- A Search for Scotland by R.F. Mackenzie
Collins, 280 pp, £16.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 00 215185 5
- A Claim of Right for Scotland edited by Owen Dudley Edwards
Polygon, 202 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 7486 6022 4
- The Eclipse of Scottish Culture by Craig Beveridge and Ronald Turnbull
Polygon, 121 pp, £6.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 7486 6000 3
- The Bird Path: Collected Longer Poems by Kenneth White
Mainstream, 239 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 1 85158 245 2
- Travels in the Drifting Dawn by Kenneth White
Mainstream, 160 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 1 85158 240 1
Scottish nationhood never quite dies but hibernates, latent in all those millions of people and thousands of texts, ready to be potentiated by various events, some more accountable or predictable than others: the Union of the Parliaments (1707), the Scottish Renaissance embodied in MacDiarmid and Grassic Gibbon (1922-35), the flow of oil and gas from the bed of the North Sea (1977-?). It may be that our nationalism is on a par with feminism as Dale Spender sees it: for ever having to be painfully rediscovered, rather than evolving continuously from strength to strength, without relapses between those peaks where consciousness, at least, is high. By ‘nationhood’ I mean independent political status, grounded in a place, a history, a language and a consciousness, and recognised and negotiated with as such by other independent states. By ‘nationalism’ I mean the consciousness only, which may or may not reflect the likelihoods latent in the status quo – may or may not flow into a fervent political movement and reach its goal of separation.
At present most of us probably sense some peaking of nationalist activity, as the Communist empires shake – Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are allowed at least to talk about separation from the USSR; as the Slovenes and the Croats fling themselves against the creaking, if not tottering, state machine in Yugoslavia with its Serb majority (weirdly, a Croat nationalist has recently been murdered by a Yugoslav secret agent in Scotland); as Tibetans are shot down by Chinese soldiers yet again; as racial or religious groups achieve governmental control inside the territory of dominant powers (the Karens in Burma, the Eritreans in Ethiopia) while other peoples fight more or less desperately for some form of nationhood – the Kurds against three cruel governments at once (Iran, Iraq, and Turkey), the West Saharans struggling against Morocco for the nationhood of Polisario, the Basques for Euzkadi against Spain, the people of western New Guinea for West Irian against Indonesia ... Now that the UN has become a settled trade union of nation states, it clearly feels committed to present boundaries and intolerant of separatist changes. But the peoples of the world are too motley, their history too vivid, and human beings too inclined to see their utopias in homelands, for the national tendency ever (foreseeably) to die down.
In Britain Thatcher tries to curry favour with voters by Little Englander sniping at European union – which nevertheless moves nearer and nearer in basic economic arrangements. In other countries nationalism is more likely to erupt in terrible extremes of desperation and damage as car bombs destroy the remnants of Lebanon, or Kurds and West Irianians are forcibly settled or resettled by governments bristling with European weaponry. Yet there are likenesses between the pacific and the warlike ends of this spectrum. The chauvinists who rule the Indonesian archipelago from Jakarta, and are trying to wipe out the culture of West Irian by settling it with Javanese, justify themselves on the ground that the West Irianians are ‘nomads’, ‘forest people’, and as such ripe for a drastic drench of civilisation. How like the language of those English and Lowland Scots, after Culloden in 1746, who advocated the transporting of whole clans to the American colonies on the ground that the Gaelic-speaking Catholic Highlanders were ‘wild-men’, ‘mountain savages’, ‘vermin’, ‘enemies to all civil society’, ‘a fury let loose from Hell upon us to disturb these kingdoms’. That is no longer an issue (though I recently heard a red-faced Englishman in a Cumbrian pub arguing that nuclear power-stations ‘should all be put in the Hebrides where there’s nobody to blow up’). But Scottish nationalism, and perhaps even nationhood is now active again, aware of the new offshore resources, less sapped by the chronic bleeding of emigration (the nett annual loss of 44,000 people has been halved), and now boosted by a national version of the Northern protest vote against Conservatism.
In such conditions, each new piece of work ‘from Scotland’ – travel book, manifesto, critique or poem – looks a little different because the ‘Scotland’ it is ‘from’ is that much less of a nostalgic heimat, that much more of an independent society. So R.F. Mackenzie, veteran champion and practitioner of libertarian schooling, travels Scotland towards the end of his life, gauging morale and wondering what system could help young folk to flourish. Kenneth White, a Glaswegian based in Brittany and professor at the Sorbonne, is for ever wondering, as he walks the beaches of Western Europe, which place is home for him. Beveridge and Turnbull, young academics (I presume), undertake what they call a ‘political project’, the challenging of the inferiority complex that blights the Scots’ self-image. And the many collaborators on A Claim of Right for Scotland debate the case for last year’s document of that name: it is reproduced in full and seems to me much the most reasonable and impressive manifesto for Scottish nationhood in my lifetime.