This is a guest post from Richard Marsden, author of Cosmo Innes and the Defence of Scotland’s Past c.1825-1875
With the independence referendum looming, Scotland’s history has become a battleground. Those against separation point to three hundred years of supposed shared culture and values. Those for it point to what they see as a proud independent history stretching back far longer.
Yet the independence movement in Scotland is of relatively recent origin. Up until the 1930s the goal of most Scottish nationalists was home-rule (itself a form of devolution) rather than the abolition of the 1707 union. Indeed in the nineteenth century, union with England went unquestioned by most educated Scots. Such a seemingly uncritical endorsement of union seems puzzling to twenty-first century eyes. It certainly raises questions about how the Scots in this period saw themselves and their place in the United Kingdom.
One of the best ways of answering these questions is to look at how Victorian Scots reconciled an independent history with a unionist present. After all, depictions of the past can often reveal as much about the times in which they were written as they do about the times to which they refer.
This precept is the starting point for my new book: Cosmo Innes and the Defence of Scotland’s Past c.1825-1875. This study uses the work of the influential antiquary Cosmo Innes (1798-1874) to open a window onto Scottish attitudes towards the ‘national past’ in the nineteenth century. What it reveals is not a straight-forward contest between union and independence, but rather a series of debates about Scotland’s relationship with and position within the union.
Interpretations of the past were central to those discussions. Scottish identity in this period rested on legal, educational and religious institutions that were distinct from those of England, as well as less tangible considerations such as landscape, architecture, descent, and national character. As a result, historical scholarship was framed by questions about the extent to which the development of these elements in the past had contributed to Scotland’s happy state in what was, for Innes and his compatriots, the present.
Innes saw much of value in Scotland’s pre-1707 history. In his view, Scottish institutions were singularly suited to Scottish national character because both had been forged through the same shared historical experience. For Innes, like many of his countrymen, past independence and present-day union were not at odds. Instead, it was that very history which enabled the country to stand in equal partnership with England in a way that Wales and Ireland could not.
Such attitudes are particularly telling given that the intellectuals of the Enlightenment had bequeathed to their nineteenth-century successors a profoundly negative view of the Scottish past. To them, it was union with England rather than any internal processes of historical progress that had dragged Scotland into the modern civilised age. A sizable proportion of Innes’s peers shared that view. They were consequently unconvinced by his attempts to reinvigorate Scotland’s sense of its own historically-based identity.
Innes’s views were thus a radical departure from those of the previous generation. Yet he also remained utterly committed to union, believing that Scotland’s well-being rested upon a close association with England as well as on the nation’s own unique history prior to 1707. Indeed like many of his fellows he believed that the lowland Scots were of the same Saxon stock as the English, and had little in common with the Celts of the Highlands. Innes’s work on Scottish history was therefore imbued with a desire to restore the union rather than break it; to return to the alliance of equals which, he believed, it had originally been.
So how does all this relate to the referendum debate today?
On the one hand we might argue that the roots of Scottish nationalism can be traced deep into the nineteenth century, despite the fact that this period was characterised by a near universal commitment to union. On occasion, Innes certainly employed stirring language that would not look out of place in a present-day political pamphlet. Yet on the other, we could point out that Scottish national identity does not always go hand in hand with aspirations to statehood. In a cultural sense it was alive and well at a time when political separatism would have been the perceived as purview of cranks and extremists.
Whichever way we look at it, the fact remains that Scotland’s past continues to be contested territory in arguments about the nation’s future. That is as true in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth.