by Karl Miller

Hammer of the Scots

October 19, 2009 | by Karl Miller

ONE WAY OF discovering whether or not you love your native country, in my case Scotland, is to read a book by a writer you admire which runs the country down. I am an Anglo-Scot who has spent most of his working life in Lon-don, and much of it writing about Scottish literature; and I am largely an enemy of nationalism. In the eyes, therefore, of the sizable minority of Scots who are thought to favour a break with England I’m hardly the right person to be tendering my affectionate respects, as I now nevertheless do.

The semi-detached Scotland of the present time is being worked up by the two main parties in the north, who have been vying with each other over the timing of a referendum on the country’s future – over the date best suited to their respective purposes; and the Nationalist leader Alex Salmond’s crafty purposes are rumoured to include a possible further devolution, rather than a complete break. The snagging of relations between the Labour leadership and the Westminster Labour government, as a result of the argument over the referendum, is no great argument for devolution. But devolution has shown itself to be a developing possibility, and it strikes me as better than a break, better than behaving as the separate half of a small and struggling island at a time when nations are reckoned to be in decline.

The late English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper was opposed to a Scottish separation, and his new, posthumously-assembled book, The Invention Of Scotland, was composed at a time when Scotland’s future was being re-invented. He felt that a united Scotland, England and Wales would be “more progressive in character”, as his present editor Jeremy Cater has expressed it, than any of them, would be in bits. (Quoted in The Invention Of Scotland: Myth And History. Subsequent quotations draw on Trevor-Roper’s Letters From Oxford To Bernard Berenson and on his Historical Essays, reissued 1966). But his concern was not that of a man who loved Scotland. “As a general rule I can do without the Scots”, he told a correspondent once. The romantic Cavalier Montrose, a poet and a political ally of the Anglo-Scottish poet William Drummond of Hawthornden, belonged, he claimed, to an “exquisite generation” which “contrived to produce a poet even in Scot-land – the last poet ever to arise in that prosaic peninsula”. He claimed, moreover, that it was natural that eighteenth century Scots, “seeking compensation for the end of their independent history and politics, should turn to discover and appreciate their native literature. Unfortunately, when they looked for it, they could not find it. There was none”. The cupboard was bare. Scotland had never had a literature, and it was not about to have a poetry. As for Eng-land’s Stuart dynasty, they were spivs. “Those feckless Scottish kings”! This gifted historian, myth-hater and militant rationalist did not love Scotland, but he was mad about it – in the sense that he had an urge to tease and torment it, to invent for it a charge sheet of faults and deficiencies, which can sometimes seem like a myth of its own.

“My ambition is to solve intellectual problems and present my solutions in satisfying aesthetic form”, he said in one of his many excellent letters. This was an ambition which upset those professional historians for whom good writing and artistic effect are disqualifying, and it was one which was fulfilled. He was a good writer and a concise and witty narrator with an eye for character and for irony and idiosyncrasy, who also set himself to generalise and to function as a social historian. His tradition was that of Tacitus and Gibbon, and his most successful medium, if we discount those letters, was the essay. Collected in Historical Essays, the account of Erasmus, and of the ironies of his responsibility for the Reformation, is, I think among his finest performances. His principal stamping-ground was the politics, ecclesiastics and Hermetics of the Early Modern period.

Trevor-Roper, having become Lord Dacre, died in 2003. His new book is an old one. Parts of it have appeared before in early versions – Chapters 7 and 8 come from a collection of essays by several hands, The Invention Of Tradition of 1983 – and most of the writing appears to have been done over the interval 1979-81. Brilliantly iconoclastic at its best, the book falls into three episodes. featuring the mythic history produced by George Buchanan, the contested poetry of James Macpherson’s Ossian, and the cult of the kilt. Pre-Ossianic “Scottish culture had always been maintained by forgery”, he writes: he had a lifelong interest in forgery, and the prose-cutorial approach evident in his treatment of these episodes is far from infrequent elsewhere. The Trevor-Roper tribunal is often in session, icons are clattered. These were to include Arnold Toynbee’s Study Of History, and the doctrines that Puritanism (or indeed Judaism) and capitalism were closely aligned, and that industrial capitalism began with the seventeenth century.

There’s more, of course, to Scotland’s faults, as he sees them, than forgery and a susceptibility to myth. The Picts, “as high-minded as they were light-fingered, drove their former friends clean out of the country and back into Ireland”: such expulsions are not usually a project of light minds and light fingers. “The generosity of Highlanders has seldom been expressed in cash”, he writes, with reference to the sometimes tight-fisted Highland Society of London, at a time in the 1780s when ‘Ossian’ Macpherson was serving as godfather to a Highland ‘mafia’, as Trevor-Roper calls it, in India, who were well-prepared to express their mutual generosity in cash.

