Highlandism: incorporated from above

More than a union of two crowns

Jack Conrad shows that Scottish national consciousness is complex. Historically there is an unmistakable British dimension

Officially the title of the British state is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain itself being the unity of two kingdoms and one principality (described as Great Britain not for reasons of imperial braggadocio, as left nationalists and other such types have it, but in order to distinguish it from Little Britain or Brittany: ie, the same as Great Russia and Ukraine or Little Russia, etc).

Yet the inhabitants of Britain are joined together by more than having a single hereditary monarch reigning over them. Besides a common state formation and a common territory, there is a common - though not necessarily uniform - historical experience, a common language, a common economy and, crucially, a common consciousness. In short, Britain is a nation-state made up of nations, or, to use an approved governmental formula, Britain is an arrangement of “countries within a country”.1 Obviously, a subject that needs to be urgently discussed because of the impending independence referendum in Scotland.

There are, of course, nationalists who call for a ‘yes’ vote because, whereas Britain is an “artificial construct”, Scotland is deemed to be a “legitimate” nation. Therefore, if Scotland is to meet its “date with destiny”, it must vote ‘yes’ for independence.2 Yet anyone with access to a decent set of history books will find that nations are made and remade. That certainly applies to Scotland. As a kingdom it was bloodily, painfully and fitfully put together through military advances and feudal marriage-bed deals. There was nothing inevitable about the “making of Scotland”. Conceivably there could just as easily have been a kingdom of Fortiu or/and a kingdom of Strathclyde. Anyway, both the Scottish and British nation unmistakably came into existence after the 1707 Act of Union. Only well into the 18th century did the bulk of the population begin to think of themselves as Scottish ... and British.

Scottish nationalists, almost by definition, loathe the idea of a British national identity. Yet denying its existence is akin to denying that Italy or Germany have a national identity because the Lega Nord and the Bayernpartei respectively strive for a separate Padania, a separate Bavaria. And the fact of the matter is that, good or bad, Britain and Britishness owes as much to Scottish as to English input. Eg, on the Scottish side John Mair, Adam Smith, David Hume, James Watt, Walter Scott, Kier Hardie, James Ramsay MacDonald, John Reith, John Buchan, Muriel Spark, Alec Douglas Home, Jimmy Reid, Tam Dalyell, Mick McGahey.

Ultimate proof about the existence of British national identity surely lies in a willingness to die for it. And in countless wars, crucially in 1914-18 and 1939-45, millions have put their lives on the line for king and country. That is as true of Scotland as it is for England and Wales. Eg, it is estimated that out of the 745,000 British military personnel killed in World War I 100,000 came from Scotland.3 It should also be added that it was field marshall Douglas Haig, a Scot, who was, from 1915, in command of the British Expeditionary Force.

Britishness involves a dual national identity. That is how it spontaneously evolved and that is how it was built by monarchs, politicians, bureaucrats and intellectuals. In other words, Scottishness survives not in spite of history: rather because of history.

There never was a drive to abolish Scottish identity or subsume it under an overarching Englishness. Of course, that was not true of those speaking Celtic languages. There appears to have been a fitful campaign to Anglicise Wales and encourage migration from England in the late medieval period. However, certainly when it comes to Scotland, it is surely an elementary mistake to equate the kingdom of Scotland with those who spoke Gaelic. The populations of southern and eastern Scotland were ethnically and linguistically distinct (see below: ‘Celts and Sassenachs’).

God’s language

Thanks to Protestantism and James I, people throughout his kingdom were able to diligently study the Bible and interpret even its more obscure passages for themselves - Protestantism being a literate religion, in which the human being and god speak directly with each other without mediation by priests. And the word of god was in English - their common language.

After the union of the crowns, Scots English (sometimes called Lallans) rapidly gave way to the standard English developed in London during the 17th and 18th centuries. A standardisation which perhaps found its highest expression in Samuel Johnson’s celebrated 1775 dictionary. For Scottish nationalists this provides irrefutable proof of colonial oppression. We are told: “One of the greatest, if not the greatest, of the barriers to a nation’s freedom is the devaluation and oppression of its culture. When a nation’s language, or culture, has been sufficiently weakened, a slave alternative will invariably be imposed by the imperial power.”4

However, at the risk of oversimplification, in 1707 Scotland had not one, but two, cultures; not one, but two, languages. The culture and language of the feudal highlands and the culture and language of the capitalist lowlands. Educated lowland Scots adopted standard English - naturally, spoken with a Scottish accent - “largely out of choice”.5 Obviously, it was a huge advantage to be readily understood by social equals, superiors and subordinates in England. And that is what the majority of them strove to achieve. Scots survived in song, poetry and the occasional literary flourish. The same process of assimilation happened elsewhere in the British Isles - Wales, Ireland and northern England included.

