Thursday, November 30, 2006

What Flying Rodent Didn't Learn At School

St. Andrew's day is upon us once more, much to the chagrin of rail commuters from Glasgow to Edinburgh (i.e. me) who found each carriage stuffed with men in fancy dress (i.e. kilts, sporrans and fruity waistcoats).

I always love this time of year, as Scots congregate to indulge in the centuries-old tradition of getting pissed on whisky and retelling heavily fictionalised accounts of Scottish history.

Let me sum up the Scottish history I was taught at school in a single sentence -

There once was a brave and noble people of great industry and artistry who lived in the idyllic glens of Scotland, and the bastard English slaughtered, bribed, stole etc. etc. etc. (repeat ad infinitum).

It's amazing to me how deeply held this basic belief is in Scotland, presumably because enormous, violent, unwashed highlanders are more easily romanticised when they're all dead.

Put another way, conceptual flame-haired loonies are more cuddly than real ones planting axes between your eyes, burning your house and stealing your livestock.

Now, the highland Scots clans, on whose apparel traditional Scots dress is modelled, were essentially wiped out as a people in the years following the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Their way of life had been largely unchanged, give or take linguistic evolution and farming innovations, since the Roman invasion of Britain.

Think less of Braveheart, with its comical, eloquent Scots, and more the first ten minutes of Gladiator, when Russell Crowe and the legions face off against head-chopping German tribesmen.

"Ihr seid verfluchte Hunde!", indeed.

All that came to an end in the mid-eighteenth century - butchered without mercy, their crops burned, driven from their homes, their children seized and brought up in the tutelage of the victorious culture.

So here's your question - who perpetrated these outrages upon the highland clans?

If you said the English, no wee dram for you.

The Scots were victorious at Culloden, and proceeded to devastate the countryside and its people, but they did so in the colours of the British government. The duke of Cumberland may be remembered as "the Butcher", but the knife-work was done with gusto by lowland and highland Scots (plus some Hanoverian Germans, but I'll save that for a rant about the royal family).

Anglicisation put an end to the real traditional Scots way of life - brutal tribal warfare, cattle rustling, pillage - in about twenty years. Think of it as the Scottish equivalent of gifting smallpox-infected blankets to the Injuns.

Cut forward sixty-odd years and a novel called Waverly is released to great acclaim in London and Edinburgh. Suddenly, the noble savage of the highlands is the height of fashion, lords and ladies disport themselves in tartan, old Scots dirges are heard in high society, and the image of the kilted, bagpipe-playing Scotsman is born.

It's kailyard fiction from then on. The highland clans join the long list of exterminated or subject peoples, eulogised in penny dreadfuls and plays for the delight of the merchant class alongside the native American and the exotic oriental.

Kitsch imagery for the Royal gallery, in other words.

I'll call it historical perspective, which is famously the perspective of the victor, and it's difficult to scrutinise the highland clans when they're buried in mass graves below one's feet.

So how would the average 21st century ceilidh-goer be received in 17th century Scotland?

Remember that scene in Back To The Future III?

Offended nationalists can call me a prick in the comments.

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