Robert de Bruce: more feudal than national

SCOTLAND SUPPLEMENT I - Mythical, feudal, combined

Jack Conrad questions left-nationalist assumptions that Scotland is an ancient nation, which was reduced to the status of a mere English colony by the 1707 Act of Union

Speaking to the SNP’s virtual annual conference, Nicola Sturgeon declared that Scotland is “on the cusp of history”, with “independence in clear sight”.1 Opinion poll after opinion poll shows a consistent, if narrow, majority for independence. The indications are that the SNP will emerge as the clear winner in May’s Holyrood elections. Polls show them on 56% in the constituencies and 47% in the regional/party lists.2 After that, expect an SNP government loudly demanding a second independence referendum and a battle royal with an intransigent Boris Johnson.

Conceivably, the SNP could go for an advisory referendum or even an illegal independence referendum. Just as conceivably, the Tory government could go for direct rule in the name of ending the devolution “disaster”. After that it is anyone’s guess: the population recoils from independence, once the horrible economic consequences of breaking away from a post-Brexit UK are fully grasped; there is civil disobedience and troops on the streets; the cravenly law-abiding SNP reluctantly lowers its programmatic sights to effectively accept the union; etc.

What we do not need to guess at, though, is the attitude of the various left-nationalist organisations, splinters and personalities in Scotland. Well before the first, September 18 2014 referendum they had been captured and turned into SNP minions, satellites and adjuncts. The Scottish Socialist Party inanely maintains that “breaking free of the suffocating stranglehold of the British state will benefit working class people across the islands.”3 The prospect of economic collapse in Scotland and a carnival of reaction both south and north of the border never seems to occur.

Naturally then, the SSP’s official spokesperson, Colin Fox, gladly sat on the SNP-dominated ‘yes’ campaign’s advisory board in 2014. So did Pat Kane and Elaine C Smith. Meanwhile, the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Resistance and the Socialist Party in Scotland merrily danced along, singing the same nationalist tune. So did the Radical Independence Campaign. RIC united the Scottish Green Party, the SSP, Republican Communist Network, Common Weal and the International Socialist Group - a now dissolved outfit established by Chris Bambery after he split from the Socialist Workers Party in 2011. As can be seen from their publications, press releases and blogs, there has been a total collapse into Scottish nationalism. The “Scottish Workers’ Republic is a dream we hold in our heads and minds”, says Bambery (A people’s history of Scotland 2014). ‘Britain is for the rich, Scotland can be for all of us’ runs RIC’s main slogan.4

Meanwhile, Tommy Sheridan, the disgraced former SSP MSP, has teamed up with former SNP MSP Dave Thompson. His Solidarity fan club is playing a leading role in Action for Independence - a broad front set up with the stated goal to “max the yes” vote in May’s election … and to get Sheridan back into Holyrood.5 The idea is not to compete with the SNP, but to secure as many pro-independence MSPs as possible. So AfI unashamedly strives to bring about Sturgeon’s banal goal of securing an independent capitalist Scotland that then becoming a dependent part of the capitalist European Union. A modern-day version of Scotland’s ‘auld alliance’ with absolutist France.

When was Scotland?

This and subsequent articles will not deal with the ins and outs of a second referendum. Rather, the aim is to provide the essential foundations needed to put together a solidly Marxist approach to the national question that palpably exists in Scotland today.

We can usefully begin with the left-nationalist version of history. Hence Tommy Sheridan and Alan McCombes. Before they spectacularly fell out, before they became irreconcilable political enemies, before they viciously denounced each other as liars in Edinburgh’s court of sessions, Tommy Sheridan happily put his name to Imagine (2000), a slim volume written by Alan McCombes (then editor of Scottish Socialist Voice and widely credited as the SSP’s “chief theoretician”).

Naturally, the usual leftwing celebrities were lined up by the publisher (Kevin Williamson’s Rebel Inc) to provide back-cover endorsements. They proved very obliging: “I commend it,” wrote John Pilger, Ken Loach pronounced it “excellent” and Tony Benn went into characteristic overdrive: “It is one of the very best books that I have ever read on the subject of socialism,” he gushed. Sad.

Having been trained in the thoroughly economistic school of the Militant Tendency, the two former chums happily repeated the standard nationalist tropes of misty origins, medieval Scottish resistance to English expansionism, the gallant role of William Wallace and the bitterly resented loss of hard-won independence. According to Sheridan-McCombes, Scotland was “evolving as a rudimentary nation-state” - until the 1707 Act of Union was forced upon a bankrupt Scottish elite. Afterwards the country was “stripped of all political and economic autonomy” and turned into a sort of colony of the English/British ruling class.6 Historic revenge will supposedly come through separation from Britain and winning a Scottish socialism.

National romantics of all stripes, including national socialists, establishment politicians, historians and journalists, narcissistic would‑be freedom fighters and the plain ignorant are all prone to instinctively place the beginnings of the Scottish nation as far back as they can, in terms of the archaeological and written record - hence ancient Picts and the arrival of the Scoti Gaels from northern Ireland. During these ancient times, Alan McCombes touchingly tells us, the “two communities” in Scotland had this in common: they were “peaceful farmers, combining livestock and crops. Their society was egalitarian, for the practical reason that this was a subsistence economy, with no great surplus produced that could be creamed off by a privileged class”.7 An unlikely tale. Society was, in fact, organised into numerous rival clans, or tribes, each owing their “primary allegiance to local chiefs”.8 As a concomitant there were endemic blood feuds, bartering of brides, raiding for cattle and slaves, and constant warfare. Traditionally inter-tribal raiding took place in the autumn “after the harvests had been gathered.”9

Either way, the ancient Picts are depicted as the founders of a nation that is today a willing - or unwilling - component part of the United Kingdom. That, after all, is how standard history tells the story. That is what children are taught in Scottish schools. Indeed, virtually every country that exists at this present moment in time is projected back into prehistory by the propagandists of nationhood - a common sense reflected in the history sections in libraries and bookshops, and their arrangement into neat, alphabetically ordered national sections - Albania, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Ethiopia, France, Germany … Scotland.