Yes, Gaelic was ruthlessly persecuted. Indeed, after the 1746 battle of Culloden, the whole highland way of life came under sustained attack. Feudal relations were forcibly uprooted and capitalist relations imposed. Highland costume, the carrying of arms and other symbols of ‘barbarism’ were banned. However, the Hanoverian-Tory regime in London carried out this ruthless policy of social engineering with the full blessing and active connivance of the lowland Scottish elite. So this was not England versus Scotland. Rather, British capitalist society versus highland feudalism.

Later, after the work of destruction had been completed, writers and poets - the most outstanding being Walter Scott - reconstructed an imagined highlandism, which provided the paradigm for a common Scottish consciousness. This work of invention snugly fitted into a common Britishness. As clan society perished, as the highlands ceased to be bandit territory, as Jacobitism faded in the memory, as English reassuringly eclipsed Gaelic, lowland Scots could safely adopt and celebrate a sanitised highland culture. The old north Briton identity in the lowlands was quietly abandoned. In its place came a wider, British, Scottishness.

Highlandism thereby morphed into a source of pride. Its paraphernalia - the plaid, bagpipes and a supposedly age-old, but actually forged, Ossianic literature - were incorporated into the dominant culture as defining signs and symbols, above all in the army. In 1881, the high command decreed that even lowlands regiments would be kitted out in highland dress - or a version which passed for it. Their kilts and distinguishing tartans were subsequently adopted by a vicarious Scottish mass culture, which flourished in the white dominions. Hence the Caledonian and other such societies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.

In the early 18th century, lowland Scottish intellectuals regarded the highlands as backward, dangerous and foreign. Some 50 years later faux highland culture was celebrated as the culture of the whole kingdom. And is has been so ever since. Wedding organisers recommend that the well-turned-out groom hires a ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ coatee and vest, kilt, plaid broach, white hose, ghillie brogues, kilt pin, sgian dubh, black belt with buckle, formal sporran with chain strap and a piece of lucky heather on their lapel.6 When Tommy Sheridan married Gail Healy in 2000’s “wedding of the year”, that is exactly how the celebrity MSP presented himself to readers of Scottish Socialist Voice. A publication edited by his former puppet-master, Alan McCombes.

Having been decriminalised in 1782, highlandism was appropriated from on high. Walter Scott famously masterminded George IV’s state visit to Edinburgh in August 1822. The Hanoverian king was sensationally paraded around, decked out in the apparel of the old enemy. Highland landowners - whom Scott insisted on calling ‘chiefs’ - were similarly attired. George IV was given the title of ‘chief of chiefs’. As Hugh Trevor Roper barbedly comments, Scott knew the whole thing was cod history.7 A few lowland grandees sniffily objected. Writing in 1850, Lord Macaulay, a Scot, damned George IV’s visit. To display his respect for Scotland, the king had disguised himself in what before the 1707 Act of Union had been “considered by nine Scotchmen out of 10 as the dress of a thief”.8

By1848, Victoria had acquired her Balmoral estate, She decorated it in full baronial style. It was a “riot of tartan”.9 The young queen claimed a special affinity with the Scots because of her Stuart ancestry. A mania of highland games, piping competitions, dances, songs and music followed. Gàidhealtachd was eagerly embraced by respectable society, but with its “linguistic teeth pulled”.10 Official Scottish society, especially the British royal family, still dresses the highlander whenever an appropriate opportunity presents.


The 1603 union between England-Wales and Scotland was a regal arrangement brokered and agreed from above. Oliver Cromwell’s republic began with a puritan revolution from below, but was completed by a military dictatorship, the crushing of Leveller democracy and the terroristic confiscation of Irish landed property. Nevertheless, be they subjects of the Stuart dynasts or citizens of the Commonwealth, the majority of inhabitants, including a majority in Scotland, were also united by a common religion - Protestantism (Catholicism being the defining other).

The historian, Linda Colley, argues that Protestantism provided the vital glue, which allowed the union of 1707 to stick.11 The consciousness brought about by reformation and counterreformation and the eventual triumph of Protestantism throughout Britain had already allowed the 1603 union of the crowns. Without being a Protestant James VI would never have been acceptable. Someone else would have been found.

