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Couthie on the Craigie - Hyperreal Scottish culture
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Written by Martin Burns, mailto: email@example.com
(this was written a few years ago)
Couthie on the Craigie
Scotland the Hyperreal and the Unionist paradigm
In recent weeks, an advertising campaign for Grant's whisky has utilised proverbial-sounding pseudo-Scots phrases such as Couthie on the Craigie, and challenged the Scots public to work out their meaning. Whether the phrases have any meaning is irrelevant to the perceptional objectives of the campaign - an image of an authentic Scotland is created. It is my objective to explore this hyper-reality, and to discuss what relevance it has to the Unionist paradigm.
John Major sought to plant a sense of Britishness in the face of a
greater Europeanisation by calling to an identity which all know to
have passed, but which nevertheless retains substantial power as a
Fifty years from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, and - as George Orwell said - old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist. And, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read - even in school. Britain will survive in all essentials.
Similarly, from as early as the eighteenth century, the landscape of
Scotland is represented as a mythical one. Guidebooks and travel
writing emphasised wild grandeur, remoteness and peace, and a
romantic history. The process of myth-making can be observed in
paintings. The eighteenth century artist Paul Sandby produced two
paintings. The first - painted in the early part of the century -
shows straightforward realistic detail. The second of thirty years
later shows the same mountains made more rugged, with fir trees and a
man in a kilt added, presumably for greater authenticity. In the twentieth
century, this fiction is still perpetuated. Scottish Tourist Board
publications represent Scotland as having peopleless, dramatic landscapes,
the everyday melting into the exotic and majestic icons of castles and
pipers. As Womack noted:
That all Scots wear tartan, are devoted to bagpipe music,
are moved by the spirit of clanship and supported Bonnie Prince
Charlie to a man - all these libels of 1762 live on as items in the
Scottish tourist package of the twentieth century.
These representations of Scotland show an almost hysterical rush from
the reality to the image, where the sign has more potency than the
reality if it carries a greater impression of reality. This is
clearly demonstrated in the Grant's campaign, and in such works as
Capercaille's 1993 album, "Secret People" in which Gaelic songs are
given a greater authenticity by the not being translated. This
reflects Baudrillard's conclusion that Art today has totally
penetrated reality, and is a classic demonstration of post-modern
But why does Scotland place such an emphasis on cultural and historical signifiers, rather than political ones? Why are Scots content with being "Ninety minute Nationalists" at Murrayfield and Hampden Park? And why is there a separation between the two discourses? Scots such as Michael Forsyth are more than happy to value aspects of Scottish cultural difference. Why then does it take the prospect of electoral suicide to force him to recognise political difference?
There is perhaps no more potent symbol of political power in Scotland
than Edinburgh Castle. In any nation, a castle in such a prominent
place would be a symbol of national pride. In Scotland, the castle
flies the Union flag, a flag which grows every year, particularly
when Edinburgh is the centre of national attention. And yet, the
castle is a key element in the marketing iconography of Scotland. How
is this allowed by the people of Scotland?
The answer is that they no longer need the threat of military action,
and the power over their bodies which was required for Wallace and
the Jacobites. The people of Scotland have internalised the political
power which England has over Scotland. As the Westminster parliament
commented shortly after the signing of the Act of Union:
(on-line at http://www.forscotland.com/aou.html)
We have catch'd Scotland, and we will bind her fast.
This Foucaultian episteme predicts that once such an internalised
system of power is established, no substantial political opposition
is possible. And yet, to be effective, such a discourse has to be
seen as productive and enabling rather than coercive. While there is
certainly a demand for greater autonomy for Scotland, the general
opinion - as measured by the support for the manifestly unionist
Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative Parties - is that there is
value in the Union. It is a central plank of the ideological makeup
of the Conservative and Unionist Party in Scotland that Scotland is a
financial - in terms of the Barnet funding formula - and political -
in terms of the number of Westminster seats for it's population -
beneficiary of its constitutional position. That it has been shown
to be the reverse is not acceptable to those who have internalised
However, it is to be noted that this internalisation of power is by no means universal. A symbolic reclaiming of power took place at Edinburgh Castle in 1991, and Stirling Castle in 1994 when the Gaelic band Runrig played a number of concerts. That this was allowed at all was a significant retreat by the strongly Unionist military establishments which have responsibility for the sites. In creating a discourse of the acceptability of an internalised acceptance of the Unionist hegemony, it was necessary to create excluded groups. Runrig, in common with much of Scottish traditional music embodies many of these excluded threats to the peace of mind of the British state.
Excluded histories have long been a rich vein of material for folk-songs in Scotland and its close musical cousin, Ireland. There is a dictum within folk music circles that the victors write the history books, while the vanquished write the songs. Songs articulate the experience of working people - on the land or in cities:
Come bonny lass lie near me, and let the brandy cheer ye
For the road fae Fife tae Falkirk's lang and wet and weary.
