State of The Union

A lecture on ‘The State of The Union’ given in 2006 for the Scottish National Trust.

In 1617 an English courtier, Sir Anthony Weldon, reported biliously on his experience in Scotland: ‘There is great store of fowl, too, as foul houses, foul sheets, foul linen, foul dishes and pots, foul trenchers and napkins’. Scots have been defending themselves against such horrid neighbourly condescensions for well over 400 years. When that likeable Aberdeenshire lawyer Sir James Craig came south with James VI and I in 1603, he sought to correct the libellous English image of his homeland: ‘There is no country in which a man can live more pleasantly and delicately than Scotland. Nowhere else are fish so plentiful; indeed, unless they are freshly caught on the very day we refuse to eat them. There is meat of every kind. Nowhere else will you will find more tender beef and mutton…our servants are content with oatmeal, which makes them hardy’. Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, two centuries later, wrote just a trifle defensively: ‘Scotland is naturally possessed of some advantages…any adverse circumstances in its natural situation have tended only to rouse the energies, and stimulate the industry of its inhabitants, who have thence been led to make the greater exertions, in order to overcome these difficulties and to counteract the injurious effects of a northern latitude, a moist and variable climate, and a surface the greater proportion of which is barren, rocky, and irregular’.

For those of us who love that ‘barren, rocky and irregular surface’, 2004- four centuries after the conjunction of the English and Scottish crowns- is not an easy time. Until as recently as 20 years ago, it seemed unthinkable that two nations whose fortunes have been so closely entwined as those of England and Scotland might in our lifetimes be split asunder. We took the union of England and Scotland as much for granted as summer rain. Yet today, we find both assumptions thrown into question, the one by global warming, the other by social, economic and political tensions which have sprung upon us with dramatic suddenness.

I am an Englishman with, so far as I know, no drop of Scottish blood in my veins. Yet all my life, I have cherished a passion for Scotland, its culture and history, its people and landscape. My father, strongly influenced by his sporting enthusiasms, was accustomed to speak of the northern nation of the British Isles with reverence. He called the Highlands ‘God’s country’, and he instilled this creed in me. I have always loved the cadences of Scots accents of various hues almost as dearly as the skirl of the pipes. Almost 30 years ago, I wrote an impassioned biography of Montrose, Charles I’s lieutenant-general in the Civil War. This is not, I should hasten to add, an incitement for you to read the book, whose only merit is the romantic fervour which inspired it. Likewise, I won’t say too much about idyllic days I have spent casting flies on Scottish rivers, or walking with a gun over Scottish hills. In the eyes of some Scots today, such enthusiasms make me the sort of visitor to their country of whom they are most wary. I would make matters worse if I mentioned that when I was 25, I came within an ace of wearing the kilt on Scottish holidays, until the unrestrained mockery of friends dissuaded me.

I am on better ground if I say how much Scottish literature and art have always meant to me. Walter Scott is now an unfashionable writer, but I re-read most of his books, and especially his incomparable Journal, on a five-year cycle. Raeburn is for me foremost among the portraitists of his time, indeed a master of any time. Scottish architecture of the 18th century can make the dullest heart soar at the sight. In my teens, I had the privilege of roaming the shelves of a notable Edinburgh bibliophile, Patrick Murray, who founded the city’s Museum of Childhood, and possessed an extraordinary private treasure trove of Scottish artistic and literary curiosities.

I hope I can thus establish that however clumsy my embraces, I have enjoyed a romance with Scotland all my life, from the days when my father sent me to hand milk cows on a small farm in Invernessshire in my school holidays. This makes me one of those Englishmen who care deeply about all that happens north of the border, and especially lament the stresses in the modern relationship between the two nations. Eight years ago, I wrote a magazine article asserting that we, the English, should recognise how much we are disliked by some Scots. The Scottish press, which is among the worst in the world, picked this up on a slow news day, and prominently advertised it as an attack on the Scots, which it certainly was not intended to be. My own friends with Scottish connections received the piece with a mixture of scorn, irritation, and disbelief. Most asserted that what I said was untrue; some said that even if my thesis was valid, it was unhelpful to acknowledge it in public.

Yet I believed then, and still do so now, that only by confronting disagreeable issues can we hope to come to terms with them. Regrettably, there is today little cause to retreat from what I wrote in 1996. Scottish hostility towards the English has displayed itself with a vigour which has deeply dismayed many people on both sides of the border. Not long ago, I heard a young man in a Highland village say wonderingly: ‘I see people in the pub on Saturday night who want to go out and fight the English’. Since 1976, Scottish football crowds have sung the Flower of Scotland rather than God Save the Queen before international matches. 40% of Scottish respondents told a poll that they would prefer any other team before England to win the last European Cup. Even if this sort of thing reflects the crudest aspect of popular sentiment, the evidence of election results confirms its pervasiveness. Most recently, the leaders of the British Army have been shocked to perceive how very unpopular in Scotland, especially among parents, is the deployment of Scottish regiments in what is widely perceived as England’s war in Iraq. I heard a general say recently that he thought the only really popular operational deployment of Scottish regiments in their homeland would be against the English. What has generated this new mood among significant numbers of people north of the border ?