Not that Protestantism possesses some inherent dynamic towards convergence. Quite the reverse. Protestantism is more than prone to fissure and faction. Theological and other such disputes separating Presbyterianism and Anglicanism undoubtedly kept England and Scotland apart. Eg, the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640 established the right of the church in Scotland to dispense with crown-appointed bishops. It wanted the faithful governed by a general assembly.

Nevertheless, precisely because of the Protestant ascendancy and the growth of capitalism, feudal aristocrats and clan lairds hankered after the old Scottish-French alliance. A factor behind the drive to woo or bully Scotland into a full-blown union. After 1688 England’s ruling classes feared that France would invade Scotland and restore the ousted Stuart dynasty. A French satellite and therefore the possibility of fighting a war on two fronts was considered unconscionable. Between 1702 and 1707 intense negotiations took place with Scottish ministers and officials … and if bribes, offers of financial assistance and promises to grant access to the empire failed, then it is probable that muskets, bayonets and cannons would have been used. Needless to say, mutual interest won the day.

Protestantism undoubtedly gave a particular edge to international conflicts. Catholic Spain and Catholic France welcomed exiled Catholic dissidents from England and Scotland and in general encouraged counterrevolution. It was to make Ireland safe from Spain that the Ulster plantations were established. An Anglo-Scottish empire. Colonists came from England, but by a ratio of five to one from Scotland. Then, later, after the union, there was the exploitation of the Caribbean and North American colonies. This brought fabulous wealth to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the chance for rapid advancement for Scottish churchmen, journalists, army officers and civil servants. The Scottish elite therefore had a very material interest in becoming British, in becoming joint oppressors. A key factor in making official Britishness.

The growth of the British empire is inseparable from the struggle for global hegemony. Catholic Spain had been effectively defeated by the mid-17th century, but the challenge of Catholic France remained. That is not to suggest for one moment that Britain fought the 1702-13 and 1754-63 global wars for reasons of religion. It did not. But doubtless religion coloured the rivalry.

Neil Davidson questions Colley’s thesis that Protestantism provided the glue for British national identity. He insists the different Protestantisms were actually a source of continuous tension and non-identity. Presbyterianism, he writes, “acted as a divisive factor in Anglo-Scottish relations”.12 Presbyterianism being Scottish and middle class; Anglicanism being English, pro-establishment and upper class.

Amongst Scots themselves, Davidson also reckons, anti-Catholicism “was a source of division, rather than unity”.13 In 1778 upper class Scotland wanted to implement reform measures which would relax anti-Catholic oppression. Such legislation was passed for England and Ireland by the Westminster and Dublin parliaments. Catholics were granted the right to purchase land. They were also permitted to teach - provided they took the oath of allegiance and denied the temporal powers of the bishop of Rome.

Popular protest forced the abandonment of these modest measures in Scotland. Davidson thinks that with this he has clinched the argument. Those above, those most interested in the success of British identity and the union, were for Catholic emancipation. Those below, not least those under the influence of Calvinist dissidents, were mobilised against the Catholic demon.

Yet the same stratified pattern can be seen in England too. Anti-Catholicism cannot be so easily disposed of. Davidson more or less discounts the Gordon riots, whose immediate cause was the 1788 legislation. These riots saw the mob rampage throughout London and were the largest, most sustained civil disturbances in British history. Not surprisingly they were plebeian in social composition and, besides Catholic churches, shops and businesses, they were also “directed against the crown, the state and the church hierarchy”.14

Colley explains these objections to Catholic emancipation through what amounts to a class analysis. The revival of crude anti-Catholic bigotry was triggered in large measure by the influx of worst-paid Irish labour into the big cities of Britain, including Glasgow, Paisley and Dundee. Unskilled, illiterate and young, these labourers undercut British manual workers. So the Gordon riots were a deflected form of the class struggle. Obviously a type of politics which retained its purchase well into the 19th century. Hostility towards Irish migrants allowed the Tories to secure a mass base for themselves after the widening of the franchise in 1867.

A British-Scottish working class

Inevitably, like British national consciousness and culture, Scottishness has two contradictory poles, determined by the whole range of sectional interests and conflicts: crucially class. True, compared with what existed before and what existed elsewhere in Europe, dominant British-Scottish culture was initially on the cutting edge. As James Thomson, the Scottish writer of ‘Rule Britannia’, proudly announces, “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”. Post-1688 the monarchy effectively abandoned absolutist ambitions. The balance of political power increasingly resided with parliament and the office of prime minister, not the crown and court. Britain was as a consequence viewed by enlightenment thinkers on the continental mainland as a beacon of liberty, a model to be emulated.

