How Scotland shook off the 'kilted straitjacket'
- 28 August 2014
- From the section Scotland
What is Scottish national identity and how is it expressed in art and music, literature and theatre?
What are the values that infuse it? And how did it break out of its kilted straitjacket to be shaped by the times we live in now?
If the modern Scottish identity has a birthplace, it's at Abbotsford, the country home, 40 miles south of Edinburgh, of Sir Walter Scott.
The novelist and poet, who died in 1832, designed it himself, with crow-stepped gables and Scots baronial turrets and crenellated balconies.
Scott invented modern Scotland here, summoned it from his own imagination, and served it up principally for English consumption.
News, analysis and background
- The people of Scotland go to the polls on Thursday, 18 September.
- They will be asked the Yes/No question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
- For the latest news, analysis and background on the referendum go to the BBC's Scotland Decides page.
Until then, Scotland had been, in the English imagination especially, a wild and lawless place that had to be subdued by force.
Scott made it safe, even romantic.
"Scott was very clear when he wrote his first novel, Waverley, that what he was doing was introducing Scottish readers to their own history, and English readers to Scotland's history," says Stuart Kelly, author of the critically acclaimed Scott-land: The man who invented a nation.
"But there is something fictitious about it all, not fake but fictitious."
We are sitting in Scott's impressive drawing room at Abbotsford and Kelly gestures to what appears to be the finely carved, oak-wood ceiling above us.
"This wonderful roof is modelled on Rosslyn Chapel," he says, "but it isn't even wood. It's papier mache and sawdust.
"This whole place is a kind of theatrical set.
"But there's something good about that, the idea that our identity is not something fixed, that it's something changeable, that Scott could actively go out there and think 'I will change the way people think about Scotland'."
Dancing around swords
Victorian Britain loved this manufactured Scotland and bought it wholesale.
Queen Victoria mimicked it in the design of her Scottish retreat at Balmoral. This Scotland sat comfortably in the prospering British Union.
But a generation emerged in the 1970s that wondered why it was still, so late in the 20th Century, watching men in kilts dancing around swords while demure ladies in white frocks and tartan sashes looked on.
Why, it wondered, was Scotland still presenting itself in this way when none of us knew anyone who actually did this kind of thing?
"Kilts, haggis, the White Heather Club… on television as a young person, certainly growing up in Scotland, I didn't feel like it related very much to me," Scots actress and comedian Elaine C Smith told me.
"I didn't look out there and see anyone that reflected me at all."
But that Scotland - that sense of what the country was - had been carried around the world by the British Empire.
The canny Scot and the dour Scot, and their cousin the chippie Scot, landed on every shore.
They dressed in tartan and toasted Robert Burns every January and sang sweet, sentimental songs about exile and distance and longing for a Scotland which didn't really exist; a Scotland which was an imagined romantic construct.
That Scotland was tame, it was safe, it knew its place in the greater scheme of things.
It had a rebellious past that could be saluted and celebrated as long as that rebelliousness stayed safely in the past.
And that Scotland survived well into our own age. Think of Private Fraser in Dad's Army.
"One Saturday night, at the age of 15 or something, on to the television came a version of John McGrath's play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil," says Smith.
"And it changed my life really. I had never seen my own culture and my own country reflected back to me in the way that it did.
"There was a sort of reclaiming of who we were."
The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil drew a direct line between the Highland Clearances of the 18th Century and the sudden, catastrophic decline of heavy industry in the 20th.
This was a powerful new voice in Scottish culture. It was an angry play.
It was produced by a theatre company called 7:84, so named because 7% of the population of the country owned 84% of the wealth.
Scottish national identity began to wrap itself in the cause of social justice - in the idea of resistance to unaccountable wealth and power imposing its will from outside.
Voice of cities
"The reason Scottish identity so closely allied with left-of-centre politics, a sense of social justice and inclusion is because of the mauling Scotland perceived itself to get during the Thatcherite years," says the novelist James Robertson.
"Thatcherism was obviously disliked by lots of people in lots of other parts of the British Isles, but it seems to me that in Scotland, because we had a sense of national identity, we had something to coalesce around, to respond to.
"Culture, it seems to me, is a way of asking questions about who we are, or who do we think we are.
"And those questions can be much more easily answered through culture than through politicians standing up and sort of wagging fingers at people and saying this is who you are."
This Scotland was also irreverent, self-mocking, and hilariously funny.
Billy Connolly, who'd been a Glasgow shipyard welder, spoke for a Scotland that now began to eclipse the old stereotype.
This wasn't just funny. It was genuinely liberating.
This was the Scotland that emerged to replace the heirs of Harry Lauder and Balmorality and the green hills of Tyrol.
This Scotland was urban with a collective folk memory of displacement from a rural past.
This Scotland felt increasingly dispossessed as the industries that had serviced the British Empire collapsed and spoke in the voice of the cities, especially of Glasgow.
This Scotland was dismayed by what was happening.
It was angrier, less tame, less docile, more political.
It didn't much care about the Bonnie Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond and it didn't know the difference between the low road and the high road.
This Scotland was much less British.
Revival of identity
Scottish children had always been punished for using Scots idioms and locutions in school.
Standard English was thumped into you. But by the 1980s, publishers wanted literature to reflect the demotic speech of ordinary folk.
"They realised there was a market for work in which we talked about ourselves in our own terms," says Liz Lochhead, one of Scotland's most celebrated poets and playwrights.
"And then with the first failed referendum [on devolution in 1979] there really was, afterwards, a sort of sense of depression, which then expressed itself in a sense of let's get on with it, and... a revival of Scottish identity."
In the visual arts too you sense this gradual decoupling.
Ross Sinclair is one of a group of young artists who emerged from the Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s.
He says for his generation of artists, Scotland's access to the wider world no longer lies through London alone.
"London still has its thrall, it's still fantastic.... but there are all these other kinds of relationships, in Europe and Berlin and Scandinavia and the States, China and Africa - just thinking of projects that are kind of going at the moment.
"These are relationships that aren't based on some kind of historical premise that has this sort of built-in power relationship.
"These are new, fresh relationships, horizontal, organic, there is a feeling that anything can happen."
Scotland's independence debate is shaped by this change in the way the country represents itself.
It is a sentiment that chimes with Walter Scott, for whom Scotland was, of necessity, outward looking, internationalist in character.
Pushing at boundaries
"Waverley's the great novel of border crossing," says Stuart Kelly.
"Scottish novels from the 18th Century to the early 20th Century often feature characters who will cross borders, who will experience more than one country.
"Now by contrast... the great English novels of the 19th Century are very settled affairs.
"The truly great novels, the kind of Bleak House novels, or Jude the Obscure, or Middlemarch, these are not novels about travel."
Walter Scott conjured a Scottish identity that could fit in a wider British context.
Scotland's artists have been pushing at the boundaries of that for 40 years.