Friday, 13 June 2008

Scottish History or Myth

The fantasy of Scotland's history

In an exclusive extract from his book The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History, the late historian tells how the country's story is based on fiction

Rob Roy

Hugh Trevor-Roper

In Scotland, it seems to me, myth has played a far more important part in history than it has in England. Indeed, I believe that the whole history of Scotland has been coloured by myth; and that myth, in Scotland, is never driven out by reality, or by reason, but lingers on until another myth has been discovered, or elaborated, to replace it.

I believe that three consecutive myths have successively filled the 400 years of Scottish history from the 16th century to the 20th. The political myth, the literary myth and the sartorial myth, which is with us still.

These myths, though they may explode on contact with the evidence, are nevertheless historically important. It became a part of the national honour to maintain them - at least until a new myth should be imported to drive them out.

The Political Myth: Scotia's Rise to Glory

The early history of all countries is obscure; but the mist which envelops the early history of Scotland is unique, both in density and duration. It was thickened and prolonged by national pride and deliberate myth-making. As late as the end of the 18th century, the racial origins of the Scots and their relationship with the Irish was a matter of learned dispute; and the ablest scholars were led, by blind or interested guides, and by deliberate forgeries, into the grossest errors.

In 1729, the first and greatest of Scottish antiquaries, Father Thomas Innes - an exiled Catholic priest and Jacobite who stood outside the interested intellectual establishment of Scotland - had destroyed the basis of the Scottish myths. But his work was barely noticed; and in 1776 even Edward Gibbon, misled by “two learned and ingenious Highlanders”, would be totally wrong about the origin of the Scots. A few years later Gibbon would discover another and better guide. John Pinkerton, whom he would patronise and encourage, would prove to be the ablest Scottish antiquary after Innes. But he too would fall into error when he came to the origin of the Picts. It was not until the late 19th century that the mists of myth would be scientifically cleared away and at least the outline of early Scottish history become visible.

Until the late 11th century, at least, Scottish history was preserved, with reasonable accuracy, in record or memory, and commemorated by the bards who recited royal succession lists on ceremonial occasions. But from that time the mists began to gather and that outline was gradually obscured and distorted by an ever-thickening cloud of mythology: a cloud that would not be effectively dispersed till another seven centuries had passed.

The process began spontaneously among the Scots as a bid to capture history, like everything else, from the Picts. It was quickened by an external force: the national struggle with England for independence. It was consecrated, in the 16th century, by the most advanced thinkers of the time: the cultivated, cosmopolitan Scottish humanists of the Renaissance.

For the 200 years between Kenneth MacAlpin in the mid-9th century and Malcolm III in the later 11th century we have, essentially, two kinds of sources that tell us something of how the Scots recorded and interpreted their history. Lists of kings in the royal succession were preserved: these would be recited publicly at enthronements and no doubt on other important occasions. The length and continuity of the royal succession, thus proclaimed, would emphasise the crucial role played by the monarchy in the fortunes of its people. There were also folk memories, stories about the origin and character of the people, which crystallised occasionally as fragments embedded in the chronicles kept by monks, but which might also appear in connection with the king-lists.

The information in the king-lists is narrow; that in the folk stories wider, but also woollier. These two kinds of sources, exiguous as they are, reveal, separately or in conjunction, at least an outline of the Scottish self-image as it developed.

Of the king-lists there are several versions, reflecting the periodic need to revise and update them, and also their copying and deposit in different parts of the country - not to mention their diffusion outside Scotland itself - and, of course, the hazards of their survival or destruction.

The process of copying and revision always entailed a risk of scribal error: through misreading, misspelling, or accidental omission or intrusion of names. Another technical problem was just how to display, for the unified monarchy of later times, its inheritance from the earlier dual monarchies: from the parallel monarchies of the Picts and the Scots, which had coexisted for some 300 years.

The problem could be dealt with in different ways: there were separate lists of Pictish kings and of Dalriadan kings, and lists which attempted a combination. It is by tracing the changes made to these king-lists over time that we can observe the gradually developing current that was, in the end, to sweep the Picts out of the historical record, and produce, instead, an ever-longer and more glorious past for the Scots.

