Thursday, December 13, 2007

when will we see your like again...

Haven't been over to The Debateable Land in a while and, because the ice-storm we're in right now aborted our midday field-trip, I was able to see a lovely post by Alex Massie on the hypnotic appeal of Scottish nationalism -- and its curious adoption by various factions. Frankly, what caught my eye was his use of Hugh MacDiarmid's The Little White Rose as the subject line.

Alex references The Daily Telegraph's 'Call Yourself British' campaign -- which seems (not too) strangely reminiscent of Gordon Brown's repeated speeches on 'Britishness' (one of which can be found here). The Telegraph's announcement links to an essay by Brown championing Lord Baker's appeal for a National Museum of British History. Gordon Brown then goes on to suggest he would want to see an 'Institute of Britishness' as well -- presumably staffed by Bill Oddie, Ronnie Corbett, and Andrew Sachs.

Braveheart is perhaps not quite as wretched a movie as Alex would have us believe -- because arguably, it is still good messy fun. (I realize this comes close to saying Pearl Harbor wasn't a pile of dross and therefore improperly skewered by Team America World Police because it had incredible aerial dogfight footage.) Arguably, its biggest vice is that it can be anything to almost anyone -- but the weird affinity for Braveheart I discovered was in Yo'Av Karny's great book Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory. As he puts it in his preface:

"It was no accident that soon after its release in 1995, one of the most popular foreign films in the North Caucasus was Braveheart... Many hundreds of pirated videocassettes of the film circulated in Caucasian markets, and it won fulsom praise from military heroes and tribal potentates. One of its greatest fans was Shamil Basayev, a daring Chechen rebel field commander who terrorized parts of southern Russia and led invasions of Daghestan in the summer and fall of 1999. By his own words, he was a William Wallace of the Caucasus." (p.xiv)

Karny's book is great in all kinds of ways. It makes some solid sense that you would have an Israeli journalist go to the Caucasus to try and decode the subtleties of national identity, homeland, faith, and ritual. And perhaps most importantly, while he begins with an archetype -- "an ancient saga of highlanders instinctively reaching for their swords in defense of the most basic liberty: not to answer to a foreigner" -- the book constantly resists falling back on that archetype. Which is why Braveheart may actually be wretched after all.

The other weird, and far more disturbing affinity for the mythos of Scottish identity can be found in Blood in the Face, a documentary about the KKK in Michigan. I was pleasantly surprised to find this NYT review by Vincent Canby still available on-line. While Canby mentions some of the ritual costumery to be seen in the film -- the Nazi regalia and biker/camo chic -- he doesn't mention that alongside the white hoods and jackboots are handfuls of folk standing around in full highland gear. Now, the history of the Klan (the "clan") is one sadly interconnected with Scots heritage -- having seemingly been formed by Confederate Scots cavalry officers.

(And while some have argued that the Klan's burning crosses and secret initiations have their origins in, respectively, the summoning of a clan to defend itself or the Society of the Horseman's Word, these seem historically tenuous. Here is an interesting and thorough explication on right-wing groups and ideology by Timothy Baysinger that makes some mention of Scottish origins.)

What is more disturbing is that, in the film, Pastor Bob Miles describes the Scots as one of the original Aryan nations... as if wearing three-feet of pleated tartan towards the end of the 20thC provides one with a 'Kilt of Genetic and Moral Supremacy'. There are any number of ways to take this: the hypnotic power of ritual, the need for collective membership, the ease in blaming and suppressing others instead of simply elevating oneself. But, and as much as I don't see the clowns in Blood in the Face as reflecting my Scotland, perhaps in hindsight it is as simple as Alex makes out: Braveheart is a wretched movie because it carefully chooses which bits of 'Scotland' and 'William Wallace' work for it and sidesteps anything potentially dangerous about the quest for self-rule or what happens in the vacuum once that basic liberty -- of not answering to a foreigner -- has been attained.

I leave you with these words from Hugh MacDiarmid.

“I suggest to you that we don't allow ourselves to be fobbed off with any talk about the problems and difficulties that varying degrees of devolution would present us with. We don't require to bother about that. We're going for devolution right to the end, that's to say for complete independence, and we rest our case on the virtue of our own personality and the strength of our own determination. Thank you.”

-- Hugh MacDiarmid, Speech at Glasgow University, 6 April 1968

The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.

-- Hugh MacDiarmid, The Little White Rose


Dan & Margaret said...

Since I like to stir up the ol' crappola.. (especially after a margarita or two), I was reminded of this little tidbit that appeared on the Scottish Deerhound discussion list last Spring, regarding your "ancient clan tartans"...

"Since I had no idea how to answer Heather's question about MacBeth's tartan,
I consulted a former college classmate of mine, Professor Robert Watson,
English professor and Shakespearean scholar at UCLA. Here is his interesting

"I went to an expert, my colleague A. R. Braunmuller, editor of the superb
New Cambridge edition of Macbeth, who reports that “The clan tartan is an
invention of the English in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (see Hugh
Trevor-Roper’s fascinating essay in Hobsbawm and Ranger, eds., The Invention
of Tradition). Tartans are adulterated versions of the rough, parti-colored
(but not brightly so) trews (trousers, not kilts) worn by males in Macbeth’s day
and for centuries later. So the choices here are all equally false to history
and therefore equally available for the poster.”

Don't we professors have a knack for discouraging all initiative?"

..and, you still haven't given me a good reason why you don't own a good Scottish hound. Like a deerhound, perhaps. I can find you a breeder. ;^)

Andrew Campbell said...


You're essentially right, certainly about 'clan' tartans -- although I think history an be even more specific in saying that the event that crystalized the notions of particular families being identified by particular patterns of tartan was King George IV's visit to Edingburgh in 1822. The whole royal visit was coordinated by Walter Scott, author of such hoary classics as Brigadoon.

I would mildly disagree and say that I'm quite sure that certain family groups probably were identifiable by the colors of their patterns, simply by dint of their geographical region (and therefore which dyes were available to them from the local flora).

The whole trews/kilts thing I've always understood as a lowlands/highlands distinction.