Ma trade it is the weavin', fae the boony toun o' Leven
And I'll drink a health tae the fairmers' dames wha'll buy
my cloth the morn
Well ye can see them a', the lads o' the Fair;
Lads fae the Forth and the Carron water
Workin' lads and Lads wi' gear;
Lads wha'll sell ye the Provost's daughter;
Soldiers back fae the German wars;
Fiddlers up fae the Border
And Lassies wi' an eye for mair than the kye
at the Trystin' Fair at Falkirk
Songs enable those outwith the Anglophone community to express their
world view as here, or in the Scots extract above:
Failte gu mo chainnt
Welcome to my language
Is i dh'ionnsaicht mi 'nam phaisde
The one I learned as a child
Canan uasal mor nan Ghaidheal
The huge dignified language of the Gael
Mar bhratach dhomh gach la
That stands like a banner for me daily
Direct political comment is also common in the Celtic tradition,
particularly in relation to Ireland. The following extract was
written by Bobby Sands for his comrades from Derry in the H-Blocks,
and sung out through the keyhole to them.
In 1803 we sailed out to sea, out from the sweet town of Derry
For Australia bound if we didn't all drown and the marks of our
fetters we carried.
In rusty iron chains we sighed for our wains, as our good wives we left in sorrow.
As the mainsails unfurled our curses we hurled at the English and thoughts of tomorrow.
Oh Oh Oh Oh I wish I was back home in Derry
Twenty years have gone by and I've ended me bond and comrades'
ghosts are behind me
A rebel I came, and I'll die the same. On the cold winds of night you will find me.
Finally songs enabled immigrants - particularly the Irish immigrants
- and travelling people to speak for themselves, or to have singers
speak on their behalf:
Don't forget your shovel if you want to go to work
Or you'll end up where you came from like the rest of
us...diggin'....Ow di diddle ow
And we want to go to heaven but we're always diggin' holes
Well there's one thing we can say, we know where we are goin'
-Any chance of a start? - No - ok
Enoch Powell will give us a job, diggin' our way to Annascaul
And when we're finished digging' there he'll close the hole and all
Now there's six thousand five hundred and fifty-nine Paddies
over in London all trying to dig their way back to Annascaul
and very few of them boys is going to get back at all
- I think that's terrible.
Born on the common by a building site
Where the ground was rutted by the trail of wheels
The local Christian said to me
"You'll lower the price of property"
You'd better get born in some place else.
Move along, get along
Go! Move! Shift!
But whose excluded history does Scottish popular culture represent? One problem is that all the role models presented are essentially masculine. Military heroes such as Bruce or Wallace, socialist leaders such John MacLean or James Connolly, writers such as Scott or Burns only speak in a masculine voice. Even the leading contemporary Gaelic writers - Aongus Dubh, Sorley Maclean and Calum Macdonald of Runrig speak of a masculine landscape. Only the waulking songs preserve a female voice, and even that is a voice which often spoke at the request of men, reciting the story of battle victory and spoils:
Chunna' mi do long air saile
I saw your longship on the sea
Hi 'illean beag ho ill o ro
Bha stuir oir oirr' 's da chrann airgid
There was a helm of gold on her, and two silver masts
Hi 'illean beag ho ill o ro
'S cupaill de shioda na Gaillmhinn
And shrouds of Galway silk
Hi 'illean beag ho ill o ro
In pondering the desirability of reconstructing a Celtic identity, it
is perhaps useful to consider why such a reconstruction has become so
attractive in recent years. To claim the Highlands is to claim the
identity of a residual Celtic nation, a pre-industrial nation. This
claim axiomatically rejects the capitalist hegemony, as is echoed by the
contrast between Edwin Muir's socialist interpretation of the cities of
Glasgow and Edinburgh, and this more sympathetic treatment of Scotland's
countryside in his Scottish Journey. Such a rejection is inherent in
youth movements since the 1960's, and it is perhaps surprising that
a Celtic identity has only recently come to prominence. Any cultural
signifiers which mark a Highland culture would be expected to be
appropriated to support this assumption of identity. It is therefore
no surprise that wearing of Tartan - independently of Vivien Westwood
- ceilidh dancing, musical genres such as Puirt a Beul and above all
an interest in Gaelic language have grown at a substantial rate among
young people in Lowland Scotland.
Such a preference of the hyper-reality of Scotland the mythical-Brave
over Scotland the late-twentieth-century-Reality positively
disenfranchises the people of Scotland from the political and
socio-economic process. As Brian McNeill and Hamish Henderson savagely
And tell me will we never hear the end
o' poor bloody Charlie and Culloden yet again
though he ran like a rabbit in the glen
leavin' better folk to be butchered
Or are you sittin' in your council house thinkin' o' your clan
Waitin' for the Jacobites to come and free the land?
Try goin' doon the broo wi' a claymore in your hand
and then count all the princes in the queue.
For there's no Gods and there's precious few heroes,
but there's plenty on the dole in the land of the leal.
And it's time now to sweep the future clear o'
the lies of a past that we know was never real.
Given that cultural signifiers have been created to enforce the Unionist paradigm, is it then necessary to proscribe references to them before political change is possible? Cultural signifiers can be used as part of a mobilisation of a political will. However, it is necessary to use them as a means of awakening interest in political gains only, otherwise they become tools of a system of power which emasculates the political process.
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