“The miller’s daughter walking by
With frozen fingers soldered to her basket
Seems to be knocking
Upon a hundred leagues of floor
With her light heels, and mocking Percy and Douglas dead.
And Bruce on his burial bed,
Where he lies white as may With wars and leprosy,
And all the kings before
This land was kingless.
And all the singers before
This land was songless . . . “
—Edwin Muir, “Scotland’s Winter”
Rockford in July seems an unlikely place and time to hold “The First Annual Highland Games” unless it were in obedience to the biblical admonition that “the first shall be last.” The temperature was in the 90’s throughout the day, with a humidity that made the Upper Midwest seem like New Orleans, except for the absence of French food, jazz, fun. 1 did not know whom to feel sorrier for, the clean-limbed girls taking part in the Highland fling contest, the close-cropped shot-putters forking bags of hay over a bar and flinging what looked like telephone poles over their shoulders, or the middle-aged men in Jacobite costume, smashing upon each other’s claymores, until the lucky one is allowed to fall down and feign death.
I attended the event with a reluctance that had little to do with the weather: I dislike historical reenactments even more than recreated European castles in Disney World or tinker-toy reconstructions of colonial villages, and even worse than the reenactments themselves is the desperate attempt to create an impression of ethnic authenticity. The effect of most ethnic festivals is about as convincing as a St. Patrick’s Day parade or an Irish Spring commercial. The whole Scottish thing—bagpipes and kilts, single malt whiskies and Sir Harry Lauder—was manufactured for the consumption of English tourists and the worldwide Scottish community in exile, many of whose ancestors were tee-totaling Presbyterians who, as Edwin Muir put it, had “the bitter wit to fell the ancient oak of loyalty, and strip the peopled hill and the altar bare, and crush the poet with an iron text.”
Despite the heat I put on my tartan necktie and take my children and my skeptical dog Davy (a Scottish terrier named after the philosopher Hume). Against my better judgment, I am beginning to enjoy myself, and remarking to my children that this Scottish festival is much more entertaining than the local Festa Italiana, my daughter suggests that it may be because I’m Scottish and not Italian. We wander by the tents set up by various clan societies. Clan Douglas is there, inevitably, but as I am on the point of telling the kids that our own clan (whose society I had only learned of the week before) would never stoop to this, one of them shouts, “Look, Dad, there’s a tent for Clan Murray.”
I have never checked into our family’s claim to be a sept of the Murrays, though Flemings have played a prominent role in the history of that clan (nor have I ever verified the even vaguer claim that my father’s mother, née Smith, was actually a McFarlane). The ladies manning, or rather womanning the little tent are vey kind and speak warmly of what clan membership means to them—the significance of clan loyalty comes up repeatedly during the festival—and 1 am tempted, if only for the sake of my deracinated children, to fill out the membership forms and stake a claim, if not to be someone, at least, to have been something once. All this ethnic rigmarole appeals to a deeper sense than nostalgia. Perhaps it helps us Americans to reacquire a sense of national identity, a sense that is not supplied by our Jacobin holidays—July 4, Veterans Day, and the fourth Thursday of November that is now called “Turkey Day.” Perhaps these clan-gatherings and folk festivals, however artificial, should not be judged for what they are not, which is anything to do with the real world, but for what they are, which is something like a school whose very formality and artificial simplicity are conditions that make possible the metamorphosis of children into human beings; perhaps before we can actually be anything, we must play at being something we are not yet.
Like many great nations, Scotland is a product as much of the imagination as it is of battles and policies, and the modern traveler unfortified by poetry may find little more than vistas to admire. I had been putting off the trip for more than two years, when, driving down the street in Rockford, I turned on the radio and heard Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy—”an omen,” I remarked to my unsuspecting wife. On the train from London I sit beside a perpetual student who carries his management texts ostentatiously in a Montpellier bag and spends the day dramatically chewing his left thumbnail. Bv the time we reach York, I begin to fear he, like his country, is down to the knuckle. Newcastle seems grim, only the cathedral spire catching the sun gives a hint of anything better, and a Scottish passenger comments, as our train is halted on the bridge, “Enjoy the view of lovely Newcastle.”