Slightly less fanciful is the notion that Scotland achieved national consciousness and therefore nationhood in medieval times. The ‘wars of independence’ against ‘England’, the famous 1320 Declaration of Arbroath and William Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge are cited as clinching evidence. McCombes‑Sheridan confidently state that “Scotland is one of the oldest nations in Europe”, going back to the 13th century and the struggle against Edward I.10

A ‘theoretical’ underpinning for this widely accepted nonsense was supplied by John Foster - former international secretary of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and an emeritus professor of social science. Unlike orthodox Marxists, who link nations with the rise of capitalist relations of production, he maintains that the Scottish nation was almost entirely a “feudal creation”. The “founding elements” of Scottish language, religion and law (the so-called ‘markers’ of Scottish nationhood) all “stem from the last three centuries of the middle ages” - or so he claims.11

According to this version of history, the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 thereby become as much expressions of Scottish national resistance against English colonialism as a dynastic struggle between the deposed Stewarts and the newly installed Hanoverians. The Stewarts pledged to restore the Edinburgh parliament. As a result, in 1745 Charles Edward Stewart “built mass support in the highlands and passive support even in the Presbyterian lowlands”.12

Scotland’s popular culture, as it comes down to us today, is supposedly therefore one of national resistance against foreign domination. Not surprisingly, Britain and Britishness are dismissed as nothing more than an elitist unity, a fragile and fading imperial construct, beneath which the ‘real’ nations of England, Scotland and Wales lie ready, waiting to spring forth, given their moment of freedom - the left-nationalist version, of course, culminates in a Scottish socialism.

Yet it is a fundamental mistake to imagine today’s nations backwards. Medieval kingdoms did not have a pre-destiny to form today’s states - moving through the stages of establishing national consciousness, before finally finding their rightful contemporary boundaries. Most medieval kingdoms disappear in the constantly interrupted course of history: eg, Mercia, Navarre, Burgundy, Galicia, Lombardy. Modern states do, though, invariably invent for themselves - and crucially for their citizens - a history constructed on the basis of drawing on traditional stories and supposedly ancient identities. This work of inventing nations - as emphasised by Patrick Geary and many of the better historians - began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries through the “creative efforts” of politicians and nationalists.13 Subsequently their work was continued and elaborated by a whole army of paid persuaders. That does not mean that nations are fictions, have no reality, do not exist. But Marxists are surely obliged to provide truthful explanation, not to dumbly echo the dominant ideology.

For example, official France claims origins in ancient Gaul, forgetting that the French language is Latin, not Celtic in root and that the name ‘France’ itself derives from 4th and 5th century Germanic conquistadors. Vercingetorix - the 1st century BCE chieftain of the Arverni - is painted as a precursor of the 1940s French resistance by the French Communist Party. His social position at the top of an exploiting warrior elite is ignored. Marine Le Pen and her National Rally have developed a whole cult around Joan of Arc. The mission of the Maid of Orleans is said to have been ‘England for the English and France for the French’14 - code nowadays for Islamophobia and expelling illegal migrants. In the process of invention and reinvention, the other ‘Frances’ of Burgundy, Brittany, Gascony, Provencal, etc are ignored by all sides in favour of an Île-de-France which supposedly inevitably swept all before it from the year 1000 onwards.

There were, of course, regional and linguistic commonalities in the pre-modern world, but they should not be equated or confused with our present-day notions of nation and nationalism. Take the ancient Greeks. They spoke a common language, albeit with distinct dialects. They shared a common territory around the eastern Mediterranean, but they also fought innumerable wars against each other. They had a recognisably common culture vis-à-vis barbarian outsiders, but they were not united economically. Scattered, largely self-sufficient peasant agriculture, tribal identity, petty artisan manufacture and painfully slow internal communications saw the Greeks living in numerous rival poleis. There was no Greek nation. Objective conditions did not allow it.

The same applies to medieval Europe. Virtually everyone was Christian and regularly attended church services. Besides the commonality of religion, there was the commonality of class. The feudal ruling class had far more in common with each other culturally, psychologically and economically across the frontiers of crown domains than with the exploited peasants below them. The rural masses had lived relationships that were constrictingly narrow - essentially local, being determined by village, manor and church diocese.

To the extent there was a wider popular consciousness, it was regnal - one founded on loyalty to the monarch, or to the monarchy as an institution. Hence Kentish peasants in 1381 could imagine a bond between themselves and the boy-king, Richard II. Needless to say, that bond was not national. The first language of the Anjou and Plantagenet kings of England was not English, but Norman French. Moreover, these kings of England were also overlords in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as well as being feudal magnets exploiting large tracts of France. Indeed, as far as surplus extraction was concerned, these ‘English’ kings derived most of their wealth and therefore accumulated political-military power from their French, not English, possessions. In that sense Henry II of England is best thought of as Henri of Angevin.

