Stephen McGinty: New light cast on Hammer of the Scots

THE historian Hugh Trevor-Roper was known as 'The Hammer of the Scots' on account of the fact that if ever an opportunity arose to clobber our fair nation, he would take a whack, preferably having first taken off his tweed jacket, and rolled up his shirt sleeves to achieve maximum momentum.

Nan Dunbar, a historian with whom he had enjoyed a warm epistolary friendship pondered the genesis of his "hatred of my nation" and concluded that in infancy he had been bitten by a Scotch terrier and "have consequently been biting back instinctively ever since at anything Scotch within sight." She received no reply.

In fact, as Adam Sisman's fine new biography of the man who made his fortune with The Last Days of Hitler, but lost his reputation by 'authenticating' the Fuhrer's diaries, suggests the cause was not an errant terrier but a mothering matron at Belhaven Hill school, just outside Dunbar, where, as a ten-year-old, young Hugh was sent to escape the bullies of his previous English prep school.

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Over high tea of sandwiches and scones, Miss Rutherford told stories of Scots superiority and framed the Union as a shotgun marriage fair Scotia would weepingly regret.

And, of course, there were the playground chants of 'Bannockburn' to contend with, but considering the torture by electricity to which he had previously been subjected by his fellow countrymen, you would think he could have let it slide.

But no, the bagpipe was to become an assault upon his ear, the kilt an insult to his eye and the union the benevolent gesture of a wiser figure to a retarded ward.

Two years ago, Hugh Trevor-Roper published The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History - quite an achievement as he had been dead for five years and, even when alive, struggled to complete an actual book, instead pushing them to the brink of completion then allowing project after project to moulder in tombs of typescript.

Even Margaret Thatcher chastised his procrastination.

In death, however, he was to become quite prolific.

In The Invention of Scotland he dismantled our myths declaring the kilt to be the invention of a Lancashire industrialist for his Scots employees, and pointing out that the system of tartan patterns published in the Vestiarium Scoticum, was invented by the Sobieski Stuart brothers, who were born John and Charles Allen in Surrey.

The book was begun in the mid-Seventies as a riposte to the demand for devolution.

After writing, with relish, about the 'authentication' of Ossian, the Celtic Homer, who was later exposed as an elaborate hoax, he set the work aside in 1982, and, the following year set about authenticating another elaborate hoax, the Hitler diaries.

Yet I'd argue that, in the end, Hugh Trevor-Roper did a great service to Scottish history.

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If he was a 'Hammer of the Scots', he was a claw-hammer.For while he did his fair share of relentless pounding, he also hauled out a rusty nail, one which was transformed into a precious pin, an idea long lost and one of which many Scots are now justly proud, The concept of the Scottish Enlightenment was largely his.

He became fascinated by the idea in 1963, noting in his journal: "What an extraordinary phenomenon it is! How did it happen? What was the social, what the intellectual basis of this extraordinary efflorescence. What a problem to answer, even to face!"

At the time the subject was ignored by Scots historians. The Keeper of the Public Records of Scotland, Sir James Fergusson of Kilkerran, replied to an enquiry from Trevor-Roper on the subject: "Your phrase 'the Scottish Enlightenment' is unfamiliar to me." Granted, he did little to endear himself to Scotland's historical establishment, writing in the New Statesman: "What do they do in those torpid universities of the North?"

When he gave a lecture on the 'Scottish Enlightenment' at St Andrews' University in 1967 he wrote: "I am insuring my life before the date of delivery." Adding afterwards: "I fear the Europeans enjoyed it more than the Scots who mumped furiously in the background ."

By the time a conference on the Scottish Enlightenment was organised in Edinburgh in 1970 he was not invited.

Still, Matron Rutherford would no doubt have been proud.