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Why Did They Go – Scottish Review of Books
by Tom Nairn

Why Did They Go

August 11, 2011 | by Tom Nairn

I did it to go out in a blaze of glory
I did it to make them listen to my side

of the story
I only did it to get attention
I did it to get an honourable mention I did it to put an end to it all
I did it for no reason at all

But I did it I did it
I did it
Yes I did.

‘My Way’, Liz Lochhead

Tom Devine’s new book, To the Ends of the Earth, is subtitled ‘Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750–2010’, and presents a grand overview of Scottish emigration. Many previous writers have commented upon this phenomenon — a vast and almost continuous outflow proportionately much greater than that from comparable North-European lands like Denmark, Norway, the Nether-lands and Ireland. Greater, too, than from England, the neighbouring nation-state with whom the Treaty of Union was concluded in 1707. ‘Diaspora’ has often been linked to the history of the Jews, and occasionally to one phase of dispossession in Scotland’s past: the Highland Clearances. But Devine returns to the original, broader etymology: ‘A process of human dispersal which can be voluntary and opportunistic rather than governed by implacable expulsive forces…the global ‘scattering’ and impact of Scottish religious and secular ideas, borne to several overseas countries by the emigrants and leaving a deep mark there, as well as commodities and funding exported from Scotland itself .’

On the whole, Scots chose to depart, and stayed there. They had done so long before the Union Treaty, mainly to continental Europe; then the growing British Empire provided great new opportunities. Quoting another historian, Devine points out that: ‘Of all the peoples of the United Kingdom, it is the Scots’ contribution that stands out as disproportionate. They were the first peoples of the British Isles to take on an imperial mentality and possibly the longest to sustain one.’ Even if they didn’t stay away, many depended entirely on the export business. In this writer’s family, for example, a grandfather on my mother’s side worked as a First Mate for the New Zealand Shipping Company, and sailed round the world to Wellington every year. His ship was the S.S. Tongariro, a three-masted ‘hybrid’ of those times, not sold off until 1899 and scrapped only in 1911. In such circumstances it wasn’t hard to sustain an outward-looking mind-set.

The obverse of that mentality was an equally remarkable parochialism at home. But naturally, in Scotland this had to take a quasi-philosophical form: rootedness-as-such, one might say. That took the shape of what can be called ‘ceremonial nationalism’, the colourful adoption of what in an earlier book Devine called ‘Highlandism’. The Union proscribed politicised Scottishness, but could not prevent the display-nationalism of what turned into ‘tartanry’: a compensatory expression of identity, strongly linked to the important military element in Scotland’s share of the imperial burden. A country of diverse populations and tongues required a strong binding force. Since politics had been surrendered, this had to be located in (as the Scots first put it) ‘civil society’. Rather than occluding the latter’s tattoo-marks, the new British-Union State strongly encouraged them. Professor Devine is very revealing on the subject. Commenting on the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, he points out how the Black Watch regiment concluded the ceremony with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ : ‘Imperial units…but soldiers strikingly distinctive in dress and appearance, recognizably and unambiguously Scottish, martial champions of the nation. In most countries such striking distinctions had been emphasized to claim separate statehood, but here the ‘nation’ was of course Great Britain. ‘There is much truth in the saying that Scotland was born fighting’, he concludes, but usually not for herself: an invented ethnicity in the service of others, for a supposedly greater cause (or nation).

It was on my own ‘end of the earth’, the banks of the Yarra River in Victoria State, Australia, that I first learned about Devine’s new book . But I only got down to reading it at home, on the banks of the Dornoch Firth at Forres. In the hotel that night Douglas Dunn’s words about the very similar Aberlemno Stone echoed somewhere in the dark, with an unsettling dream of the place ‘where four roads intersect’, and warriors assemble to ‘cry for lyric nationhood’ in the lost Pic-tish tongue. Why are we still on this damned crossroads, I woke up wondering. However, this is an example of why To the Ends of the Earth is so timely: it helps define the real landscape of choice and decision that is now presenting itself more plainly since the last Scottish election.