The Literary Myth: The Search for a Celtic Homer

After the Union of 1707, and more especially after the defeat of the last Jacobite rebellion in 1746, the Scots looked for other ways of expressing their cultural identity. Recognising that the development of their country in the past two centuries had been arrested, and that their political activity had been (to say the least) unconstructive, they welcomed the end of political independence and devoted themselves to “improvement”.

It was natural that Scots, seeking compensation for the end of their independent history and politics, should turn to discover and appreciate their native literature. Unfortunately, when they looked for it, they could not find it. There was none.

In 1757, a young Scotch Highlander offered, in effect, to discover the epic poem of Celtic Scotland. A year after that he produced it. It had all the qualities which the age required. It was epic, melancholy and sublime. It was primitive and yet pure: pure in morals, pure in sentiment. It dated from the heroic age of the ancient Caledonians, who, at the beginning of the 3rd century AD, had gloriously resisted the legions of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus; and yet it was suffused with tragedy: for that heroic generation had entered its twilight.

The poet himself, like Homer, was blind; but unlike Homer, he was not a mere wandering bard: he was a king's son, a royal but now lonely figure who had seen all his peers, and his own son, perish in the wars and himself had survived only to lament their fate in majestic poetry. The poet's name was Ossian and the young Highlander who discovered and translated his work, and thus gave Scotland the great literature which it had so far totally lacked and which now it so desperately needed, was James MacPherson.

Initially the literati was united in complacency at having brought to light this treasure of ancient Scottish literature. But over time the more critical literary men and scholars of London were beginning to entertain grave doubts. First, there was the style: the style of Ossian was not that of a “primitive” poet. Second, there were historical objections. Finally, there was the problem of Ossian's language.

If the poems of Ossian had been preserved in their original form, in ancient manuscripts, they must necessarily have been written in an archaic language very different from that still spoken in the Highlands. On the other hand, if they had been transmitted orally, and gradually modernised in the process, could they really be regarded as ancient poems at all? And anyway, could they really have been so transmitted? Was there any other instance of a long epic poem carried by oral tradition through 15 centuries? On the face of it, there seemed no way out of this dilemma that did not require assent to absurdity.

It emerged that the genuine Ossian poems belong to a cycle of Irish Gaelic poems originally composed in Leinster in the later Middle Ages. Essentially, the poems were Irish in origin, Irish in susbstance and Irish in preservation.

By 1775 the public controversy about Ossian had died down, and it seemed that there was a tacit agreement not to revive it. The English did not believe in Ossian; but why deprive the Scots?

If Scottish belief in the authenticity of Ossian weakened in the course of the 19th century, that was not because the Scots, however belatedly, yielded to reason. Ossian's poems lost their authenticity, not when they were disproved, but when changing circumstances made them no longer necessary - and when another myth was available to supersede them.

The myth of Ossian had been accepted because it filled a need - the need for a purely Scottish literature. In 1760 there had been no such literature, and Ossian had come to fill the void. To jettison it, to deny its authenticity, was to re-create that void. But by the early 19th century that was no longer true. In 1802 appeared the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border; in 1805 the Lay of the Last Minstrel; Marmion, Rokeby and The Lady of the Lake followed. With the rediscovery of genuine traditional Scottish poetry and the creation of genuine modern Scottish poetry, Scott had filled the void, and Ossian was no longer necessary.

The Sartorial Myth: The Coming of the Kilt

Before the 16th century there is no evidence of distinctive Highland dress. Medieval writers, like Froissart, who refer to the sauvages d'Ecosse, say nothing about any peculiarity of garb. But in the 16th century evidence of such peculiarity begins to accumulate. All of these accounts are in substantial agreement. They show that the ordinary dress of the Highlanders was a long “Irish” shirt (in Gaelic léine), which the higher classes dyed with saffron (leni-croich); a tunic or failuin; and a cloak or plaid, which the higher classes had woven in many colours or stripes, but which in general was of a russet or brown effect, as protective colouring in the heather.

In addition, the Highlanders wore shoes with a single sole (the higher classes might wear buskins) and flat soft caps, generally blue. In battle, the leaders wore chain mail, while the lower classes wore a padded linen shirt painted or daubed with pitch, and covered with deerskins.