As to ‘nation’, it is, of course, an ancient term. For example, in the 3rd century Vulgate edition of the Bible the Greek word ‘ethnos’ and Latin ‘natio’ referred to the original Middle Eastern tribal formations whose “dismal fate” is recounted in the book of Jeremiah. ‘Natio’ was transformed into ‘nacioun’ in the first English versions of the Bible and became ‘nation’ in the authorised version of 1611. For these authors and translators of the Bible ‘nation’ was something more than a state or kingdom. It corresponded to a ‘people’ who were assumed to be a natural, inherited community of tradition, custom, law and descent. ‘Nation’ designated therefore the ‘gens’ or ‘populus’, who were presumed to have a common biological descent.

Origin myths were used to establish and explain the commonality of people. For example, in medieval times the Franks were traced back to the arrival of exiled Trojans in the Rhineland. Hence if the nation was defined in ethnic, or biological, terms, then the idea of the nation was based on the possession of a common language: ie, language makes nation. During medieval times university students in Prague were therefore organised into four ‘nations’, as were the knights of the Hospitallers in the Levant: eg, the ‘Bohemian’ and ‘Frankish’ ‘nations’. The material fact of language could only but produce a distinct consciousness, when confronted by others.

However, the medieval kingdom of Scotland was home to not one common language or ‘nation’, but three at least.

A medieval ‘nation’

So, what of medieval Scotland? We have already referred to the so-called ‘Scottish wars of independence’. My view - which continues to enrage left nationalists in Scotland - is that the popular belief that William Wallace, and, following him, Robert Bruce, led some sort of national liberation struggle against the English is a combination of 19th century myth and Hollywood hokum. As for the celebrated Declaration of Arbroath - written in Latin and purportedly representing the Scottish equivalent of the American declaration of independence - it did not acquire that iconic status till modern times.

In essence the conflict between ‘England’ and ‘Scotland’ after 1296 was no different from the Wars of the Roses: ie, a struggle between rival feudal interests, whose ideology was based on past notions of fief and vassalage, not future notions of nation and nationality. The aristocratic elite in Scotland can be described as Anglo-Norman or Scoto-Norman, not least because of their family names - Fitzalan, Oliphant, de Graham, Comyn, de Bailleul (Balliol), and de Brus (Bruce). But the key thing to understand is that they were feudal lords, and this is how they understood themselves.

With this in mind the great lords in Scotland can be categorised as ‘traditionalists’ defending their right to exploit their serfs without anyone higher up the feudal ladder siphoning off the bulk of the surplus. Edward I was the ‘revolutionary’ centraliser who wanted to do just that.

During this medieval period both ‘Scotland’ and ‘England’ were little more than geographical expressions. There was then no war between Scotland and England. Rather wars by the kings of England in Scotland - a crucial distinction. In this context the Declaration of Arbroath - which took the form of an appeal by the earls and the feudal elite in Scotland to pope John XXII in Avignon - was to all intents and purposes no different from the Magna Carta in England, the Charter of Ottokar in Syria or the Golden Bull in Hungary. Lurking behind the fawning appeals to the pope and the stirring phrases about “good men” and being “for freedom alone” there was indeed the sordid fight over “riches”.15

Under the banner of fighting for their ancient liberties the ‘traditionalist’ lords were determined to limit the ‘revolutionary’ centralising power of a hegemonic crown, so that they could secure the greater share of the surplus product squeezed from the peasantry. The preamble is typically medieval: the “Scots nation” came from “Greater Scythia”, having sailed through the Pillars of Hercules (Columpnas Herculis). Having dwelt in Spain and Ireland for 400 years, they moved to Scotland, where they triumphed over Britons and Picts and survived attacks by “Norwegians, Danes and English”. If, as nationalists claim, Scotland was a proto-nation in the 14th century, its leading representatives still saw themselves as conquistadors of the Britons and Picts (albeit using a stretched version of Virgil’s 1st century BCE Aeneid). However, the purpose of the Declaration is crystal-clear. It was an attempt to gain papal backing for the lords in Scotland, justified in part through recourse to myth and invention.

There is no continuity between the forms of consciousness used in the Declaration of Arbroath and that of the modern Scottish people. The kings and nobles of both England and Scotland were feudalists - with a Norman French-derived culture (they were married to aristocratic wives, chosen from across the whole of north-western Europe).

This ‘cosmopolitan’ class entertained no modern-day notions of nation. The idea of a national liberation war would have been utterly incomprehensible to them. It was merely that their realms of exploitation, commonality and rivalry invariably overlapped with other feudalists. There were countless examples of double allegiances. ‘Scottish’ lords - such as John Comyn - fought with Edward I in his conquest of Wales. The ‘Scottish’ Balliol family still held lands in France. Robert de Bruce, the Earl of Carrick, was a vassal of Edward I. As we have noted, the Plantagenet and Anjou ‘English’ kings themselves occupied tracts of France - notably Gascony, Aquitaine and Poitou - and often actively promoted claims to the French throne. The ‘English’ armies of Edward I and II used in Scotland were recruited in large numbers from domains in France, Ireland and Wales. Crucially, though, their wars in Scotland were solidly based on feudal, not national, rights.

Edward I certainly sought to incorporate the territory of the kingdom of Scotland into his feudal empire. At first the means were peaceful. The Treaty of Birgham in 1290 set out the terms of a future dynastic union through the marriage of Margaret, the Maid of Norway, and Edward of Caernarfon, Edward’s son. Margaret was the daughter of Erik II of Norway and the granddaughter of Alexander III of Scotland. More to the point, she was heir to the Scottish crown. Edward would have ruled as king - first of Scotland and then, after his father’s death, England. He would have been Edward I of Scotland and Edward II of England.

