On the 18th of September, 2014, Scottish voters decided on whether or not Scotland should become an independent country and withdraw from the political union with England that had been forged in 1707. Though the opposition carried the day, the event itself spoke volumes about the climate of public opinion in Scotland and the shaky political, economic, and cultural ground upon which ideas of ‘Britain’ had come to rest. Going forward, the place of Scotland in the Union is set to be one of the major issues behind the upcoming election. The fact that a vast segment of the Scottish population had been ready to become a separate nation-state after three hundred and seven years of being ‘British’ was indicative of a profoundly unique historical moment in contemporary Scottish society. Dissatisfaction with the current political and economic system had reached unprecedented levels. Since the mid-20th century, the historic anchors of the Union – Protestantism, the Empire, and the welfare state – had, by turns, ceased to secure a stable, mutually beneficial, and satisfactory partnership. What can the historical developments behind the forging of the British Union in the 18th century tell us about its potential dissolution in our present day? As Dr. Laura Stewart recently discussed in her September HWO feature, the political, economic, and cultural dynamics that underpinned the Union’s evolution in its first centuries bear little resemblance to current contexts. For instance, what it means to identify as ‘Scottish’ in the 21st century information age has little to do with what 18th or 19th century ‘Scots’ might have thought about their nationality.
My research seeks to understand how national identities were originally discussed, shaped, and imagined in geographic contexts that went far beyond national political borders. With such an approach we can better understand how national identities are shaped, undermined, or redefined in our current era of unprecedented globalization.
In my dissertation, I explore the post-1707 emergence of a Scottish identity that was very much committed to membership in a British Union. Through this partnership, Scotland gained access to the fruits of England’s expanding empire overseas. Nevertheless, the benefits of this relationship were slow to manifest in Scottish society, and the establishment of a stable and secure Union only proceeded in fits and starts over a period of many decades. During this period, the controversial figure of the kilted Scottish Highlander came to symbolize Scottish identity. In little less than a century, this figure had transformed from an object of fear and suspicion as a supposedly disaffected and rebellious “savage” holding back Scotland’s progress, to one of admiration and veneration in representing Scotland’s military contribution to the defense of global British Empire. This is a rather familiar narrative which scholars have traditionally viewed as a product of a complex array of political, economic, military, social, intellectual, literary, and cultural developments occurring within Great Britain, in a context of recurring wars against Britain’s imperial rivals.
Historians are increasingly recognizing that cultural identities are forged as much from peoples outside the nation from those within. Thanks to recently digitized primary sources, I have been able to conduct a comparative study of vast quantities of digitized historical material across huge sections of time and space, and my investigation comprises nearly one hundred years of newspapers, journals, pamphlets, sermons, song collections, prints, broadsides, and other texts that were published not only in England and Scotland, but also, crucially, the British Americas. This temporally and geographically broad lens reveals that historical changes in Scottish identity, attitudes toward Highlanders, and Scotland’s historic association with the British Empire developed as a result of transatlantic British public opinion. Scottish, English, and colonial relationships with Britain’s enemies such as the French were also hugely influential. In the 18th century, Britain’s imperial rivalries with the Bourbon powers forged transatlantic national unity at the same time as they fostered transatlantic dissentions, uncertainties, and rebellions which the Bourbons sought to exploit. For example, for much of the century, Britain’s enemies encouraged and assisted a fifth column among British Jacobites: supporters of the descendants of King James II and VII who had been deposed in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. Though Jacobitism existed beyond Scotland and was neither a Scottish ‘national’ nor a ‘Highland’ movement, many of its supporters came from the Scottish Highlands. The Bourbon powers supported several Jacobite plots and rebellions there, which diverted British manpower and resources away from military efforts elsewhere. Just who qualified as a ‘Briton’ and who was a traitorous and Frenchified ‘rebel’ would remain a decidedly open-ended question until rather late in the century. This question would only begin to be answered following two major rebellions involving French military intervention: one in Scotland in 1745-46, the other in North America in the 1770s and 80s. The historical dynamics of ‘Scottishness’ and ‘Britishness’ pivoted around geopolitical entanglements and cultural associations with France as much as with England, and circulated across the two sides of the Atlantic as much as within the British archipelago itself.
What all this tells us is that in order to understand the historic origins of political and national identities, it is necessary to look outside the borders of the nation and consider a more globalized context. This is especially relevant in the contemporary world of unprecedented globalization in commerce, communication, culture, technology, and politics. With this in mind, we can better understand how present attitudes and identities in Scotland have as much to do with connections, relationships, and circumstances beyond Britain’s borders as they do with political problems within them. The current context of public opinion and national identity in Scotland involves transnational partnerships and aspirations – such as Scotland’s relationships with and attitudes toward the EU and the Nordic Council – to the same extent as it does historic levels of dissatisfaction with Westminster. In the 21st century, as in the 18th, we must look beyond political borders just as much as within them if we are to understand anything about what (or who) nations actually are.