William Dalrymple: Brexit is not only economic suicide, it’s cultural vandalism

William Dalrymple's words projected on to the Tron Kirk, as part of the Message from the Skies project
William Dalrymple's words projected on to the Tron Kirk, as part of the Message from the Skies project
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As part of this year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations, six Scottish writers have been invited to write ‘love letters to Europe’. Their words are being projected on to buildings around the capital until the end of the month. This week and next, as the Brexit negotiations enter a critical phase, we will be running the essays in full. Here, William Dalrymple argues that despite ‘Little Britain Brexiteers’ saying we must now turn our backs on the EU, it has long been clear who our true friends are.

Stop! Yes, you. Don’t run away. Fellow Europeans – please. Just give me ten minutes.

I know it’s bitterly cold. And I know you’ve found all of us on this unhappy island quite incredibly annoying for some time. At this moment, when we’re on the verge of committing a stupid act of catastrophic self-harm, you may think you’re being waylaid in the streets of Edinburgh by a madman. But just ten minutes. That’s all I ask. I won’t be long. Come close. Sit down if you’d like to. Listen.

Well, first of all: it isn’t our fault. Don’t roll your eyes. I know all divorcees try to blame the other party – but this really isn’t. We Scots have always been the most enthusiastic of Europeans, even if we’re on the north-western edge of the continent – indeed maybe because we’re on the edge and have only the Atlantic to our backs as we gaze towards you, longingly, admiring your culture and your food and your wine and your paintings and your music and your weather. Maybe, above all, your weather.

In truth, we’ve always seen you as a lifeline, a counterbalance to our noisy neighbours to the south. It was they who voted for Brexit. Honestly – we didn’t. Sixty-two per cent of us voted Remain. We always knew that we would not be taking back control of anything: instead, we are ceding control, and losing our best friends and natural allies in the process. It’s about much more than the money. It’s about who we are – where we come from, what we believe in. It’s about who our real friends are, who we can trust. Who we love.

We know already how much we’re going to miss you, more keenly with every day that the separation and divorce draws nearer. We know that soon we’ll be in the wrong lane at immigration, when we try to fly into Rome or Paris or Lisbon or Leiden or Utrecht – towns where we’ve spent so much time, over so many centuries. We know we won’t find it so easy to do business or to buy a flat near you, or even to come on holiday. We may not get a visa to visit you. You may not get a visa to visit us.

I grew up in the Borders during the 1970s, constantly surprised how even in the wildest moorlands, links with distant parts of Europe seemed to lie under every clod of soil. As a teenage would-be archaeologist, I used to drive to a field near Melrose and wander over the berms and earthworks of the site of the Roman fortress of Trimontium – named after the three peaks of the Eildon Hills rising above.

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In Edinburgh, in the old Museum of Antiquities in Queen Street, I vividly remember when they put on display the astonishing silver masks of the cavalry officers that the archaeologists had dug up there. In one, the face was completely intact. There was something deeply hypnotic about their silent stare. Their fleeting expressions frozen in silver, mouths forever open, startled, as if suddenly surprised by death itself. Their huge, vacant eyes stared out with all the nakedness of a departed soul.

I remember peering through the glass at them, trying to catch some hint of the strange sights these southern Europeans saw in first century Scotland – what they made of the Votadini of Traprain Law or our proto-Pictish ancestors, among whose fortresses was one that now lies under Castle Rock. The smooth, silver-gleaming neo-classical faces stared me down. But I learned that you never knew where you might run into the oldest ghosts of continental European culture haunting the most surprising and remote parts of Scotland.

One Easter holiday, my parents took me to Galloway where they hired a cottage near Castle Douglas. There, in a small 18th century chapel, in a remote one-street village in south west Scotland, I saw one of the most remarkable pieces of Early Christian art to survive anywhere in the British Isles. The Ruthwell Cross, which dates from the early eighth century and stands some five metres tall. A fantastically elegant, sophisticated and intricate creation. One side has the Eucharistic vinescroll, full of plump Mediterranean grapes, symbolic both of the sacrifice of the mass and the Tree of Life. And on the other face were swirls of carpet-like interlace, with intricate knots, perhaps copied from a Roman floor mosaic and used as a talisman to keep the devil at bay.

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Nearby, there was an image of the gospel story of the Healing of the Man Born Blind, representing the opening of the eyes of the heathen. Below was a panel showing Mary Magdalen washing the feet of Christ, a symbol of conversion and repentance. In it, Christ is wearing a toga. It’s a deeply Hellenistic image, maybe copied from a Greek icon, sculpted by an eighth century inhabitant of Scotland. I remember being taken to see the cross and descending the circular stairs into the pit where it’s kept, and being astonished by its sophisticated, classical beauty. Who had made these images? What was this exotic Romano-Byzantine masterpiece doing in the middle of sleepy rural Galloway?

Nor was it just a one way one traffic. The Celtic monks of Iona received a visit from a Gaulish traveller named Arculf who told them of his visits to the Holy Places of Palestine. As a teenager on my first visit to Italy, I was astonished to find a very Scottish, Celtic-looking reliquary sitting in the monastery of San Salvatore on the slopes of Mount Amiata in Tuscany, left by some 9th century Scottish pilgrims heading along the Via Francigena on their way to Rome.

I soon learned of just how early many learned Scots made their careers in the warm South. My favourite were the tales I had heard of another young Borderer, Michael Scott the Wizard, also from Melrose, who in the 13th century ended up travelling to Rome, where he briefly became tutor to the Pope. He went on to Toledo, where he acquired a sophisticated knowledge of Arabic. He began to dress in Arab clothes and developed a passion for Islamic literature, mathematics, medicine, alchemy and astrology. In time he became court astrologer to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, Stupor Mundi – Wonder of the World, in Palermo, and successfully predicted the outcome of wars that had yet to happen.

Scott’s dark magic even enabled him to foresee his own death, which he believed would be caused by a stone falling on his head. As a precaution, he wore an iron helmet at all times. But according to Border folklore, he took it off while taking mass in Melrose and, as predicted, a small stone did indeed fall on his head, causing his death in 1235. He is the only Scot to appear in Dante’s Inferno, where his reputation as a necromancer won him a posthumous place in the Eighth Circle of Hell, enduring horrific tortures in the company of other distinguished sorcerers, magi and enchantresses.

As with any relationship, not all contacts were happy, of course. When Aeneas Piccollomini of Pienza was made Pope Pius II, he failed to launch the last Crusade that he spent much of his life planning. This was because he died prematurely of the chilblains he caught making an ill-advised, barefoot winter pilgrimage from Dunbar to the shrine of Our Lady in Whitekirk, through an East Lothian landscape he described in his memoirs as “wild, bare and never visited by the sun in winter”.

The Auld Alliance between Edinburgh and Paris led us into close political union with the French court, and led to a succession of marriage alliances with European grandees like Mary of Guise, who brought over from the continent waves of Europeans architects, painters and musicians to beautify our buildings and act like leaven to our arts and literature.

Our European links lasted long after the Auld Alliance lapsed at the Union, and long after Bonnie Prince Charlie, himself descended from the Medici, retired to drink himself to death in his Florentine Palazzo. Scottish castles were built with pointed turrets, like witches’ hats, modelled on those of the Loire, and Scottish domestic houses had crow-stepped gables based on those in the Hague and Amsterdam. The red pantiles that roofed the steadings of East Lothian first came over as ballast from Rotterdam. Alan Ramsay learned his skills in portraiture in Naples. When Robert Adam returned from the Grand Tour, he reinvented British architecture with ideas taken from the sketches he made as a boy from the Palladian palaces of Italy and from amidst the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the palace of Diocletian in Split. Colen Campbell of Cawdor’s architectural ideas, also brought back from his Italian travels, became the basis for the architecture of the new city of St Petersburg. Continental European tastes permeated every aspect of Scottish life. We drank Claret from vineyards that Scottish vintners bought up in the Bordeaux, and port which Scottish families like the Cockburns and the Sandemans made from their estates in the Portuguese Douro. When our scholars wished to undertake further studies they left their books in Edinburgh and St Andrews, not only for Oxford but for Paris and Utrecht: from 1572 to 1800, 1,460 Scots students enrolled in the University of Leiden.

So when the Little Britain Brexiteers tell us now that our future lies with them, and that we must turn our backs on Europe, I feel not just angry but understand that this dictat goes against all that we are, and all that has formed us. It is not just an act of economic and political suicide, it is an act of massive cultural and philosophical vandalism. How did we allow this to happen? How do we begin to unravel this mess? How badly have we failed both our forefathers and our children?

This came home to me most bitterly in November, when I saw Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron arm in arm on Remembrance Day. They both braved the wind and rain, in a way that President Trump refused to do, to remember all our dead, and to learn the lesson that we must all come together to make sure it never happens again. I understood then the scale of what had been achieved in the last 60 years by a continent which had torn itself apart so often, and I realised then, my fellow Europeans, more clearly than ever who our real friends are – and the bleak, utter foolishness of separating ourselves from them.

Devised by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in partnership with Edinburgh City of Literature, Message from the Skies sees texts by six leading writers – William Dalrymple, Chitra Ramaswamy, Louise Welsh, Kapka Kassabova, Stef Smith Billy Letford, projected on to some of the capital’s landmark buildings during the first month of 2019. This year’s celebration of the written word features six specially commissioned “love letters to Europe” in which the writers express their feelings at this time of political uncertainty. Supported by Creative Scotland through the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo fund, these literary illuminations will continue until Burns Night on 25 January.

For more information, visit www.edinburghshogmanay.com