The referendum on Scottish independence gave Scottish literature, and Scottish culture, greater prominence as a separate force in the English-speaking world than at any time in recent decades. Arguably, that’s no less than the post-war generations of writers that have numbered Iain Banks, Alasdair Gray, Edwin Morgan, and Irvine Welsh deserves. But the dissipation of all the hope and optimism of the Yes campaign on September 18th, and the recriminations afterwards against the British establishment, are darkening the mood and cbecking a lot of that impetus. Alasdair Gray himself described the result in Scotland’s The Herald as “a great pity” and paid tribute to the Yes voters, “especially considering the extent of BBC prejudice in its reporting, which was astonishing.”

Unfortunately, it’s a story all too familiar in Scottish history. The percentage of Yes voters in the referendum, 45 percent, resounds with historical echoes of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s attempt to unseat the Hanoverian monarchy in the Jacobite rising of 1745, and post-referendum, the community of diehard nationalists on Facebook and elsewhere have dubbed themselves “We are the 45%” – with almost 144,000 Facebook Likes by the second day after the referendum.

You can see the same psychology emerging as after Scotland’s past heroic defeats. The Caledonian antisyzygy, the Scottish divided self, split between heroic romanticism and dour, accommodating pragmatism, was on full show up to and after the referendum. Add to that the widely circulating rumors of bias in BBC coverage, lies told to frighten ageing voters into the No camp, and voting upsets, and you can already see the basis for dark tales of paranoia and conspiracy, in the best tradition of Kidnapped.

There is the sad prospect now that author Alan Bissett‘s predictions of the consequences of a No vote will be fulfilled: “With a Yes vote, the anger that we see as a seam running through Scottish literature would ebb. We’d be less torn, there’d be less grievance, there’d be less sense of trying to make Scottishness into a quality, because we’d just be a normal country like every other country … We’d see a new optimism emerge from Scottish writers. With a No vote, we’d be trapped in 2014 forever. We will go back obsessively over this moment we’re living through. Because something, it feels like, is changing. There is a sense that Scotland’s moving forward, gathering speed, starting to stand up, and with a No vote, that momentum will be lost, and Scotland will become a poorer place.”

This recalls the self-castigating screed voiced by Irvine Welsh’s character in Trainspotting, dismissing the Scots as: “The lowest of the low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation.” All too many Scots in their darkest moments may catch themselves thinking that about themselves or their fellows in the days after the referendum.

But to set against all of that is a salutary reminder from Henry James, originally written for The Nation and resurrected by that journal on the day of the vote. “If I were a Scotchman, I too should be conceited,” James wrote. “I should be proud of belonging to a country whose capital is one of the most romantic and picturesque in Europe. I should be proud of Scott and Burns, of Wallace and Bruce, of Mary Stuart and John Knox, of the tremendously long list of Scotch battles and heroic deeds.” That legacy, like its craggy landscape, is not one whit diminished by the referendum’s outcome. Scotland’s contribution to global literature, and civilization as a whole, is heroically disproportionate to its size, and remains intact for all time.


  1. Oh, I doubt that. The existence of the U.S. doesn’t seemed to have harmed regional literature. If anything, it helps. People are more motivated to understand other parts on their own country than foreign countries. Life is New England villages is more interesting to most in the U.S. than anything Canadian.

    Personally, were my ancestry Scot rather than Welch/English/Viking/Jewish (by DNA), I’d worry more about what Scottish culture is becoming than fretting that what is once was isn’t sufficiently appreciated.

    “Scotland the Brave” sounds odd being sung by a modern people who would insist on the removal of the UK’s only Trident missile-sub base and who would have probably spend most of their oil money on ever-extended unemployment benefits rather than an independent, Swiss-level of military training and preparedness. Do today’s Scots still believe in fighting “deep-eyed in gore”? I’m not so sure. I’ve seen them compared to modern Norwegians with their soft diplomacy.

    Sadly, the Scots often seem to be compensating for an inferiority complex with excessive self-praise. What other country would begin a song like “Scotland for Ever” with lyrics about another country.

    Let italy boast of her gay gilded waters
    Her vines and her bowers and her soft sunny skies
    Her sons drinking love from the eyes of her daughters
    Where freedom expires amid softness and sighs.


    Scotland is stooping low to compare its war-making prowess to that of the Italians. And while there is some truth in:

    Firm as my native rock I have withstood the shock
    Of England, of Denmark, of Rome and the world


    It’s also true the England has dominated Scotland for centuries, in part thanks to treasonous Scots. It was England and her superior organizational skills under Alfred the Great that halted the conquests of the Danes (Vikings). And Rome found cold and rocky Scotland as worthless to conquer as wet and cold Germany west of the Rhine. It built a wall to keep hungry Scots out.

    Comparisons are apt. Even the anthem of so-called German militarism is reasoned enough it’s not out of place being sung by a lovely and talented Pan Am stewardess:

    Or examine the national anthem of Switzerland, the European country that other armies have been least interested in attacking for centuries. It’s perhaps the least warlike such anthem on the planet.

    When the Kaiser Wilhelm of WWI told a Swiss soldier, “You can put a 500,000 men under arms, but what will you do if we attack with a million men,” the Swiss calmly replied, “We will shoot twice.”

    Of that of my mother’s ancestry, Wales:

    Or Israel, which remans free and democratic despite being out-numbered 20 to 1 by foes who hate her very existence.

    The strong have no need to brag or talk big. As the Ballad of the Green Berets puts it, they are “Men who mean just what they say.”

    That said, I like the fact that I’ve got a cultural trace that old Scottish, Braveheart stubbornness in me from my hill-country ancestors. But I also know that it needs to be tempered by a judgment that the Scots often lack. They indulge in talk that can’t be backed up by deeds. And that’s often their undoing.

    When the Swiss wanted to ensure that Hitler didn’t invade, they calmly made sure he knew what an invasion would cost. Every adult male would be in arms. Even defensible position in their country would be defended to extract the maximum cost from Germans. As they were pushed back, everything of value to their invaders would be destroyed.

    The first six months of the war would tie down a million German soldiers and impose huge causalities. For the closing six months, what remained of Swiss forces would pull back into the mountainous and underpopulated southeast, where it would fight until the last bullet was spent. Then it would blow up two impossible-to-replace railway tunnels that were critical to supporting the German army in Italy. Only then would the Swiss surrender. At a huge cost, mighty Germany would have conquered a wasteland.

    Somehow, I suspect that in a comparable situation the Scots would have talked tougher but performed weaker that the otherwise soft-spoken Swiss.

    No discussion of competing national anthems would be complete without pointing to this marvelous scene in Casablanca:

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride

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