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 Scottish Identity - Edinburgh Festival

As the Gaelic Proverb says: the bonds of milk are stronger than the bonds of blood

Edinburgh International Festival Cultural Reflections lecture, 9 August 1999,

first published as Saturday essay in The Herald, Glasgow, 7-8-99, p. 15.

Alastair McIntosh

It is to the Stornoway Gazette that one might turn to discern the oceanic forces that ebb and flow in the spirit of a nation. Its obituaries often cap the lives of a modest people in extraordinary light. The Hebrides, after all, comprise a society that still understands a thing or two about belonging. Here are a people for whom the soil, traditionally, was not property, but providential identity. Here is a rootedness that deepens with each successive generation that enters into rest within the very sod of place.

In struggling to express this relationship with land and sea I am pushed to Biblical imagery. Genesis 27:27 has the poetry that an urbane world lacks. "See", said the aged Isaac, reaching out to test Esau’s belongingness at its most visceral level: "The smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed".

It was in a Stornoway Gazette obituary of March 4 this year that James Shaw Grant wrote a last tribute to the great Bearnaraigh patron of poetry, Callum Macdonald. Hefting this man’s achievements to the mountainside of nationhood and describing them as "a lasting seed, folded in the rich earth of Callum’s name", the Gazette’s onetime editor said that, "The future of Scotland does not depend on our political parties - any of them! - or even on the new Scottish Parliament. It depends - if we can achieve it - on a deeply accepted recognition by our thinkers, in all fields, of the existence of a commonwealth or community, to which the individual has obligations which cannot be measured in cash or paid in taxes".

Now, allow me, alongside this almost mystical sense of community responsibility, to place some important remarks made by the historiographer royal, Christopher Smout. Writing in Scottish Affairs (6:1994), he has said: "Modern Scottish identity is much more firmly allied to a sense of place than to a sense of tribe - ‘I am a real Scot from Bathgate’ has much more resonance than ‘I am a real Scot because my granny was a real Scot’".

This, continues Smout, "is at least part of the explanation as to why Scots in Scotland find Scots in America embarrassing: the latter are emphasising a tribal identity, divorced from every aspect of place and modern Scottish popular culture; their ethnic consciousness based on genealogy seems a false consciousness in Scotland".

"Today", he concludes, with perhaps forgivable overgeneralisation, "it implies that no-one asks about ancestry in claiming to be a real Scot: it is enough to come from a really Scottish place, like Bathgate. Because tribe does not matter and place does, there is unlikely ever to be ethnic cleansing in Scotland. Settler Watch will fail".

Smout was hopefully right, but is his rationale sufficient? Consider this. Recently I received a letter from a Herald reader in Inverness. "The crofting township where I was born", he said, "had forty indigenous Gaelic speakers living there when I was a child, two are left, both childless and in their seventies, the rest of the people are southerners".

And consider this. It comes from a group of Scottish African women who took part in the recent People and Parliament exercise. "We feel like strangers, unnoticed, unseen, unheard, alienated, dehumanised, invisible in the scheme of affairs but visible enough for racial attack and with the fear that this may increase... We feel anti-English feeling will be turned against ethnic minorities when the English are gone... One wonders how minorities will fit into the new Scotland".

Let me cut back to the Herald reader. "Daily, here in Inverness, southern accents seem to be more common than local", he continued. "I believe the ethnic cleansing and replacement of the population started by the Clearances is nearly complete".

Where ought a compassionate person’s sympathies lie in all this? If we say that it doesn’t matter who lives and works here, indigenous community may suffer the cuckoo effect. Its culture gets pushed out of the nest.

If, on the other hand, we say that ethnicity does matter, then we invite discrimination. Racial discrimination is the power of one group to decide about others on the basis of ethnic characteristics. If accepted in the allocation of housing and jobs against people who are "southerners", in other words, our English fellow humankind, why stop at Dover? The African women’s logic, whilst hopefully overstated, is impeccable.

End of conversation, then. Yet silence sounds like the voice of complicity, easing a growing "Anglicisation" in our educational institutions, corporate life and civil service. Popular resentment thickens as Scottishness dilutes. There is a wound here, and a poison. Perhaps the scab must be picked.

"I prefer it when they’re rude", writes the Lewis poet Mary Montgomery in her poem called The English, "because they’re easier to destroy in my thoughts/ and my conscience can be at peace". Her honesty jolts, but this is not the racist diatribe it first appears to be. It is not against English incomers in general. The invective is aimed, rather, at a Raj: one which, partly because English people outnumber Scots in Britain by 10:1, usually happens to be English, but could alternatively be Arab, Swiss or Scots.

