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Ossian and the Last Minstrel – Scottish Review of Books
by Angus Dunn

Ossian and the Last Minstrel

November 2, 2009 | by Angus Dunn

IN 1968, I am walking up Muindi Mbingu Street in Nairobi, heading towards the University, when I see Ngugi wa Thiong’o marching towards me. When I had taken up my job in the University Literature Department not long before, I had been delighted to find that my office was next to Ngugi’s – he was already a famous novelist. With a huge grin, Ngugi now hails me ironically – “BWANA CALDER! Let’s have a drink.” We swivel into a small bar propped up by a very tall, very black African, known to Ngugi, who introduces us. “If you are Angus,” says this man, “you must be Scots.” Quick as a flash, I reply, “If you are Patrick, you must be Irish.”

The point of recounting this is not to drop a big name but to demonstrate at once a truth and an absurdity. The absurdity is that Patrick had no more just cause to assume at once that I must be Scots on the strength of my given name than I had to hail him as Irish. Educated in England, I spoke, as I still do after living for rising three and a half decades in Lothian, with an RP English accent. Patrick was not to know that I had just co-published a short book on Walter Scott and played Scottish songs obsessively on my gramophone. Parents in England had been giving my name to – for instance – Angus Deayton the actor and TV presenter and Angus Fraser the Middlesex and England pace bowler. And, bearing on the topic of Michael Fry’s new book, Patrick could hardly have surmised that while my branch of the Calders had once been Gaelic speakers from near Culloden, ‘Angus’ was given me by my father in honour of the Anglo – or Scotto-phone county where he had been born. I am not a Gaelic Aonghas or Aeneas.

But the important truth attendant on my encounter with Patrick is this: Kenyan Africans were, and perhaps still are, well attuned to spot differences between Scots and English. It had been Scots Presbyterian missionaries who between the wars had caused crisis in Kikuyuland by attempting to stamp out female circumcision, the basis of Ngugi’s novel A River Between. It was Scottish Country Dancing, not Morris Dancing, which was widely inflicted on African school students.

The arrival at once of new books by Michael Fry and Allan Massie, both concerned with the partly idiotic and partly essential question “What is Scottish Identity?” is piquant. Both are dedicated to the memory of the inspirational Scottish agent Giles Gordon, who died in November 2003. Both are published by John Murray, the firm which once handled George Gordon, Lord Byron, whose identity – “half a Scot and bred a whole one” – has intrigued so many of us recently. Both belong to the ever-more-interesting grouplet of identifiably Tory intellectuals in Scotland. Years back, in the night bar on the sleeper to London I was sitting across the corridor from George Younger, the Tory grandee, and Michael Hirst, then Chairman of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Younger was musing aloud about its poor quality of constituency workers and the fact that the Left dominated the Scottish scribbling classes and intelligentsia. “We’ve only got XY,” he lamented, naming a journalist so puerile that I scorn to mention him by name – who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? The fact that he didn’t mention Fry and Massie suggests to me that he thought them too intelligent and independent-minded to be reliable. At that time, the Tories still had a number of Westminster MPs from Scotland. Now they are down to one, Massie and Fry might be compared to Scott’s Last Minstrel and Macpherson’s Ossian.

Both, it must be said at once, write extremely well – Massie with the gentle elegance of a novelist who has pondered deeply on human nature in general as well as Scottish conundrums in particular, Fry with the ebullience of an enthusiast and polemicist, who cannot resist frequent sallies against Scotland’s “sub-Marxist historians” and “dependency culture”.

One’s first thought on picking up Fry’s book is that he is charging like a brave bull into the arena believing that picador and matador won’t finish him off. Already intrinsically suspect with many Highlanders as a once-active Tory educated in England, he is intent on a radical deconstruction of the idea that ‘Clearances’ – a term first applied by Hugh Miller of Cromarty in the 1840s which unfortunately now chimes with a new expresssion, ‘ethnic cleansing’ – were genocidally aimed at the destruction of Gaelic Scotland. His Preface, however, warmly acknowledges help from distinguished people who disagree with his “general outlook on Highland history” – James Hunter, David Ross of the Herald (who introduced him to Sorley MacLean), Farquhar Mackintosh. His relationship with the Gaelic language is enigmatic. Can he read it? Speak it? I’ve never encountered a history book which quotes poetry (almost all in Gaelic, with English cribs) so often and pray for him that he and Murray’s proofreaders have seen to it that all is correctly spelt.