It had been agreed that the land rights of the ruling elite in Scotland would go unaffected. The border between the two kingdoms would remain unchanged and the churches, parliaments and legal systems kept separate. The merger was to be of crowns. There was to be no 1066-type takeover.

As we know, the United Kingdom had to wait for another three centuries or so before seeing the light of day. Margaret died and triggered a constitutional crisis in Scotland. Edward I quickly moved to assert his overlordship. John Balliol was appointed king under Edward’s sponsorship and duly swore fealty to him in December 1292.

Internal feudal contradictions in Scotland, and Edward’s onerous demands placed on his vassals, drove king John to rebellion. Instead of meekly accepting Edward’s domination, the ‘Scottish’ feudalists raised an army - including commoners - at Caddonlee. The Scots were comprehensively routed in a 17‑day blitzkrieg. Edward I stripped a captured Balliol of his feudal trappings in a humiliating ceremony held at Montrose Castle in July 1296. His tabard, hood and knightly girdle were physically torn from him.

Yet, though Edward’s means shifted from those of peaceful diplomacy to naked force, this ran in parallel to, and often in conflict with, his individual fief-vassal relationship with the great feudal families in Scotland. Here lies the explanation for the ‘sinister’ role of the elder Bruce, etc, and the constant shifts in alliances, as the ‘Scots’ feudalists gradually turned the tables on the ‘English’ - Stirling Bridge being a crucial early battle. But there were, of course, no national patriots, defeatists, collaborators or traitors in the modern sense. After winning at Bannockburn in 1314, the ‘Scottish’ nobility sought to expand its influence into Wales and Ireland. The ‘war of independence’ continued, though as an internecine conflict between the Bruce and Balliol families.

Left nationalists not only cite the Declaration of Arbroath, but William Wallace and the social composition of the army, which fought with him at Stirling Bridge and for Bruce at Bannockburn, as proof of a popular national consciousness. These fantasists actually put Wallace and his army in the same league as Spartacus, Wat Tyler and the Levellers: ie, a revolutionary class movement from below. According to Thomas Johnston (1882-1965) in his influential The history of the working classes in Scotland (1920), those responsible for the defeat of the ‘English’ army in 1314 “were the working class, and it was their charge on the field that won the battle of Bannockburn”.16 Apparently the presence of urban plebeians and peasants is meant to show that the ‘wars of independence’ had a popular character.

So, did Wallace lead a slave revolt? Bannockburn - won under Bruce, the future Robert II - involved no decisive action by commoners. Stirling Bridge did. However, there is a huge difference between rallying an army of commoners and being an army of and for the commoners. The fact that the forces commanded by William Wallace and Andrew de Moray at Stirling Bridge in 1297 consisted mainly of foot soldiers and his tactical deployment of pikemen in tightly packed schiltrons hardly demonstrates nationalism or national consciousness.

There have been popular mobilisations in support of rival elites since the dawn of history - the Greek city-states and their peasant-citizen armies being a case in point. Surely the ability of Wallace and Moray to form a peasant-plebeian army rested not on any nationalism, or national idealism: rather the ideology of feudal obedience.

Wallace and Moray raised their army on the traditional basis of ‘Scottish service’, which was by law imposed on the “horseless classes”. Every territorial unity was obliged to provide a certain quota of fighting men. Scottish service was therefore similar to the Anglo-Saxon fyrd. The great lords, along with the bishops and their priests, gave “tacit approval” to the mobilisation, but in general stayed safely in the background. Whether or not the common population responded with enthusiasm is a question that cannot really be answered, although that is quite conceivable.17 What we can safely say though is that the peasantry did not act as a class for itself. Doubtless many would have deeply resented Edward’s murdering, raping, robbing army, but the idea of malnourished, illiterate, mainly unfree peasants - who lived in isolated villages and crofts - embracing modern notions of nationalism is stretching the imagination to breaking point.

For the sake of blinkered left nationalists in Scotland, it is also worth stressing the fact that Edward’s army, assembled before the battle of Falkirk in 1298, included 4,000 cavalry ... but also some 25,000 infantrymen - “paid, voluntary unpaid and feudal elements”.18 It is true that Edward represented a rich feudalism. His elaborately armoured and expensively mounted knights were the tank divisions of the day. It is also true that the kingdom of Scotland was a poor feudalism and could afford neither the same numbers of infantry nor heavy cavalry.

That the ‘English’ feudalists suffered defeats at the hands of the ‘Scots’ feudalists is testimony not to a people’s war. Rather it was military incompetence. At Bannockburn the ‘English’ army under the command of Edward II fought on “cramped and hemmed in”, almost suicidal, terrain and, no doubt due to aristocratic arrogance, launched a “headstrong”, frontal cavalry charge, against massed pikemen. And it is worth noting that in later battles, such as Dupplin Moor, Halidon Hill and Neville’s Cross, the ‘Scottish’ armies employed tactics “modelled” on those used by Bruce at Bannockburn. However, such attempts to repeat Bannockburn ended in “disaster”.19

The ‘correct’ tactic at Bannockburn, which soon became standard, was to send the cavalry in a pincer movement and, when it came to the front, unleash the English and Welsh longbowmen. These equally plebeian, though highly skilled, forces would wreak decimation on any stationary formation. They would fire arrows at a rate “three or four times” faster than a crossbow and with equal accuracy and reach.20 The longbow even proved a match against the elite of French feudalism. Needless to say, neither Crécy nor Agincourt make Edward III and Henry V leaders of a slave revolt. By the same logic the reliance of Wallace and co on pikemen proves nothing in and of itself, except that the kingdom of Scotland was a poor feudalism.