Yet, as a result of fighting counterrevolutionary wars against the American colonists and then the French republic, Britain never had its widely expected radical revolution. Instead reaction gained the upper hand. Historians tellingly describe the Duke of Wellington’s ministry as a ‘junta’. Reform of the House of Commons was successfully put off till 1832. When it finally came, the extension of the franchise was firmly restricted to the respectable classes. Chartism rose in angry response, but was rebuffed time and again. By 1850 both wings of Chartism had to all intents and purposes exhausted themselves. The 1867 extension of the franchise happened at a time of working class passivity. Workers duly voted for their masters and in overwhelming numbers embraced imperialism and monarchism. Obviously there were breaks and exceptions. Nevertheless the dominant strand in British working class consciousness has been conservative. Labourism and routine trade unionism surely prove it.

Scottish left nationalists maintain on the basis of such evidence that Britishness existed only at the top of society. Aristocrats, the upper sections of the bourgeoisie, members of the officer corps, expatriate colonial officials intermarried and sent their sons to the same educational establishments. They alone met together regularly - in politics, in business, in London town houses, at country balls and other such social occasions. They alone operated at an all-Britain level.

Logically, for this school of thought, it follows that those below, especially in Scotland, had an ambiguous attitude towards Britishness; the subordinate classes were apparently the main bearers of Scottishness. More, it is claimed - for example, by Peter Berresford Ellis and James D Young - that Scottishness implies opposition to Britishness, and therefore to the union with England and Wales, and in turn an almost innate desire for independence.

Yet, as we have already shown, there was no Scottish nation or Scottish common national consciousness prior to the 1707 union. When it did emerge, by incorporating highlandism, Scottishness was not against Britishness, but an integral part of it. Robert Burns and other such radicals in Scotland had a dual national consciousness. So did the conservative, Walter Scott.

Crucially, the majority of people in Scotland, as manifested through their organisations, mass actions and political demands, were not committed to a nationalist project for independence. As for the radicals, they fought for reform or even the overthrow of the existing British state. This was true also for the nascent working class movement in Scotland during the brief burst of revolutionary militancy following the Napoleonic wars.

While the industrial revolution took place simultaneously throughout Britain, it must be stressed that changes in Scotland were much more marked and hence traumatic. Scotland went from self-sufficient peasant agriculture to capitalist industrialism within a time span of 30 to 40 years. In England this social transformation took several centuries.

The horrors and degradation of life in the dark, airless factories and cramped slums of urban Scotland propelled the nascent working class against the aristocratic-capitalist regime. In 1820 the Committee of Organisation for Forming a Provisional Government issued an appeal for an insurrectionary general strike across the whole western central belt. The results were “dramatic”.15 Around 60,000 struck in the Clyde valley alone - a large proportion of the working class at that date. The aim of this movement was to topple the government on both sides of the border. An uprising was planned to occur “simultaneously” in Scotland and the north of England.16

While some of the radical leaders thought Scotland had been reduced to the status of a conquered province, there was an overarching wish for a closer and fully democratic union. Eg, the oath of the United Scotsman called upon members to swear that they would persevere in endeavouring “to form a brotherhood of affection amongst Britons of every description” to “obtain an equal, full and adequate representation of all the people of Great Britain”.17 The secret societies of 1815 employed a similar formulation: “I ... do voluntarily swear that I will persevere in my endeavours to form a brotherhood of affection amongst Britons of every description who are considered worthy of confidence; and that I will persevere in my endeavours to obtain for all the people of Great Britain and Ireland not disqualified by crimes or insanity the elective franchise at the age of 21, with free and equal representation and annual parliaments.”18

Such programmatic material owes little or nothing to the ideology of narrow nationalism. True, the slogans and banners of radical Scotland invoked the names of William Wallace and Robert Bruce. ‘Scots wha hae’ was frequently sung. However, they also claimed the Magna Charta and other references to the imagined history of English resistance to the Norman yoke. The same thing happened in England - ‘Scots wha hae’ was an anthem of liberty in England right down to the Chartist days. Above all, in terms of its immediate aims radical politics was all-British in scope and ambition. Peterloo was an injury to all. The demand for ‘universal suffrage and annual parliaments’ would save “this country” - ie, Britain - from “military despotism”.19 Etc, etc.

