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Homage to Caledonia

The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History

By Hugh Trevor-Roper

(Yale University Press, 282 pp., $30)

Hugh Trevor-Roper seemed to be an Oxford don supplied by central casting. An erect Northumbrian with a distinctly patrician air, he commanded a grandee position impregnably within the Establishment. He became Regius Professor at Oxford, and Master of Peterhouse in Cambridge, and--as Lord Dacre of Glanton--a member of the House of Lords; he possessed a country house in Scotland, built for Walter Scott's family; he married the daughter of Field Marshal Earl Haig; his recently published letters to Bernard Berenson are effortlessly snobbish. But Trevor-Roper also maintained a highly developed sense of the ridiculous. After making his reputation with a subversive biography of the seventeenth-century Archbishop Laud, he turned to investigating the lives of mythomanes, eccentrics, and deceivers. (His study of the forger Edmund Backhouse, Hermit of Peking, is one of his most delightful books.) Equally unpredictable was his fascination with the banality of evil as reflected in the Nazi high command, which inspired The Last Days of Hitler, his groundbreaking and engrossing account of life in the Führer's bunker.

Trevor-Roper was a master of the interrogative essay, which in his youth he used as a billhook to slash and burn the reputations of erring colleagues. It was also the weapon used to powerful effect in some enduringly important historical debates, such as controversies concerning the rise of the Tudor gentry, the general crisis of the seventeenth century, and "the invention of tradition" in the age of romanticism and nationalism. That last idea was also the name of a landmark collection of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger a quarter-century ago, in which a variety of historians explored the surprisingly recent origin of myths to do with--inter alia--the British monarchy, the construction of colonial Africa, and the institution of Welsh bards, asking pertinent questions about the issues at stake, the interests involved, and the compensatory psychological effects of such intellectual and literary maneuvers.

As a historiographical concept, "the invention of tradition" proved equally attractive to Marxists (old and new), skeptical liberals, and cynical Tories; and it rapidly entered the lexicon. Trevor-Roper's contribution to the book was an urbane dissection of "the Highland Tradition of Scotland." It proved (to his own satisfaction, at least) that the culture of the Highlands--bagpipes, kilts, clans, and all--was a Victorian fantasy attached retrospectively to an area that was "racially and culturally ... a colony of Ireland." This unnerving notion, which was not universally welcome, forms the subject of his latest, though posthumous, book--a lively salvo from beyond the grave.

Trevor-Roper died five years ago, but his habit of accumulating unpublished essays and his taste for writing many things at once have enabled him to have a prolific afterlife. A substantial biography of a pioneering Calvinist court physician has already appeared since his death, and more essay collections are in the pipeline. This would not be possible without the affection and the commitment of his friends and ex-students, most of whom loved and revered him. One of them, Jeremy Cater, has skillfully edited Trevor-Roper's lectures on Scottish myth and history, originally delivered at Emory University, in which he further developed his understanding of the "invention of tradition." It is a beguiling, witty, and elegant volume. While leaving wide open the enduring question as to whether Trevor-Roper was a Whig or a Tory, it shows him at his skeptical Gibbonian best.

The Trevor-Roper style is not precisely Gibbon's, though he uses footnotes with a similar blend of savagery and mischief. The very first one in the book begins, joyfully: "The cannibalism of the Scots--a very sore point with later Scotch antiquaries--rests on a single statement of Jerome in his Adversus Jovinianum. For the discomfort which this text caused later, see, for example, the several pages of intellectual writhing over the topic by Sir Thomas Craig." His own prose does not writhe. It has a clarity and a pungency that suggests several Scots exemplars (Hume, Cockburn, Stevenson); and Scotland was one of his preoccupations. This book investigates the political, literary, and sartorial trappings of "Scottishness," building on earlier writings about Scotch historians and the surprisingly recent creation of clan tartans. It provides a consistently witty and beautifully written demonstration of the political uses of history, the unappeasable appetite of nation-builders for self-referring myths, and the harmless fun provided by the human desire to make ourselves into what we are not.