This was the normal Highland dress. However, there was also a variation used, probably, only by the chieftains and great men who had contact with the more sophisticated inhabitants of the Lowlands. This was the trews, a combination of breeches and stockings. The trews could not be used conveniently out of doors in wild country and all weathers except by men who had attendants to protect or carry them. It was therefore a mark of social distinction. Both trews and, probably, plaid were made of tartan.

The essential fact is that, as yet, there was no mention of the kilt, as we know it today. At the end of the 17th century, as far as the written evidence goes - and we have some explicit accounts - the alternative was simple. A Highlander wore either the plaid and the trews, or the “belted plaid” ending, below the belt, in a skirt. The former was the dress of an officer, or a gentleman; the latter of a common soldier, or peasant.

Against this clear conclusion of the literary sources, certain pieces of pictorial evidence have been advanced to suggest that the kilt, as a separate garment, was worn in Scotland before the Union with England. However, the illustrations used are a 19thcentury representation of a worn stone carving and cannot be implicitly trusted. In any case, they do not necessarily show a kilt. Close examination suggests that the servile habit is, in fact, the belted plaid.

The name “kilt”, in its early form of “quelt”, first appears 20 years after the Union; but only as a term for the belted plaid, not for a distinct garment. The author who first uses it is Edward Burt, an English officer posted to Scotland in the reign of George 1 as chief surveyor. The “quelt”, he says, is the “common habit of the ordinary Highlands”, adding that it is “far from being acceptable to the eye”. This quelt, he explains, is not a distinct garment, but simply a particular method of wearing the plaid. This “petticoat”, says Burt, was normally worn “so very short that in a windy day, going up a hill, or stooping, the indecency of it is plainly discovered”.

Burt was explicit about the Highland dress because already, in his time, it was a subject of political controversy. After the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, proposals had been made to ban this dress. So the “Disarming Act”, presented to the British parliament by Duncan Forbes of Culloden, had originally included such a ban. However, it had been resisted, and - since the rebellion had been so easily dispersed - had not been pressed. But the discussion had continued, and Burt records the arguments used on both sides. The advocates of the ban argued that the Highland dress distinguished the Highlanders from the rest of British subjects and bound them together in a narrow introverted community: that the plaid, in particular, encouraged their idle way of life, “lying about upon the heath in the daytime instead of following some lawful employment”; that, being “composed of such colours as altogether in the mass so nearly resemble the heath on which they lie, that it is hardly to be distinguished from it until one is so near them as to be within their power”, it facilitated their robberies and depredations; that it made them, “as they carry continually their tents about them”, ready to join a rebellion at a moment's notice.

It is ironical that, if the Highland dress had been banned after the “Fifteen” instead of 30 years later, after the “Forty-Five”, the kilt, which is now regarded as one of the ancient traditions of Scotland, would probably never have come into existence. It came into existence a few years after Burt had made his observations - and very close to the area in which he had made them. Unknown in 1726, it suddenly appeared a few years later; and by 1745 it was sufficiently well established to be explicitly named in the Act of Parliament which forbade the Highland dress.

Its appearance can, in fact, be dated within a few years. For it did not evolve; it was invented. Its inventor was an English Quaker from Lancashire, Thomas Rawlinson.

The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History, by Hugh Trevor-Roper is published by Yale University Press, priced £18.99.

Why should Hugh Trevor-Roper scotch these myths?

Scotland's traditions are a fiction. But they are better than England's

Ben Macintyre

There is a certain sort of Englishman who, on seeing a man in a kilt, feels it incumbent on him to curl his stiff upper lip and point out that the wearing of tartan is nothing but a Victorian fad.

If that Englishman is feeling brave, he may go on to sneer that the entire system of clan tartans was invented in 1842 by a couple of fraudulent English brothers claiming to be grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

And if that Englishman is the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, a brilliant historian and champion lip-curler, he will write an entire book debunking Scottish mythology. Trevor-Roper died in 2003, but his assault on Scots myth-making, written almost 30 years ago, has just been published for the first time as The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History.

From a Scots point of view, it is Culloden, as three successive waves of cherished myth are brutally hacked down. First, historians are dispatched. Scots chroniclers, he says, simply filled in the gaps with heroic inventions of their own, tracing royal Scots lineage back to a Greek Prince, who married Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Then literary types get skewered, as Trevor-Roper rehearses the tale of Ossian, the Gaelic bard whose verses were “discovered” in the 18th century, hailed as the work of “the Celtic Homer' and finally exposed as an elaborate hoax.

