The National Question in Scotland


The continuing decline of British imperialism, combined with the continuing decline of the working-class movement, has over the past at least three decades pushed the national question in Britain to the fore.  It is not the first time in history that such a period of reaction and decline has brought in its train disillusionment and a lack of faith in the common forces of the working class.  This lack of faith in a common bright future has caused sections of the British proletariat, particularly in Scotland, to take shelter under a national tent.  Even some organisations and individuals, calling themselves ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ have not been immune from the disease of creeping nationalism.

To the rising tide of nationalism, and the increase in the electoral support for the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Blair government responded by a devolution plan, endorsed in a referendum of 11 September 1997, which devolved some powers to a Scottish Parliament set up under this dispensation.  A Welsh Assembly, though with fewer powers than the Scottish Parliament, was also brought into existence.

The SNP is programmatically committed to Scottish independence, a referendum on which is scheduled to be held in 2014, marking the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, a battle won by the feudal barons of Scotland against those of England.

To the extent that the British ruling class has accepted that Scotland is a nation, and has conceded its right to secede and constitute an independent state, writing on the question of Scottish nationhood might be regarded as an exercise in futility.  Although our views will have absolutely no effect on the holding of the referendum on Scottish independence, they may prove to be of some significance in the actual outcome of that referendum if we manage to spread them among the working class in Scotland.  If nothing else, writing on the question, albeit belatedly, may bring theoretical clarity to a subject which has become enveloped in so much emotion and obfuscation.

In order that a thing or a phenomenon may be usefully discussed, it is necessary to define it, for without such a definition, without an agreement on the essential characteristics and properties of the phenomenon being discussed, all discussion about it becomes meaningless, with the disputants talking at cross purposes and ending up hurling abuse at each other.  This is especially so with regard to the national question, on which people are so little informed and which, therefore, gives rise to such heated, not to say fruitless, debate and release of emotion.  To avoid this, we shall start with a definition of what constitutes a nation.

Definition of a nation

The most scientific and world-famous definition of a nation was given by Joseph Stalin.  Writing in his 1913 pamphlet, Marxism and the National Question, Stalin defines a nation thus:

A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.” (FLPH, Moscow 1940, p 5) (Stalin’s emphasis)[1]

Thus, a nation is a definite community of people.  This community is not racial, nor is it tribal, but a historically constituted community of people; nor is it a casual or ephemeral agglomeration, as for instance the great empires of Cyrus and Alexander, but a stable community of people.

However, not every stable community can constitute a nation,  For instance, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, India, etc., are stable communities but no one with any knowledge of the question calls them nations – they are states and political entities.  What, then, distinguishes a national community from a political community?

One of its distinguishing features is that a national community is impossible to conceive without a common language, whereas a state does not necessarily have a common language.

So, “community of language is one of the characteristic features of a nation” (ibid p5).

From this one must not conclude “that different nations always and everywhere necessarily speak different languages, or that all those who speak one language necessarily constitute one nation.  A common language for every nation, but not necessarily different languages for different nations” (ibid pp5-6).  While there is no nation which speaks at the one and the same time several languages, this does not exclude that there may be two or more nations speaking the same language.

Thus, for example, the British, the American and Australians, notwithstanding a common language – English – do not constitute one nation.  They do not constitute a single nation because, inhabiting different territories, they do not live together.  A nation comes into being through lengthy and systematic intercourse between people living together for generations.  In the absence of a common territory, naturally people cannot live together for lengthy periods.  “Thus community of territory is one of the characteristic features of a nation” (ibid p 6).

Community of territory is by no means sufficient to create a nation.  What is required, in addition, is “an internal economic bond which welds the various parts of a nation into a single whole” (ibid p.6).

To prove his point, Stalin gives the example of his native Georgia before the latter half of the 19th century.  At that time, although the Georgians inhabited a common territory and spoke one language, they did not constitute one nation, for, being split up in a number of disconnected principalities, there was no common economic bond to weld them together.  For centuries they indulged in internecine warfare, inciting the Persians and Turks against each other.  Georgia only appeared on the scene as a nation in the second half of the 19th century, with the abolition of serfdom and the growth of capitalism, with the resultant development of the means of communication and the institution of a division of labour between the different parts of Georgia, which served to completely shatter the economic isolation and self-sufficiency of the principalities, binding them together into a single whole.

