals’’. It refers to an article of 1949 in the Picture Post written by the folklorist Bert Lloyd and featuring photographs by Bert Hardy. He focuses on an iconic and often replicated image by Hardy, ‘Gorbals Boys’, which features two working-class boys, arm in arm, crossing a tenement street. In fact, Gorbals children have been famously photographed by other photographers such as Harry Benson and Oscar Marzaroli, and painted by Joan Eardley (most notably the Samson family). Blaikie notes:

“The role of children is enigmatic here, for whereas older people are often read as the last of their generation, in keeping with the end of an era for a particular framed community, youngsters will live on for many years after the photographic event. The re-appearance of an image therefore acts as a trigger to remembrance when the reality pictured has long disappeared. In its place a myth intervenes: that of the tenement childhood. Understood visually, its coded narratives appear to represent a singular reality about which individuals weave their personal tales, incorporating its neighbourhood ideology. Yet there is no unitary vision, only ways of seeing.” (3)

In this analysis, photographs collude with memory to produce an evocation in the collective consciousness of place. Hand in hand with sociological-style investigations that aim to document the reality of living in crowded tenement conditions, of course, there is a parallel discourse which romantically views tenement life as socially cohesive. In respect to this particular place, we can ask, why has ‘Gorbals’ become a byword for the Glasgow slum and its associated issues of degradation, violence and poverty? In fact, the actual community of the Gorbals was much more complex than it is portrayed as and had differing levels of class among its various demographics.

Blaikie understands this continual tension in the memorisation of working-class Glasgow life and its relevance, especially, to those of us who were born and brought up in tenements and tenement slums. As he notes: ‘The national encounter with modernity has produced alienation at least as much as it has induced a sense of belonging.’ (4)

Studies in collective memory and collective consciousness have proliferated recently, perhaps due to Nora’s thesis that the accelerating progress of society has fractured an easy relationship with the continuity of past and present and made it essential to have processes through which to represent and comprehend the past. Guy Beiner has forefronted such a discussion in relation to Northern Ireland. Andrew Blaikie’s The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory engages with the mythscape that works within concepts of belonging and Scottish national identity and deserves wider recognition. He concludes the book with:

In short, whether one resides [in Scotland] happily, disaffectedly or indifferently or, indeed, not there at all, there is no escape from the imagination of place, however feeble or corrupted this may be. Even placelessness is defined by its opposite. It is this imperative that renders the evocation of ‘Scotland’, and by extension any nation, central to understanding modern memory as a way of knowing the world. (5)


  1. Neil Curtis, ‘The Place of History, Literature and Politics in the 1911 Scottish Exhibition’, Scottish Literary Review (20115), pp 43-74.
  2. Andrew Blaikie, The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), p. 191.
  3. Andrew Blaikie, The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), p. 214.
  4. Andrew Blaikie, The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), p. 227.
  5. Andrew Blaikie, The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory (Edinburgh University Press, 2010), p. 248.

Comments (8)

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  1. Iain Black says:

    Just a wee point. The Samson family as painted by Joan Eardley didn’t live in the Gorbals but Townhead.

    1. Ian Spring says:

      Yes Iain. My mistake re Eardley.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thanks for this.

    The concept of ‘cultural memory’ and ‘imagined communities’ are ones of which I became aware when my daughter undertook a postgraduate Master’s degree on these ideas.

    Some of the writers whom the author lists were ones whose works I had read during the period in which they were published and it was interesting to me to re-read them later after I had been made aware of other conceptual frameworks. As an unpaid research assistant for my daughter I was despatched to Govan and Clydebank to take photographs of artefacts which sustained the memory of shipbuilding in those communities. I had known both places well during the period when shipbuilding still employed large numbers of people and I had friends and acquaintances in both.

    While shipbuilding had been substantial parts of the life and economy of both places and, indeed, was the raison d’etre for Clydebank, the demographic and economies of both places was much more varied and nuanced than the ‘media image’ of both, as the writer indicates was the case with Gorbals.

    I suggest that the ‘popular’ image of Gorbals owes a lot to the novel, ‘No Mean City’ and the fate of boxing ‘legend’, Benny Lynch and the perpetuation of such an image by the press and radio and later, television’. Indeed, it led to the whole city of Glasgow becoming identified as Gorbals in representations of the city furth of Glasgow. Indeed, many Glaswegians, enjoyed the myth of the violent hard drinking slum dwelling people.

    Currently, and especially since Scottish independence became a strong possibility, BBC Scotland, STV, The Herald and the unionist political parties, especially Scottish Labour, casts much of central Scotland in the same image of the Glasgow of ‘No Mean City’ and ignoring the rich and varied cultural heritage to emphasise the nasty, brutish fecklessness and irresponsibility. The Secretary of the GMB union recently described Glasgow as the ‘filthiest city in the world’. (This from someone currently accused of bullying and misogyny!)‘

    During a period when the United Kingdom is crumbling due to corruption and destruction of public services and politics is tainted by a growing ‘patriotic’ and xenophobic English nationalism, it is important that we present images and narratives of the far more nuanced and rich Scottish culture that currently exists to counter the relentless and growing intentionally demoralising output of much of our media and the unco-operative negativity of the unionist parties.

    This is where blogs like Bella Caledonia and others are increasingly important channels through which the people of Scotland can glimpse images of the more vibrant and decent Scotland which exists.

    1. George Muir says:

      Hear hear! Alasdair.

  3. Fay Kennedy says:

    As a Scot from the diaspora I always take offence at the limitations of the narrative of the slum city of my birth. Without gilding the lily I am grateful for the rich culture of my early life in that city though would not wish the hardships on anyone and hearing of the disintegration of the place at this awful time is heart breaking.

  4. Niemand says:

    An understanding of Grierson’s apparent philosophical contradictions can be gleaned from his strong adherence to Idealism. Ian Aitken has written an excellent book about this: ‘Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement’. It comes down to his belief in the idea of a fundamental underlying transcendental reality; the ‘really real’.

    I wonder, with regard to Films of Scotland and modernity, what Blaikie says that MacArthur did not in the 1980s. MacArthur’s critique is very sound I think, though looking at some of the best of these films now (e.g. Seawards The Great Ships, The Big Mill, Heart of Scotland or Weave Me a Rainbow) what one sees is not so much a rose-tinted, partial view of industry that ignores the realities of the industries’ workers’ lives and environmental pollution (very true), but a window on a past way of thinking and some cracking aesthetic work that is of itself transcendental. Given time, this is what documentary film often leaves us with.

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