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A Question of Identity

In this article, a version of which was first published in Highland Perthshire Comment in 2013, Aberfeldy resident and Gaelic historian Richard Devéria argues that Scottish attributes have contributed significantly to the emergence of British values, and he calls for Scotland to uphold her identity within the Union.

In summer 2013 I attended the commemorations of the battle of Flodden. The theme was emphatically one of reconciliation, but the point was later made that Flodden in 1513 marked the end of Scotland as a significant European power. The regal Union of 1603 marked the end of Scotland’s separate monarchy, while the country finally lost her independence under difficult circumstances with the Parliamentary Union of 1707. “Now there’s ane end of ane auld sang” commented the Chancellor, Lord Seafield.

However, a number of features of Scottish society were to prove closely compatible with corresponding features of society in England, and would lead to a high degree of unity to the nation which emerged as Great Britain. These would become accepted as British qualities, and include a limited monarchy, freedom of expression and a humanitarian society.

All these traits were identifiable, even if in embryonic form, in pre-Union Scotland. The English Bill of Rights of 1689 was closely paralleled by the Claim of Right passed by the Scottish Parliament the same year. Printing was introduced to Scotland under the patronage of King James IV, while the tradition of the flyting, a contest between poets in mutual invective, even at times involving the King, gives an early example of freedom of speech. The execution of Thomas Aikenhead for blasphemy in 1696 was the last of its kind.

A system of poor relief was introduced in Scotland towards the end of the 16th century, and the West Lothian silver mines provided sick pay and funeral expenses for their men as early as 1608. Thus it can be seen that concepts characterising British culture such as constitutional government, freedom of expression and the welfare state had their origins on both sides of the border, This leads to a view of British values being based on a coalescence of English and Scottish ideas, rather that seeing Great Britain as a greater England.

These British values have been adopted by many countries round the world. It is out of respect for them, and of the immense benefit that they have brought, that I voted NO in the 2014 referendum.

Scottish identity

But Scotland has paid a price for her place in the United Kingdom, in that she has largely lost her distinctiveness as a country. By the mid-17th century Scots had largely been abandoned as a medium for serious communication, and following the Union of the Parliaments, the middle classes consciously abandoned Scottish vocabulary. By 1804 Sir John Sinclair spoke of the need to reassert Scottish identity “before Scotland becomes completely confounded in England.” So arose the popular tartan tradition of Highlandism. But Dr Samuel Johnston had shown a deeper insight when he said that “languages are the pedigrees of nations.”

Support the Union, but retain our identity within the Union. Surely there is a role for Scotland here, in that we can operate as a nation but within a United Kingdom framework, and add some modern verses to Lord Seafield’s auld sang.


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