The same is true of every other territory which went through the stage of feudalism before going on to develop capitalism.  Thus, we may confidently assert that, in spite of the fact that there were people inhabiting a geographical entity known as England in the 12th and 13th centuries, or even 14th and 15th centuries, there was no English nation at that time.  Nor could there be one, considering the splendid isolation in which the various disconnected principalities carried on their existence.  This, notwithstanding the fact that from time to time a successful King may have managed to bring about their transitory amalgamation, which in time disintegrated owing to the fortunes of war, “the caprices of the princes and the indifference of the peasants” (ibid, p 6).

Thus community of economic life, economic cohesion, is one of the characteristic features of a nation” (ibid p5).

In addition to the above-mentioned features of a nation, there is yet another which must be taken into account, to wit, the specific spiritual complexion of the people constituting a nation.  This spiritual complexion manifests itself in the peculiarities of national culture, resultant upon conditions of existence over generations.

This psychological make-up, commonly referred to as the “national character”, in so far as it reveals itself in a distinctive culture common to the nation, for all its indefinability to the observer, is definable and cannot be ignored.

We hasten to add that “national character” is not something fixed forever, but it changes with the changes in the conditions of life.  However, since it exists at every given moment, it leaves its stamp on the physiognomy of the nation.

Thus community of psychological make-up, which manifests itself in a community of culture, is one of the characteristic features of a nation”.

The above, then, are the characteristic features of a nation, which Stalin summarized in his pithy definition cited at the beginning of this section.

None of the above characteristics is by itself sufficient to define a nation, although it is sufficient for a single of these characteristics to be absent and the nation ceases to be a nation.

Nation: a historical phenomenon

Nations have not always existed, nor will they exist forever.  On the contrary a nation is a historical phenomenon and, as such, it is subject to the law of change, has it history, its beginning and end.  More precisely, a nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism.

The process of the destruction of feudalism and the development of capitalism was simultaneously a process of amalgamation of people into nations.  This, for instance, is how the British, French, Germans and some others constituted themselves into nations at the time of the triumphant advance of capitalism and its victory over feudalism.  The formation of nations in these instances at the same time signified their conversion into independent national states – British, French, etc.

What took place in Western Europe earlier (roughly between 1789 and 1871 – earlier still in Britain) took place in Eastern Europe and Asia, where capitalism was late in developing, a century later, i.e., from the turn of the 20th century.  In the East, however, multi-national states were formed, comprising several nationalities as, for instance, in Russia.  In the East, owing to the continued existence of feudalism, hand in hand with the feeble development of capitalism, nationalities which had been forced into the background had not yet managed to consolidate themselves as economically integral nations.  Here the role of welder of nationalities into a state was assumed by the politically most advanced group – the Great-Russians in Russia, the Magyars in Hungary, and so forth.

At long last capitalism also began to develop in the Eastern states, resulting in the economic consolidation of nations.  “Capitalism, erupting into the tranquil life of the ousted nationalities” (p.12), aroused them and stirred them into action, but, although stirred to independent life, the ousted nations were in no position to constitute themselves into independent national states owing to the powerful opposition of the ruling strata of the dominant nations, which had much earlier assumed the control of the state.  They were, so to speak, too late!

The same process is taking place under our very eyes in Africa today, where various politically strong peoples and tribes have taken upon themselves the task of amalgamating various peoples and welding them into nations.  Not all the tribes are destined to emerge from this process as fully-fledged nations.  Some, nay the majority, the weaker ones, are bound to be assimilated by others, the stronger ones.  That is in the very nature of the development of capitalism and the process of nation formation.  And no one but the most sentimental reactionaries will moan at the obliteration of certain tribes as distinct entities.  And in this process of nation-formation, historically the bourgeoisie everywhere plays the leading role.  Nor could it be otherwise, for, as Stalin says: “The chief problem for the young bourgeoisie is the problem of the market.  Its aim is to sell its goods and emerge victorious. … Hence its desire to secure its ‘own’, its ‘home’ market.  The market is the first school in which the bourgeoisie learns its nationalism” (ibid p 13).