Crossing the border is almost an event. “Where’s the customs officers?” cracks another Scottish wit. But whether it is God or nature or merely the effect of man, the landscape changes immediately; the ground swells to peaks of grassy scarp and here and there we see the sea, and feeling like one of Xenophon’s soldiers I begin to wish I had not booked a room in Edinburgh. Arriving at Waverley Station, I set off with determination in the wrong direction down Princes Street. Turning around. I sit beneath the statue of Walter Scott and consult the map. Retracing my steps, I lug my bags the long way around up to Royal Terrace, and unsure of my way up Calton Hill, I stop at a little trailer with a round-the-clock vigil demanding a Scottish Parliament. The young nationalist inside has trouble interpreting my accent, but his directions (accurate but rather too precise to be useful) put me on the right course, which takes mc past the phony Greek ruin that inspired Douglas Young’s “Winter Homily.”
Edinburgh is altogether the best city in Britain, more like Paris or Brussels than London. Modern development has, for the most part, eaten only into the fringes—though there is a hideous concrete box in the Canongate a stone’s throw from Holyrood. The medieval streets of the old town seem genuinely old and perhaps even menacing—drugged-up punks with pink and green hair and dangling earrings seem more at home here than in New York or London. The New Town is also impressive, with its rational air and faith in progress, although the Hanoverian street names must have seemed intolerable to Jacobite ears: Hanover, Brunswick, George, Frederick—even the King, Queen, and Prince’s streets are named after the wrong kings, queens, and princes, the same family that in every generation has succeeded in producing that bright and charming set of royals without whom England would just not be England.
Scotland, at least since the 14th century, has been defined by its struggle with England, and the Scottish watchword has always been: freedom. Archdeacon Barbour prefaced his epic poem The Bruce with this invocation: “A! fredome is a noble thing, / Fredome mays man to haiff liking, / Fredome all solace to man giffis, / He levys at es that frely levys. / A noble hart may haiff nane es . . . “
Blind Harr}’ summed up William Wallace’s career as a struggle for freedom: “Thus Wallace thrys has maid all Scotland fre,” and King James I, abducted and held prisoner by the English for 18 years, complained in “The Kingis Quair”: “The bird, the beste, the fish eke in the see / They lyve in fredome everich in his kind; / And I a man and lakkith liberte.” How to preserve the Scottish nation has been the grand theme of Scottish poets ever since independence was surrendered by the Act of Union engineered by a Scottish elite class that traded national liberty for personal gain. Burns, in his own version of a popular song, complained: “What force or guile could not subdue, / Thro’ many warlike ages, / Is wrought now by a coward few, / For hireling traitois’ wages.”
And there are Gaelic poems that are far more bitter: “If I had my way,” wrote John McDonald of one of the commissioners who negotiated the act, “I would melt your gold payment, pour it into your skull till it reached to your boots.” Burns could go from Jacobite sympathies to Jacobin enthusiasm without, apparently, seeing a contradiction—just as more recent nationalist poets like MacDiarmid and my own mentor, Douglas Young, often expressed their nationalism in a leftist language—because for the nationalist left and right are mere ploys or stratagems that serve the higher cause of the nation.
The Scottish love of liberty was no mere obsession of poets. In 1320, the Scots lords who followed Robert Bruce signed a formal protest to Pope John XXII who had excommunicated King Robert and his people for daring to stand up to England. After a brief and mythic history of their ancestors who had settled in Scotland, which “they now hold in freedom from all vassalage,” they describe the depredations of Edwards I and II—”sparing nor sex nor age nor priestly orders”—and go on to declare that “By the Providence of God, the right of succession, those laws and customs which we are resolved to defend even with our lives, and by our own just consent, he is our King.” Most remarkably, these noblemen go on to insist that their loyalty is to their nation and not to their King: “Yet Robert himself, should he turn aside from the task that he has begun, and yield Scotland or us to the English King and people, we should cast out as the enemy of us all, as subverter of our rights, and should choose another King to defend our freedom: for so long as a hundred of us are left alive, we will yield in no least way to English domination. We fight not for glory nor for wealth nor honours; but only and alone we fight for Freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life.” hi her pamphlet “On the Declaration of Arbroath,” Agnes Mure Mackenzie wrote: “There, clearly put, is the basic principle of right government—to guard at all costs the fundamental thing that is the condition of full human life.”
The pamphlet was given me by Owen Dudley Edwards, who was kind enough to spend an afternoon walking me through the streets of Edinburgh. Owen, as a true Chestertonian, supports all Celtic independence movements, and at his suggestion I go to visit the headquarters of the Scottish National Party.