All in all, the suggestion that Wallace led a revolt from below in the manner of Spartacus and Wat Tyler is totally unconvincing. Following Edward I’s victory in 1296, many nobles languished in England, awaiting ransom. Others had been injured and were unable to take to the field. Others were temporarily cowed. The imposition of Edward I’s puppet parliament and plans for a deep feudalism provoked widespread opposition, including from small landowners. However, no ‘natural’ leadership stepped forth willing to fight. It was into this vacuum that Andrew de Moray emerged in the north and William Wallace in the south. Moray was the son and heir of a leading baron. Wallace had a much less elevated lineage. He was either the son of a Renfrewshire knight or the son of a mere crown tenant.

In the summer of 1297, the Moray-Wallace campaign made rapid progress. Nevertheless, over these two “commanders of the army of the kingdom of Scotland, and the community of that realm” there stood two great magnets - Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, and James the Stewart, Wallace’s own lord. The respective roles of Moray and Wallace is much obscured by the fact that the former died of wounds inflicted at Stirling Bridge. Either way, Wallace became Guardian in Scotland not in the name of the people, but the “illustrious king” in exile. He was Balliol’s regnal champion.

Wallace was, however, no military genius. He only successfully fought one set-piece battle: Stirling Bridge. When his army met the ‘English’ feudal host at Falkirk in July 1298, the longbowmen destroyed his schiltrons. His status as Guardian was fatally undermined. The resistance of the high aristocracy shrunk still further. They opted for a peace deal. Like Bruce after 1309, Wallace was forced to turn to guerrilla or ‘secret’ warfare and to raiding the northern English counties. A risky business. In August 1305 Wallace was captured near Glasgow and taken to London, where he was tried, found guilty of treason and horribly killed.

Wallace was used many years later by the forces of radical democracy in inspiring poems, novels and songs. The same can be said of Hereward the Wake and the long-held beliefs in pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon liberty and opposition to the Norman yoke. But to confuse origin myths for actual history is a foolish mistake and certainly not worthy of anyone who calls themselves a Marxist.


Most historians who think that the kingdom of Scotland was a proto-nation or even a nation before the 1707 Act of Union with the kingdom of England take the view that this was brought about through language and three main institutions: namely the education system, the kirk and the law. Here we have the so-called key ‘markers’ of Scottish nationhood. A flimsy and unconvincing construct.

Let us begin with the institutions before turning to language.

Education was not mentioned in the 1707 treaty. There was, though, a well established education system in Scotland in the 17th century. Doing his best, the local minister would drum into the heads of young boys, and a few young girls, a little reading and writing and a lot of religion.21 The parish school was essentially an outpost of the kirk, which explains why teaching the catechism was considered so important. But this was mainly in the lowlands. Education in the highlands was much more difficult, given the widely dispersed population and the fact that many a minister did not speak Gaelic. Despite the latter-day boasts, literacy, even in the lowlands, was in fact far from universal: it was “literacy was not noticeably higher than comparable nations, as the education in the parish schools was basic, short and attendance was not compulsory”.22 Either way, we have not commonality, but the divergence of two distinct cultures.

Scotland did have a surprisingly good-quality university system, which fed into the Scottish enlightenment and produced great thinkers, such as David Hume and Adam Smith. However, it should be understood that amongst the “most advanced” sections of the bourgeoisie were to be found the “principle advocates of Britishness”.23

So, what about the kirk? True, the Church of Scotland is nowadays more overtly Protestant and less overtly hierarchical than the Church of England: eg, it has no bishops, and each church congregation is governed by an elected assembly of elders. But the C of S is far from being the universal church of Scotland’s people. There are rivals in the form of Catholicism and countless Protestant sects.24

From the 1560s onwards the Calvinist doctrines espoused by John Knox edged their way to dominance in the Church of Scotland. A long and often bitter struggle ensued between the monarch and the kirk over the appointment of bishops and control over general assemblies. James VI of Scotland (and from 1603 James I of England) famously said: “No bishop, no king”. He saw control over the church and appointment of bishops as essential to his absolutist principles of kingship. He met resistance from both the great lords and the church itself.

His son, Charles I, inherited an uneasy settlement in Scotland, based on a compromise between Calvinist doctrine and monarchical power. But, lacking the evident political skills of his father, he blunderingly moved to impose absolutism over both kingdoms. Given the times, his strategy in Scotland centred on the Prayer book of 1637 - a slightly modified version of the Anglican Book of common prayer. Though it was drafted by a panel of Scottish bishops, his insistence that it be adopted ‘sight-unseen’ caused widespread outrage.

When the Prayer book was finally introduced at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh in mid-1637, it triggered rioting. In early 1638 the National Covenant was signed by large numbers of Scottish grandees. In November 1638, the kirk’s general assembly met in Glasgow, the first for 20 years. It not only declared the Prayer book unlawful, but went on to abolish the office of bishop itself. The Church of Scotland was from then on committed to a thorough-going Presbyterianism. Attempts by Charles I to push back led to the outbreak of the so-called Bishops’ Wars. Though there was little full-scale fighting Charles I was defeated and forced into a whole series of humiliating compromises. The Covenanters found themselves in control of the government and kirk in Scotland, though their ambitions did not stop there. They sought political power through the creation of a “unified church of Scotland and England, only one that was Presbyterian, rather than Episcopalian”.25 In the subsequent British Isles-wide revolution, the Scots Covenanters initially made common cause with the English parliamentarians - resulting in the Westminster confession of faith - a document which remains the “subordinate standard” of the Church of Scotland, but was disposed of in England after the restoration.