The final assault is sartorial: the kilt, he declares, was invented by a Lancashire industrialist for his Scots employees, while the system of tartan patterns was published in the invented Vestiarium Scoticum by the Sobieski Stuart brothers, born John and Charles Allen in Egham, Surrey.

With magnificent disdain, Trevor-Roper dismisses all this as the purest nonsense, the “replacement of history by myth”, romantic fantasy “thickened and prolonged by national pride and deliberate myth-making”. He is right, of course. Scottish myths are not true. But that is because they are myths: self-sustaining, fictionalised narratives about the past that a group adheres to as part of its collective identity. All societies nurture national myths, particularly small countries with powerful neighbours.

In Scotland, this means a heroic past of poets and warriors in natty knee-length tartan. In France they cling to Charlemagne, and the legends of the Revolution; “Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette said; except that she never did. Estonians exalt the myth of Kalevipoeg the giant, while Albanians recall the 15th-century warrior Skanderbeg, leaping from mountain to mountain on his charger, slaying Ottomans. William Tell, the 14th-century Swiss hero, shot an apple off his son's head, killed his Austrian oppressor and sparked the rebellion that led to the Swiss Confederation. He probably never existed, although 60 per cent of Swiss believe that he did.

We believe what we want or need to believe. In America that means Pocahontas, a future president who could not tell a lie and a Wild West image of true grit this is not true.

Trevor-Roper is dismissive of all this: “In Scotland, it seems to me, myth has played a far more important part in history than it has in England”. But that, it seems to me, is England's loss.

There are English myths, of course, but they lack the cultural purchase of other national fictions: Alfred and his cakes, Arthur and his knights, the promised land of Milton, the green and pleasant land of Blake.

H.G. Wells, observing Germans in lederhosen, was proud that England had no national dress, but it seems sad that the closest England gets to a collective outfit is a bowler hat, a hoody or a St George's cross T-shirt on football match days.

As the parts of the UK become ever more distinct, England seems to be searching for its own mythological figure. St George (who, if he existed, was probably born in Cappadocia, now part of Turkey) does not quite seem up to the job. Robin Hood is a hardy English myth, but, according to some historians, he may actually be Rabbie Hood, a Scot. His story, according to some, was adapted from that of William Wallace, or possibly Robin MacGilchrist, one of Wallace's chief lieutenants. If tartan was the invention of two likely Surrey lads, Lincoln Green might just owe its origins to an Argyllshire aristocrat.

Trevor-Roper derides the Scottish intelligentsia for clinging to the Ossian fraud and other elements of mythology to bolster an unconfident identity. But Scots believed in a fictionalised past because they wanted it to be true. Scottish historians have been long aware of the gap between mythological history and the real thing.

Sometimes myths have to be sustained by artificial means. Everyone in England knows that if ravens quit the Tower of London, the monarchy will crumble; fewer know that the ravens' wings are clipped.

It is human nature to believe what we fervently hope might be true, and to defend the version that we find most appealing. No historian knew this better than Trevor-Roper. In 1982 he set aside his demolition of Scottish mythology. A year later he authenticated the forged Hitler diaries.

Englishman's rewriting of Scots history 'as false as the idea they gave us kilts'

A last book by the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, that claims to debunk the myths of Scottish nationhood, has been challenged

Magnus Linklater

From beyond the grave, one of Britain's most controversial historians has found himself caught up in yet another historical dispute.

Although he died five years ago, the last book written by Hugh Trevor-Roper, former Regius Professor of History at Oxford, and the man who authenticated the Hitler diaries, has just been published. The Invention of Scotland challenges some of the cherished myths of Scottish history by seeking to prove that most of them are based on deliberate falsehood and manufactured stories - “thickened and prolonged by national pride and deliberate myth-making,” as he puts it.

Detailing a long line of invented kings and spurious connections to the classical world, dreamt-up in medieval times to bolster the Scottish identity, he goes on to accuse the Scots of being willing dupes by accepting the fake Gaelic poems of Ossian, believing bogus claimants to the Stuart line, and swathing themselves in tartan at the behest of a lowlander - Sir Walter Scott.

His lowest blow is reserved for the kilt - it was, he says, invented by an Englishman.