This is a ruling class characterised by Montgomery as "showing themselves without warmth ... old chap, dear sir and dame". Her context is important. Montgomery was born in 1955 in Arivruaich on the boundary of three big sporting estates. In December 1886, within memory of old folk alive when she was a child, a gunboat of the British state was sent to quell hungry crofters who had raided the local deer herds of Pairc. Montgomery’s onslaught is actually more ethical than ethnic. In her experience, wielding power over others has become identified with Englishness. But her conclusion exposes the actual target: "The kind of value they lay store by/ is each one for himself/ that’s what’s going away with my country/ and what leaves them in it".

The objection, then, is to values that take over, alienate and oppress. The domination system to which these belong has no true life of its own. Its parasitical emissaries are hollow figures for whom "to have is to be". Such is the idolatry at the heart of a rootless global monoculture that worships competition and mocks cooperation. Call it Anglicisation. Call it Americanisation. Call it, heaven forbid, if you are a Mi’Kmaq living on a reservation in Nova Scotia, the legacy of Scottish settlers.

Turning again to my Herald correspondent’s letter, the writer acknowledges all the "psychological brutalising of a proud, courageous and honourable people which produced the insecurity and low self-esteem I saw around me in my childhood". And yet, astonishingly, he concludes: "I accept all this and welcome people to this land of ours... A culture that ran straight on for some sixty generations is turning a corner".

Now, that is quite some perspective. It might be discounted were it not so commonplace. Indeed, Smout hints at "something unusual in the Scottish sense of identity" that accounts for it being "a famous enigma to students of nationalism". Let us look at an icon thereof.

In 1994 nearly all of the native residents of Eigg felt that their English laird was trying to drive a wedge between them and incomers - English included. Accordingly, they wrote an open letter which said, "The incoming islanders have tried hard to adapt and continue a culture that was not their own. [They] play an active, caring part in the community ... and have organised a Gaelic playgroup so that their offspring will have a chance of learning Gaelic in order to preserve the traditional culture of the island".

Such a statement acknowledges cultural difference. At the same time it suggests an open pathway towards attaining a locally rooted sense of belonging. One is reminded of scholars’ observations about Ireland, the spirit of which, reputedly, conquers even its conquerors. Estyn Evans called it an "adjustment to the personality of Ireland". Spenser was more acerbic: "Lord," he proclaimed, "how quickly doth that country alter one’s nature".

So, as Smout recognises, geography is certainly important in creating identity. In Gaelic culture this is called duthchas -or sense of belonging to a particular place. But also important are certain social principles that lie at the core of community - dualchas, which is heritage in the sense of the people of your place who moulded you. It is duthchas and dualchas together that generate the classical Scottish virtues of fostership and hospitality. From these can be derived an understanding of belonging that permits the grafting on of new stock. Here is the taproot beneath the grassroots that repudiates "each one for himself". Here, indeed, might be a pattern and example to a troubled world wherever shifting populations conflict with local ethnicity.

In his nineteenth century study of one of the last relatively intact Celtic societies, the folklorist, Alexander Carmichael, wrote that fostership "was a peculiarly close and tender tie, more close and more tender even than blood". He pointed out that Gaelic has many proverbs on the subject. One says, "Fuil gu fichead, comhdhaltas gu ceud" (Blood to the twentieth, fostership to the hundredth degree). Another, in Nicolson’s Gaelic Proverbs,* is: "The bonds of milk are stronger than the bonds of blood". In other words, choosing to belong and being chosen matters more than belonging by accident of birth.

Such principles confound the Nazi notion of blood and soil. Instead, they locate sense of belonging in soil and soul. They invite consideration that a person belongs inasmuch as they are willing to cherish, and be cherished, by a place and its peoples. Yes, we might say, you may be of Polish or Chinese origin. Yes, we seek to welcome you, bringing with you gifts from your culture that will contribute to the rich diversity and economic resilience of both this place and community. And yes, we understand that where you came from will always remain an important reference point. You will hold a dual identity as Pakistani-Scot, Afro-Scot or Anglo-Scot. But equally, we expect you to help build on what we all are together as a Scottish people. This, after all, is the culture that traditionally treated hospitality as "sacred". That is the core value by which your presence is welcomed.