The first of the three episodes is about a leading Latin poet of the Renaissance and a historian of influence whose work has long been known in part apocryphal. Much is made of Buchanan’s dependence on Boece and other fabulists, and of the resultant notion of hundreds of years of Scottish prehistory, with a line of no fewer than forty kings. Buchanan was to argue a thesis in defence of the deposition of tyrannical kings by their nobility, an argument which circulated in samizdat after its banning by James VI, and was to be perceived as republican in tendency. Scottish kings had been deposed in the past, as Shake-speare’s Macbeth was soon to show, without offering itself as a republican or democratic vehicle; and a Scottish queen and a Scottish king were presently to be deposed and executed. Buchanan’s position is represented by Trevor-Roper as an archetypal ‘whig’ interpretation of the past. He sees Buchanan as a man of secular mind, and thinks the view of his as a Protestant hero is untenable. He was nonetheless a vehement anti-Papist and anti-Franciscan, and Robert Crawford has lately spoken of his “remarkable elegy for Jean Calvin”. It would be possible to imagine a less forensic or inculpatory account of Buchanan than the one that figures in these sprightly chapters.

And so to “the broken poems of Ossian”, James Macpherson’s lyrical versions of alleged fragments of ancient Gaelic epic poetry which surfaced in 1760, which were seized on by Scots anxious for wur ‘Epics’ to be restored, and then by tout Paris, Europe and America, but which were to be challenged – by Samuel Johnson and by a line of Scottish scholars from Malcolm Laing to Derick Thomson in the 1950s. Ossian, bardic son of the warrior Fingal, was an impersonation by James Macpherson, aided by manuscript and transcript material which he shielded from subsequent enquiry. These chapters were drafted in the early Eighties. Fiona Stafford’s instructive study of 1988, The Sublime Savage, appears only in the editor’s guide to Further Reading, where it is put down with a “stronger in empathetic understanding than on judgement” – perhaps she was judged too kind to the culprit. Living Gaelic poets of the eighteenth century – Rob Dunn, William Ross and Duncan MacIntyre – are not discussed in the book.

The poems affect most people now, I gather, as an uncrossable post-Jacobite prairie of grief and chief, courage and carnage, downfall and nightfall, as promising, without delivering, an escape from the eighteenth-century parlour. Macpherson was not long in giving up poetry for politics and British Empire hustling, but in the meantime, covered in girls and ornaments, he had becomes a celebrity. Boswell told of a meeting with this ‘Sublime Savage’ and of his dislike of Gray’s Sassenach Elegy: “‘Hoot!’ cried Fingal, ‘to write a panegyric on a parcel of damned rogues that did nothing but plough the land and saw corn’”. Macpherson was a more martial figure than Robert Burns, apparently. David Hume told of him: “He would have all of the nation divided into Clans, and those clans to be always fighting’”.

The most welcome contributions made in this book to the Macpherson story are the strong case it pursues for the participation in Ossian of a clansman, Lachlan Macpherson, laird of Strathmashie, an accomplished Gaelic poet and scholar; and the role played in the questioning of the work by the distinguished and enraged historian, despiser of Celts and Highlanders and forger of old ballads, John Pinkerton. Pinkerton was a friend and questioner of James Hogg, whose Dark Age Scotland mock-epic Queen Hynde, a Lowland peasant’s Celt-centred cosmogony, was published in 1825. A Scots-Irish Caledonia, the land of Fingal and Fergus and a muscular Saint Columba, is revealed here. This is the terrain of the Ossian pieces, and its capital city of Beregon is mentioned by Trevor-Roper. But Queen Hynde is not. Hogg said he believed in Ossian, and he was influenced by it. He also felt he’d out-Ossianed Macpherson: Hogg’s was “the best epic poem that ever had been produced in Scotland”. In many of these activities a period element of play should be acknowledged. Tricks are being played – even by Sir Walter Scott.

It sometimes looks as if Trevor-Roper’s book is more interested in the forensic than in the literary aspect of the Ossian trick. But he is not without sympathy with his author. “If we assume that Macpherson had based his Ossian not on the old manuscripts, which he could not read, but on an intermediate Gaelic text, whose relationship to those manuscripts was unverifiable by him, then his difficulty becomes clear”. And if we assume that there is merit in the hypothesis that he has ‘accomplices’, then it serves to reduce “the charge against the principal accused – Strathmashie, Macpherson, Mackenzie – from Machiavellian fraud to lower and more human proportions”. He does not spell out what these proportions are, and he does not go into the question of what Macpherson et al were trying to achieve and why for a while it succeeded so luxuriantly, with a little of the aura that surrounded the poetry of Gaeldom’s Dylan Thomas in the 1940s. A Celtic twilight descended, and lingered for more than a hundred years, and many a lost soul wandered there.