Trevor-Roper's views have, however, run into immediate trouble. Tom Devine, of Aberdeen Univerity, the editor of the recently published Scotland and the Union 1707-2007 accuses him of having been a “Johnny-come-lately” to the art of revisiting ancient stories, most of which have long since been disproved, mainly by Scots-based historians. “The greatest destroyer of the Scottish myth has been the Scots themselves,” he said. “In the 18th century entire works by leading historians and an army of lesser people were devoted to rubbishing early, misleading versions of Scotland's story.”

He said that the Scots were no different from many other small nations in needing to develop their own versions of their early history - “but they have also developed a fairly rigorous critique at the same time”.

Trevor-Roper's thesis is that, in the Middle Ages, Scotland was a country of mixed races with uncertain origins.

Early historians, such as Hector Boece and George Buchanan, set out to show instead that Scotland's credentials had been established impeccably from the earliest times, with a long line of Scottish kings - with connections to the Greeks, to Spain and to Ireland - all demonstrating the virtues of a civilised race.

To fill gaps in this history, historians simply invented the names of non-existent kings. This tendency to believe the myth at the expense of facts, says Trevor-Roper, continued through the great 18th-century controversy over Ossian, an entirely imaginary Gaelic bard, and the embracing of tartans and pipe music, which had nothing to do with the majority of lowland Scots.

Professor Devine is scathing about this approach: “Historians have long gone past the stage of simply debunking myths,” he said.

“It's an easy thing to do, and frankly, it's rather an undergraduate activity. Far more interesting these days is to ask why those beliefs were developed, and to see what it is about a particular age that gives rise to popular myths. There are often rational reasons for it.”

He points out that most small nations that exist alongside larger ones find the need to invent stories about themselves to maintain and bolster their identity.

He argues that, instead of looking back to widely discredited early versions of Scottish history, Trevor-Roper would have been better off examining how it was that the Scots became willing empire-builders in the service of the British Crown while emphasising - rather than eliminating - their separate Scottish character.

“The classic emblem of nationhood in the 19th century was the Highland soldier: unambiguously Scottish, but an imperial warrior nevertheless. It was a case of sartorial nationalism.”

There is, he adds, nothing to be criticised about myth-making, provided that those myths are kept in perspective. “The society that doesn't create myths has lost one of the best ways of melding its people into society,” he said.

As to the idea that the kilt was invented by an Englishman, it is, he says “arrant nonsense”.

Trevor-Roper maintains that Thomas Rawlinson, an English Quaker from Lancashire, invented the short kilt in 1727 to give Highland workers more room for manoeuvre than they had when wearing their long plaids.

Not so, says Professor Devine. Long before 1727 there are pictures of Highlanders gathering up their plaids into the short kilt.

The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History by Hugh Trevor-Roper

The Sunday Times review by Tim Blanning

How the publishers of this remarkable volume must have hugged themselves when Wendy Alexander, the leader of the Scottish Labour party, recently thrust her hand into the hornets' nest of Scottish independence. On the face of it, a book on the history of Scotland by an academic who died five years ago is not the most marketable of items. But now it has a topicality that should propel it straight on to the bestseller lists. It was first drafted in the mid-1970s as part of Hugh Trevor-Roper's campaign against Scottish devolution. Once that danger was nullified by the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, he could lay the manuscript on one side and move on to the more urgent business of making a mark in the House of Lords, to which the new prime minister had promptly elevated him.

Now that outright independence is the issue, the book's polemical purpose has a fresh urgency. It sets out to strip away the layers of myth that encrust three of the main components of Scottish identity: historical, literary and sartorial. All nations have their myths, of course, but, in Trevor-Roper's vigorously expressed opinion, the Scots are in a class by themselves when it comes to creating a fictitious past. Nothing if not audacious, the medieval chroniclers found the original Scottish hero in the Greek prince, Gaedil Glas, who married a pharaoh's daughter named Scota. Fleeing from Jehovah's chastisement of the Egyptian persecutors of the children of Israel, they made their way to Spain, from where their descendants moved first to Ireland and then, in 333BC, to Scotland.