It should be added, once Oliver Cromwell and the New Model Army defeated the royalist forces and dethroned Charles I, parliament established an English Commonwealth. The union of crowns was ended. It was only the proclamation of Charles II as king of Great Britain, France and Ireland that “provoked” an invasion and the “forcible incorporation” of Scotland.26

Of course, modern-day Scottish nationalists and their leftwing outriders paint the Covenanters as leading a mass movement against an English monarch - that Charles I was born in Scotland and was the scion of Scotland’s ruling house of Stewart is typically forgotten or brushed aside. Moreover, it should be pointed out, the original Covenanters never intended to overthrow the monarchy. The movement was led by high aristocrats, such as the Earl of Sutherland and the Marquis of Montrose. Their Covenant praised the “king’s greatness and authority”. Besides that, for the purposes of this discussion, the 4,000-word Covenant oozed hatred for Catholics and Catholicism: ie, a not insignificant section of Scotland’s Gaelic population which lived north of the Clyde and the Tay - not least due to the continued hold of clan society many of them stayed true to the “anti-Christ” in Rome. In short, the Covenanters were committed, at the very least, to introducing discriminatory laws. Class politics were pursued through religion, not modern-day notions of nation.

Nor is the idea of criminal and civil law being a ‘marker’ of national consciousness really credible. Here, with the law, we have not popular consciousness, but rather bureaucratic continuity, which, especially given the times, was by definition fundamentally undemocratic. Till the Act of Union the post of sheriff was typically heritable - in 21 out of 33 sheriffdoms. They were held by local barons, who would ruthlessly exploit their position “to profit themselves, not the king”.27 The whole system reeked of corruption. Under these circumstances would a peasant proudly quote a judgement made by an underling of one of those grasping barons, if asked whether the two of them share a common Scottishness? Hardly.

Crucially, for the mass of people in Scotland to have felt themselves to be Scottish, they would have had to be drawn together through a whole nexus of economic, cultural and linguistic ties. Experience of the law, the kirk and education would not have proved sufficient.

So, let us turn to language.

According to the standard version of events, Julius Caesar met a uniformly Celtic speaking population when his fleet landed in Britain in 55 BCE. Throughout the Roman province of Britannia, and to the far north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, people spoke various dialects of Brythonic (or Brittanic). Pictish is thought to be Brythonic too, or a closely related sister language (it was the Scoti from northern Ireland who appear to have introduced Gaelic - a Goidelic Celtic language related to old Irish, old Manx, etc).

The Celts are supposed to have arrived from the European mainland around 300 BCE - others give 500 BCE as the date - and are commonly known by their ‘tribal’ names: eg, the Iceni, Brigantes, Belgae, Dumnonii, Votadini. This could be true. But it would probably not have been a people movement. The numbers involved would have been relatively small and would, especially to begin with, have been warrior bands out for loot and slaves. No less to the point, genetic studies show a large continuity between the Iron Age and the earlier populations.28 Despite that, the Celts appear to have come in sufficient numbers to allow their language, or dialect, to come to dominance.

Obviously, the story changes once again with the Anglo-Saxons invasions of 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. An unlikely scenario. Almost certainly, victorious Anglo-Saxon warrior chiefs would have married their sons to the daughters of the defeated Romano-British elite. As to the Celtic-speaking common people, they would have been kept working on the land and subject to exploitation. Presumably through assimilation, they disappear from history in south-western Britain - in other words, in most of England and the Scottish lowlands. By the 8th century a majority of people in the Scottish lowlands were reportedly speaking a variety of old English.

After a relatively long hiatus, the Normans are assimilated into Anglo-Saxon culture. They help, though, make the modern English language with its huge number of French and Latin loan-words. However, the descendants of those who fought with William of Normandy at the battle of Hastings went on to take 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 and the 1707 Act of Union as chapters in the same uninterrupted history of anti-Sassenach resistance (‘Sassenach’ being an 18th century Scottish term that derived from ‘Sasunnoch’, the Gaelic for Saxon).

Leave aside the great feudal lords and their Norman-French. Within the Stewart kingdom of Scotland not only were there those who were still locked into the Gaelic-speaking clan society of the highlands. There are also the peoples of the Shetlands and Orkney, who still spoke Norse. Then, in the much more prosperous lowlands, the majority spoke a dialect of English (a Scottish-English, sometimes referred to as Lallans). Hence, language does not work as a ‘marker’ of national consciousness. There is no commonality. Certainly, lowland Scots would have had far more in common with the inhabitants of northern England, such as in Northumbria and Cumbria, than highland Scots that is for sure. However, as we have already pointed out, with the growth of print culture and the development of capitalist relations of production, the most ‘advanced’ representatives of the bourgeoisie had already began to refer to themselves as ‘north Britons’ (south Britain was England and Wales).

There was nothing akin to the phenomenon in Ireland, where proto-national consciousness coincided with religion after 1690. Both Gaelic-Irish and Anglo-Irish became Irish-Irish with the persecution of the Catholic religion and the imposition of the Anglican religion, the influx of Protestant settlers from England and, above all, Scotland into north-eastern Ulster. No-one denies the role of Calvinism in Scotland nor the Presbyterian ‘state within a state’ form of religious self-government. But there was always the other Scotland: the Scotland that was not Presbyterian, but Episcopalian or Catholic; not English-speaking, but Gaelic or Norse-speaking; not capitalist, but feudal.