Role-playing and imposture were activities with which the literature of that modern world was complicit. Walter Scott and James Hogg lent their lines to the transmission of the great Border Ballads, and Hogg was reported as boasting that he’d taken Wattie in when it came to writing the ballads down. To speak of ‘corruption’ as has constantly been done in the case of both of the ballads and of Ossian, is a pious error and hyperbole. Macpherson himself was known to complain of the corruption that had tainted his sources. The hidden hand of the collaborator and concealed author did much for the Scottish literary tradition among others, and was marvellously brandished in the first phase of Blackwood’s Magazine.

Such was Scott’s status that it was forgotten, or forgiven, that the Great Unknown of the Waverley novels belonged in this capacity to a culture of economies with the truth, imperfect disclosure, constructive clandestinity. Hogg was one of the few who has ever called the great man a cheat over the ‘lies’ he admitted to over the Waverley authorship. Copying, imitation, pseudonymy, anonymity were as common then as they have ever been anywhere. Meanwhile the myth of which nations are made has been common too, all over the place. The Scots are not uniquely credulous; Israel has certainly been prone to it. Trevor-Roper’s disapproval of religion was not unqualified: “A world without devotion seems to me arrogant and vulgar, a world without myth mean and threadbare”. For all the assertions of one or two of his enemies, he had a heart.

On the book moves to the wearing of the kilt, which was not the ancient article that some, but surely not many, may still suppose. It is dated to a point between the Jacobite rebellions, and is said to be have been invented by an English Quaker. Highland dress was forbidden after the Forty-Five: any man or boy caught wearing “plaid, philibeg, trews, shoulder-belts…tartans or parti-coloured plaid or stuff” was liable by stature to be jailed or transported. The valour of George III’s Highland soldiers, and the festivities organised by Scott, for George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1825, monstrously philibegged and tighted, said goodbye to all of that. A Celtification of Scotland was devised on this occasion: Highland chiefs surged with their tails of retainers to Holy-rood. The occasion has served as a topos for several writers since. Trevor-Roper takes, and does, his turn on the subject.

He remarks that Macaulay, of Highland stock, one of his favourite historians, was “powerless” against the fallacy of Celtification. On the facing page, however, is a passage from Macaulay which blames the fallacy on Trevor-Roper’s equally admired Walter Scott, and in which he writes with sharp irony about a flourishing of plaid and claymore: “by most Englishmen, Scotch-man and Highlander were regarded as synonymous words”. Tartan is clearly a trick subject. A hundred years before the Holy-rood shindig Andrew Marvell celebrated Cromwell’s triumphant return from Ireland:

The Pict no shelter now shall find Within his party-colour’d mind, But from this valour, sad, Shrink beneath the plaid.

Can he be speaking of an ur-tartan garment in these compacted times? Scott is quoted as saying, less Celtifyingly, that “the general proposition that the Lowlanders ever wore plaids is hard to swallow”. Had he answered the front-door bell at Abbots-ford, he might have found before him his neighbour James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, clad in parti-coloured plaid. These are engrossing chapters. They end with an account of the Sobiesky Stuarts, two English brothers who claimed royal blood. One of them engaged in a serious history of Highland costume.


The book is locally rewarding, but it can’t, broadly speaking, be described as innovatory. When I was an adolescent in Midlothian, I knew that Ossian was an eighteenth-century poem, knew of its doubtful provenance, and felt that I might never be able to read it through. The little I knew of George Buchanan is likely to have included a sense that his history was partly apocryphal. I wore a Buchanan kilt on Sun-days back then, no doubt of doubtful provenance, but I grew to mind the palaver about tartan, like others I knew, and like Billy Connolly. I remember walking by the Firth of Forth with a friend who observed: “There’s a man in a kilt. He must be English”. He wore a kilt himself in middle age, of unexampled gravity – as if to shame me as I went around, now and then, in my vivacious Buchanan tie. My grandmother’s middle name was Buchan, you see. I wore it for her. Fergus was a middle name of mine, a token of our half-Irishness, but I don’t suppose we thought the Dark Age hero wore tartan.

Trevor-Roper was a controversial figure. Why, it was asked, was he so hostile? Historians, faced with their various uncertainties, often talk of the need to get things right, but this historian’s appetite for authentication, for the detection of fraud and unreason, may at times have been experienced as acute. The appetite was punished by the irony of his temporary mis-authentication of the faked Hitler diaries: when he died, most newspapers confined their attention to this error and gave none to his performance as a historian. These concerns of his are reflected in his too often thrilled and deferential letters to the grand authenticator, the Jewish American art dealer-advising art historian Bernard Berenson, in his Florentine villa of I Tatti, where at three in the afternoon precisely he would descend a staircase to greet a throng of rapt visitors. Trevor-Roper was a democrat of sorts: he seems to have believed with Machiavelli that aristocracies “may preserve themselves the longest”, as he paraphrased the position, “but only democracies, which refresh their ruling class, can expand”. He was also, he said, a snob. He didn’t really care for the ‘opulence’ of James I’s London court, but was ready to admit elsewhere that he liked “the world of grace and leisure, and the opulence necessary to maintain it”. I Tatti monitored that world.