In his article, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Lenin makes the same point in the following terms:

Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked with the national movements.  For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, must have politically united territories with a population speaking a single language and all obstacles to the development of this language and to its consolidation in literature must be removed, such is the economic basis of national movements.  Language is the most important means of human intercourse.  Unity of language and its unimpeded development are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commercial intercourse on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of a close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer” (Collected Works (CW) Vol 20, p394, Feb-May 1914).

Lenin was in complete agreement with Stalin and highly, even effusively, appreciative of the latter’s theoretical contribution on the all too important national question. Towards the end of 1913, in his The National Programme of the RSDLP, he stated that there was “no need to dwell” on the question of “why and how the national question” had at the time been brought to the fore as the “fundamentals of a national programme” of the Bolsheviks “have recently been dealt with in Marxist theoretical literature (the most prominent place being taken by Stalin’s article*)” (*‘Marxism and the National Question, written at the end of 1912 and the beginning of 1913 in Vienna and published in the magazine, Prosvesheheniye (Enlightenment), nos. 3, 4, 5 for 1913 under the title ‘The National Question and Social-Democracy’).

Already in February of that year, in his letter to Maxim Gorky, Lenin wrote exuberantly “We have a wonderful Georgian here who has sat down to write a big article for Prosvesheheniye after collecting all the Austrian and other material”.

Soon after, on finding that Stalin’s article was proposed to be published with the sub-heading that it was for discussion only, Lenin expressed his outrage thus: “Of course, we are absolutely against this.  It is a very good article.  The question is a burning issue, and we shall not yield one jot of principle to the Bundist scum”.

Again, when in March 1913 Stalin was arrested, Lenin sent this message to the editors of Sotsial Demokrat: “Arrests among us are very heavy.  Koba [Stalin] has been taken. …He managed to write a long article … on the national question. Good!  We must fight for the truth against separatists and opportunists of the Bund and among the Liquidators”.

In the light of the above Marxist-Leninist theory of modern nations, how and in what historical circumstances do they arise, let us now delve into the question of Scottish nationhood.

Scottish nationhood

Scottish nationalism – of the right and left variety – starts from the assumption that Scotland was a nation from medieval times, if not earlier.  Some even go to the ludicrous extent of tracing the origin of Scotland to the time of the ancient Picts, or the arrival of Scots from Ireland, or MacAlpine kings in the 9th century.  The more intelligent, among the nationalists, while not going to these extremes, assert that Scotland achieved nationhood in high medieval times.  In support of this assertion, they refer to Scotland’s alleged war of independence against the ‘English’, the grandiloquent Declaration of Arbroath (1320), William Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge (1297), the battle of Bannockburn (1314), and the ‘holy trinity of the Kirk, the education system and the law.  Even the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 are pressed into service in this narrative, not for what they really represented, namely a dynastic fight between the deposed Stewarts and the recently ensconced Hanoverians, but as expressions of Scotland’s national resistance against encroaching English colonialism.

John Foster, a leading light of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB) and a well-reputed academic, supplied theoretical embellishment for this historically inaccurate and absurd narrative.  While Marxism-Leninism, as outlined at the beginning of this article, quite correctly associates the rise of nations with the development of capitalism, the ‘Marxist’ historian Foster asserts, in the face of contrary historical evidence, that the Scottish ‘nation’ was almost completely a “feudal creation” (see J Foster, ‘Capitalism and the Scottish Nation’, in G Brown (editor) The red paper on Scotland, Edinburgh 1975, p.142).

The “founding elements” of Scottish law, language and literature, he says, all “stem from the last three centuries of the middle ages” (ibid).

And elsewhere: “Most comrades … agree that by the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries at least four … groupings had fused themselves into a nation that identified itself as Scottish; long before any moves towards modernisation and at a time when Scots society was anything but civil” (J Foster, ‘Nationality, Social Change and Class: Transformations of National Identity in Scotland’, D McCrone, S Kendrick and P Straw (eds), The making of Scotland, culture and social change, Edinburgh University Press/British Sociological Association, Edinburgh, 1989, p.35).

