Clan Coutts Society

Clan Coutts Society

Scots - who are they?

By Roddy Martine. Author and broadcaster

The Scottish Nation is generally acknowledged to have come together between the sixth and fourteenth centuries, absorbing several races in the process of creating what certain individuals like to think of as the pure Scot. In fact, there is no such being. The early Scots were a post-Roman Gaelic-speaking people who invaded and settled the west coast, known then as Dalriada, having travelled over the sea from Ireland, and before that, it is fancifully suggested, although not as yet proven, the Middle East.

The original pre-Roman inhabitants were collectively known as Picts, because their language was pictorial and, through colonisation and marriage, and because they had no written language with which to record what was happening to them, they simply disappeared.

Meanwhile, Scandinavian Viking people invaded the far north, west coast and offshore islands and stayed on. In the south, Strathclyde Britons, a Welsh speaking people, and early Saxon settlers, put down encampments. With the first overseas trade initiatives appeared merchants, and following William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066, Norman-born fortune hunters arrived in Scotland.

You can recognise the physiognomy to this day in the jet black hair and blue eyes of the Gael; the long legs and red hair of the Viking; the misleading frailty of the Saxon; the Gothic features of the Norman, and the sturdy, stocky body of the Celt.

It might seem improbable in our present age, but between the tenth and twelfth centuries Scotland was considered the place in Europe for the younger sons of English and continental families to seek advancement, acquire lands and breed new dynasties. Immigration was to have a profound impact on a small country where the population was estimated at not much more than a hundred thousand.

The National Identity Emerges but Challenged

By the time King Robert the Bruce of Scotland, himself of Norman descent and a blood cousin of the English king, beat back the English invasion of 1314, thus unifying the majority of interests in Scotland against English imperialism, an uncompromising national identity built on earlier tribal alliances was firmly established.

Firmly established in so far as Bruce's supporters knew who and what they thought they were fighting for. Freedom? Not really. It was more a case of belonging to a club, and in that particular era, belonging to a club meant possessing land. Bruce's followers shared the spoils of their victory, but many of the great Scottish landed families we recognise today; the Gordons, the Grahams, the Hays, the Lindsays, the Montgomerys, the Murrays, the Ramsays and the Sinclairs were of Norman blood mixed with Viking and Scots. Seven centuries on, of course, they are undeniably Scots, but during the Wars of Independence with England everyone, on both sides, was on the make.

And ultimately it was only belief in Sovereignty, as embodied in Bruce's descent from Scotland's ancient rulers, the Kingdom of Alba, the Houses of Alpin and Dunkeld, which held the nation together. Sovereignty, once associated exclusively with an all-powerful hereditary individual, has evolved since then, but in all its modern ramifications it continues to define the identity of a people in much the same way.

Which is why a problem inevitably arose when a Scottish king acquired England. You would have thought there would have been general rejoicing, but it was from this moment on that Scotland began to feel snubbed by its own history. What a very different story it might have been had King James and his successors chosen to rule from Scotland instead of exiling themselves in the richer, more populous English capital to the south.

Nor did the union of the parliaments in 1707 improve the situation. With their economy financially crippled after an attempt to establish a colony in Panama, Scots were called upon to become British. For many, it was just another blow to their self-esteem.

Scots across the British Empire

Yet if anyone was to benefit from the spoils of the British Empire, it was the Scots, both as merchant adventurers and colonisers of the Carolinas, Virginia and New England. More controversially, however, it was the large-scale forced depopulation of the Scottish Highlands throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries that was to have the greatest impact on the New World.

Social reformers, then and now, have a lot to answer for. In the aftermath of the almost successful Jacobite uprising of 1745, the conclusion was reached that the ancient crofting way of Highland life was not only no longer viable, but dangerous because of the fighting men it could field. As a result, entire communities were uprooted from their homes and encouraged to emigrate overseas.

The rights and wrongs of this will be dissected so long as there is a Highlander with a grievance, but Scotland's loss was the lifeblood of the New World. What many found hard to forgive, however, is that it was a legislature based in England, operating through its agents in Scotland, which made it happen.

Nevertheless, through widespread emigration was created what some of our politicians have started to refer to as "The Scottish Diaspora", a network of Scottish communities throughout America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. And what a network it is.

You find them managing rubber plantations in Malaya; building skyscrapers in New York, owning sheep stations in Australia, and drilling for oil in Kuwait. They run newspapers, magazines and television stations globally. They manage money in Poland, initiate Internet sites and lay pipelines in Turkey. They are international and many give their allegiances to other nations, but they still call themselves Scots.

On 6th April, America now annually celebrates Tartan Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, wherein long ago nobles of Scotland demanded recognition of their rights by the Pope in Rome. Many of the same sentiments are echoed in the American Declaration of Independence and it can be no coincidence that almost half of the signatories of that document were of Scottish origin.

The number of Americans with Scottish ancestry is currently estimated at between eleven million and fifteen million. George Washington himself claimed descent from Scotland's King Malcolm II, and no less than thirty-one presidents of the United States, from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan and William Jefferson Clinton have Scots credentials. The same is true of prime ministers of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. During the Napoleonic Wars, Marshal of France, Jacques Etienne Macdonald, was a Scot, as was his opposite number in Russia, Field Marshal Barclay de Tolly. The Scots missionary David Livingston discovered the source of the Nile and the explorer Sir John Ross traversed Baffin Bay for the first time. Scots traders created Hong Kong. So long as Britain was an ocean going nation, it was reassuring to know every ship's engineer, regardless of the nationality of the shipping line flag, was a Scot. The world was their oyster.

