- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

MYTH AND HISTORY

By Hugh Trevor-Roper

Yale University Press, $30, 304 pages

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM ANTHONY HAY

Much of history involves the search for a usable past, and the line dividing myth from reality can become diminishingly fine. Nationalist movements during the 19th century sparked an outpouring of studies on history and folklore. Skeptics of later generations often questioned the antiquity of traditions thus uncovered. Hugh Trevor-Roper casts a shrewd eye upon a Scotland familiar from shortbread tins and romantic novels to tease out the reality and its meaning for present politics.

“The Invention of Scotland” reflects Mr. Trevor-Roper’s long-standing ties with the country. A movement for Scottish devolution or self-government during the 1970s raised deep political questions by challenging the Act of Union in 1707 that had formed the United Kingdom by joining Scotland with England. Nationalist proponents of devolution relied less on pragmatic arguments than a romantic version of history cast to arouse tribal loyalties. That story downplayed both the profound divisions within Scotland before 1707 and the positive consequences of union thereafter. Warning the public against the difference between reality and myth prompted Mr. Trevor-Roper to examine how the Scots defined themselves.

While acknowledging the redemptive value of myth in accommodating barbarism to civilization, he also saw the dangerous edge it could give nationalism. Joining myth with the will to power created a potent combination in Germany that had terrible consequences. Scotland, however, “domesticated a dangerous process.” Mr. Trevor-Roper argues that myth colored Scotland’s entire history, with successive myths lingering on until a successor replaces it. He takes as examples the ancient constitution, the ancient poetry of Ossian, and the traditional garb of kilt and plaid. Each of these venerable artifacts served particular objectives at different times, and only gave way when that purpose disappeared.

The political myth of Scotland’s ancient constitution that marginalized the Picts at the expense of Scots who crossed over from Ireland to form one of several kingdoms in North Britain bolstered the claims of independence. Edward I’s effort to absorb Scotland into his expanding realm sparked a propaganda struggle. Rather than vassals of England, the Scots claimed to have a monarchy more ancient than their rival. To prove the point scribes added elaborate lists of rulers to fill gaps in the record that set history aside for a more appealing legend. Out of genealogies and king lists, later scholars crafted a literary narrative that renaissance humanists then cast in elegant Latin. Similar narratives in England died out under pressure from historians, but the Scots rejected such criticism. The fable prevailed until it lost political relevance in the 18th century and Thomas Innes brought it down under the weight of scholarship.

Societies that renounce politics find other ways of expressing their identity. Scots forged a literary myth during the 18th century to place their literature on a par with England’s. Renewed interest in England’s literary heritage expressed in popular anthologies and Samuel Johnson’s famous “Lives of the Poets” prompted the search for a Celtic Homer. James Macpherson’s translations from a Gaelic epic of the third century purportedly by the bard Ossian offered an answer, and Scotland’s literati embraced the work as authentic.

Ossian distorted Scotland’s history as well as its literature, for if he were conceived as a historical figure events had to be revised to accommodate him. While some took that step, others challenged Macpherson to prove Ossian’s antiquity. Johnson famously armed himself with a stout oak and warned he would “not be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian.” Macpherson’s friends defended his claims, even after he died, but research eventually proved Ossian’s works to be translations cobbled together from recent Gaelic poems. Although justifications were still made into the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott filled the need for a Scottish literature and made the myth of Ossian unnecessary.

Scott played a central part in creating the sartorial myth when he managed George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Kilts and tartan became enshrined as Scotland’s national dress, but like Ossian’s epic highland dress was an invented tradition. Indeed, most Scots feared Highlanders as barbaric marauders who pillaged the more prosperous lowlands. Only subsequent myth hid the fact that conflicts between Highlanders and Lowland Scots ran deeper than either group’s feuds with the English.

Thomas Rawlinson, an English Quaker, created the kilt or philibeg during the 1720s as an inexpensive alternative to trousers for Highlanders working at his forge. More convenient than the belted plaid, the new kilt spread to become standard attire until the government prohibited it after the 1745 Jacobite revolt failed. Only the interest sparked by romanticism and the fact that newly raised government regiments adopted the kilt saved it from extinction as a symbol of barbarism. When the probation against civilians wearing it ended in 1782, the philibeg had acquired the aura of antiquity despite recent origins and people simply assumed it to be the traditional Highland dress. So it became the natural style for George IV’s Edinburgh jaunt.

Tartans had come to Scotland in the 16th century and carried no association with specific families. People selected what patterns they liked and could afford. Two English brothers, John and Charles Allen, reinvented themselves as Scots in the 1820s and constructed a spurious pedigree that reached a climax with their claim to be descendants of Charles Edward Stuart. No less inventive was their illustrated codex linking tartans to specific families that became a definitive guide. The marriage of plaid and philibeg created the image of Scottish dress common today.

Despite its careful deconstruction of Scottish myths, Mr. Trevor-Roper treats his subject with sympathy and affection. Known for a habit of delay, he left the manuscript unpublished on his death. This last book displays a fine wit and occasionally quirky judgments, but also a remarkable breadth of knowledge. Its publication makes a welcome tribute to a fine historian as well as his last word on the imagined past.

William Anthony Hay, a historian at Mississippi State University and senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is author of “The Whig Revival, 1808-1830.”

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