Move to produce first academic edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy highlights the centuries-long ties between Scotland and Germany, writes Stuart Kelly
When I was growing up in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, the whole school had to turn out once a year to welcome the Braw Lad and the Braw Lass for the town Common Riding. This involved singing a positively funereal song – Braw Braw Lads – which we all knew was written by Robert Burns.
It was only years later, listening to the Schottische Leider (Hob Xxxia:15, to be precise), that I realised the music was by Haydn – and that it was actually rather tender and wistful when not sung by truculent ten-year-olds.
It’s a reflection in miniature of a centuries-long relationship with German-speaking countries; a connection which will be celebrated in Edinburgh this Saturday when the German consul, Dr Wolfgang Mössinger, will welcome members of the newly formed Society for Scottish Studies in Europe.
Part of their work includes a €500,000 (£423,000) academic collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft of the Federal Republic of Germany, to produce the first academic edition of Sir Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Border.
For anyone with a smattering of history, such co-operation is entirely unsurprising. Indeed, it could be argued that Scotland’s relationship with German-speaking countries, and Germany in particular, is the other “Auld Alliance”, and one which provided far more cultural benefits than the medieval and strategic entente with France.
Scotland’s links to Germany began in trade, were confirmed in religion and were strengthened in war. The Low Countries, Germany, Poland and the Baltic States were natural first ports of call for trade, particularly in timber, which stretched as far as Moscow. With the Reformation, Scots abroad found it easier to deal with the Protestant north of Europe, rather than the Catholic south; and the bond of co-religionists soon provided opportunities in terms of the religious wars that racked 17th century Europe. Andrew Melville, for example, became Commander of Troop to the Electress of Hanover.
Scottish mercenaries played a significant role. Scott immortalised one of them in A Legend of Montrose’s Dugald Dalgetty, who famously says: “I had swallowed, without chewing, in Germanie, a very dangerous maxime, which militarie men there too much follow, which was, that soe we serve our master honestlie, it is no matter what master we serve.”
Billy Kay observes that “during the 17th century, more Scots went to the Baltic lands of Poland and Prussia and from there eastwards into Lithuania and Russia than took part in the massive plantation and settlement of Ulster”.
But it was in the cultural sphere that the interweaving became most evident. In 1760, James Macpherson published the first of his Ossian works, purporting to be indigenous Gaelic epic fragments (but in fact, some shards of true Gaelic poetry swaddled in 18th century sentiment).
Its provenance notwithstanding, its effect in Europe was electric. It inspired the German thinker Johann Gottfriend Herder to formulate the first expression of cultural nationalism, and Goethe translated parts of it in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Herder argued that the northern parts of Europe had preserved and evolved a different culture from “neoclassical” France, Spain and Italy. It was in this intellectual climate that the young Walter Scott collected ballads for the Minstrelsy.
They were not defective versions of the classics, but classics in their own right by their own rules. In this, more than in any other factor, was the beginning of Romanticism. Just as Goethe had translated Ossian, Scott began his career as a writer by translating Goethe, before collecting ballads, writing long poems based on ballad material and finally becoming Europe’s pre-eminent novelist. His example would inspire the Brothers Grimm to collect their folktales and fairy stories, to the delight of children to this day.
Moreover, the idea of synthesising an epic – taking traditional stories and reworking them for a modern medium and audience – would culminate in the 19th century’s great “total work of art”, Wagner’s The Ring Cycle, which was written fully as a poem before it became the opera we know. Scott’s son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, continued the tradition by translating Schegel’s Lectures On The History Of Literature.
When Scott died, the young Thomas Carlyle pondered how appropriate it was he passed away in the autumn, just as Carlyle’s hero, Goethe – whose Sorrows Of Young Werther he had translated – had died in the spring of the same year.
Carlyle would come to embody the spirit of the “Germano-Scottish”. Carlyle is, nowadays, a figure held at arm’s length. This is regrettable. Although some of his ideas are naive, and others offensive, he was to his 19th-century peers the single most important mind on the planet.
He is also an acquired comic taste. In one early book, Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Re-Tailored), he semi-seriously, semi-sardonically proposed a “philosophy of clothes”, through the musings of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh – whose name means, literally, “God Born Devil Dung”.
In part the book was a parody of the German philosopher Hegel, in part a homage to his contemporary Fichte, but it also includes a nod to Scotland. There is a city, in Book II, called Weisnichtwo (“Know not where”) – and Scott set his novel The Monastery in Kennaquhair (“Ken not where”, if you pronounce it properly). Carlyle would go on to write on both the French Revolution and Frederick the Great – the book which, supposedly, Hitler was reading in the bunker in 1945.
If Scotland wooed and wowed Germany with literature and philosophy, Germany reciprocated, most of all with music. Burns may have provided the words for George Thomson’s Select Collection of Scottish Airs for the Voice, but it was composers such as Beethoven who provided the music. Beethoven’s Op. 105 and Op. 107 “Themes and Variations for Piano and Flute” used “Scottish Air” far more than any other term – in fact, only one variation in Op. 105 is not Scottish.
Felix Mendelssohn harked back to the earlier infatuation with Ossian when he composed the Hebrides Overture, which took on the nickname “Fingal’s Cave”, and his Third Symphony plays with Scottish folk music in a way that no composer from Scotland would do until the 20th century.
The alliance between Scotland and Germany persisted into the 20th century. Willa and Edwin Muir introduced Kafka to an Anglophone audience; Allan Massie has sensitively explored the family of Thomas Mann.
The 20th century posed its own problems to the relationship – phrases such as Herder’s rallying call for German language literature, “spew out the slime of the Seine”, take on an unappealing shade under some lights. One can easily imagine Hugh MacDiarmid commanding that we “throw up the filth of the Thames”. Scotland and Germany have a long history, and at this present moment, a relationship which ought again to be a source of mutual sustenance and mutual critique. These are exchanges that could strengthen both countries. It was an English poet, John Donne, who said “no man is an island”, and Scotland’s links with Germany show that no country – not even Britain – is an island either.