The general strike of 1820 announced that workers in Scotland had joined those in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, Sheffield and Cardiff in forming a united working class that was British. Hence the notion that Britishness is purely reactionary is as false as it is self-serving. The masses have played an unmistakable role in making another Britain. Needless to say, while never dominant, Owenism, Chartism, militant trade unionism, CPGB communism were pan-British phenomena.



1. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.number10.gov.uk/Page823 (January 10 2003).

2. Alex Salmond speaking to the SNP’s 79th annual conference. See www.snp.org/blog/post/2013/oct/salmond-opens-snp-annual-conference.

3. www.educationscotland.gov.uk/scotlandshistory/20thand21stcenturies/worldwarone.

4. E McGinty An Phoblacht June 19 1997.

5. R McCrum, W Cran and R MacNeil The story of English London 1992, p151.

6. See www.webwedding.co.uk/articles/scotland/traditionaldress.htm.

7. See H Trevor-Roper, ‘The invention of tradition: the highland tradition of Scotland’ in E Hobsbawm and T Ranger (eds) The invention of tradition Cambridge 1983.

8. Ibid p31.

9. M Lynch Scotland: a new history London 1992, p335.

10. Ibid.

11. See L Colley Britons: forging the nation 1707-1837 London 1994.

12. N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, p87.

13. Ibid p88.

14. I Hayward and J Steed (eds) The Gordon riots Cambridge 2012, p87.

15. N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, p187.

16. Ibid p188.

17. Quoted in ibid p189.

18. Ibid pp189-90.

19. N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, p190.

Celts and Sassenachs

According to the standard version of history, Julius Caesar met a uniformly Celtic population when his fleet landed in 55 BCE. Throughout the Roman province of Britannia - which famously stopped short at Hadrian’s Wall - people allegedly spoke various dialects of Brythonic (a Celtic language).

The Celts are pictured as but one of many waves of conquerors. A claim that originates with the French Egyptianologist, Gaston Maspero. His book, The struggle of nations (1896), had entire populations - men, women and children - migrating thousands of miles from their traditional homelands before finally settling down. Each culturally distinct artefact unearthed by archaeologists being interpreted as evidence of a new people. The Celts are supposed to have arrived from the European mainland around 300 BCE and are commonly known by their ‘tribal’ names: eg, the Iceni, Brigantes, Belgae, Dumnonii, Votadini.

Obviously, when it comes to the British Isles, the story hinges on the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th and 6th centuries. We are told that they swept away what remained of disintegrating Romano-British society. Celtic natives bravely fought back. But they were subjected to a prolonged war that amounted to genocide. A few survivors headed off to Brittany. However, most retreated to highland redoubts.

After a brief hiatus, the Normans are assimilated into Anglo-Saxon culture. They help make the modern English language. But - and this is the point - the monarchs of England continue the Anglo-Saxon conquests by taking first Wales and then Ireland.

The reason this matters, apart from getting history right, is that Scottish nationalists treat the expansion of the Anglo-Saxons, the feudal wars of Edward Plantagenet, the 1707 Act of Union and the September 18 referendum as chapters in an uninterrupted history of anti-Sassenach resistance (‘Sassenach’ being an 18th century Scottish term that derived from ‘Sasunnoch’, the Gaelic for ‘Saxon’).

However, Stephen Oppenheimer, a leading Oxford University expert on the use of DNA to trace migrations, argues that the pre-Roman population was not uniform (The origins of the British London 2007). More than that, it is highly unlikely that Anglo-Saxon invaders replaced the Celts. Indeed his research shows that the Anglo-Saxons of the 5th and 6th centuries contributed only a tiny fraction to the English gene pool.

In other words, theirs was not a people movement. Rather, the Anglo-Saxons were a warrior elite. Oppenheimer finds an unbroken line of descent from the end of the last ice age for three-quarters of the English. They came from northern Germany, Denmark and Frisia in the late Upper Palaeolithic via Doggerland, and it was these migrants who spoke the earliest forms of English.

What of the Celts? Oppenheimer’s data reveals that, far from having a central European homeland, Welsh, Cornish, Irish and Scottish Celts originate in the Basque country. They made their way along the Atlantic coast before arriving in Britain some 10,000 years ago. As to their language, this appears to have been introduced by later migrations during the Neolithic.

Oppenheimer finds a distinct genetic line dividing the southern and eastern British from the west British. So it is not surprising that in the 8th century a majority people in the Scottish lowlands were reportedly speaking a variety of English.