‘How British is Scotland? Celtic Perspectives on Multiculturalism’

Published on: Author: CSCS 1 Comment

On 20 May 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome Professor Thomas Clancy to discuss  ‘How British is Scotland? Celtic Perspectives on Multiculturalism’. This was the penultimate lecture in the ‘How British is Scotland?’ series, and followed Professor Driscoll and Dr Campbell’s joint-lecture in April. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

It is probably no accident that the independence referendum in September 2014 has been timed to coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. However, Professor Clancy highlighted the date of his lecture (20th May) marks the anniversary of another important battle in Scotland’s history, the Battle of Nechtansmere, or Dùn Nechtain. Fought on the 20th of May 685, it saw the defeat and death of Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria,  by the Picts under their king, Bridei. The result resounded across Britain and was recorded by Bede, Historia Brittorum and the Irish annals. The Annals of Ulster state:

The battle of Dún Nechtain was fought on Saturday, May 20th, and Egfrid son of Oswy, king of the Saxons, who had completed the 15th year of his reign, was slain therein with a great body of his soldiers…

Previously, English Northumbria had controlled southern Pictland, but the outcome of the battle forced their permanent retreat south of the Forth. Both culturally and linguistically, it was a hugely significant moment, yet any ‘patriotic fervour should be contained’. It was not an ethnically or nationally aligned ‘us and them’ conflict; in fact, it was fought between cousins (Bridei and Ecgfrith). Furthermore, Ecgfrith was not an ‘English’ king but the ‘ruler of an English kingdom’ in southern Scotland, and some evidence suggests his father was raised in Gaelic-speaking Argyll.

Early medieval Britain was not a simple place. Bede famously claimed there were four nations–English, British, Gaels and Picts–and each had their own distinct language, while Latin was shared by all of them. Bede’s sense of  ‘Britishness’ was a multi-linguistic identity.

The Hunterston Brooch, found in Ayrshire in the 19th century, is a beautiful example of insular design from the 8th century:

Hunterston Brooch (made c. 700)
Hunterston Brooch (made c. 700)

On the reverse of the brooch there is an inscription in Old Norse runes, probably made in the 10th century, which states: ‘Mael Brigde owns this brooch’. Maél Brigda was evidently a Gael and the brooch serves as a fitting reminder that Scotland was a point of intersection for many different languages and cultures. Indeed, Professor Clancy argued that Scotland was the most linguistically diverse country in Europe, and this multi-faceted heritage should be embraced. In recent years there has been a drive to identity the ‘essence of Scottishness’, often manifested in competitions like ‘Celt Vs Teuton’, yet this ‘all or nothing’ approach runs the risk of ethnically cleansing the rich, varied linguistic history of the country.

Reverse of the Hunterston Brooch with Old Norse runes.
Reverse of the Hunterston Brooch with Old Norse runes.

Linguistic labels carry latent valency and can accentuate or sever continuities. For example, the so-called ‘British’ language has also been called Cumbric or Welsh, and the latter creates a continuity with the modern language. Gaelic speakers in Scotland have been called ‘Scots’ or ‘Irish’, and both labels pose problems of cultural disenfranchisement. Professor Clancy suggested the label of ‘Gael’ at least provides the language with a sense of distinct identity.

In 1998, Professor Clancy edited The Triumph Treea compilation of Scotland’s earliest poetry encompassing five languages:  Latin, Welsh, Gaelic, Old English and Norse. It caused considerable controversy at the time (and to this day), and has been criticised for ‘stealing’ the national literature of other countries, such as Y Gododdin. Professor Clancy argued that we must ‘decouple national literature from our national story’ and adopt a multi-cultural viewpoint on our medieval legacies. If Scotland can embrace this ideology it can become much more ‘British’ than Michael Gove’s ‘retro-Victorian’ education system in England. The book Wish I Was Here: A Scottish Multicultural Anthology could be said to embody this ethos, and serves as an antidote to ‘southern UKIP triumphalism’.

Tempering this optimism, Professor Clancy acknowledged that the relationship between the different languages of Scotland could be less than friendly, expressed famously in The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. Dunbar accuses the Gaelic-speaking Kennedy of cultural and political treason:

Erse bryber bard, vile beggar with thy brats,
Cuntbitten crawdon Kennedy, coward of kind,
Ill-fared and dried as Danesman on the ratts,
Like as the gledds had on thy gules snout dined,
Mismade monster, each moon out of thy mind,
Renounce, ribald, thy rhyming, thou but roys.
Thy treacher tongue has ta’en a Highland strynd,
A Lowland arse would make a better noise.

Kennedy rebukes Dunbar on equal terms:

Thou lov’st no Ersh, elf, I understand,
But it should be all true Scotmen’s lede.
It was the good language of this land
And Scota it caused to multiply and spread
While Corspatrik, that we of treason read,
Thy forefather, made Irish and Irish men thin,
Through his treason brought English rumples in.
So would thyself, mightst thou to him succeed.

While acknowledging this antagonism, Professor Clancy nevertheless decided to conclude his inspiring lecture on a more hopeful note with the words of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues on 10th June with Prof Murray Pittock’s ‘How British is Scotland? Flying the Flag for the Union? Scotland 2014: Yes or No, What Happens Next’. This will be held in the Boyd Orr Lecture Theatre 1 at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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