I dont normally stand in a car-park at midnight and hear 500 people sing about a medieval king. But then, Im not normally in Scotland on New Years 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 Columbas 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. Its 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, wed 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 Edwards Army (Edward II, of course), but the song was actually written in 1967.
But while a historian may point that traditions arent actually historically based, that doesnt in one sense really matter: its the feeling of national solidarity thats the point. And part of me found myself envying that common national culture, which England doesnt possess. (Scotland also increasingly manages the trick of an ethnically inclusive nationalism: its 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, theyre 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. Ls Scottish cousins may have been getting Christmas presents of replica skean dhus to wear, but theres no English costume that she can adopt that wont 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 Georges 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 dont 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 Id 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.