Scottishness and Englishness

I don’t normally stand in a car-park at midnight and hear 500 people sing about a medieval king. But then, I’m not normally in Scotland on New Year’s Eve, let alone attending the Loch Ness Hogmanay Festival. And as a non-Scot I got another glimpse of just how potent Scottish national traditions are, appealing across class and age barriers. (There were at least three generations present at the event).

A historian finds it easy to point out that most of the traditions on display are relatively recent inventions, not primeval survivals: Walter Scott and the kilt, etc, etc. In fact, a lot of the elements are even more recent than that. There was the surreal sight of someone dressed up as Nessie carrying a quaich (big silver bowl) full of whisky. Now however long the Loch Ness monster has ‘existed’ (some people trace it back to St Columba’s time), the cult of Nessie only really took off in the 1930s, with the new road along Loch Ness making the area far more accessible. It’s the same with the music. Although the festival had a ceilidh band and pipers and were singing ‘For Auld Lang Syne’ at the end (I believe, we’d weakened and gone home before then), some of the other music was much more modern. We had Donald Where’s Yer Troosers, which may be described as ‘traditional’ on websites, but I bet was really written in the early twentieth century. And we had Proclaimers songs from the late 1980s. As for the medieval king I mentioned, Flower of Scotland may be about Bannockburn and the defeat there of ‘Proud Edward’s Army’ (Edward II, of course), but the song was actually written in 1967.

But while a historian may point that ‘traditions’ aren’t actually historically based, that doesn’t in one sense really matter: it’s the feeling of national solidarity that’s the point. And part of me found myself envying that common national culture, which England doesn’t possess. (Scotland also increasingly manages the trick of an ethnically inclusive nationalism: it’s hard to say even Drumnadrochit is native-only now, when the local Catholic church has a Polish-speaking assistant chaplain and the pipe band at the festival came from Zurich. And arguably the first stirrings of Scottish nationalism in the thirteenth and fourteenth century started with the unusual basis of a consciousness of a kingdom of Scotland preceding the consciousness of a Scottish ‘people’.)

In contrast, while there are occasions of English nationalism, they’re almost always limited by class and region: there is no meeting point of ‘Two world wars and one world cup’ and the Last Night of the Proms or the Cecil Sharp society and the Beatles. L’s Scottish cousins may have been getting Christmas presents of replica skean dhus to wear, but there’s no ‘English’ costume that she can adopt that won’t be regarded by most English people as vaguely ridiculous. The right wing bigots in our local paper occasionally moan about why the council has no St George’s Day celebrations, but the most inspiration that any celebrations tend to come up with is the combination of a barbecue and a disco.

Could English nationalism develop a broad and genuine appeal across England, without diverging into bigotry? I don’t think it can by top-down decree; it would take a mythmaker of genius, some Walter Scott of the West Midlands, to create a tradition that would have widespread appeal. (The nearest recent figures to do this so far, I would say, have been George Orwell and Billy Bragg and I’d rather not let Mel Gibson loose on the problem, thank you). But as my dissection of ‘traditional Scottish’ elements above shows, you can actually create a tradition surprisingly quickly with inspiring material. Maybe by 2057, L and I will be celebrating together in some positive and inclusive, but very distinctively ‘English’ way; but somehow I doubt it.

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11 thoughts on “Scottishness and Englishness

  1. I hope you enjoy it. We’re shoving off to Greece, or possibly Spain, as soon as we are able, and England can continue its disintegration without us. I’ve been watching quite carefully for over fifty years, and still see no hope of progress, even though I have tried from time to time to encourage it.

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    • Best wishes for your emigration, but I hope if you go to either of those countries that you’ll learn their language and not (as some English do in Spain in particular) retreat into an ex-pat ghetto. It’s a bit rich all the complaints about immigrants to the UK not learning English given the large numbers of monoglot Brits living abroad.

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      • I’m suitably impressed (especially by getting the Greek to display properly.) I think actually incomers to a country or region can make a very positive contribution to it (as is visible in the Highlands, for example), but there are problems when (as sometimes happens) people are running away from one country they no longer feel comfortable in rather than positively choosing a new country and culture to adapt to.

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      • Amazingly, setting up multilanguage keyboards in XP is easy.

        Even a few words of Greek make you even more welcome in Greece than visitors already are. They traditionally extend hospitality to strangers in case they are gods in disguise… not sure if it works with the Spanish, or they just snigger behind their hands at the mispronounciation…

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  2. I envy the Scots for them being allowed to feel proud to be Scottish whereas to be English is taboo. I can trace my ancestors back to Norman times and Anglo Saxon blood but I feel that to air my pride would someway upset a minority who feel that we should all be seen as British.

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  3. The problem is that definitions of ‘Englishness’ have often been very racist. For example, Enoch Powell (and I think Norman Tebbitt as well) said or implied that immigrants/black people could never be English (though I think Tebbitt thought they could be British). In contrast, Scottish and Welsh identity are by now seen as available to anybody with any Scottish or Welsh ancestry, however remote. Meanwhile the SNP in particular has been keen to argue that anyone who feels Scottish and is committed to Scotland is Scottish, even if they have no Scottish ancestry at all. If some talented mythomaker can develop a sense of English identity that doesn’t make people with brown skin or who are Jewish etc feel unwanted, I would embrace it, but at the moment those who express their pride in Englishness, all too often reveal the subtext ‘let’s get rid of all the wogs’.

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  4. A very interesting piece. Born in Scotland of English and Australian parents, I have long pondered these things myself. The identity question for the English is so compicated – as the failed attempts Prescott made to foster regionalism demonstrated.

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  5. Just found this.
    Technomist touched on a point – regionalism. Whilst it is disastorous as a political idea it exists as a sociological phenomenon. We tend to identify with the part of England in which we are born more than with the whole of England. Each region has its peculiar traditions and occasionally its items of dress.
    I have heard discussions on who is a ‘Kentish man’ and who is ‘A man of Kent’, Hardy identified with a region called Wessex, Cornwall has its seperate Celtic roots and language. We have Fenland, Black Country, Lincolnshire Poachers, Geordies, Scousers etc. and, on the whole, the natives of each of these areas identifies with their home with pride.
    Me – I’m from Yorkshire! Say no more.

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  6. A good article one which I enjoyed reading. I lived in Scotland for a number of years and even during that time felt an affinity to the people and the country. They have a tremendous feel of nationality and pride in their country. Which I believe is some what lacking in England. I feel we will never achieve the level of pride in England as the Scots do in Scotland, or for that matter the Welch have in Wales.

    I also suffered somewhat at being an Englishman in Scotland, all in good humour I may add. I was at the object most of the jokes on a night out. But I can honestly say that I never took offence as the jokes were never meant to take offence. They are a great people and great nation one which the English would do well to copy.

    Rabbit

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