Ends of the earth are no longer what they were during the centuries of diaspora. After the Cold War, ‘globalization’ has imposed a sort of finality on the scene. Since nobody around the globe is in favour of ‘All-the-Sameism’, diversity itself has moved to centre-stage. And at this new intersection, it is clearer that humanity’s universality demands both transcendence from and manifestation of inherent differences, or ‘peculiarities’. Neither religion nor Enlightenment (extensively dealt with in the book) can ‘solve’ what is not really a ‘problem’ at all: it’s just the way homo sapiens is — and will have to remain, one way or another.

Devine’s book reminds us that Scotland’s prolonged diaspora was a way of coming to terms with what might be called the earlier crossroads of priority. That conjuncture was also imposed, an unchosen fate. The main theorists of nationalism, Liah Greenfeld and Ernest Gellner, agreed that England’s nation-state was the original model for political modernity. There, geographical position and a succession of victories over would-be conquerors provided conditions for a dominant majority to secure its position. The other contender was the French monarchy, but the resultant struggle brought empires to both sides. In the English case archipel-ago minorities were either incorporated or defeated or subordinated as junior partners. Chapter 3, ‘Sinews of Power’, is an impressive account of how the Scots played their part in this first-round industrialization, a relationship underwritten by successful allied warfare, as well as overseas expansion.

But that round ended, with the conclusion of the Cold War; and a new one is in formation, with ‘globalization’ as its prologue. In the earlier phase, well-situated centres claimed a place by over-doing their advantages, and higher-pressure, competitive nationality-politics was one aspect of this. That’s where the ‘-ism’ of nationality came from. Devine examines how it worked for the Scots: a combination of resources, the ‘Protestant Ethic’, better education and family networks. Diasporic movement was one feature of the system’s effectiveness: one had to be ready to move out, to learn and ‘improve oneself’ in order to return and get on — always with the possibility of staying away longer, or even permanently. Devine points out there’s little sign of the process ceasing , or even diminishing. Rather, Highlandism ‘feeds a modern-day hunger for a connection with an earlier, better, pre-industrial non-capitalist society’ so we see ‘a new interest in ethnicity booming as globalization gathered pace in the later twentieth century’.

Since the interest is irrepressible, it has to be recognized, and dealt with. In many respects the model remains Israel: the formal establishment of a statehood ‘home’ to which the diasporic fragments can relate. However, the restored Heimat is bound to have an ambiguous relationship with these emigrant communities. Most are very conservative, and long ago ceased contributing to progressive nation-building in their chosen destinations. Today they return to refill the nostalgia-tank rather than support independence. Their own metaphorical roots remain British-imperial, not radical, or dissident-Irish. No doubt all this would shift after independence; but it’s not likely to help much in winning it.

As regards the latter, the conclusion implicit in Devine’s argument is short and evident: Take Liz Lochhead’s advice, and ‘Do it!’ Chapter 13 provides grounds for a longer version, in bigger and bolder typeface: ‘Do it before it’s too late!’ For demographic trends clearly indicate an ageing and shrinking population, during years when ‘no other part of the E.U. experienced decline’. Regional economic regeneration has had its day, and failed. A more determinedly nationalist approach is needed, under the circumstances of globalization. Not just ‘self-government’ but an identity fuelled by what Les Wilson has called a Fire in the Head, the determination to forge an enduring place and difference. Among clichés of the present none is commoner or phonier than ‘the decline of the nation-state’. First-round industrialization did indeed lead to exacerbated and deplorable forms of nationality-politics, but globality will put these in their place. At the same time, the many colours of the species mansion are here to stay, and preferably to increase, and to grow brighter. One way of interpreting the ground-swell of SNP support is growing consciousness of something like this: a lower-pressure but enduring independence trend, now more possible, and more conducive to what could be called “amicable separation”. Over the two centuries of Devine’s title, ‘identity’ was simultaneously promoted and kept subordinate, as an instrument of cohesion for national markets and economies; in a globalised context it will exist much more in its own right — but not just as narcissism, rather as a fertilizing ingredient of one or many commonwealths. In sci-fi stories the creatures who disembark here are always depicted as perfectly and slimily uniform; but when Earth-creatures manage to get somewhere else, I’m glad to note that Devine’s argument suggests a few diasporic Caledonians will almost certainly be among them, recognizable by the tartan scarves and hip-flasks. Apparently he plans to publish a farther volume on ‘Scottish migration to England’, and all readers of To the Ends of the Earth will look forward keenly its appearance.


T. M. Devine
ALLEN LANE, £25.00, 416PP ISBN 978-0713997446

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