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November 25, 2008

Hugh Trevor-Roper preferred the Scotch to cling to their myths even whilst destroying them, argues David Womersley: The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History - Hugh Trevor-Roper

Posted by David Womersley

The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History
by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Pp. xxii + 282. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008
Hardback, £18.99

Hugh Trevor-Roper saw a lot of the Scots (or the Scotch, as he insisted on referring to them, cleaving to what he mischievously called his "ain vulgaire"). Born and raised in Northumberland as he was, for the young Trevor-Roper the Scots were just over the hills. He married a Scotswoman, and lived for part of the year in Chiefswood, his house in the borders.

In conversation, his attitude towards the Scots tended towards the amused and lightly-mocking. He refused to take them at their own estimation, but he also did not share that visceral hatred of the Scots that one encounters quite frequently in the English. He found them both mildly ridiculous and very interesting. He viewed them much as a doctor might regard a patient suffering from a rare but undignified ailment: detached observation, comedy and, behind it all, a carefully calibrated measure of sympathy characterised his stance towards them.

For, as this witty and learned book makes clear, Trevor-Roper indeed saw the Scots as in the grip of a series of historical delusions, which he as an historian could diagnose and describe, even if he held out no hope of a cure.

The general character of these delusions - a hopeless addiction to myths, rather than meths - is stated in the introduction (p. xx):

in Scotland, it seems to me, myth has played a far more important part in history than it has in England. Indeed, I believe that the whole history of Scotland has been coloured by myth; and that myth, in Scotland, is never driven out by reality, or by reason, but lingers on until another myth has been discovered, or elaborated, to replace it.
In The Invention of Scotland he traces three of these myths, as they succeeded one another over the centuries from the sixteenth to the nineteenth.

The first is the myth of an ancient Scottish constitution, which received its fullest elaboration in the work of George Buchanan, the itinerant Latinist and sometime tutor to James I and VI, and which, on the basis of the fictitious biographies of a series of mythical Scottish kings, demonstrated that the Scots had always reserved to themselves a Whiggish power to chide, cashier, chastise, and even kill, kings who misbehaved while on the throne; moreover, that the Scottish monarchy was, in its purest form, elective in character.

Buchanan had created this chimera in order to justify the coup d'état against Mary Queen of Scots by the "Lords of the Congregation", and in an attempt to secure the throne, or at least the regency, for his patron, the Earl of Moray.

This political myth was succeeded by a literary myth, that of the poems of Ossian. In the mid-eighteenth century, as part of that broad change in taste which saw a new, and some might think inflated, value placed on the primitive, a series of what purported to be translations of ancient Gaelic poetry were published by James Macpherson.

Of course, they were fakes. A few scraps of genuinely old Gaelic poetry had been embellished, puffed, padded and vigorously inflated until they assumed the proportions of a new epic poem to rival - in the opinion of some, to eclipse - the Iliad.

Even those of a cautious and sceptical disposition, such as David Hume and Edward Gibbon, were initially taken in. But, in the absence of the original manuscripts, which were always about to be produced or made available for consultation, yet which somehow never were produced or able to be consulted, doubts struck root and strengthened, watered particularly by Dr Johnson, who was in no doubt that the Ossianic poems were both not ancient, and not good.

In England, they soon passed from notice, and were remembered if at all as an odd episode in the history of taste. In Scotland, they survived; and one still sometimes meets Scotsmen who refuse to be parted from the flattering fiction, and adamantly believe the Ossianic poems to be genuine. In Europe, and particularly in France, where the question of authenticity was of less moment, Ossian was enthusiastically adopted as an element in continental romanticism.

The literary myth of Ossian was in its turn succeeded by a sartorial myth, that of the tartan. This fabric, now available in a variety of patterns supposedly associated exclusively with particular clans, was in fact an invention of the nineteenth century, just as the kilt itself - at least in the form in which it survives today - had been invented in the early eighteenth century by a Quaker ironmaster from Lancashire, Thomas Rawlinson, as a convenient item of workwear for his charcoal burners.

In the next century, the myth of the tartan was wonderfully elaborated by the Sobieski Stuart brothers. Half charlatans, half fantasists, at once frauds and also (in their way) scholars, they were eventually reduced to a mendicant life on the fringes of European society. But the tartan survived, and has since performed the valuable public service of concealing the floors and thighs of generations of Scotsmen.

The political myth to some extent stands out in this sequence, because it exploited delusion to a very practical and political end. The literary and sartorial myths, however, were not disciplined by such a precise instrumental purpose. They arose out of the bitter experience of defeat, and the harsh suppression of the '45. As a result, they were both tinged with romanticism, and seasoned with more than a dash of futility. But, in human terms, they furnish much more interesting material than does the political myth.

At the heart of the literary myth was the vile James Macpherson, clearly the villain of The Invention of Scotland, whom Trevor-Roper unforgettably exposes as a charmless, joyless and money-grabbing mountebank. The Sobieski Stuarts, however, deluded no one so effectively as themselves. Trevor-Roper traces the outlines of their strange, fantastic existence with the sympathetic precision of a master-anatomist of the psychopathology of scholarship.

According to Jeremy Cater, who has carefully produced this book from the drafts and notes in Trevor-Roper's papers, Trevor-Roper sometimes spoke of a fourth Scots myth, but without specifying what it was. Perhaps it was the myth of Scottish financial prudence and rectitude, which has been dealt such fatal blows in recent months.

As a staunch supporter of the Union, Trevor-Roper would have welcomed the damage done to the prospects for Scottish independence by the shrivelling of the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS. On the other hand, he might have viewed the destruction of any Scottish myths with misgiving, because he was aware of the protective function of myth in preventing nationalism from assuming ugly and violent forms.

Much better, on balance, to have the Scots in fancy dress, sighing over Temora, and believing that as a nation they have been blessed with unusual fiscal wisdom. The experience of the young Intelligence officer, sent to Berlin in 1945 to determine the events of the Nazi Götterdämmerung, guided the judgement of the elderly historian in this witty and learned book.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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One would have more respect for the Scots if they took their myths seriously and had gone independent like Iceland did from Denmark. A spectacular bankruptcy on your own money and taking responsibility for it in the Reykjavik style is more honorable than sponging on England's bounty.The only reason they came into the Union is because they went broke once before at the time of the Darien scheme.
Their latter myths are largely economic. Poor downtrodden crofters reduced to being ghillies and caddies , Red Clydeside with not enough orders for warships etc
Why is Ossian taken seriously by a nation whose national language is Northumbrian and who have allowed Gaelic, the tongue of the Highlan' deils, to die out ?
What an utter shower the Scots are!

Posted by: John at November 26, 2008 11:34 PM
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It is most heartening to see for once a good put down for the Scots who have fartoo high an opinion of themselves.
Most of the institutions that made them seem distinctive are crumbling. The Church of Scotand will be dead ten years from now, leaving Scotland's religious life in the hands of the descendants of Catholic and Muslim immigrants. Religion was only strong in Scotland because the Presbyterians were divided into mutually hating fragments - Auld Kirk v Free Kirk.Once they united they were finished. Take bigotry away from Scottish religion and nothing is left save the retreating roar of the Rangers fans.What too is left of their vaunted educational superiority. This nation of teuchters and slum-dwellers is barely literate.The only reason anyone would go to a Scots university is because it is cheap - aye cheap.
Now their banks and lawyers are going downhill as fast as their predikantes and dominies.
Scotland, yer finished!

Posted by: Sassenach at November 27, 2008 09:38 PM
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"the Scots who have fartoo high an opinion of themselves" .

Sassenach can have no mirrors in his house.

Posted by: Alan Healy at December 2, 2008 01:35 AM
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I have a plane mirror but a Scotsman keeps a magnifying mirror in every room. When there is lightening in Scotland everybody smiles because they think that God is taking their photo
For a good portait of the elephantiasis of the Scottsh ego read Gwen Raverat book A Cambdidge Childhood
Today everyone feels sorry for this bedraggled failure called Scotland but at one time there was no end of arrogance in the burkie called a laird who characterised that country. Even now they strut and stare even tho they have the wind up their kilts
Sassenach.

Posted by: sassenachhotmail.com at December 4, 2008 03:17 PM
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Why do people get so excited about a geriatric country that will soon cease to exist ? Scotland is demographically doomed. As they die off so will their myths. Who now remembers the savage peoples of Canaan except for their condemnation in the Old Testament

Posted by: maurice at December 11, 2008 05:04 PM
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