Fry has scholarship, much of it archival and original, on his side. No reasonable person can dispute key facts. Until the early nineteenth century, emigration from the Highlands was a voluntary response to awkward conditions. Exceptions were those clansmen transported as virtual slaves to the Americas by chiefs who got paid per head for them. As such unsavoury incidents exemplified, the disintegration of the patriarchal feudalism of clan chiefs had begun well before the ’45. This left the daoine uaisle or ‘tacksman’ – a kinsman who collected the chief’s rents and officered his army in time of conflict – without a role at a time when steeply rising population was bearing down hard on available fertile land and only the potato – first cultivated in the Hebrides in 1843 – fended off famine. Tacksmen accordingly took groups of their clansmen to America aiming to recreate a Highland pastoral community in the New World. Many chiefly lairds were alarmed by large scale emigration. Considerations of sentiment and prestige aside, clansmen were needed to collect kelp for potash, which relieved, during the Napoleonic Wars, the chronic and often calamitous indebtedness of chiefs. Lord Selkirk collected colonists for his settlement in prairie Canada in the teeth of opposition, also, from the London government which saw the Highlands as a reservoir of fierce, kilted fighting men for the British army. The 1800 Passenger Act which imposed higher standards of accommodation on ships crossing the Atlantic was devised partly to make these vessels too expensive for Highlanders wanting to get out.

Meanwhile in 1792, local people in Easter Ross rounded up 6000 sheep imported by a Highland tenant (Cameron) into the estate of Sir Hector Munro of Novar and attempted to drive them away. Confronted by three companies of the Black Watch, they desisted. The symbolic juncture of Sheep with Clearance followed nearly quarter of a century later. In 1814, Patrick Sellar, later the greatest sheep-owner in Britain, descended on Strathnaver and forced its people out with horrific brutality. He had the authority of his employer, Elizabeth Gordon, Duchess of Sutherland. She soon recoiled from his abrasive personality. Her intentions, and those of her English consort were essentially benevolent – inland Sutherland was more suitable for sheep than agriculture, and ‘her’ people would be better off fishing out of Wick or mining coal in Brora. Fry, twisting his knickers somewhat, cannot restrain himself from having a go at her factor, James Loch. Surely Fry, as a free-marketeer of the deepest dye, should approve of the Edinburgh Reviewers who carried the doctrines of Adam Smith triumphantly into battle? But he writes about Loch, one of these doctrinaire Liberals, with marked sarcasm. And the fortune which the Sutherlands, guided by Loch, spent on ‘improving’ their vast estate did not lead to significant profits for themselves, let alone the industrialisation of the Highlands.

Some chiefly landlords at this time, desperate to extract income from their territories, did indeed, disgracefully, shoo off Highlanders without provision for their futures. But after Munro of Novar did this to 500 tenants in Easter Ross, at Culrain, in 1820, as John Prebble noted, there were no more great clearances for twenty years. An apparent spate around mid-century represented the climax of ‘industrial revolution’. For Liberal doctrinaires who had refused effective state intervention in the Irish famine, wool was important, half-starved cottars had better shift their bums to the cities. But it was notable that when the potato blight arrived in Scotland, famine was prevented largely by altruistic landlords. Sutherland reached a peak of population (26,000) in 1851. “During the later nineteenth century, the net effect of emigration from the Highlands was a fall in the region’s population no greater than in comparable areas of the Lowlands…The decline of 9 per cent contrasts with one of 28 per cent in Ireland over the same period.” Thus Fry.

That such fairly secure statistics will seem provocative to some of Fry’s Highland readers exemplifies the belief among Gaels that their fate was somehow uniquely terrible. Now, before matador after matador leaves Fry on one side and lunges at me, I had better clarify my own position. Fry observes that in depopulation, “The Highlands differed not a whit from similar areas of Europe, and Highlanders not a whit from similar peas-antries in Europe, whether in Wales or Wallachia, in the Spanish or the Polish Galicia.” But there is a notable “whit” of difference.