This was how the "Sobieski Stuarts," two English brothers who began life in the early nineteenth century as John and Charles Allen, ended as claimants to the throne of Scotland. They sum up the syndrome for Trevor-Roper, in his inimitably empathetic way. The brothers were indulged and fêted by a whole gallery of Jacobite wannabes, and devoted themselves to the creation of marvelously complex genealogies and secret documents, constructing arcane connections to the royal houses of central Europe. (Like many magicians, they spent some time in Prague.) Even after exposure, they retained a corpus of true believers, appealing to Queen Victoria to relieve their poverty on account of their royal blood. "Their policy had been that of all successful mystery-men.... They simply played their part as if they believed it, and left others to speculate--and by their speculation to build up the myth."

But myth-making raises other questions, too, questions not pursued in this book. Trevor-Roper brilliantly evokes the sixteenth-century scholar George Buchanan, who moved from being "a migratory cosmopolitan intellectual" in the Erasmian mode to tutoring the future King James VI. Along the way Buchanan constructed the case against James's tragic mother, Mary Queen of Scots, and created a historical pedigree for independent Scottish monarchy. The Invention of Scotland then moves on to another piece of myth-making two centuries later: the 1760s forgery by an obscure Scots writer named James Macpherson of a great corpus of "ancient" bardic poetry, supposedly authored by "Ossian," a Scottish Homer lost in the mists of time. The book ends, more or less, with the endorsement of the sartorial myth of kilts, tartans, and the whole iconography stage-managed by Walter Scott. This was symbolized by the visit of King George IV to his northern kingdom in 1822, where he was kitted out hilariously in the full stage garb. What followed was the domestication of the Highlands into theme-park history, passionately endorsed by Queen Victoria and her successors.

At the end of it all, one wonders: why Scotland? And how did "Caledonia" get away with it, when the Victorian stereotypes attached to the other Celtic elements of the once-United Kingdom were tarred with such damaging stereotypes by the metropolitan arbiters of opinion: the Welsh mendacious, hypocritical, sexually incontinent; the Irish dirty, brutish, stupid, and disloyal. In point of fact, Scotland no less than Ireland was marked by endemic poverty, excessive drinking, traumatic emigration patterns, brutal violence, and a history of dispossession; self-pity, religious bigotry, and all sorts of social introversion were no less rife. Yet Scotland the Brave emerged as a jewel of empire, combining robust moral independence with support for the Best of British: a reservoir of bonny, brainy, humorous, talented empire-builders. ("Scotty" the engineer remains a classic component of imperial and postimperial adventure stories, culminating in Star Trek.)

Religion, of course, has a lot to do with it; Scots Catholicism is conveniently airbrushed from the stereotype, and the dominie remains a much less threatening figure than the Irish priest. Nor did the Irish Union of 1800 operate in as advantageous a way as the Scottish Union of 1707. In the end one is forced to conclude that the Scots did it all better, and more ruthlessly. They kept vital freedoms in religion, law, and education. They used (and invented) their history to advantage. They jumped onto the Union bandwagon, infiltrating the metropolitan government (right down to Gordon Brown) as well as the empire. Poor as they were, they had an industrial revolution at the right time. But they were also welcomed in, and allowed access, in ways denied to the Irish--partly owing to ethnic and religious prejudice, partly because Irish resistance to incorporation took a different course. And the interesting question at the beginning of the twenty-first century is whether Scotland will follow Ireland into complete independence (within Europe) or stick with the experimental version of Home Rule that it currently enjoys.

The Invention of Scotland reminds us of several suggestive issues behind these developments, notably the enduring contrast between Lowland and Highland Scotland, which are profoundly different regions in terms of economics, culture, and political history. The sensitive question of Irish-Scottish connections features here. The original "Scots" were in fact Irish invaders who, after the Romans left Britain, colonized present-day Argyllshire, then known as the kingdom of Dalriada. Instead of gradually being absorbed by the native Pictish stock, the Dalriadans succeeded in "Scoticizing" them (Trevor-Roper's word). The process tends to be submerged by the way in which nationally minded historians invented pedigrees of imaginary Scottish kings--forty of them, to be on the safe side. (The fact that this was exposed as a fantasy by a jeering Welsh antiquary, Humphrey Lhuyd, may be significant.) The Ossian cult revived the troubled question of Irish influence, since the originary fables recorded in these reconstituted epic poems were in fact Irish, as was pointed out by outraged Irish antiquaries.

