Remember Bannockburn? I'd rather not, thanks

Bookmark and Share

by John McTernan
The Scotsman
25 June 2010, p.33
Original here

YESTERDAY was 24 June. An important day for the Catholic Church: it's the feast day of St John the Baptist. An important day for me: it's my birthday. And an utterly irrelevant day for Scotland: it's the anniversary of some battle between Anglo-French noblemen about precisely which of them would have the right to steal Scottish lands and enslave ordinary people. Yes, that's the Battle of Bannockburn, still unfortunately celebrated by many people who should know better.

I am not, in any way, suggesting that we should ignore our own history, rather we should address that history with some honesty. And not become trapped by it, particularly by a narrow, nasty and sectarian version of it. In the early Eighties, the great Murray Grigor made one of Scotland's essential films, Scotch Myths, laying into (and laying to rest) some of the most egregious, couthy and sentimental elements of Scotland's story. Now there are new myths for him to scotch. The worst is the new school of Braveheart Kailyard.

I don't blame Hollywood for this, I blame Holyrood. After all, Mel Gibson has a living to make, and he has never claimed to be a historian. Incidentally, Gibson's interest in Scottish history can be traced to a pub in the Sydney suburb of Balmain where he grew up - the "Willy Wally" (the "Sir William Wallace". He drank there in his youth and imbibed the legends of the liberation struggle from the older expatriate Scots-Australians.

No, it's our politicians who should be in the dock. If I never hear about the Declaration of Arbroath again it will not be a minute too soon. Those portentous words - "It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself" - must rank among the most hypocritical ever uttered in Scottish political history.

Given that the circle of personal freedom was pretty well limited to the signatories of the declaration - and the noblemen they opposed - what does this say for the ordinary people of Scotland. Were they not "honest" for failing to live free or die?

I know I am in danger of seeming over-literal, but words have meanings in their own historical context. And those meanings have to be acknowledged. Obviously, it's the symbolic power of the declaration that matters to most - but, again, let's be honest: it's the phrase "for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule" that excites people. There you have it, the definition of Scottishness against Englishness that dogs us to this day. It's there in Anyone But England (or the tortured left-liberal position: "I despise those who say they support Anyone But England, but I can't bring myself to actually support England so I'm or Anyone But Anyone But England Except England.")

As I used to say to Scottish Government civil servants when they proudly said education standards were higher than in England (not a boast made nowadays): "Well, it's a good thing there are only two countries in the world."

Of course, everyone tells stories to create meaning. Individuals, families, neighbourhoods, towns, cities, countries - all have their own myths and legends. The point is not to live without them - we live in and through our stories. The real question is what do these stories say about us and our values? What kind of future does our account of the past presage?

Sadly, the litany of Bannockburn, Arbroath, Culloden and Wembley 1967 outlines a toxic mix of sectarianism, xenophobia, grievance, ignorance and deference to aristocracy. And this is no minor matter. There is an ongoing attempt to forge a contemporary Scottish identity from a selective reading of the past. The demand to "repatriate" the William Wallace letter to Scotland from the National Archives at Kew is just once such attempt. The fact that there is no case for this is irrelevant. It's a letter from France's King Philip IV to his own agents in Rome. It's not a "safe-conduct" letter. It was never owned, held or touched by William Wallace.

Facts don't matter; this is about emotion, about the relics of a sacred story, the crowning point of a redemption narrative. Michael Forsyth surely didn't realise what he was unleashing when he escorted an old stone across the Border all those years ago.

A more serious, and sinister, initiative is the SNP MP Angus MacNeil's long-running campaign to force the British Museum to surrender the Lewis Chessmen. On the face of it, this is absurd. These are Norse artefacts, lost on their way to Ireland, at a time when the Western Isles were Viking territory and which, when discovered, were offered first to Scottish collections, which deigned not to purchase them. The cultural diversity displayed in their story is part of the richness of Britain's history. But it is that, in fact, which enrages MacNeil. They are in the British Museum, and they tell a rich and inclusive story - as museum director Neil Macgregor repeatedly makes clear.

The SNP is campaigning, it says, to free the "Lewis 82". Such a banalisation of political language is worth scrutinising, as well as condemning. From "Free Nelson Mandela" and "Free Aung San Suu Kyi" to this? You must have a tin ear or a complete lack of self-regard to campaign in this way.

Scotland and Scots have been central to the great humanising and democratising strands of British history. The stories we tell ourselves should be about Lord Reith and the values of the BBC. Of the fact that great pioneers, such as James Watt, James Clark Maxwell and Alexander Fleming, came from Scotland, but innovated successfully in England.

But more worthy of coming centre-stage in our political account are surely the Scottish political martyrs. Beside St Andrew's House stands the old Calton Cemetery and in it is an obelisk - when you know to look for it, you can see it dominating the landscape. It's a memorial to Thomas Muir, and colleagues, transported to Australia for campaigning for universal suffrage. Inscribed on it are his words: "I have devoted myself to the cause of The People. It is a good cause - it shall ultimately prevail - it shall finally triumph."

If we need a founding myth, that's where to start, with and for the people, facing the future. Not cherishing the grievance of a medieval nobleman.

Bookmark and Share