In the flat Midlands of England, subjected to enclosure for sheep-farming since at least the sixteenth century, when Thomas More criticised it, at last a great poet’s voice arose in protest – John Clare’s, in the early nineteenth century. But I have not heard Clare’s lyrics sung in the bars of Northamptonshire, and doubt if many Midland fiddlers and bagpipers (both exist) evoke in their playing traditions a rich and distinctive local culture. The Welsh don’t bang on about nineteenth-century emigrations, and indeed seem pleased to have an outpost in Patagonia. The Irish can’t deny that they ‘cleared’ themselves, mostly, during and after their famine. The destruction of peasant societies was implicit in nineteenth-century industrialisation. Two factors make the Gaelic Highlands a “whit” different. One was the association of emigration with a perceived assault on Gaelic language and traditions. The other was the nutriment provided for great traditions of song and instrumental music by loss and grievance. The tragedy of Gaeldom therefore persists in consciousness as almost the universal prototype of ‘clearance’ everywhere.

And the decline of Gaeldom coincided with a climate of warm sympathy for Gaels among many Lowland Scots and people much further afield. Fry charts (himself, for the most part, sympathetically) the transition from 1600, when James VI was talking almost genocidally about his fractious, thieving Northern subjects, through the War of the Three Nations which pitched ‘savage’ Highlanders and Irish in Montrose’s royalist army against Lowland Presbyterians piously possessed with the idea that their Scotland was, like Israel, a “sworn nation of the Lord”, and horrific atrocities were committed by both sides. Then came the confusing period when the Highlands became the epicentre of armed Jacobitism, not because support for the Stuarts was uniquely concentrated there, but because the clan system readily provided effective soldiers in numbers after commercial success had pacified Lowlands and Eng-land. That the disaster which the feckless Charles Edward inflicted on the Gaels at and after Culloden was so speedily followed by glamorisation of this defeated people can be largely explained by the success of Highland soldiers in war against France, partly by the cult success of Macpherson’s Ossian, a “Northern Homer” without sexually capricious pagan Gods and masking the brutality of battle (so naked in the Iliad with entrancing rhetoric. The olden Gaels were now venerated, in the era when the concept of the Noble Savage crazed even highly intelligent people. The seal was set on Gaelic glory when Queen Victoria chose Balmoral as her favourite residence and took to a new height the mania for tartan initiated during George IV’s notorious “jaunt” to Edinburgh in 1822. And remarkably, in an industrialised, imperialised, globalised world where languages and cultures have gone down like ninepins, Gaelic survives, if not as a living first language, with a culture treasured by all civilised Scots. Allan Massie foreseees a future for Gaelic as a “hobby”, but neither that word nor “lifestyle choice” will do, since “Gaelic learners” – non-native speakers seeking instruction – take the language very seriously indeed.

On the manifold ironies involved in this history, Fry is persuasively well-informed. The Highland regiments became the basis of a new Britishised – and militarised – Scottish sense of identity. Everywhere people know what a Scot looks like. Whether institutionally, as a soldier or piper, or parodically, as in the Tartan Army, this guy wears a kind of skirt. His favourite instrument – very noisy – is the bagpipe. Fry picks his way through minefields of controversy to show us convincingly how the iconic Kilted Scot was assembled. About the “somewhat obscure” history of tartan he is circumspect. It was somehow definitive enough by 1745 for Prince Charles Edward to order all his men – including Lowlanders, English and French – to wear it. This was six years after the Black Watch had first been recruited by the crown, with its dark kilt. The kilt was more suited to battle than the belted, sometimes tartan, plaid which it replaced. Further Highland regiments played variations on the Black Watch model. Campbells, Gordons and Seaforth Mackenzies adopted regimental tartans as their family heritage. When the Cameron Highlanders were first raised in 1793, the mother of its colonel likewise invented a tartan for the Camerons. The rest of the tartan story can be consigned to the histories of mass production, exploitation of tourists, and even high fashion. The regiments added sporrans (invented about 1770), dirks, powder horns, Glengarries, decorative basket hilts for swords and, as Fry puts it, “what not”.

Fry’s book is highly entertaining. He begins each chapter with a dramatic story, usually violent, from the arrival at Holyrood of Sir Robert Carey with the news of Elizabeth I’s death and Jamie Saxt’s succession in 1603, through Culloden, to the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. He writes with welcome sympathy about the rise of Evangelical Calvinism (that contradiction in terms) in nineteenth-century Gaeldom, and will surprise his detractors by the well-informed enthusiasm he expresses for the poetry of Sorley MacLean, even digressing somewhat to praise MacLean’s friend MacDiarmid, and passing lightly over the fact that both these men were not “sub-Marxists” but in their own ways very committed Marxists.

Towards the end of his survey, his prejudices sometimes become irritating. He vehemently dislikes the Crofter’s Act of 1888 and subsequent legislation giving security to Highland smallholders – the land, he thinks, would be better employed in large ranches – without explaining how utter depopulation could otherwise have been resisted. The economic case against crofts is easily made, but as kindly Southern statesmen have often recognised, the problems of the Highlands can’t be reduced to economics. From failed early-modern iron foundries to the collapse of the aluminium works at Invergordon in 1981, the Northern tale is littered with quixotic or briefly successful attempts to create thriving industries.

Fry intermittently grumbles and jousts – Massie is unflaggingly irenic. The key here is his reverence for that undoubted Tory Walter Scott. Fry acknowledges Scott’s greatness in his way – pointing out that in 1822, organising the pageantry around George IV’s visit, Scott found that Scottish traditions of ceremony had been lost – so, along with promoting tartan, he simply invented traditions, brilliantly. Massie sees him, rightly I think, as the man who conceived – not invented – our history. His mastery of documentation matched that of Edward Gibbon, perhaps the inventor of ‘scientific’ historiography. His imagination recreated whole societies of clever lawyers, polished Cavaliers, gritty Pres-byterians, drunken sailors, unfortunate fishermen, pawky merchants – a “new edition of human nature” as Hazlitt put it – as no novelist had attempted before him. He was quite sensibly compared with Shakespeare, whose plays he revelled in. England and Europe were spellbound by his “Scotch novels”. From them Balzac took off in one direction, Pushkin in another. The “deeply English” fiction of the Brontes and Hardy would be inconceivable without his influence. I point out that Neil Davidson, a Trotskyite Marxist, praises Scott as warmly as Massie in his recent, excellent study of the Scottish revolution which he argues took place between 1690 and 1750.

Scott, to the puzzlement of many today, was simultaneously a devoted Scottish patriot and a man wholehearted in his British identity. In his conclusion to a book which he modestly presents as “a book of essays” but which in fact, succinctly and elegantly covers its subject from the Dark Ages to the present day, Massie says “The political Union may one day be dissolved, but the new Scotland that would then come into being would itself be the child of the centuries of Union, a product of the British experience.” I do not see how any sane person can dispute this. For that matter – as Massie stresses – an England disencumbered of us will still bear the marks of “Scotification” – the influence of Scottish writers, Scottish artists and architects, Scottish music, on the sense English people can have of their place in the world. Adam Smith captured the mind of Pitt the Younger. In the nineteenth century, sales of cheap poetry books published in the North of England show that Burns was more popular there than Wordsworth. Carlyle overawed the Victorian intelligentsia of London, while people whose ideas he detested – the utilitarian policy makers of the metropolis and the great provincial English cities – were under the spell of ideas developed from Scotland’s Enlightenment. (Three of Queen Victoria’s early prime ministers, Melbourne, Palmerston and Russell, had studied at Edinburgh University.) What could be more ‘English’ than Gibbs’ Building at King’s College, Cam-bridge and Sion House by London, both designed by Scots?

But Massie, in a confessional introduction, avers that when he was a student at Cam-bridge and young man in London, university and metropolis felt to him not English but British. London was capital, after all, of the Empire, not just England. Few friends at Cambridge actually had two English parents – the upper middle class products of English public schools were partly Scottish or half-Scottish by birth, often more complexly cosmopolitan. The imperial elite of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had been, in the same way, ‘British’, not simply ‘English’. One can extend such insights in various directions. Telford’s Iron Bridge in the “heart of England” is clearly a British not Scottish construction. The Glaswegian Archie Leitch who designed Ibrox stadium (1900) went on to create many football grounds in England, from Newcastle (St James) to Southampton (The Dell) on similar lines.

Football itself, which arrived in Scotland from England as a wild melee, in which men charged individualistically up and down the pitch, was transformed from the 1870s, to the present game which obsesses the English, based on passing, by Scottish players. (I cannot, alas, make a similar claim for cricket, though Michael Fry some years back was arguing that John Nyren of the Hambledon Club whose writings represented ethos and codification of the game in the eighteenth century was actually a Jacobite fugitive, real name Nairn.)

Massie can claim eight Scottish great-grandparents, mostly farmers, all from Aberdeenshire and Banffshire. His father left the north-east as a young man to plant rubber in Malaya, since he had not the capital to farm at home. So Massie was born in Singa-pore and educated, back here, at Glenalmond School, a public boarding school founded for Episcopalians. Though Scots have provided famous Archbishops of Can-terbury, the Scottish ‘piskies’, with their traditions of Jacobitism, are not to be lightly confused with the Church of England. In a further twist to his ‘identity’, Massie eventually settled in the Borders – chosen heartland of his hero Walter Scott and the only area of Scotland where rugby developed as a plebeian sport. Whereas cricket is relatively most popular in the nationalistic north-east.

Scott delighted in such diversity within his own, his native land, and had no problem with Empire. A son served with distinction in the army in India – whence two of Burns’s sons “retired, as colonels did, to Cheltenham”. The moment of George IV’s jaunt in 1822 represented a climax of Scottish ‘Britishness’, with Highlanders reconciled visibly to their Hanoverian monarch and everyone in awe of the Scottish soldiers who had defeated Napoleon. The world wars of the last century were similarly ‘Britifying’ in the short run. But the First was followed by a depression in which Scottish industry and agriculture suffered horribly, mass emigration resulted, and the habit of blaming the English for everything began. Another Britifying experience in services and industry in the Second was cancelled out as the bankrupted Empire began to fall apart, and within quarter of a century nationalism was a force in Scottish politics for the first time. The rise of the Home Rule cause and concomitant slump of Scottish Unionism followed. The notion of ‘British identity’ is not now popular in Scotland. Massie, however, poses an interesting question when he points out that black and Asian people in England may be happier to be ‘British’ than ‘English’. We have to modify our sense of ‘identity’ to accommodate immigrants, but I think myself that reverting to ‘Britishness’ is not the way.

Massie, as we’d expect, writes very acutely about fellow-writers and their complex relations to various Scotlands. John Buchan idealised both Border country and Oxfordshire; Eric Linklater. born in Wales, identified with Orkney and died a stubborn imperialist after the Empire had become extinct. Massie’s case for the non-Englishness of Evelyn Waugh, of Scottish ancestry which included the great Lord Cockburn, is fascinating but unconvincing. All I’ll concede is that having such a perfect stylist as Cockburn in your lineage must affect a writer’s consciousness, and Waugh retorted, as one might put it, with supreme style. Massie’s title is either trite or ironic (or perhaps irony resides in the triteness?) The thistle is nothing if not Scottish, but the “little white rose of Scotland”, in Mac-Diarmid’s haunting poem, breaks the Scottish heart, not the English heart.

Though I personally favour Scottish independence, within Europe or outside it, I would be happy to see our Scottish Executive present The Thistle and the Rose to every secondary fourth-former in the country. It could be prophylactic against rather dangerous silliness like “I hate the English for what they did to us at Culloden” (from where the cruellest pursuers of defeated Gaels were in fact Scottish Lowlanders in Cumberland’s army). It demonstrates incontrovertibly how much we have in common with the English. This is just as well, since we have to live on the same island. We have had no organised violence against the Union on Irish lines, and we haven’t even burnt English holiday homes like the Welsh. Our greatest English bugaboo is a rather silly, bearded football commentator. Long may affairs remain thus.

By Michael Fry, John Murray, £25
ISBN: 0719561035

By Allan Massie, John Murray, £20
ISBN: 0719559995

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