Book review: Bannock-Burns by Robert Crawford

Edwin Morgan, a noted supporter of independence. Picture: TSPL
Edwin Morgan, a noted supporter of independence. Picture: TSPL
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EVEN this nuanced study of Scottish writers and independence doesn’t tell the whole story, says Allan Massie


by Robert Crawford

Edinburgh University Press, 288pp, £19.99

Robert Crawford’s new book has the sub-title “Scottish Independence and the Literary Imagination, 1314-2014”, and the plural in the title acknowledges that the battle has meant different things to different people at different times over the last 700 years. He examines many of the relevant poems, plays, novels and histories judiciously and fairly. Nevertheless, there is an evident nationalist bias, at least to the extent that more detailed attention is paid to nationalist than to unionist writers. Even on the nationalist side, though, there are curious omissions. The rather brief note on Compton Mackenzie ignores his magnum opus, The Four Winds of Love, with its very full and sympathetic treatment of the case for Scottish nationalism and a form of independence.

Crawford recognizes that unionists as well as nationalists may regard Wallace and Bruce as heroes and celebrate the Wars of Independence. In the unionist view, they ensured that Scotland would never be a conquered nation, annexed by England. Consequently the United Kingdom was created by a treaty negotiated by commissioners drawn from members of both the Scottish and English Parliaments, which both then approved it.

The treatment of the medieval sources is full, and full of interest. Crawford observes that one of the most famous passages of the Declaration of Arbroath is taken, almost word for word, from the Roman author Sallust’s account of Catiline’s conspiracy. This is odd, if only because Catiline was an aristocratic rebel against legitimate authority. In the Sallust passage, and in the Declaration itself, the word“libertas” – liberty, or freedom – is used. That the Scots were fighting for “freedom” is certain, and freedom is extolled in the best-known passage of John Barbour’s epic poem, “The Brus”. Yet freedom and liberty are slippery terms. “Libertas” in the Middle Ages generally meant inherited “entitlement” or “privilege”. Later, when Crawford dwells on Burns’s admiration for George Washington and his sympathy for the Americans rebels, we may recall Dr Johnson’s gibe about “the loudest yelps for Liberty” coming from “the drivers of negroes”.

Wallace has never caused admirers much difficulty; he is evidently the folk-hero freedom-fighter – and if he also committed atrocities, it was all in Freedom’s Cause (the title, incidentally, of a stirring pro-Scottish novel about the wars written for boys by the English author G A Henty). Bruce is more complicated, being himself a Scottish member of the Anglo-Norman baronage, who was as a young man a favourite of Edward I and who for a time looked to benefit from the English occupation. Several medieval writers got round this by inventing a dialogue between the two heroes, in which Wallace rebukes Bruce for his willingness to collaborate with the English, and so pricks his conscience. Invented or not, this makes a fair point. Without the example of Wallace there might have been no opportunity for Bruce to succeed where Wallace failed.

Robert Crawford has written one of the best biographies of Robert Burns, and the chapter on Burns is one of the most interesting, if also confused, in this new book. That Burns had intense Scottish feelings is certain; that he sometimes expressed equally strong British ones is also the case. There is no reason to charge him with insincerity. He was never a consistent thinker. Many of his poems are the expression of the mood of a moment. Crawford makes much of the poet’s attachment to the idea of Jacobitism. Fair enough, but by his time Jacobitism was merely a sentimental attachment, not a political cause . (Incidentally Professor Crawford gives the impression of supposing that the exiled Stuarts were descended from Robert the Bruce and the Hanoverian kings weren’t. Yet both George I and the Old Pretender were great-grandson of James VI & I.)

In the 19th century, Scottish unionism often had a nationalist flavour, unionists being sufficiently thrawn Scots to remind the English that there were two partners in the Union and that the merger between the two countries had never been, and never should be, complete.

The chapter on the rise of nationalism between the two world wars is particularly interesting – not only because it gets beyond harking back to Bannockburn, but because inter-war nationalism was more literary and cultural than political. He draws particular attention to a young American, James Whyte, who settled in St Andrews and edited The Modern Scot, a periodical which was more influential than its very modest circulation would suggest. A line of influence can, he says, be traced from Whyte through the historian Professor Barrow, author of the best biography of Bruce, to Alex Salmond himself.

In the last section, where Crawford examines the work of writers sympathetic, and sometimes committed, to nationalism and Independence, notably Edwin Morgan, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and James Robertson, he observes that “though it seems possible to find a few Scottish writers who back Unionism … vocal supporters of Unionism among the Scottish literati, and particularly amongst those who reside in Scotland, are notably scarce.” This may be true, but the reason is that for such writers the Union is a fact of life, not a cause.

Professor Crawford might care to reflect that there were far more Jacobite songs and poems than Whig ones, the Jacobite cause appealing to the heart, and the Whig more to the head. The Jacobites had the better songs, but the Whigs won the war.