At the heart of the matter, surely, is the force which afflicts almost all strained marriages. One or other party finds their self-esteem, sense of self-worth, so injured that anger and resentment break forth. The apportionment of fault is less important, at first at least, than acknowledging the reality of the condition. Since the 1980s, many Scottish people- for some reasons that may justly be blamed upon the English, and for others which may not- have found it hard to feel good about themselves; this, despite a notable revival of Scottish culture, and a Scottish ministerial dominance of Britain’s government which makes the English sometimes feel mere colonial subjects. Historian Richard Weight, author of a penetrating recent study of nationalism, is among those who perceives a strand of self-hatred in the extremes of modern Scottish behaviour, vividly reflected in the monologue of Renton, one of the junkies in the film Trainspotting. Renton breaks forth into a cry of anguish: ‘I hate being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the fucking low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that ever shat into civilization. Some people hate the English, but I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent culture to be colonized by. We are ruled by effete arseholes’. This is a voice of the underclass. But it would be foolish not to recognise its authenticity, the despair that has become a tragic force in many Scottish urban communities. Anger and frustration have mounted in Scotland since at least the 1970s. They persist to this day, and of course have their roots in history.

For centuries before-and after- the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, Scotland was much less prosperous than England. Thoughtful Scots recognised that this was chiefly the consequence of the country’s geographical remoteness and paucity of natural advantages. It’s surprising to be reminded by such authoritative modern historians as TC Smout that few people at the time opposed or resented the 1707 settlement which ended the Scottish parliament, and sent Scottish MPs for the first time to Westminster. Most lowland Scots welcomed the Union. It seemed to offer Scotland access to a vastly bigger trading base- a common market with England. It made Britain the largest customs-free zone in Europe. The old Scottish parliament possessed little power or influence in a society entirely dominated by its aristocratic grandees. Even those Scottish MPs who began to attend the House of Commons at Westminster showed themselves for many years subservient to the great Scottish peers and political managers of the day, such as Henry Dundas and the Campbells. Many Scots had wanted a parliamentary union ever since their own king took the English throne a hundred years earlier. In 1707, they believed that the alternatives to union were commercial blockade, dynastic war, internal dissention. Scott’s Nicol Jarvie said in Rob Roy- and I won’t attempt to mimic the Bailie’s accent: ‘There’s naething sae gude on this side o’time but it might hae been been better, and that may be said o’ the Union…Now, since Saint Mungo catched herring in the Clyde, what was ever like to gar us flourish like the sugar and tobacco trade ? Will onybody tell me that, and grumble at the treaty that opened us a road west-awa’ yonder ?’.

Smout has written of Scottish parliamentary independence: ‘Its apparently irrevocable loss in 1707 was not nearly so important an event to contemporaries as it seems in retrospect to us’. The Church of Scotland and the Scottish system of justice seemed far more substantial proofs of national separateness than the old rubber-stamp parliament. More than this, constitutional lawyers were at pains to emphasise that Scotland did not surrender its sovereignty to England in 1707. Rather, the two kingdoms amalgamated to form a new state.

Yet whatever the literal truth of this proposition, in practice it was hard for Scots, with only one-fifth of England’s population and one-fortieth of its wealth, to escape subordination. In the first century after union, Scotland’s economic progress was slow. The country gained from the coming of law and order and the end of clan strife in the Highlands. Few lowlanders criticised the English military ruthlessness which imposed the new dispensation. Almost 100 years after the Union, at the end of the 18th century, the Scots suddenly and dramatically began to reap its benefits. The coming of the Industrial Revolution, followed by dramatic improvements in communication made possible by steam, gave Scotland economic take-off, a remarkable new prosperity, together with a matching cultural revival, most vividly exemplified by the birth of the Edinburgh Review in 1802 and the Scotsman in 1817, together with the burgeoning fame first of Burns and Adam Smith, then of Scott. The English, who for centuries had looked upon the northern kingdom as a barbarous land rich chiefly in rebels, suddenly discovered a respect for Scotland’s beauty, industry, culture and commercial talents which increased throughout the 19th century. George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 set the seal upon a growing love affair between the English and Scots, deepened by the Caledonian passions of the Royal Family, which have persisted for over 150 years. Neither Walter Scott nor later distinguished compatriots such as John Buchan saw the smallest contradiction about being Scottish and British. They were proud to be both. The British Empire, in the creation and management of which Scots played so prominent a part, provided a conspicuous rationale for Union. Thinking Scots recognised that the empire offered opportunities alongside the English which they would never have known alone. Thinking Englishmen, in their turn, respected the talents which Scots displayed to such effect across every continent, as soldiers, engineers, and entrepreneurs of genius. It became impossible to think of the British Army without its Scottish regiments, to imagine the empire’s trade without its Scottish houses, of which Jardine Matheson in Hong Kong was only the foremost, to envisage any landscape ruled by Britain without its bridges and railways created by Scots. The 19th Century witnessed an extraordinary lifting of the Scottish condition. One historian has written: ‘In the place of passive resignation to poverty, there was a lightening of the spirit that showed through every aspect of Scottish life and culture’.