Nearer home, they crossed the Border to seek fame and fortune in the global ant heap of London. Could the English possibly have prospered without them? That is an impossible question to answer. It was, after all, a Scot who founded the Bank of England, and the City of London, financial centre of the world, owes everything to their native cunning. It even took a Scot to write the words of Rule Britannia.

So if, like James VI, they choose to absolve their fugitive consciences with Caledonian gatherings in the English heartland, why shouldn't they? Their view from the English home counties is no less patriotic despite it being enshrined in purple hills, stags' antlers, rugby and Scottish country dancing.

For that is the Scotland the expatriate recognises. The language of parochial politics is beyond comprehension, but does this make them any less Scottish? Call them English, and all hell breaks loose. As with the Irish, the sentiment remains passionate. Yet you have rarely, until recently, found English expatriates similarly obsessed about England.

Parliament Reconvenes in 1999

Therefore it was inevitable that the arrival of political devolution should light a flame. Whether that flame will burn itself out or combust to create a forest fire remains to be seen. What we are currently witnessing in all its ramifications is the re-awakening of a subdued self-confidence, dormant for far too long. Scots no longer feel that they have to leave Scotland in order to make good.

When the Scottish parliament was disbanded in 1707, there were those who insisted that it was simply being adjourned. When the Scottish Nationalist Party officially came into being in 1934, it re-affirmed this, its members pledging themselves towards achieving separatism.

That is still their aim, and if the Labour Government in Westminster that delivered devolution to Scotland in 1999 seriously believed that by doing so it would slay the nationalist beast, it was being astonishingly naive. Far from disappearing from sight, the SNP emerged triumphant as the majority party of opposition and what happens next will depend entirely, as it should, upon the will of the Scottish people. From now on they will have nobody else but themselves to blame for their disappointments.

But whether or not Scotland ultimately remains within the United Kingdom, or seeks its own way as a nation state within the European community, there will always be conflict over what exactly constitutes Scottish identity.

Since the 19th century, Scotland has opened its doors to Lithuanians, Italians, Poles, Ugandan Asians, Pakistanis and Chinese. They pay taxes, their children are enrolled in local schools, and they contribute significantly towards the complex composition of the nation. Some have risen to the top of their trades. Their ethnic origins may be diverse, but the adoption process has been successful. They are Scots. According to one platform in recent debate, Scotland should be seen as an all-embracing country, a refuge for asylum seekers and all comers. One wonders where such propagandists have been for the past century and a half. It was ever thus.

And while there are those who through class insecurity define nationality on the basis of somebody's accent or the football team they support, the official line of the Scottish Nationalist Party, which has never held back from recruiting English members, is that a Scot is, simply enough, somebody who lives in Scotland. At least, that was the definition proffered by its former leader Alex Salmond.

Now where does it leave native born Scots who live abroad? Or children born to Scots parents overseas? Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, for example, was born at St Paul's Walden, in England, but has always insisted she was Scots. Do patrimony and matrimony count for nothing?

What if you own land in Scotland, inherited or bought, and still keep homes in London and Provence? Does that also make you English and French? There are plenty of examples of wealthy individuals who maintain property in more than one country. Does that then give them multinational status?

And if you serve, or have served, with a Scottish regiment, does that automatically make you a Scot? Or does it make you British? And there we have the crunch of it. Under the Act of Union you could be both. As the cracks appear in Britain's fabric, nothing is nearly as certain as it was before. No wonder our politicians, who have brought this upon us, shy clear of the questions.

However, more importantly it should be asked why anyone would want to claim Scots nationality to begin with?

Fifteen hundred years of a romantic, turbulent history peopled by noble savages, adventurers and innovators crowned by a dazzling enlightenment, is a good enough reason.

Who are Today's Scots?

But what exactly does it mean to be a Scot nowadays? Tartan Army football supporters at Hampden with Saltire "Braveheart" faces; red cheeked lassies howling Gaelic laments at the National Mod; Skye Bridge toll protestors in anoraks and baseball caps; weekend hikers asserting rights to roam with midge repellent; suited bankers, lawyers, accountants and secretaries downing Scotch on hi-tech bar stools; bucolic farmers girning over subsidies, and gallous besoms at a Glasgow disco. In a population of less than 5 million, the diversity, if nothing else, is noticeable.

Yet the clichés remain: the kilts, the shortbread tins, the golf clubs, grouse moors, ubiquitous haggis suppers, and overshadowing all, the deadening hand of Calvinism. The protestant work ethic is so deeply embedded in the Scottish psyche that it has rubbed off on Episcopalian, Catholic, and agnostic alike.

Scots literature holds the clues. Throughout both Robert Burns' Tam O'Shanter and Hugh MacDiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle, is the omnipresent guilt trip instilled by generations of dominies and men of the cloth. When just about everything else had shifted south three centuries ago, Scotland retained its Law and its Kirk. How else but through guilt could they have remained in control for so long?

Thus the Scots became universally recognised for their thrift, honesty, hard work, commitment and general decency. Good, depressing but safe, Presbyterian virtues. You get out of this life only what you put into it. Subsistence is enough. Always be suspicious of success. Contentment is achievable only through pain.

But there is hope. In character, the recalcitrant Alan Breck Stewart of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Renton in Irvine Welch's contemporary Trainspotting are one and the same. Both are opportunists. The fate of Alan Breck in Stevenson's story is left uncertain, whereas at the end of Trainspotting, Renton moves on. Scotland too has moved on.



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