The Invention Of Scotland; Scotland Revisited; & Scotland: A New History

Ian Bradley | Published in History Today
  • The Invention Of Scotland: The Stuart Myth And The Scottish Identity, 1638 To The Present
    Murray Pittock – Routledge, 1991 - 198 pp. - £30
  • Scotland Revisited
    Jenny Wormald - History Today Books/Collins & Brown, 1991 - 160 pp. - £8.99
  • Scotland: A New History
    Michael Lynch – Century, 1991 - xxii + 499 pp. - £18.99

Bonnie Prince Charlie has a lot to answer for. According to Compton Mackenzie, writing just after he had been elected nationalist lord Rector of Glasgow University, if the prince had won at Culloden the American colonies would not have been lost, the French Revolution might never have happened, the long martyrdom of Ireland would have been averted and the decline of Scotland into a provincial appendage avoided.

The heady mixture of romance, legend, tragedy and 'what if...' speculation that is Jacobitism continues to exercise a fascination among academic historians of Scotland as well as among more popular writers. AII three of these new books touch on it to a greater or lesser extent and they show clearly the different passions that it still arouses in the hearts and minds of Scots.

Murray Pittock's The Invention of Scotland is the most strongly Jacobite in both content and sympathy. Clearly a labour of love as well as of considerable scholarship, it skilfully traces the course of the Scots' attachment to the Stuart cause which reached its apogee in the cult of Bonnie Prince Charlie and which continues to be perpetuated today via shortbread tins and whisky labels. The author is concerned to show that it was not simply the creation of Walter Scott and other nineteenth-century romantics. Adulation of the Stuarts, amounting to a quasi-religious movement which drew on Christian and early Celtic symbolism, reached back well into the seventeenth century.

Pittock argues convincingly that the Stuart cause became the vehicle for Scottish nationalism and the focus of opposition to the 1707 Act of Union with England. For the next hundred years Jacobitism was a largely underground movement of radical protest and doom-laden prophecy about the affects of growing Anglicisation. It surfaced briefly in the risings of 1715 and 1745 before becoming increasingly sentimentalised and romanticised in the nineteenth century. The hard radical core of Jacobitism, however, he sees as having survived and resurfaced in the recent resurgence of Scottish nationalism.

One of the most attractive features of this well written and stimulating book is its copious use of contemporary folk songs and ballads. These are quoted by Pittock to support his thesis that Jacobitism was a genuinely popular movement and not simply the creation of drawing- room romantics. It is good to be made aware of the existence of a substantial corpus of folk material, much of it in Gaelic, supporting the Stuart cause. The fact remains, however, that it is the more sentimentalised songs from the hands of middle class writers that have passed into popular consciousness in Scotland quite as much as in England as the distinctive voice of Jacobitism. Pittock makes rather less of these than their impact surely warrants. Although he has sections on the romantic Jacobite myth-making of Robert Burns and Walter Scott, there is surprisingly not a single mention in his book of the person who arguably did more than anyone else to propagate the heroic legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Lady Nairne, author of such songs as 'Will ye no come back again', 'Charlie is my darling' (in its bowdlerised version) and 'Wi' a hundred pipers an' a', an' a'.

Pittock's central point about the strong hold of the Stuart dynasty on the affections and loyalties of the Scots is reinforced by Jenny Wormald's opening essay in Scotland Revisited, a collection of essays which first appeared in History Today. She points to the extraordinary length of the period of Stuart rule over Scotland, which began with the accession of Robert II in 1571 and did not end until the deposition of James VII in 1689 – indeed, it was arguably even longer: the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland which recently mounted an exhibition on the Stuarts under the title 'Dynasty' extended the period to 1714 by counting William & Mary and Anne within the line. For her, 'Scottish kingship is an extremely resilient institution which triumphantly survived the occasional hiccups caused by the individuals who ran it'. She contrasts the instability in England where there were five violent changes of dynasty between 1399 and 1483.

Likc Murray Pittock, Jenny Wormald is a passionate and committed writer about Scotland who can perhaps sometimes let her understandable enthusiasms for the northern kingdom get the better of her sound historical judgement. It is surely rather fanciful to suggest, as she does in her lively introduction to Scotland Revisited that the Scottish political scene played a key part in the downfall of Margaret Thatcher. But the collection of essays that she has edited, the majority of which touch on aspects of Scottish politics and society between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, is a model of sound scholarship and clear writing. Writing about Jacobitism, Allan Macinnes adopts a dispassionate tone contrasting with hut no less lively or informative than Murray Pittock's more committed approach.

More dispassionate still is Michael Lynch's Scotland, a New History. Indeed, at times it is positively iconoclastic, shattering such cherished parts of the national story as the incident of Jenny Geddes hurling a stool in the High Kirk of St Giles in 1657 and so sparking off the revolt against Charles I. She was, it seems, an invention of the nineteenth century search for historic defenders of the Scottish Kirk. This exercise in demythologising also extends to Rob Roy MacGregor, who is dismissed as a racketeer and cattle thief, and the battle of Culloden on which the author comments that 'the cult of Jacobite nostalgia flies in the face of most facts'.

Early on in his book, which manages to keep a strong narrative thrust and a compelling readability throughout its 5OO densely packed pages, Michael Lynch describes the task of the modern historian of Scotland as being to strip off layers of camouflage that have been applied over the centuries. In their different ways, all three of the books reviewed here signally contribute to that process even if they vary in the amount of tartan (particularly Royal Stuart tartan) that they leave in place.

Ian Bradley is the author of O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go (Collins, 1990).

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