The SNP, as might be expected, is weakest in Edinburgh. The bar in my little hotel on the back of Calton Hill (dear reader, I am as thrifty as a Scot when I am spending your money) is the neighborhood watering hole, where the talk is about everything but politics—small wonder, since many of the neighbors are Tories. My host is a genial man and speaks with affable contempt of Scottish nationalism, and none of his customers sees anything but a welfare scheme in its demands for economic justice. This is the Tory argument one reads regularly in the Telegraph: Scottish nationalism is only a combination of welfarism and oil greed; true Scotch patriotism is dead and gone, and there is hardly a sincere Scot in the SNP. In local elections, the party hardly ran in Edinburgh, and their campaign posters, some of which still remain, do not even list the names of candidates. As one former member told me, the party had written off Midlothian, where people are content with their comfortable status as second-class Britons and deaf to the appeals of nationalism.
SNP headquarters on Charlotte Street symbolizes the problem of any modern political party that represents a national impulse, and the Scots Nats work very hard at being modern and up-to-date. It is hard not to be disappointed. The office is perhaps even more strictly business than, say, DNC headquarters, where the symbols of Jefferson and FDR and JFK might be displayed to lend an air of historical legitimacy. The SNP was founded as an amalgam of previous movements, including the National Party, whose members were described by Christopher Harvic (in Scotland and Nationalism) as “a fusion of the sectaries of traditional nationalism, a few Catholic intellectuals, students, journalists, and discontented members of the Independent Labour Party, like Grieve” (a.k.a. the poet Hugh MacDiarmid), For all his narcissism and the real stupidity of his Stalinism, MacDiarmid is not only the most significant Scottish writer since Scott, he is one of the really important poets of the century. In his masterpiece, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, he takes up everything from polities to metaphysics, but the real core of the poem is the thistle itself, the symbol of the Scottish nation. Despite the poet’s near-fanatical nationalism, he has little use for the ethnic rigmarole: “Ye canna gang to a Burns supper even / Wiout some wizened scrunt o a knockknee / Chinee turns round to say ‘Him Haggis—velly goot!’ / And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.” Strange sentiments from a communist.
Another poet-activist, Douglas Young, went to jail rather than allow himself to be conscripted by the English Parliament. In its erratic progress the SNP purged both Young and MacDiarmid and placed the 1320 Club, which the poets had joined, under an interdict, apparently for the subversive activities of some of the club’s members. It may be a good sign when the poets and eccentrics arc dropped from the rolls of a movement, but it cannot be good that Scotland, so far as poets are concerned, is fast turning into the songless land of which Edwin Muir despaired.
The SNP press secretary is very kind but seems at a loss as to how to help. Unexpected visitors cannot complain of their treatment, and laden down with position papers and the speeches of SNP chairman Alex Salmond, I promise to attend a press conference given the next day in Perth. After an evening spent in reading why Scotland will bloom as a quasi-independent member of the European Union, I rise early and take the train for Perth, but the train is late, and the press conference has broken up by the time I arrive. The SNP appears to combine the efficiency of poets with the imagination of bureaucrats.
With some time to kill before I can pick up a car, I set off to see the sights. I had been reading Scott’s The Fair Maid of Perth, but I several times walk past the old glover’s hall without recognizing it as the house of Scott’s heroine. Finally from a parking lot, I look across the street to see an old house with the little plaque. Fair Maid of Perth’s House, and in the window a great sign with bold letters: TO LET. Another omen.
The modern Scottish identity is in many ways a creation of Sir Walter Scott. It was he who broke into a room in Edinburgh castle to discover the “Honors of Scotland,” and it was he who persuaded George IV to pay a visit to his northern kingdom. Converting the royal family, particularly Victoria to Jacobitism, was an extraordinary accomplishment, considering the last rebellion was as recent as 1745. The harsh treatment given the Highlanders—today we should call the Highland clearances “ethnic cleansing” and the proscription of Highland symbols “cultural genocide”—had left a bitter taste in the mouth of many Scots that even generations of comparative affluence have not entirely rinsed away.
Robert Burns may be Scotland’s national treasure—with clubs, dinners, and books of quotations to keep some bit of his memory green—but Scott is both the eponymous hero of Scotland and its epic poet, he is Romulus and Livy and Vergil all in one. Before Scott, the English and most Lowland Scots feared and despised the Donalds who had periodically swept down from the Highlands for booty and honor. After Scott, the Highlander came to symbolize the Scottish nation, and Walter Scott, perhaps more than anyone, is responsible for grafting Highland legends onto Lowland business sense, creating the highly successful trade in tartans and symbolic paraphernalia that continues to attract tourists. “The tartan tred wad gar ye lauch,” mocked Robert Carioch. “Your surname needna end in -och; / . . . A puckle dollar bills will aye / preive Hiram Teufelsdroch / a septary of Clan McKay.” German-Americans are one thing, but what the Japanese make of all this I do not know, even after listening to them discuss British history with their tour guides.
