‘How British Is Scotland? Anglification and the Arts of Resistance’

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On 4 February 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome Professor Alan Riach to discuss ‘How British is Scotland? Anglification and the Arts of Resistance’. This was the second-part of the ‘How British is Scotland?’ series which runs throughout the year. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Beginning with a proposition–that a distinctive national culture leads to the creation and development of a unique artistic identity–Prof. Riach’s sweeping lecture covered many topics and genres, not least Scottish Literature. It was also full of amusing and revealing anecdotes, such as Prof. Riach’s appearance on Newsnight in November 2011 when he was asked if there was ‘such a thing as Scottish Literature’. Momentarily dumbfounded, Alison Kennedy responded for Prof. Riach by asserting that Scotland is a place with a deep history and culture, so of course it has its own unique literature!

Prof. Riach discussed famous British composers, such as Vaughan Williams and Elgar, who he described as ‘quintissentially English’, in the most most positive sense. In a candid comment, Vaughan Williams claimed that a musician’s style derives from their mother tongue. His own travels to France allowed him to reaffirm his sense of Englishness, which translated to his compositions. This concept resonated with J.D. Ferguson, a Scottish artist from the early 20th century, who claimed an independent nation will intrinsically have independent arts.

J.D. Ferguson, 'Les Eus' (c. 1910)
J.D. Ferguson, ‘Les Eus’ (c. 1910)

J.D. Ferguson’s ‘Les Eus’ is just one example of high art by a Scot that could not have been made anywhere, even if it was influenced by other movements and techniques across the world. Art can be universal and distinctive. (Prof. Riach made the amusing/provocative comment that if ‘Les Eus’ was hung all over Scotland, especially in churches, then Scotland would already be independent!)

Alasdair Gray’s controversial article of December 2012, ‘Settlers and Colonists’, was sensationalised by the media, but it also made an important observation that was buried beneath the catcalls. Between 1980-87, four major exhibitions in Glasgow showcased Scottish art and represented local, homegrown talent. However in 1990, the year Glasgow was the European Capital of Culture, a new arts director was chosen, an Englishman, and Scotland was barely represented in the exhibitions. Prof. Riach did not linger on this point for too long, instead he emphasised that Gray is implicitly making a positive point by drawing attention to the wasted potential of this ignored art.

‘British’ is generally considered to mean one of three things:

1) British = English (total ellision)

2) British = predominantly English, but other nations are included in proportion to demography

3) British = a union between equal nations

Prof. Riach argued that the first conception is problematic, but only based on pure ignorance. More insidious is the second option based on demography, as it has an inbuilt argument to justify why England is the dominant partner.

In an article in the Herald in February 2013, Prof. Riach outlined the crucial role of the ‘cultural argument’ in the Independence debate, claiming:

‘There is only one argument for Scottish independence: the cultural argument. It was there long before North Sea oil was discovered, and it will be here long after the oil has run out.’

Daniel Torrance called Prof. Riach’s argument a ‘rather vague notion’ and drew attention to the uniformity of interest in popular culture across the British Isles, including chart music, film and television. Prof. Riach was unconvinced by this riposte, pointing out that Torrance’s proposition is loaded, and will necessitate a predetermined outcome of ‘100% British’. He challenged Torrance to admit there truly is no cultural and artistic distinctiveness in Scotland.

Much of the lecture was a sequel of sorts to Prof. Riach’s ‘cultural argument’ and further underlined his points, while stressing the ‘good nationalism’ that is generally championed by the Scottish artistic community.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Next week, 11 February 2014, our seminar series continues with Dr Domhnall Uilleam Stiubhart’s (Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and University of Edinburgh), ‘A Murder Mystery from Barra: The Killing of the Big Parson, 1609’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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