The whole question of Ossian has been examined by several penetrating recent studies, but none is as entertaining as Trevor-Roper's, which is written in the spirit of a detective story. The cloudy poetic romances published by James Macpherson, capturing the ear of polite England and Europe (notably the Napoleonic court) and winning endorsement from some authorities who rapidly came to regret their ingenuousness, were certainly based on some Gaelic fragments, though not the great Homeric panoply that Macpherson claimed. But even accepting the residue of authentic material, there has always been an intriguingly bad fit between the awkward and unpopular medium-figure of Macpherson, who clammed up in later life, and the rolling, romantic verbosity of his bardic productions. Trevor-Roper's theory, by brilliant sleuthing, uncovers a sort of committee of forgers clustered around Macpherson's cleverer cousin, a Highland laird who died inconveniently soon, leaving his cloddish relative with an uncomfortable inheritance. It is a marvelous story, delivered as a kind of sucker punch from beyond the grave, and it should have exactly the detonating effect its author so much liked to produce.

It also suggests that enduring Scots theme of doubleness, doppelgängers, Jekylls and Hydes: the containment of multitudes within a single apparently well-organized organism. Trevor-Roper writes sympathetically of Walter Scott: "Within him there were two--at least two--souls. At one time he would be the Augustan man of letters, the practical Unionist, the well-balanced, scholarly heir of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment who edited Dryden, saw through Ossian, and brought gas to Abbotsford; at another he would be the romantic Jacobite, the poet who would allow himself to be carried away by his own too sympathetic vision of an archaic Highland past." Trevor-Roper credits Scott's Jacobite novel Waverly (1814) with starting the tartan craze, and with instigating the fetish of the kilt. Even more suggestively, he asserts that the British Army's Highland regiments really began the study of stirring traditions based on rickety foundations. The Sobieski Stuart brothers also played an important part, writing The Costume of the Clans and unwisely publishing in 1842 an elaborately edited "ancient" text about traditional Scottish dress, the Vestiarium Scoticum, which was exposed as yet another invention. But one of the enduring pleasures of this book, as of the study of national tradition in general, is the discovery of how little hard fact actually matters.

How inevitably an indulged and self-created and often fantastic "national tradition" leads to full-blown nationalism is a large and open question. The Scottish National Party, whose platform is based on an independent Scotland in Europe, is currently in the ascendant and threatens to overcome the Labour Party in Scotland, the Conservatives already having been liquidated. SNP ideologues tend to fulminate against the Scotophilia created by Victorian Romantics, promoting instead the gritty values of post-industrial Glasgow, the patois of "Lallans" (lowland Scots dialect), and Robbie Burns above Walter Scott, the skirl of the bagpipes, or the ruined castle-keeps outlined on a million shortbread tins. But these icons of radical authenticity may owe more than they realize to preceding inventors, who helped to create the sense of difference and superiority on which the germ of nationalism thrives.

There is a final irony about this wonderful little book. Trevor-Roper is remembered most vividly in the popular mind for being himself the victim of a hoax: late in his career he unwisely authenticated the supposed discovery of Hitler's missing diary, which turned out to have been a forgery. Rushed into a snap judgment by a newspaper, the great historian lived to regret bitterly his credulity. Perhaps this is why he held back in his lifetime from publishing a book that deals so brilliantly and authoritatively with the readiness to believe in constructions that are entertaining, edifying, or--most potent of all--comforting, and cast a compensatory glamour over harsh realities and foregone conclusions.

Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is Luck and the Irish: A Brief History of Change From 1970 (Oxford University Press).

This article originally ran in the December 3, 2008, issue of the magazine.