When politicians use history, there is little sense in asking who is right:
historians seldom offer a definitive answer. Clearly, an understanding of how history has evolved over time (historiography) is central when examining the claims made in the debate about independence. Conventions evolve that invariably silence counter-narratives that don't fit but might still be "true".
For these reasons, history matters in this debate. While told repeatedly by both sides that this is a battle for hearts and minds, it is also styled as a battle between hearts and minds. But the dichotomy is false. Many similar false divisions are mirrored in our history and these, too, can spill over into the debate. So, historians have deployed terms such as Whig and Jacobite to make sense of apparent tensions in the historical record long after 1745. For the period up to 1832 (the year of Walter Scott's death and the Great Reform Act), these categories are useful in understanding the contexts in which earlier historians wrote. But what about the twentieth century? What about now, when history's prejudices might easily overlay the head/heart dichotomy with Whig/Jacobite evocations?
In illustrating the limitations we set on our history by endorsing false dichotomies, the life and work of Andrew Lang (1844-1912) is instructive. Like Scott before him, Lang was a son of the Borders, but spent much of his adult life in London. A scholar of immense range and depth, his was an academic life lived outwith the university.
He came relatively late to the study of Scottish history: most of his works date from the 1890s and 1900s, yet his output is impressive, characteristically wide-ranging, and flavoured with his personality. His Times obituary noted that he "had the air of a dilettante". He was not always taken seriously by the Scottish historical establishment.
Most telling were critiques of Lang that focused on his Romantic tendencies and his apparent insensitivity to received wisdom about Scottish history; what he called "tradition". At a time when university historians were aspiring to scientific methods, Lang insisted that history was literature, and warned: "He who tells the tale of a great event, or a romantic adventure, must tell it with spirit."
For his revisionist "take"on the Scottish Reformation, which challenged the heroic status of Knox and critiqued popular notions of Covenanters as "martyrs of freedom of conscience", Lang was attacked as "anti- Scottish", pandering to the "lowest form of Oxford bigotry". He was condemned as a Stuart apologist, a Jacobite. Yet he was far more complex. In 1900, Lang confessed he was "accustomed to be censured as a Jacobite and as a Whig". His contribution to the anniversary volume entitled The Union Of 1707, sponsored by the Outram Press, publishers of the Glasgow Herald, is testament to the truth of this. Lang's essays avoided "commercial metaphysics" and instead alighted on the tantalising "what might have been" of a Cameronian-Jacobite conspiracy on the eve of the Union.
While he may have been less than successful in romancing the Union, his well-known, if equivocal, Unionism was shown to be compatible with romantic leanings and Jacobite sympathies. According to Lang, the Union was achieved "by the grace of God, but contrary to the natural wishes of Scottish men… and thanks to the subconscious commonsense of the country."
To date, we have been rather lazy in assuming that, as the study of history "proper" evolved in our universities, there was no serious romantic strain in the development of Scottish history after Scott. Similarly, we have not yet fully appreciated just how artificial is the dichotomy of Unionist (Whiggish) and Nationalist (Romantic) historiographical traditions. Seeing both as constitutive of one another and qualifying their apparent oppositional relationship is the first stage of reconciling head and heart.
Whether, in doing so, we might grasp more keenly who will seize the future by claiming the past remains to be seen.
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