How much of Scott’s legacy remains in Scotland, even outside of Edinburgh, where my landlord is gently witty at the expense of “Sir Walter,” I do not know. I stay for several days in Inveraray. It is Easter, and I am frustrated in my attempt to spend the holiday on Iona. Oban, where I go to get a boat, is crowded with drunken Glaswegians who have given up Calvinist austerity without any perceptible lapse into papist sacramentalism, and my only thought is how to escape the crowds as quickly as possible. Reluctantly accepting the Duke of Argyll’s hospitality (he is the owner of the Great Inn at Inveraray, a rundown tourist hotel with a magnificent view of Loch Fyne), I make myself at home in the bar, which is filled with holiday visitors happily spoiling their children. Seeing a local or two at the bar, I leave my comfortable chair and ask for a glass of Highland Park. “That’s a good whiskey,” I’m told by a slight, older man in work clothes. When I ask what else he and the barman like, the barman recommends Isle of Jura. “You might as well drink acid,” says Heggy, as he is called, and after one glass, I conclude that Heggy is a man of mature judgment. He asks what I am doing by myself so far from home, and I tell him I’m in Scotland preparing a magazine issue. “What can you learn in so little time?”
One fair question deserves another, and I ask him what he would tell a stranger about his own country. I prod him, as he hesitates over where to begin, with a question about politics. Far from well-off, Heggy often votes Conservative, on the grounds they are more progressive, but he is fed up with both Thatcher and Major who have ruined the entire country. Only his hatred of Tony Blair would induce him ever to vote for Major. Trying to explain the condition of poor Scotland, Heggy confesses to ignorance. He was never taught Scottish history in school—only a few anecdotes of Bruce and Wallace—all the so-called British history is English history. “Some people think Scotland is a county of England,” he shouts, “but we’re not.” What he knows, he did not learn from books, which he does not trust, but from the old people who, as he says touching his nose with his finger, knew the truth of it.
Easter Sunday I go to church, and until the very end of the service I am not sure whether the church is crackpot Anglo- Catholic or progressive papist: phony Peruvian “hymns,” the priest, when he devests, wearing a sweater and T-shirt, a homily that suits the T-shirt better than the vestments, and only the strong smell of whiskey on the breath of all the men striking a more serious note. What strength of character it shows, to drink that much so early in the day.
I spend the rest of Easter getting myself lost, looking for ruined castles. In a steady drizzle I make my way to Dunadd, the ruins of a Celtic fortress that was home to the first Scottish, which is to say Irish, kings of Scotland. After several false “discoveries”—every rock outcropping is a cairn and every cairn a castle: it is an old land, where the very rocks are ancient bones—I take the right road through sheep pastures and across a little brook. I park my car next to a truck and look up at the rocks—”a weary tale, of grass upon a buried town”—where I sec a pair of visitors standing, at the very top, as if they were lords of the place. As I draw nearer, I can just make out that they are speaking neither in English nor Scots, and as we pass upon the slope I realize they are speaking Gaelic, whether Scottish or Irish I do not know. Perhaps they are on a pilgrimage. The ruins are meager, but Dunadd is far more impressive than the late Roman forts I have seen in Britain, although the Roman forts are centuries older. But while the Roman imperial camp is evidence of a wonderfully efficient bureaucracy whose very mediocrity was on so high a level that it became civilization itself, Dunadd is peculiar, as if it grew out of this very land and could be transplanted to no other place. Perhaps, if Celts had ever established an empire, they might have succeeded in mass-producing a culture. But I doubt it. Even the faces in this part of Scotland are more distinctive than in the South, as if they were chiseled by a mannerist sculptor on the bottle.
Scotland, like England, is an amalgam of Celtic, German, Scandinavian, and even Mediterranean stocks, but here, the Celtic note—however faintly sounded in the genes—is the tonic. I sometimes wonder if the Celts are not like the ancient Greeks, a people who subvert the conquerors with their music. Even in translation there is something in Celtic poets like Duncan Ban Macintyre and Sorley MacLean that only shows itself in a few English poets: an earthy directness combined with an attention to natural details and an almost uncanny clarity of vision. Perhaps the quality lies in the landscape itself, although that reduction—like most reductions—would only beg the question of why these people have chosen to live where they live. Momcilo Selie says that you can always spot landscapes that would appeal to a Celt: the Scottish and Bosnian Highlands, the cliffs of Nova Scotia, the glens of the Smokies and the Ozarks.
