Performing Scottishness: Enactment and National Identities

Ian Brown

Palgrave Macmillan, £59.99

Review by Trevor Royle

FIRST, a comment for the record: this book was read and the review written at the height of the coronavirus crisis and its associated lockdown. This is mentioned not so much to add verisimilitude but to make an important point about what follows.

The spring plague overturned many certainties and produced a watershed moment which will change the course of history. Suddenly, globalisation is seen to be a false god, the foundations of European solidarity are shaken as borders were again slammed shut.

The concept of a United Kingdom was placed under strain again as it became frighteningly clear that every nation, great and small, will bear the economic scars of a trillion-pound crisis for many years to come. In other words, all political bets are off. Things can never be the same again.

All this matters because Ian Brown, the author of Performing Scottishness had predicated all this in his outstanding study of Scottish identity, on the premise that the Act of Union of 1707 is no longer fit for purpose, thanks largely to continuing calls for another independence referendum and the desire expressed by a majority of Scots in 2016 to remain a member of the Europea Union. Is it possible, he asks, for a separate Scottish identity to exist within or outwith the British curtilage, and if so what kind of Scottishness should that be?

It is a measure of the depth and pungency of Brown’s argument that the change of circumstances wrought by coronavirus has not weakened his thesis but rather strengthened it.

And so to the book itself. On one level it does exactly what it says in the title by taking a frequently wry look at the way in which Scots project themselves, their country and their culture through the mediums of theatre, television, literature and film, although curiously not through the visual arts. Ian Brown is the perfect guide, being not only a seasoned and well-respected critic but also a distinguished poet and dramatist. To use the old cliché, in this febrile field it really does take one to know one.

On another more fundamental level, this is not just a retelling of Scotland’s cultural history seen through the prism of other writers, directors and producers. Rather, it is an accumulated summation of Brown’s observations over the years on the vexed questions of representation and misrepresentation as they relate to national identity, nationhood, cultural sensibility and what it means to be Scottish or English in a United Kingdom.

In short, Brown takes us on a spirited gallop through history beginning with the Declaration of Arbroath, ending with the present-day manifestations of Brexit and Indyref2.

In between, Brown touches on such well-known waypoints as the Act of Union of 1707, the Jacobite Uprising of 1745-1746, the Scottish Enlightenment, the visit of King George II to Edinburgh in 1822 (derided as the King’s Jaunt), the 20th century literary and cultural renaissance and the emergence of the nationalist movement, all of which impinge on his core argument.

It is in this part of the journey that Brown’s technique comes into its own. This is no dry-as-dust history, but a very human narrative enlivened by his intimate knowledge of the people who created that story. Some are the usual suspects such as the comedians Harry Lauder and Tommy Lorne, both easy targets with their uneasy mix of pawky jokes and Kailyard tartanry, but Brown breaks ranks by putting them in the context of their times, when they enjoyed immense popularity. To the surprise of anyone who regards the two comedians as the apotheoses of arch vulgarity, Brown quotes a hyper-critical contemporary, the novelist George Blake, who admitted that despite everything Lauder was “inspired by at least near genius”.

Others will be less recognisable. Into this company come two dramatists from last century, Alexander Reid and Graham Moffat, who both wrote well-regarded stage plays making full use of Scots idiom. It is a familiar paradox. Reid argued for the creation of a drama which would cherish “our national peculiarities (including our language)” but when his plays were published in London in 1958 he foreswore Scots in favour of standard English.

This could be regarded as a manifestation of the Scottish cringe but as Brown insists more recent dramatists such as David Greig and Rhona Munro showed no such inhibitions in works such as Glasgow Girls and The James Plays, both of which were produced in 2014. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid, no stranger to controversy, excoriated Harry Lauder as a dangerous phoney but by the 1960s his own linguistic revolution had itself become an establishment point of view and he turned to attacking younger writers such as Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard and Tom McGrath who employed a more demotic kind of language or as McGrath put it, the language came from the “street level sound of existential man in the street”. As Brown presciently adds, the revolution continues with still younger writers, many of them newcomers to Scotland, incorporating the vocabularies and syntaxes of their own native tongues.

Brown does not disappoint on film, either. Again, he shows no inclination to use kid gloves in his treatment of earlier silver screen icons such as I Know Where I’m Going (1945), Whisky Galore (1949), Brigadoon (1954), The Maggie (1954) and Tunes of Glory (1960), part of Scotland’s cinematic pantheon which helped to create a solid foundation for the emergence of later films as different as Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006).

But there is a subtle difference of approach. The earlier films were released in the years after the Second World War and may be said to be British productions in that they were either part of Michael Balcon’s Ealing comedy stable or produced by the influential team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. In other words, they were British films with Scottish accents, but this too places Brown’s thesis within a wider context and indeed the whole chapter, intriguingly entitled “Film from Oligopoly to The Angel’s Share”, repays careful reading.

It is a pity the author did not examine the claims of the film The Kidnappers (1953), based on a short story Scotch Settlement, and an instant box office hit. Set in a Calvinistic Scottish community in late 19th century Canada, it deals with such instantly recognisable Scottish tropes as education, religion, discipline, loyalty and pride of origin and would not have been out of place in this account.

Its creator would also have repaid careful study: story and film were written by Oscar-winning Neil Paterson, one of Scotland’s unjustly forgotten authors who followed an upbringing, education and journalistic training in Scotland with a successful career as a Hollywood scriptwriter and, to boot, the only amateur captain of Dundee United football club. But that is another story for another day.