Monday, June 1, 2015

The Scots are Not a Nation

It seems astonishing to me now, but I didn’t realize that Scotland wasn’t an independent country until I was pretty much grown up.

My family emigrated from there in the early twentieth century. Although my folks were too polite to speak disparaging words against anyone, it was clear that in our family, the Scots were a people quite distinct from the English. 

Mad Mel's Malarkey

The fact that Scotland was part of a political entity called Britain, or the United Kingdom – and that virtually all Scottish people speak English as their mother (and only) tongue – simply never came up. Scotland was Scotland, and that was that.

Famously, last year, a referendum was held in Scotland in which the pro-independence side was decisively beaten. However, in this year's general election, the Scottish National Party won the vast majority of the Parliamentary seats for the territory. The Scottish nationalists may thus get their wish to secede from the U.K., no matter.

Above and beyond any arguments for the impracticality of Scottish independence, it seems to me that the case for Scots nationhood is fundamentally flawed as to its premises. 

In particular, the secessionists contend that Scotland has the right to secede, because it is a nation apart from the English: the Scots are Celtic-based people, whilst the English are, of course, Anglo-Saxon.

But in fact, the name “Scotland” is derived from one of the Irish tribes — the Scotti — that came over to northern Britain before and after the tenth century. Highland Scots culture (including the use of “Mc” and “Mac”) and the Gaelic language are Irish in origin. 

It is largely forgotten that of the British Isles, Ireland was the more civilized when compared to the Anglo kingdoms before the end of the first millennium. The Scotti and other Irish tribes set out to colonize northern Britain, just as centuries later, Protestant Scots returned to eastern Ireland to take the land of dispossessed Catholics. 

For four hundred years, from the seventh century, Ireland and Britain, along with the rest of the European seaboard, was ravaged by the invasions of Vikings or Norsemen

The Picts, perched in northern Scotland, were among the first to witness the ferocity of the Danes. Their polity, apparently a loose confederation of chieftains, was smashed, with Picts becoming serfs of, or refugees from, marauding Norse. What was left of Pict society was finished off by the invasions of the Scotti from the tenth century on. 

Ireland, meanwhile, did not recover its former urbanity following Norse conquest, while England, after a time, was able to assimilate the Danelaw and Norman invasion, to become Great Britain.

The Highlanders (or “Irish”, as they were called right into the nineteenth century) were not, meanwhile, the only colonists of northern Britain. Anglo-Saxon settlement in areas north of Hadrian’s wall extends back to the original Germanic invasions of Britain in the fourth and fifth centuries. 

By the time the Scotti arrived, Anglophones were well-established in these regions. They evolved their own dialect, Scots, as did Englishmen in Kent, East Anglia and other old principalities. In spite of the fact that the territory was named after one of the Irish tribes, the ruling class of the Scottish kingdom was entirely Anglo-Saxon. 

The Highlanders were mere outlanders, they and their language being of no consequence to the power-discourse of Scotland. In the eleven-hundreds, King David I (an Anglo-Norman), established the burghs surrounding royal and noble castles — these consist today of eleven of Scotland’s largest cities (including Edinburgh). These towns were, of course, English-speaking (in the Scots dialect). 

Highlanders or Irish who came to live in these cities, soon gave up their rustic dress and foreign language, assimilating into the English mainstream. Civil society in Scotland, in other words, was Anglo-Saxon from the beginning.

Scotland, unlike the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, maintained its independence until the early seventeenth century. Highlanders remained a distinct minority group until the failure of (Italian-born) Prince Charlie’s putsch in the 1740s, after which the Irish in Scotland (as later, the Irish in Ireland) were completely anglicized. 

In the Story of English (co-written by the late PBS newsman Robert McNeill), the authors make the point that the famed Scottish "burr" is in fact an English accent, having more in common with the dialects of northern England than of Ireland or Wales (as the "Scouse" speech of Liverpudlians, for example, seems closer to the Scots than it is to dialects found in around London).  

Tunes of glory... all played by Englishmen.

There are very few actual Scots Gaelic-speakers left. Gaelic-speaking communities persisted into the 1980s on isolated, North-sea islands. Their accents, when speaking English, were more similar to the Irish accent than the Scots-English one.

Scots nationalism thus has no “national” basis, since there is not a distinct Scots ethnicity (any longer). The Irish and Welsh are socio-culturally quite British, but at least they can claim genuine Celtic ethnicity. Not so the Scots. In fact, Scotswomen and men only began to adopt “distinctive” Scots manners and dress, after the territory had joined with England in the early eighteenth century. 

The “national” characteristics of the Scots — sternness, reservation, and miserliness — are merely those of the English, driven to an extreme due in part to the Calvinist state religion, but mostly due to the inhospitable climate found in northern Britain. As an anatomist of culture, I’ve been very determined to speak what I believe is the truth, no matter painful the incision might be, even to myself personally. For someone whose family origins are definitively Scottish, it was a reluctant conclusion for me that in fact, there is one nation in the United Kingdom: the British. The Scots, like people from Sussex, or Merseyside, or Kent, are just regional variants upon this nation.

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