‘How British is Scotland? Romancing the Union’

Published on: Author: CSCS 1 Comment

On 14 January 2014, the Centre was pleased to welcome one of its members, Dr Catriona Macdonald, to discuss ‘How British is Scotland? Romancing the Union’ . This lecture marked the beginning of our 2014 seminar series and the new ‘How British is Scotland’ mini-series which will run through to June. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dr Macdonald astutely observed that ‘history’ is probably the most overused word in the current political discourse in Scotland. In September, the nation faces an ‘historic referendum’, the Commonwealth Games will offer reflection on the ‘history of Empire’, and even golf fans anticipate an ‘historic victory’ at the Ryder Cup in Scotland. Despite this oversaturation, Dr Macdonald argued that history will not help the undecided voter: the annals of the Scottish nation provide ample justifications for both sides of the debate. More important is the understanding of historiography, which can provide insight into how the dichotomy of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ developed. Dr Macdonald investigated these paradigms and how they were controversially challenged by independent historian, Andrew Lang (1844-1912).

In 1905, T.D. Wanliss, writing for the Ballarat Star in Australia, denounced Lang’s A History of Scotland series as ‘unfair’ and ‘hysterical’, and Lang himself as a ‘mercenary Scot’. Lang riposted that he had ‘no sympathy for the suppression of the truth’. Due to his status as an independent scholar, Lang was dismissed as an eccentric outsider by many within the academic community. His obituary in the Scotsman scathingly read, ‘much of his work is of no permanent value’. Hay Fleming from the University of St Andrews stated that as a historian, Lang was ‘neither accurate nor impartial’. To somewhat moderate these damning opinions, Hume Brown from the University of Edinburgh stated that Lang was one of the ‘brightest spirits of his time’.

In his own words, Lang felt history should be ‘recorded not only with accuracy but with charm’, an approach that challenged the scientific academic framework, perhaps explaining why academics were so harsh in their criticism (being the maternal grandson of Patrick Sellar could not have helped his image). Lang came to history fairly late in his literary career, having made a name for himself for his fairy tales and folklore. As a result, some felt he merely ‘dabbled’ in history.

Andrew Lang (1844-1912)

Lang courted controversy with his alternative reading of the Reformation, in which he claimed the ‘Reformed was a persecuting Church’. He attempted to recast the Stuart dynasty as inheritors of ‘Freedom’s Battle’ and successors of the old medieval champions, which chafed with the generally accepted hero figure of John Knox. In his biography of Knox (1905), Lang aimed to ‘get behind tradition’, and criticised Knox’s own autobiography for inherent bias. Dr Macdonald noted that his commitment to sound historical method would be commended by most modern historians. Lang was a proponent of the Union, yet maintained an equivocal attitude calling it the ‘least evil’ choice. Furthermore, he maintained that ‘religion made the Union inevitable’, and prevented the conquest of Scotland by England.

Sources fascinated Lang, and his romantic intent was balanced by a scientific approach. A wholly forensic approach did not appeal to him, instead ‘character’ and ‘action’ were his primary interests. He was often criticised for a ‘whimsical’ interest in ‘mystery’. For his alternative reading of Scottish history, Lang was accused of being a Jacobite sympathiser, but he was no apologist. Yes, he defended the actions of Mary of Guise, but noted she was not ‘innocent of treachery’. Furthermore, according to Lang, Bonnie Prince Charlie was ‘incapable of enduring misfortune’.

To conclude, Dr Macdonald argued that dichotomies, such as ‘head vs heart’ or ‘unionist vs patriot’, only serve to limit the current discourse. Lang confounded assumptions, and refused to be compartmentalised as a Unionist, a Jacobite or a Whig. Political pigeonholing is extremely common in the present day, yet, as shown by Lang, a more nuanced approach is often more reflective of general public opinion and is certainly healthier for debate.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series continues next week with Dr Karly Kehoe (Glasgow Caledonian University), ‘Our Worthy Countrymen?: Highland Development and the West Indies, 1750-1850’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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