As Scots we have always understood ourselves to be a nation of many confluences. Our most ancient origin myths affirming this laid the foundations of nationhood in the coronation of Alexander III and the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. Early texts like the Lebor Gabála Érenn present the Scots as migrants from the Black Sea’s Caucasus region of Scythia. We reconstructed Gaelic as the language of Eden out of the seventy-two tongues of Babel, became "Scots" through marriage with Pharaoh’s daughter Scota - who repudiated her father’s ethnic cleansing by rescuing Moses from the bulrushes, we gave food and wine to the Israelites on the eve of their flight through the Red Sea, received Moses’ blessing en route to our own promised land, waited for many years in Spain and finally, we arrived via Ireland with the Stone of Destiny - Jacob’s pillow of Genesis 28 - reminding that all are, in the words of Leviticus 25, no more than "strangers and sojourners" on God’s land. As Patrick Kavanagh surmises, "Only those who have flown home to God have flown at all".

Little wonder, then, that Scots can take a sixty-generation perspective. William Storrar writes of Scottish identity being a "Christian vision [of] national identity through time and across space". Certainly, we can see where hospitality and fostership might be coming from in, for instance, Leviticus 19 which instructs that the alien shall be loved "as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt"; in Matthew 25 which reminds that the suffering Christ walks in the stranger’s guise; and Ezekiel 47 specifying that the second generation of migrants should receive full citizenship and land inheritance rights.

We may, of course, be Muslim, Sikh or atheist rather than Judeo-Christian. And we certainly might harbour doubts about Irish-Scots mythology from the first milennium. But these traditions point to psychological if not historical truths. As such, and regardless of our religious orientation, they beg consideration of the very spirituality of nationhood.

It is an intriguing fact that sovereign power often seeks spiritual legitimacy. American banknotes proclaim "In God we Trust". All British coins carry the inscription, DG and FD, asserting that the Crown’s power is conferred by divine grace as "Defender of the Faith". Lord Stair, the "father of Scots law", looked to Moses made gentle by Christ for "the prime positive law of God". This, he maintained, makes "the absolute sovereign divine law". It provides the framework within which all other legislation ought proceed.

In The Powers that Be (Doubleday), Walter Wink, an American liberation theologian, brings penetrating fresh light to such views on the spirituality of power. He sees spirituality as the "withinness" or interiority of things. "The Powers", he writes, "are not just physical" as expressed in the outward forms of, say, a person, institution or country. "The Powers", he says, "are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an inner, spiritual reality".

Old Testament psychology understood this inner dynamic in terms of the "prince" or "angel" of a nation (Daniel 10). Nations, like people, have a vocation - a higher calling - from which they usually fall very far short. Addressing such corruption of the "Powers that Be" (Romans 13) requires, firstly, a process of naming. Names like Moloch and Mammon give a grip on the dynamics of the domination system. Only then can they, secondly, be unmasked. In today’s terms this might reveal, for example, nuclear strategy as the Moloch-like fire-filled idol that, throughout history, has devoured the children.

Once the Powers have been named and unmasked, they can be engaged. The highest spiritual engagement, says Wink, is nonviolent. It aims to redeem fallen power rather than destroy it. Lesser paths succumb to the "myth of redemptive violence". They mimic fallen power’s terror and therefore fail to underpin spiritual transformation back to God-given vocation.

"O flower of Scotland" - and there you have it. There you have the mixed-bag spirituality of a nation. But "I want for my part", said MacDiarmid, "Only the little white rose of Scotland/ That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart".

Like Isaac with Esau’s raiment ... smell and know this rose. But beware deception. The challenge facing Scotland today is not whether we should be multi-ethnic. That is the wrong question. The challenge, rather, is whether we who cherish and are cherished here can attain the highest vocation of both self and nationhood. Do we accept our obligations to community? Can we love ... fur a’ that? Are we "real Scots"?

Alastair McIntosh is a fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology. This essay is based on a BT sponsored address for the Edinburgh International Festival’s "Cultural Reflections" at The Hub on August 9.


* Note added in 2010. This essay stands the test of time. I have nothing to add, but one error to correct. I attribute the '"Bonds of milk ..." proverb to Nicolson, but I have since been unable to find it there. I'm pretty sure I first read it in the West Highland Free Press during the mid 1990s. It very much stuck in my mind at the time. But where it originated from I cannot now say, and attempts to Google it just go round in circular reference back to my own website. If anybody can shed light on the original source I'd be much obliged, until then, the faeries, the faeries!


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