More than two crowns

The official title of the state in this country 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, Little Russia and White Russia - or Russia, Ukraine and Belarus).

Clearly, the inhabitants of Britain (we shall leave Northern Ireland aside here) are joined together by more than just 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 - which perhaps reached its peak in the 1940s and 50s. So Britain can be categorised as a nation-state made up of nations, or, to use an approved governmental formulation, Britain is an arrangement of “countries within a country”.29 Obviously, a category that cannot be treated as fixed, immutable - not least because of the rise of separatist Scottish and Welsh nationalism. Then there is the Tory mobilisation of resentful English nationalism. At the very least, Britishness is fraying with Brexit and the further decline of the United Kingdom as an imperial power.

In the event of a second referendum, the more sophisticated advocates of a Scottish breakaway, will, once again, argue that whereas Britain is an “artificial construct”, Scotland is a “legitimate” nation: therefore, if Scotland is to meet its “date with destiny”, it must vote ‘yes’ for independence.30 Yet anyone with access to a decent set of history books will find that nations are made and remade. That certainly applies not only to Britain but Scotland too.

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 forward march of the House of Alpin and the kingdom of Alba. Conceivably there could just as easily have been a surviving kingdom of Fortriu or a surviving kingdom of Strathclyde. Anyway, both the Scottish and British nations unmistakably come into existence after the 1707 Act of Union. Only well into the 18th century did the bulk of the population in Scotland 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 Party of Venetians (Partito dei Veneti) calls for Venetian independence or the Bavaria Party (Bayernpartei) wants an independent Bavaria ... the ultimate destination of such atomisation being the Thatcherite dictum: “there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women and there are families”.

The fact of the matter is that, good or bad, clever or stupid, reactionary or progressive, 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, Ramsay MacDonald, Douglas Haig, John Reith, John Buchan, Willie Gallacher, Muriel Spark, Alec Douglas Home, Tam Dalyell, Mick McGahey, Gordon Brown.

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 was 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.

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 and verses 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 that they read was English - their common language.

After the union of the crowns, Scots English rapidly gave way to the standard English developed in London during the 17th and 18th centuries - a standardisation which perhaps found its foremost champion 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.”31

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”.32 Obviously, it was a huge advantage for the aspirational be readily understood by social equals, superiors and subordinates in England and the growing British empire. But diffusion through kirk sermons, schoolroom teaching, print culture and finally the electronic media generalised standard English … just listen to Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson or George Galloway. Scots survives 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 was put under sustained attack. Feudal relations were forcibly uprooted and capitalist relations imposed. Highland costume, carrying 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 rather than something viewed as shameful, as barbaric, as ‘other’. 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 army high command decreed that even lowlands regiments would be kitted out in highland dress - or a version which passed for it. Their bonnets, kilts and distinguishing tartans were subsequently adopted by a vicarious Scottish mass culture, which sprouted 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.33 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 (edited by his Svengali, 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 and paraphernalia 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 comments, Scott knew the whole thing was cod history.34 A few lowland grandees seethingly 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 ten as the dress of a thief”.35

By 1848 Victoria had acquired her Balmoral estate, and she decorated it in full baronial style. It was a “riot of tartan”.36 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 ensued. Gàidhealtachd was eagerly embraced by respectable society, but with its “linguistic teeth pulled.”37 Official Scottish society, especially the British royal family, still dresses as the highlander whenever the 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 lowland 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.38 The consciousness brought about by reformation and counterreformation and the eventual triumph of Protestantism throughout Britain cemented a deeper union.

The 1603 union of the crowns would surely have been impossible without mutual Protestantism. Without it James VI would never have been acceptable and someone else would have been chosen. 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 unresolved disputes separating Presbyterianism and Anglicanism undoubtedly kept England and Scotland apart: eg, as already discussed, the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640 established the right of the church in Scotland to dispense with bishops and establish a real autonomy from the crown.

Nevertheless, precisely because of the Protestant ascendancy and the growth of an English-inspired capitalism, feudal aristocrats hankered after the old Scottish-French alliance - a factor behind Westminster’s drive to woo or bully Scotland into a full-blown union. England’s ruling classes feared that absolutist France would invade Scotland and restore the ousted Stuart dynasty as dependent absolutists. A French satellite and therefore the possibility of having to wage war on two fronts was considered unconscionable. The Westminster parliament imported a Hanoverian Protestant monarch and between 1702 and 1707 intense negotiations took place with Scottish ministers and officials … if bribes, offers of financial assistance and promises to grant access to the growing empire failed, then it is probable that muskets, bayonets and cannons would have been used instead. Needless to say, mutual elite interest won the day.

Protestantism undoubtedly gave a particular edge to international conflicts. Catholic Spain and Catholic France welcomed exiled Catholic dissidents from Scotland and in general sponsored Catholic counterrevolution. High politics and class interest were cloaked in religion. It was to make Ireland safe from Spain that the Ulster plantations were created. What began as an English project became an Anglo-Scottish project. Colonists came from England, but by a ratio of five to one from Scotland. Then, later, after the union, there was the joint exploitation of the Caribbean and North American colonies. This brought fabulous wealth to Edinburgh and Glasgow, and the chance of 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 creating official Britishness.

The growth of British capitalism 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 and spun rivalries.

Neil Davidson questions Colly’s thesis that Protestantism provided the glue for British national identity. He insists that 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”39 - Presbyterianism being Scottish and middle class; Anglicanism being English, pro-establishment and staffed by the higher classes.