This was not to be the last time that the Egyptian connection contributed to Scottish history. In the early 16th century, Hector Boece, the Aberdonian humanist, recorded proudly that in the second century BC, Ptolemy II had sent envoys to his Scottish kinsman, including in their baggage the works of Aristotle, which the cultured Caledonians hastened to read in the original Greek. Boece also filled in an awkward lacuna in his country's genealogy by the simple expedient of inventing 40 kings covering 22 generations, complete with detailed biographies for each. They were presented in a contrapuntal sequence of heroes and villains, the latter exemplified by the vile King Lugtachus, who mixed murder with incest, repeatedly raping his aunts, daughters and sisters before moving on to their various offspring.

Of course there were dissenting voices. But Trevor-Roper insists that, whereas in other European countries these fanciful “histories” could not survive the critical eye of the Renaissance humanists, in Scotland “the whole troupe of primitive Scottish kings, so happily refloated and redecorated, would sail in their newly gilded ship, to the accompaniment of flutes and hautboys, like Cleopatra on the Nile, down the sacred river of tradition, while devout cheers arose from either bank: from Left and Right alike”. This single sentence is sufficient to demonstrate the literary qualities of this book. Even when Trevor-Roper is dealing with the less than riveting details of medieval historical scholarship, he is a pleasure to read. The prose is elegant, the argument incisive, the tone ironic.

Patrician disdain is also on display when he turns to literary myth-making. With the Union firmly established by the crushing of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 (“'the last fling of an archaic society, already on the verge of dissolution”), Scots turned to culture to express their separate identity. An early example was the Rev John Home's tragedy Douglas, which enjoyed a brief success at Covent Garden in 1757, inspiring a Scot in the audience to cry out, “Whaur's your Wully Shakespeare noo?”

That proved a false dawn. Much greater staying power was shown by the epic poems of the Celtic bard “Ossian” published in the 1760s by James Macpherson. Claimed to be compiled from recently discovered ancient manuscripts, in reality they were almost entirely the work of Macpherson himself. In Edinburgh, men of letters fell on this evidence of an immemorial literary culture with delight. Even after so prominent an intellectual as David Hume had declared that the opinions of “50 bare-arsed Highlanders” would never persuade him of their authenticity, Ossian's reputation - and Macpherson's fortune - grew and grew. In London, Sheridan opined that Ossian excelled both Homer and Virgil. In Germany, Goethe sang his praises. Napoleon took his poems on both his first overseas expedition (to Egypt) and his last (to St Helena).

It is at this point that the limitations of Trevor-Roper's demythologising project become apparent. His own view, expressed with characteristic trenchancy, is that Macpherson's Ossianic epics were complete rubbish, “totally unreadable...of inexpressible tedium; its characters as bloodless as the ghosts who provide its supernatural machinery”. Everyone to his own taste, of course, but the range and durability of the responses to Ossian suggest that there was more here than a cynical fraud. There was both more literary merit and more historical substance behind the myth than Trevor-Roper allows.

He is on firmer ground when he turns to sartorial myth-making. In two wonderfully entertaining chapters he exposes just how recent were those two Scottish symbols, the kilt and the tartan. The former was invented in the 1720s by an Lancastrian iron-master seeking a form of clothing for his Scottish workforce more practical than the traditional belted plaid, or cloak. After the kilt's prohibition as a symbol of Jacobitism in the aftermath of the '45, it was taken up by the elites as an emblem of Scottish identity. This association was then consolidated by the same sort of romantic and nationalist impulses that fostered the Ossianic myth. Ironically, the kilt was also given a boost by the exemption of the army from the ban. Within a few years, the tradition was well and truly established that Scottish regiments had been wearing it since time immemorial. As it was they who then became the sharp end of the rapidly expanding British Empire, their kilts became the most distinctive sartorial sign of nationality in the world.

The tartans now associated with the clans were bought off the peg from an enterprising Bannockburn haberdasher in the early 19th century. Once “authenticated” by a clan chief, a particular design could be applied to kilts, plaids, bonnets, biscuit tins and all the other souvenirs flowing out of the newly romanticised Highlands. A tartan that started out simply as “No.155” was first authenticated by Clan Kidd before being taken over by the Clan MacGregor. The whole industry expanded mightily following the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, when he appeared swathed in acres of Royal Stuart tartan. As one observer complained “the whole land was tartanised, in the royal eye, from Pentland to Solway”. The tartans were then codified by two English brothers who started out as John and Charles Allen, then “scotified”their names as Hay, before finally promoting themselves to royal status as John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart with the claim that their father was the legitimate son of Bonnie Prince Charlie and thus King Thomas I of Great Britain. This material on the kilt and the tartans was first published back in 1983, but fits the rest of this volume very well. It is to be hoped that Trevor-Roper's literary estate contains more unpublished gems.