If Celts had any sense, they would hole up in their glens and bid defiance to the world, but in the end they always fall in with the grand strategies of their leaders and end up displaced, like the Highlanders after the ’45, dispossessed like Mary Stuart, or disemboweled like Sir William Wallace. With any sense, they might not have followed General Lee into Pennsylvania or charged like madmen at Gettysburg; with any sense they might have told Bonnie Prince Charlie that they would not follow him into England (least of all to London); they would have insisted upon a repudiation of the Act of Union, and would have sworn loyalty to his father as King of Scotland on the same terms used by the signers of the Declaration of Arbroath, but it was in vain that Lord George Murray argued that the Highlanders, although they could not, would not fight for all of Britain, just might have been able to hold the Highland line long enough to attract foreign support. The vanity and ambition of the Stuarts was always their undoing, and the ’45 put an end to something far greater than their pretensions to royalty: it put an end to all hopes for an independent Scotland.
I know so little of war, not even the little that can be learned from books, that I ought to avoid even the strategy of hindsight. Walking over the vast and gently swelling field of Culloden Moor, I can only with the greatest difficulty imagine what the battle was like. I am more moved by the little monuments to the clans that mark the spots where their men fell. The dignified and pious stones set up by faithful relatives stand in strong contrast with the ugly modern signs written in an ambiguous language calculated neither to offend nor inspire. A father tries to explain to his son how members of the same family could be on different sides, and the boy comes up with the analogy of how he and his brother support different football teams. Perhaps fan loyalty is as close, in modern Scotland, as one can get to clan loyalty.
Looking out across the field, from the Culloden monument, I am surrounded by another family from somewhere near Edinburgh, the children all dressed in baggy pants and backwards baseball caps (there arc, by the way, Scottish rappers), and it occurs to me that it is not American military power that rules the world, nor even the power of American business: what conquers all, today, is the collective force of 250 million consumers whose mass-produced vulgarity saps and subverts the vitality of every human community that still has blood and breath in it. Disgusted to find Disney and Nike at Culloden, I begin to turn away, when one of the kids asks his father: “If the Jacobites were over there, then the government soldiers over there (pointing to the right), they were for Scotland?” “No, dear,” replies the father, “the Jacobites fought for Scotland.” The boy, persisting, actually wanting to know: “Then if I, if we, were back then in the 1800’s . . . “
“The 1740’s,” interjects the father.
“In the 1700’s, which side would we have been on?”
“With the Jacobites, of course.”
“But my friend Christopher, he’s English. Would he have fought on the bad side?”
The father is noncommittal. Christopher could become a Scot by living in Scotland: then he too might qualify as a Jacobite. Besides, he added, “There are lots of Americans with Scottish names, but just because your name is Scottish doesn’t make you a Scot.” No, but what does? There are lots of people in Edinburgh who feel themselves to be more British than Scottish, who really do seem to believe that Scotland is an English county. But here is a family, whose ancestors, if they had any political opinions in the 1740’s, probably feared the Highlanders, resented the Prince, and supported the current German lout on the English throne; and yet here they are, despite 250 years of English propaganda masquerading as British history, convinced that the Jacobites were the only true Scots. Some years ago I wrote in National Review that, on the principle that the victors always write the history, the South won the War Between the States. And if history, not the pap that is regurgitated and spat in children’s mouths by history teachers, but if real history is to be the criterion, then the Jacobites triumphed in the ’45.
Burns and Scott, Hugh McDiarmid and Douglas Young knew something that the present leadership of the Scots National Party will have to learn, if they are ever to get anything better for Scotland than a bigger piece of British tax revenues. In a very real sense a nation exists only in its songs and legends. The differences that separate social classes and regions even in tiny Scotland could never have been bridged without poetry, and the attractions of England or France would always have seduced aristocrats and intellectuals into foreign allegiances, if not for literary traditions that go back to Barbour, Blind Harry, and Gavin Douglas. The tragedy of Scotland—like the tragedy of America—is not that there are too few people writing what is called poetry, but that there arc so few poets who can give life to the nation. Before there can be a useful political revolution in either nation, there must first come that beating of the heart that can only be stirred by the poet.
Breathes there a man with soul so dead.
Who never to himself hath said.
This is my own my native land!
If Scott’s lines sound tinny and false to us today, it is not because they offend our finely tuned ears but because we are deaf to the music of the nation, and we are afraid to be caught out, loving anything better than our comfort. Poetry calls us to something beyond ourselves and better, and if another Scott or MacDiarmid comes to the Scots or to some fragment of America, we had better listen.