The Thistle and the Rose Allan Massie

John Murray, pp.326, 20

One of the oddest forms of contemporary masochism is our passion for surveys that reveal how ignorant and stupid we have become. Scarcely a week goes by without the publication of some poll telling us how many schoolchildren believe that Churchill was victorious at Waterloo or that Hornblower commanded at Trafalgar. The teaching of traditional history has all but disappeared, surviving in just the one area where it should have been abolished: the perpetuation of nationalist myths.

In his wise and stimulating new book, Allan Massie recounts the recent story of a Fife councillor who was banned from his local pub for abusing some English visitors on the grounds that the English had defeated the Scots at the battle of Culloden. Such an attitude is not, in my own experience, typical of Fife councillors, but it is characteristic of a certain widespread, Anglophobic, late 20th-century view of Scottish history. Distilled into a sentence or so, the version goes like this: after forcing the Scots into an unpopular union, the English defeated them militarily, destroyed them culturally, turned them into mercenaries of the empire and, in a horror comparable to the great famine in Ireland, expelled them from the Highlands and transformed their glens into sheep farms and deer forests. On top of all this, the Scots were effectively disenfranchised because, while they traditionally voted Liberal and then Labour, the more numerous English generally managed to install a Conservative or Unionist government at Westminster.

Nearly all of this is nonsense. The Scots agitated for union with the unresponsive English a century before it was achieved. Most of them (even in the Highlands) supported the Hanoverians against the Jacobites, just as a large majority of Highland migrants voluntarily left their (Scottish-owned) glens because (like countryfolk all over the British Isles) they sought a better existence in the towns or the colonies. Young men in the Hebrides wanted more from life than digging potatoes and kelping, i.e. standing waist-high in the sea cutting seaweed with a saw-toothed sickle. Furthermore, far from being disenfranchised, Scots have been disproportionately influential in the history both of the empire and of British politics. Although they form eight per cent of the population of the United Kingdom, since 1997 they have monopolised or dominated all the major Whitehall ministries except the Home Office.

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Allan Massie, an Aberdeenshire Scot transplanted to the Borders, scoffs at any kind of ‘black and white’ or ‘them and us’ version of English–Scottish relations. One of his book’s many merits is its treatment of the nuances and complexities that permeate the relationship. The work is in fact not really about love and hate but about lesser passions such as resentment and admiration, which often, especially on the Scottish side, co-exist in the same person.

Scots like to portray themselves as Celts and the English as Saxons, but of course both countries are part-Celt and part-Saxon just as they are also part-Viking, part-Norman and, in many cases, part-other things as well. The racial mix, combined with a long and intricately shared history, has produced multiple loyalties and emotions. As Massie points out, it was quite natural for Walter Scott to be a British patriot, eager for the progress of the Union, and also a Scottish patriot, anxious about the survival of Scottish culture.

The Thistle and the Rose begins with a canter through English–Scottish history from 1500 to 1746 and then mutates into a series of essays illustrating the inextricable entanglement of the two ‘peoples’: even the most ‘quintessential’ Englishmen such as Evelyn Waugh and Stanley Baldwin (whose mother was a MacDonald) have much of the ‘Celt’ in their backgrounds. As Massie observes, the Scots did establish themselves as an independent nation in the 14th century through the wars of Wallace and Bruce and the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. But they gave up their separate existence in two stages, in 1603 when their monarch became King of England as well, and in 1707 when their parliament passed the Act of Union with their southern neighbour.

Scotland thus went from independence to full partnership with England without be- coming a subject nation along the way. This surely should be a cause for pride, not for the famous ‘cringe’ or surly grievance or virulent Anglophobia. In one of his most eloquent, though characteristically restrained, passages, Massie demolishes Neal Ascherson’s argument that Scotland ‘needs’ to separate from England. It is absurd to think of Alex Salmond as a Mazzini or even a Parnell whom the Scots need to deliver them from foreign oppression.

Allan Massie belongs to the ancient and distinguished tradition of the Scottish man of letters, though the title may imply a leisured existence that is clearly not led by the author of so many historical novels, contemporary novels and other works, besides literally thousands of articles on rugby, politics and literature. He is always readable, always reasonable and often quirkily refreshing. His views may not be currently fashionable, but his is as authentic a voice of modern Scotland as the rasping rancour of Salmond or the sonorous platitudes of Sean Connery.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated