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Shopping For Tartan – Scottish Review of Books
by Richard Holloway

Shopping For Tartan

September 14, 2013 | by Richard Holloway

Something Hugh MacDiarmid said in his book, Scottish Eccentrics, is the interpretive key to this elegantly constructed and beautifully written collection of essays, but before turning to MacDiarmid let me first say something about the author of Scotland the Brave. Bliss Carnochan is the Richard W.Lyman Professor of the Humanities, emeritus, at Stanford University in California; just as importantly, he describes himself as a fifth-generation Scottish-American. He tells us in his foreword that at the turn of the nineteenth century, three Carnochan brothers made their way from Dumfries and Galloway in the south-west of Scotland to the New World, first to the Caribbean and then to the American South. One of them was his great-great-grandfather John. Clock the hyphens in that ‘fifth-generation Scottish-American’ description as I turn now to MacDiarmid’s famous words.

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In his chapter, Three Skeptics: Lord Monboddo, Robert Chambers, Richard Holloway, Carnochan reminds us that the final chapter of MacDiarmid’s bookis called ‘The Caledonian Antisyzygy’. My dictionary defines antisyzygy as the presence of two opposing or contending polarities in the same entity. MacDiarmid said of the Caledonian version of this phenomenon that ‘in the make-up of almost every distinguished Scot’ there were present ‘contradictions of character’ and ‘antinomies and antithetical impulses’. Since I am cited by Carnochan as an example of this well-known Jekyll and Hyde theory of Scottish character, I feel obliged to offer here a personal response to his analysis of my own history and personality.

The first thing I want to say is that, while he may be considered too generous in his assessment of the way I handled my own struggles with faith and doubt, I think his diagnosis is correct: I am a divided man. But that, I suspect, is true of many of us, and not just Scots. It is why I am fond of Graham Greene, another dodgy double-minded man. He claimed for himself some lines from ‘Bishop Blougram’s Apology’ by Robert Browning:

Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things.

The honest thief, the tender murderer,

The superstitious atheist…

That’s why many of Greene’s characters are double-agents of one sort or another, traitors to the values they revere even as they subvert them. But I think MacDiarmid was right to identify this capacity for living with antinomies and antithetical impulses as particularly Scottish. The secret lies in refusing to resolve the antinomy by flight into the absolute certainty of one of the opposing poles, which is what dogmatic religion and dogmatic politics do. As Charles Williams, another celebrant of the Christian antisyzygy, put it: This also is Thou; Neither is this Thou. However, even if you are bored with or have never bought into this classic reading of the Scottish character, it does, as I said at the top of this review, provide us with a useful key to interpreting Carnochan’s book, so let me jump to some examples.

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And where better to begin than with the invention of Highlandism? A key event in the formation of one of Scotland’s most potent myths was the visit to Edinburgh of George IV in 1822, the whole pantomime stage managed by the great impresario himself, Sir Walter Scott. We know that the corpulent monarch wore pink tights under his kilt as he was helped off the boat in Leith where he was met by Scotland’s elite, themselves wrapped in the tartan that had been proscribed after Culloden, but was now the official brand of the Highland Regiments that were the shock-troops of the British Empire, of which the Hanoverian monarch was the primary symbol. While Carnochan is aware of the absurd side of this invention of Highlandism and Tartanry, he is a man of generous judgements, so he compares Highlandism to the invention of Thanksgiving as the American national sacrament, and asks how a tradition ‘can not have been invented’ if it is to fulfil its purpose. It’s obvious that Walter Scott knew an antisysygy when he saw one. A firm supporter of the Union of 1707, he wrapped Scotland in the very plaid that had been the badge of opposition to the House of Hanover, whose perspiring representative he was now welcoming to his northern kingdom. Thus the myth of Highlandism was born – and potent it remains.

I was doing something recently for the BBC at its Edinburgh HQ near the bottom of the Royal Mile. With time on my hands after the recording before my next engagement, I decided to go into some of the shops promoting Highlandism as I made my way back up the Canongate. I haven’t counted how many there are, but Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is the Fifth Avenue of Tartanry. Winter and summer, the shops are hoaching with tourists trying to get in touch with their ancestors and the precise tartan they would have worn. Being a Galloway man, Carnochan knows that Lowland Scotland never wore the tartan and despised the savages of the north who did; but he also knows a potent myth when he sees one, so he plays the game like the rest of us. Someone ought to create the ultimate Scottish tartan, the MacAntisyzygy, a blaze of competing colours and clashing patterns, and the myth of Highlandism in all its contradictions will be complete.

Tartanry may be fun, but Carnochan won’t let us forget that the shadow side of our fabled duality made its way across the Atlantic where it assumed its own colours. He tells us that the Cape Fear region of North Carolina is the heart-land of American Highlandism. It was here the romance of the Highland story intersected with the romance of the antebellum South and brought forth darkness. He quotes a founder of the Klu Klux Klan who says they chose that name because the founding members ‘were all of Scottish descent’. Carnochan sums up: ‘The good and the bad of Highlandism, as happens in any reversion to the values and virtues of an imagined past, tangle in obscurity beneath the conscious surface. Highlandism is many things, depending on circumstance and the disposition of the observer: on the one hand, costume parties, theme parks, and kitsch-laden tourist draws; on the other, forces that shape individual and national identity, shelters against the storms of loss…’ Ah yes, the storms of loss: they are still a potent element in the Caledonian Antisyzygy and it is far from clear where they may yet drive us.

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But this book is not all heavy and brooding. Antisyzygy can be fun. What about McGonagall, who has a chapter to himself in Scotland the Brave? Again, MacDiarmid is the best guide: ‘…he was not a bad poet; still less a good bad poet. He was not a poet at all…There are no other writings known to me that resemble his’. Carnochan thinks McGonagall was a holy fool who, mocked in his lifetime by the multitudes, turned mockery into a belated triumph.

Maybe we have to push a bit to find the antisyzygy in McGonagall, but Carnochan is in no doubt it is there in the game we invented and which now threatens to engulf the whole of our fabled landscape, golf. Carnochan asks: ‘What is one to think of a people who invented so masochistic and yet so sociable a sport?’ Then he makes one of his most inspired leaps: ‘If golf is Scottish sport’s royal and ancient equivalent of Highlandism, its Glaswegian antithesis is ‘The Old Firm’, the collective name for the football clubs Celtic and Rangers, a rivalry more pronounced than any in North American sport’. Yes, but that’s because it’s about more, much more, than a mere sports rivalry. The Auld Firm is the toxic residue of Scotland’s religious duality, and many of us hope that as we become increasingly secular it will fade into insignificance. Unfortunately, it is probably too much to hope that the Auld Firm itself will fade away, football having become for many Scots the closest thing they have to a religion.

I have only touched on a few of the themes explored in this engaging book, but it would be criminal to avoid the most potent element in the Caledonian Antisyzygy, England. Carnochan thinks our southern neighbour is the irritant that makes us what we are, so the referendum worries him. ‘Might Scotland’s creative energy, especially its literary energy, suffer if the union were dissolved? The observer on this side of the Atlantic…might hope for a no vote if only because friction generates more creative fire than reconciliation. Alistair Darling, founder and leader of Better Together, has been called the most boring politician in Britain. Better Together? There’s a yawn. I end up in doubt.’

That’s Caledonian Antisyzygy for you!



Galloway Hills Press, PP162, £6.64, ISBN 1490989862

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