For obvious reasons, amongst Scots themselves, anti-Catholicism “was a source of division, rather than unity”.40 In 1778 upper-class Scotland wanted to implement reform measures which relaxed 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.

However, popular protests forced the abandonment of these modest measures in Scotland. The Covenanter tradition ran deep. 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 anti-Christ.

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 in what 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, anger was also “directed against the crown, the state and the church hierarchy”.41

Colley explains these objections to Catholic emancipation as a deflected form of the class struggle. 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, they undercut British manual workers. Obviously, this type of politics retained a purchase well into the 20th 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 shall be slaves”. Post-1688 the monarchy in Britain was effectively forced to abandon any 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, due to fighting counterrevolutionary wars against the American colonists and then the French republic, Britain never had its widely expected democratic 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. Property-owning skilled male workers duly voted for their masters and in overwhelming numbers embraced the cult of empire imperialism and monarchism. Obviously, there were breaks and exceptions. Nevertheless, the dominant strand in British national consciousness has been conservative. Labourism and routine trade unionism prove it.

Self-justifying Scottish left nationalists, on the basis of such evidence, maintain 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 - eg, by the more eccentric outliers, such as Peter Berresford Ellis and James D Young - that Scottishness implies opposition to Britishness, and therefore 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 the reform or even the overthrow of the existing British state, but not the break-up of Britain. This was certainly true 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 that same 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 a general strike across whole western central belt. The results were “dramatic”.42 Around 60,000 struck in the Clyde valley alone - a large proportion of the working class at that date. However, the aim of this insurrectionary strike movement was to topple the government both sides of the border. An uprising was planned to occur “simultaneously” in Scotland and in the north of England.43

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”.44 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.45

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’ ha’e’ was frequently sung. However, they also claimed the Magna Carta and other references to the imagined history of English resistance to the Norman yoke. The same thing happened in England. ‘Scots wha’ ha’e’ 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”. 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 evidently false. The masses played an unmistakable role in positively making another Britain. Needless to say, while never dominant, Owenism, Chartism, militant trade unionism and CPGB communism were pan-British political phenomena. National consciousness contains many possible extensions - proletarian internationalism included.


  1. The Guardian November 28 2020.↩︎

  2. Evening Express November 12 2020.↩︎

  3. scottishsocialistparty.org.↩︎

  4. radicalindependence.org/2014/02/26/new-ric-campaign-britain-is-for-the-rich-scotland-can-be-ours.↩︎

  5. The Express October 5 2020.↩︎

  6. T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Glasgow 2000, pp179-80.↩︎

  7. A McCombes and R Paterson Restless land: a radical journey through Scotland’s history Vol 1 Glasgow 2014.↩︎

  8. T Clarkson The Picts: a history Edinburgh 2010.↩︎

  9. S McHardy A new history of the Picts Edinburgh 2020.↩︎

  10. T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p178.↩︎

  11. J Foster, ‘Capitalism and the Scottish nation’ in G Brown (ed) The red paper on Scotland Edinburgh 1975, p142.↩︎

  12. T Sheridan and A McCombes Imagine Edinburgh 2000, p180.↩︎

  13. PJ Greary The myth of nations Princeton 2002, p16.↩︎

  14. news.nationalpost.com/2012/01/05/nicolas-sarkozy-far-right-leader-marine-le-pen-in-tug-of-love-over-joan-of-arc.↩︎

  15. geo.ed.ac.uk/home/scotland/arbroath_english.html.↩︎

  16. Quoted in N Davidson The origins of Scottish nationhood London 2000, p50.↩︎

  17. P Armstrong and A McBride Stirling Bridge and Falkirk 1297-98: William Wallace’s rebellion Peterborough 2012.↩︎

  18. D Simpkin The English aristocracy at war Woodbridge 2008, p183.↩︎

  19. M Brown Bannockburn Edinburgh 2008, p133.↩︎

  20. A Jones The art of war in the western world London 1988, p157.↩︎

  21. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Education_in_Scotland#Origins.↩︎

  22. TM Davin The Scottish nation London 2001, pp99-100.↩︎

  23. N Davidson Discovering the Scottish revolution: 1692-1746 London 2003, p180.↩︎

  24. Today only 22% of the population identify with the Church of Scotland, while 14% are Catholic, 10% ‘other’ Christian and 4% hold to another religion. Pleasingly, 51% say they are not religious (statista.com/statistics/367848/scotland-religious-beliefs-population).↩︎

  25. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bishops%27_Wars#cite_note-FOOTNOTEKaplan1979207-30.↩︎

  26. N Davidson Discovering the Scottish revolution: 1692-1746 London 2003, p122.↩︎

  27. nas.gov.uk/guides/sheriffCourt.asp.↩︎

  28. See C Capelli, N Redhead, JK Abernethy et al ‘A Y chromosome census of the British Isles’ Current Biology Vol 13, No11, 2003, pp979-84.↩︎

  29. ‘Countries within a country, number 10.gov.uk’. Webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk. January 10 2003.↩︎

  30. Alex Salmond speaking to the SNP’s 79th annual conference.↩︎

  31. E McGinty An Phoblacht June 19 1997.↩︎

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

  33. See webwedding.co.uk/articles/scotland/traditionaldress.htm.↩︎

  34. 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.↩︎

  35. Ibid p31.↩︎

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

  37. Ibid p335.↩︎

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

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

  40. Ibid p88.↩︎

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

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

  43. Ibid p188.↩︎

  44. Quoted in ibid p189.↩︎

  45. Ibid pp189-90.↩︎