Lord Dacre hammers the Scots – why, in particular, was he so down on them? The son of a cold country doctor, reportedly, he was raised on the English side of the border with Scotland, and as with English-hating Hugh MacDiarmid, who was raised to the west on the other side. Trevor-Roper’s present editor conveys that his nanny, governess and wife were Scotch – the form he preferred, in part at least for historical reasons; and he had a house, Chiefswood, in the Scotch Borders, where I remember him starting from the undergrowth of his garden, a rake rather than a pen in his hot hand, looking faintly like Fingal. He was otherwise austerely spruce, H officer material, Prussian Officer material (Intelligence branch) at moments.

His translation to the old Oxford snobbery and spite can hardly have tempered his capacity for hostility or his aversion to the Scots. For a specimen of that Oxford see his colleague Maurice Bowra’s letter of 1947 to Evelyn Waugh, who would have known about Trevor-Roper’s aversion to the Catholic Church:

“Trevor-Roper is a fearful man, shortsighted, with dripping eyes, shows off all the time, sucks up to me, boasts, is far from poor owing to his awful book, on every page of which there is a howler”.

This seems like a sucking-up to the supremely hostile Waugh – and it’s no doubt conceivable that Bowra and Trevor-Roper were on some other occasions

friends. The book referred to was The Last Days Of Hitler, published in the early days of Trevor-Roper.

I was a friend of his myself, and we got on very well together when he wrote for journals I edited. I felt for him what I felt for Scotland: my fondness for him, that’s to say, had a touch of the adversarial. It was sauced by an awareness of our differences of outlook – by a wariness of his Oxford grandeur, by the disapproval of some of my compatriots, and by my own disapproval of the opulent Berenson. Another memory I have of him is of standing with him on the Mound in Edinburgh, on our way down from the National Library, and going on about the pre-Holocaust anti-Semitism of a certain writer. He replied that these were different days. He was right to say this, and I was right to feel that no days are different when it comes to that sort of thing. He himself was philo-semetic. He was willing to call Eras-mus an anti-Semite, despite his Jewish supporters and interpreters, but he wasn’t one himself. He did not say to me what Johnson said to Boswell, that I could not help being Scottish, and he did not say that I couldn’t help being base-born. I think I would have noticed. He really was what is often called, sometimes fulsomely, a good friend. I take pleasure in the conviction that his work as a historian – especially the seventeenth-century work which began with Archbishop Laud and ended with the posthumous Thomas de Maherne – will last.

A nation’s characteristics are, like dreams, ‘ay contrary’ – full of contradiction. The Scots are friendly, decent, less snobbish than the English. They were Thatcher-proof. They are also immemorially fierce. The per-fervidum ingenium Scotorum has been hostile to strangers. It was hard to miss what Irvine Welsh must have meant when he recently and contentiously declared that Hugh MacDiarmid embodied the worst faults of the Scottish male. Or what Celtic Andrew O’Hagan meant by his blast of the trumpet (resented and avenged, and now reproduced in a notable gathering of his essays, The Atlantic Ocean,) about a commitment to self-pity, nostalgia, xenophobia, self-righteous blame. The hostility of ours is a weariness of the Ossian poems, and it would not be an asset for any separate Scot-land that may transpire. Scotland has always been a parti-coloured, as opposed to a blood-brotherhood, and the same is true of Britain, which could and should continue to house the gallimaufry of its northern end. Let’s not be Balkans. Let’s not, in Hume’s words, have all the nation divided into clans, and these clans to be always fighting. Robert Burns could be angry, with plenty to be angry about. But he did not, as far as I can tell, ‘hate the English’.

Violence, fervour – ‘passion’ in Mac-Diarmid-speak – have their contradictions, their compunctions, their compunctions, their boasts. These are visible in Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, which has carried to the stage their testimonies of soldiers from the regiment of that name. The Iraq war is seen from the point of view of the platoon, the regiment, the clan. Black Watch, with its dark tartan and its red hackles, is one of modern Scotland’s more memorable works of art, and is rich in the ironies of its regimental history. A ‘Highland’ regiment dominated by its Lowland intakes, the Black Watch fought fiercely for the London-based British Empire; and about the time it was taking casualties in thankless Iraq it was merged with a larger formation of the Anglo-Scottish army. Clans have their famous victories, but they don’t win all their wars.


The Invention Of Scotland: Myth And History
by Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Jeremy Cater
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS, £18.99
pp282, ISBN 978-0-300-13686-9

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