Scotland’s Future History?

Scotland’s Future History by Stuart McHardy (Luath Press, Edinburgh 2015)

Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past. [George Orwell, ‘1984’]

One of the first tasks of the culture of resistance was to reclaim, rename and reinhabit the land. And with that came a whole set of further assertions, recoveries and identifications, all of them quite literally grounded on this poetically projected base. The search for authenticity, for a more congenial national origin than that provided by colonial history, for a new pantheon of heroes and (occasionally) heroines, myths, religions- these too are made possible by a sense of the land reappropriated by its people. [Edward Said ‘Culture and Imperialism’ (London 1994) p.273]

These two quotations encapsulate the theme of Stuart McHardy’s book, published in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum. The immediacy of the Orwell quote reflects Project Fear’s total control of the mainstream media during the referendum campaign, highlighted in McHardy’s ‘Epilogue’. The Edward Said quote, taken from his discussion of WB Yeats and the Irish struggle against imperialism, reflects McHardy’s long-standing interest in reclaiming and rewriting Scottish history. Or, as he puts it ‘ Essentially Scotland’s history should be what we, the Scots, no matter how recent, tell as our own based on what we know and can discover about our predecessors here in Scotland itself’. [Preface, p. 15]

The difficulty with McHardy’s approach, and the reason it ultimately fails, is illustrated Said. As a folklorist and storyteller. McHardy search is for history as narrative, a story which weaves together Scotland’s independent past with Scotland’s future as an independent nation. This search is shared by many who supported the Yes campaign in 2013/4 and who are trying to understand why it failed- and want to know how it can succeed next time.

From this perspective, one of the reasons for the failure of the Yes campaign is that No voters chose to identify as British rather than Scottish. This choice in turn was influenced through being taught only British history at school, reinforced by the focus of the BBC and other broadcasters/ media on British rather than Scottish history. While British history may mention Scotland in passing, its main focus is on England and England’s history.

As McHardy puts it ‘Scottish history has been constantly and insidiously arranged to fit what can only be interpreted as an essentially colonialist mentality.’ [Preface, p. 15]

The implication is that if more voters had been conscious of Scotland’s history rather British/ English history, the outcome on 18 September would have been different. A majority of voters would have rejected the ‘colonialist mentality’ in favour of an ‘independent mentality’ and by now Scotland would be on the road to freedom.

Unfortunately it is now a fact of history that the vote on 18 September rejected independence. A second referendum may well change that outcome, but even if Scotland does become independent, will future generations understand Scotland’s history in a fundamentally different light as McHardy suggests?

Certainly the undoing of the Union of 1707 will mark a major break with the past 300 years of Scottish history. This will lead to revisions and reinterpretations of recent Scottish history. What independence is unlikely to do is lead to fundamental change in understandings of Scotland’s older history along the lines suggested by McHardy, as the follwing examples illustrate.

Chapter Six of McHardy’s book is titled ’What War of Independence?’ McHardy’s argument here is that by calling Scotland’s resistance to Edward I and II of England [and Edward III] the ‘Wars of Independence’, historians have accepted a ‘subtext’ in which ‘Scotland’s natural role’ is to be part of a Britain dominated by England. But, so McHardy argues, if the beginnings of Scotland as a nation-state lie in the ninth century amalgamation of Dal-Riada and Pictland, then this Scottish nation is older than an England which was still divided into several different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the ninth century. Scotland was therefore never part of England and so could not become ‘independent’ of England/ Britain in the fourteenth century. Therefore the phrase ‘Wars of Independence’ is a distortion of history.

Alternatively, the phrase ‘Wars of Independence’ could mean the wars which were fought to prevent Scotland losing its independence. This is how most people understand the phrase and soit is not a distortion of history.

Chapter Seven ‘What’s in a Name’ argues that David I did not introduce feudalism to Scotland by giving away huge tracts of land to Norman knights. Even where David did grant land to people with Norman sounding names like his grant of Annandale to Robert de Brus in 1124, they were Scots not Normans.

The evidence for this particular suggestion comes from a quote in J A MacKay’s 1974 book ‘Robert the Bruce King of Scotland’ that the Bruce family claimed to be descended from a Viking called Earl Sigurt, son of Lodver, Viking Earl of Orkney. Sigurt was killed in 1014 but he left four sons called Somlerled, Brusee, Eyn and Whelp. The Bruce family were descendents of Brusee. McHardy finds it significant that the Bruces’ ancestral lands were centred on Annandale ‘ a name our place name specialists assure us is a marker of Norse settlement in the period before the Norman conquest of England’ [p.100]. The Bruce family were therefore Scots with Orkney Viking ancestors.

Two minor points. Firstly David I’s 1124 charter to Robert de Brus was for Estrahanent or Strathannan as far as the lands of Dunegal of Stranit (Strathnith, Nithsdale). Strathannan and Strathnith are Gaelic not Norse place names and they only became Annandale and Nithsdale after Scots replaced Gaelic as the local language. The ‘dale’ of the river Annan and of the river Nith therefore cannot be used to show Viking settlement of the area before the Norman invasion.

Secondly, the Robert de Brus who was granted Annandale by David I had previously been granted land near Cleveland in Yorkshire by Henry I of England. The 1124 charter also mentions Ranulf le Meschin who had been lord of Carlisle until 1120. Dumfriesshire historian Jack Scott has argued that before 1120, Ranulf had tried to extend English control into Annandale so the lands David I granted to Robert de Brus were not his ancestral lands but lands previously claimed by England.

What these minor points show is that McHardy’s version of Scottish history only works if you ignore any evidence which does not fit with his version.

Finally there is Chapter Eight ’After Charlie Left’. In this chapter McHardy argues that Culloden did not mark the end of the Jacobite cause in Scotland. Although McHardy does not mention him, Walter Scott would have agreed. Scott’s 1824 novel ‘Redgauntlet’ is set in Dumfriesshire in 1765 and involves an eventual encounter with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the hope of starting a new Jacobite rebellion. But, as the novel shows, the dynamic of the Jacobite cause has passed over into history and so the potential rebellion ends before it has the chance to begin.

What Scott’s novel shows is that while Culloden marked the effective end of the Jacobite cause, the Jacobite dream of a second Stuart Restoration (the first being that of Charles II ) did not end in 1746 but persisted ‘well into the 1750s’ as McHardy points out. But would anybody who has an interest in the Jacobite cause disagree with McHardy about this? The reason general accounts of Scottish history ignore the Jacobites after Culloden is because there was no repeat of the large scale uprising of 1745/6. History is an account of events which did happen rather than those which did not.

‘Scotland’s Future History’ is a book which appeals to people who still cannot quite believe that Scotland voted against independence last September. But 55% of voters in Scotland did vote No. That is the reality. If what is real is also what is rational, then it is irrational to deny the reality of what happened. It is now a fact of history that the Yes campaign failed to persuade enough voters of the benefits of independence.

On the other hand, the Yes campaign did manage to push support for independence beyond its traditional 30% level. This was achieved by groups like the Radical Independence Campaign who argued that a Yes vote was a vote for political, social and economic alternatives to neoliberal austerity. The voters attracted to this argument were not Scottish nationalists. They were mainly former Labour voters who had previously rejected Scottish nationalism. Others were Scottish Socialist party and Scottish Green party voters and some were people who had given up on politics altogether.

While McHardy’s book appeals to the nationalist core of Yes voters, its argument that everything you thought you knew about Scottish history is wrong can only alienate more recent converts to the independence movement.

To conclude, this book is more than just nonsense. It is dangerous and divisive nonsense which obscures the reality of Scottish history behind a dense fog of myth and wishful thinking.

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