The Invention of Scotland by Hugh Trevor-Roper
Yale £18.99 pp282

Salmond: England's taking the myth

The first minister hits back over claims that Scottish history is 'fraudulent'

Saint George

Saint George

Tom Gordon

Alex Salmond has provoked a row with English patriots by dismissing St George as a mythical figure who didn’t exist. The first minister said Scotland had a more credible patron saint than England because there was historical evidence that St Andrew had lived.

Salmond’s remarks were in response to the publication of what he believes to be an “ill-informed” book by one of the world’s most eminent historians, which claims Scotland’s history is woven from a “fraudulent” fabric of “myths and falsehoods”.

In The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History, the late Hugh Trevor-Roper claims that many of Scotland’s literary and political traditions were invented in the 18th century.

The historian says that the kilt was created by an Englishman in the 1700s and that the Declaration of Arbroath, presented to the Pope in 1320 to confirm Scotland’s status as an independent nation, was riddled with inaccuracies and “imaginary” ancient kings.

“In Scotland, it seems to me, myth has played a far more important part in history than it has in England,” he concludes.

However, Salmond has hit back, claiming that English history is similarly grounded in myth, not least in the story of St George.

“England’s got a lovely history and a lovely mythology, but the one thing I would say is at least our patron saint was real,” he said. “St George is a mythological figure, and if George wasn’t, the dragon certainly was.

“All countries have a mythology as part of their history, as part of their consciousness, as part of their identity. England has a mythology as well.

“But we also have an authentic history as well as a mythology, and a great deal to be proud of. The Scottish enlightenment was no myth.”

Salmond added that Trevor-Roper’s critique of Scottish history was ill-informed.

“I’m not going to decry Hugh Trevor-Roper because he’s in no position to answer back but I don’t think his knowledge of Scotland was particularly comprehensive. I don’t think even his best friend would have considered him an authority on Scottish history.”

Very little is known about St George. Pope Gelasius I, who canonised George, described him as one of the saints “whose names are rightly reverenced among men, but whose actions are known only to God”.

He is said to have been born in the late third century to a noble Christian family in Cappadocia, now part of Turkey.

According to some accounts, George served in the army of Diocletian and refused to take part in the Roman emperor’s systematic persecution of Christians. George, who refused to renounce his faith, is said to have been tortured and executed in Palestine in 303, becoming an early Christian martyr.

The legend of George slaying a dragon to rescue a damsel in distress gained currency in the late 15th century after it was printed in Caxton’s The Golden Legend, which was based on a French bishop’s book about the fantastic exploits of saints.

According to the New Testament, Andrew was one of Jesus’s original 12 apostles, who lived and worked as a fisherman in Galilee. He is said to have travelled to Greece to preach Christianity and to have been crucified at Patras on an X-shaped cross.

His connection with Scotland comes from the legend that some of his remains were kept at a site that is now the town of St Andrews. He is also the patron saint of Russia and Greece.

Salmond’s comments were dismissed by the Royal Society of St George, a Folkestone-based English patriotic group founded in 1894, but based on similar societies founded in the American colonies in the 18th century.

Bob Peedle, the society’s vice-chairman, had never heard of Salmond and said that his organisation had compiled a detailed account of St George’s life.

“This man \ is a figure in Scotland but not in England so unless he knows for a fact that St George didn’t exist then the best thing he could have done was to make no comment at all,” he said.

“The story of the dragon may be mythological but I have absolutely no doubt that George was a real person. We know where he was born and we know where he was buried and his tomb is still in what is now Palestine.”

While Salmond conceded that imaginary ancient kings had been included in the Declaration of Arbroath, he said: “It was a very sophisticated piece of medieval political rhetoric. “It claimed the Scots were descended from the ancient Egyptians. This was to pre-date the English claim to Scotland, because the English claimed to be descended from the Greeks, and what you had to do in medieval psychology was establish precedence and prior right. This was deliberate to establish the Scots’ prior right to Scotland.”

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