Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘The Invention of Scotland’ – July 23, 2008 – The New York Sun

25 Jul

It’s true, you know; a very large proportion of what passes for Scottish history in the popular imagination, from the travesty Shakespeare made of the historical Macbeth to the present day, is, not to be too delicate, crap. But this has been known for a very long time — that much of this “history” dates from from the romantic novels (and conservative politics) of Sir Walter Scott, not to mention the 18th century’s fake “Ossian” poems. Just about everything we now think of as Scottish emerged around the time of Queen Victoria. So Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘The Invention of Scotland’ isn’t really news.

…it is hardly a surprise to learn that the kilt and tartan, too, are not quite the Scottish traditions that they seem. Sad to say, the kilt was invented by an Englishman, Thomas Rawlinson, who came to Scotland in the 1720s to manage an ironworks in the Highlands. Rawlinson observed that while the actual native costume of the Highlanders — the long belted cloak called the plaid — might have been suitable for rambling over hills and bogs, it was “a cumbrous, inconvenient habit” for men working at a furnace. So he hired the tailor of the local army regiment to make something more “handy and convenient for his workmen” by “separating the skirt from the plaid and converting into a distinct garment” — the kilt. This symbol of Highland tradition, as Trevor-Roper notes, was “bestowed … on the Highlanders, not in order to preserve their traditional way of life, but to ease its transformation: to bring them off the heath and into the factory.” As with so many of the tales Trevor-Roper has to tell, the truth may not be as romantic as the legend, but its irony makes it no less compelling.

Apparently my great-grandfather’s affectation of the kilt (see above right) led to his being greeted in the towns of Scotland as “kiltie kiltie cold bum” — or so his son once told me!

A more sober account of the nonetheless fascinating — and little known — history of Scotland may be found in Christopher Harvie, Scotland: A Short History, OUP 2002.

In this gripping narrative, one of Scotland’s leading historians and political writers discusses the geography, people and culture of this fascinating land–from prehistoric times to the present day. The only short history of Scotland available that deals with the most recent developments in the country, like the establishment of Scotland’s first parliament in over 300 years in 1999, this work places events in their historical and cultural context, and reflects the remarkable revival in Scottish culture and history writing since the 1960s. Topics covered include the shaping of the kingdom, medieval Scotland, reformation and dual monarchy, union and enlightenment, industrialization, and the troubled but ultimately triumphant twentieth century. Harvie also deals with long-standing cliches about Scotland and analyzes Scotland’s disproportionate role in European nationalism.

The contribution the Scots have made in politics, education, medicine, philosophy, the sciences, literature, industry, economics, and so many other fields, is certainly, nonetheless, a matter of justifiable pride, and out of all proportion to their numbers. Scots have been, too, major shapers in Australian history, and in place names from the Grampians to Port Macquarie to Campbelltown to Annandale…

See too Norman Davies, The Isles: A History (1999).

I am now restoring the Scottish version of my name to my little by-line here, instead of the Mandarin version “ninglun”. 😉 But I won’t be dropping Ninglun (= “peaceful discussion”) from blog titles.

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Posted by on July 25, 2008 in Australia and Australian, book reviews, British, historiography, History, Scottish


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