Some of the protagonists of this theory go further, asserting that Scotland was not only a nation prior to the Union of Scotland and England in 1707, but incorporated into England as an oppressed nation – a status which allegedly it has maintained ever since. Not surprisingly, then, in this view Britain and Britishness are disdainfully dismissed as no more than an elitist unity and a fragile imperial construct, behind which lurk real ‘nations’ of England, Wales and Scotland, thirsting to be freed from its suffocating embrace.  The ‘leftist’ version of this trend of thought expresses itself in the form of Scottish socialism or a Scottish workers’ republic.  The Trotskyite Tommy Sheridan of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) went so far as to protest in print against 300 years of Scottish ‘national’ oppression and advocate the cause of Scottish independence.

The falsity of the above nationalist myth was exposed very well indeed by Neil Davidson, in his book The Origins of Scottish Nationalism (Pluto Press, 2000).  Notwithstanding some of its serious shortcomings, which need not delay us here, this book has done more than any other to our knowledge to debunk the nationalist myth and to subject it to well-deserved ridicule and scorn.

There is, however, one question we would like to get out of the way before dealing with the substance of Davidson’s analysis which shows up the nationalist myth for what it is – nothing but hackneyed twaddle.  This question concerns the definition of a nation.

The very first chapter of his book, the “purpose” of which, he says “… is to produce a conceptual framework within which Scottish experience can be discussed”, Davidson fails miserably, revealing himself to be a very poor theoretician.  In his attempt to define a nation, he ties himself in knots.  Definitions of nationhood, he opines, “rely either on objective or subjective criteria”, adding for good measure that there is “… no agreed Marxist position and little help to be gained from Marx or Engels themselves”, for a precise definition of the concept is not to be found in “their writings on the national question” (Davidson, p.8).

Davidson is far too erudite not to know that, in Marxist literature, the precise definition of a nation given by Stalin (cited above) has been accepted as the only scientifically correct definition and as such held sway for a whole century in the international working-class movement.  He also knows fully well that Stalin’s definition met with Lenin’s enthusiastic approval.  Far from being pleased when encountering a precise definition which could serve him in achieving his declared purpose of producing “a conceptual framework” for studying the Scottish experience, Davidson is much irked by this fact.  While admitting that the “most famous definition” of what characterises a nation was “given by Stalin in an article of 1913 called ‘Marxism and the National Question’”, he bemoans the fact that this definition “unfortunately has exerted an influence over the left far in excess of its theoretical merits, which are slight”.

Davidson makes not the slightest attempt to prove the correctness of his assertion that the theoretical merits of Stalin’s definition are merely slight, considering that his definition served as a guide to the Bolshevik programme on the national question, both prior to and following the Great Socialist October Revolution; considering also that the Bolshevik policy on the national question was one of the crucial factors in the victory of the Bolsheviks.  He dismisses Stalin’s definition as “merely an extensive checklist of criteria”, under which, he says, “many nations which are currently recognised as such would be denied the title …” (p8).

In substantiation of this assertion, he has the misfortune to choose the example of Switzerland which fails “the Stalinist criteria on at least two counts: those of language … and religion”, adding that, nevertheless Swiss territory did not change from 1515 to 1803, during which time “the vast majority spoke dialects of German”; only at the “latter date” did Switzerland incorporate Italian speakers, and not until 1815 “did it acquire territories with significant French speaking populations.  The Swiss state was formed in 1815 only and right up to 1848 “it was enforcing religions within the cantons”. In 1891, the Swiss state decided “… that the 600th anniversary of the founding of the original confederation of Schwyz, Obwalden and Nidwalden in 1291 constituted the origin of the Swiss nation”.  Being very pleased with himself, Davidson triumphantly declares: “It should be clear even from this brief account that the Swiss nation exists in the absence of [Davidson’s emphasis] of the elements which are supposed to constitute nationhood, not because of them” (pp8-9).

On the contrary, it is clear that such a Swiss nation, as imagined by Davidson, exists only in Davidson’s head and not in reality.  No Swiss nation has ever existed in the past, nor does it exist today.  It could not have existed in feudal, pre-capitalist, Switzerland, for the rise of nations is inextricably linked with the development of capitalism; nations are formed through the intermingling of sundry tribes, ethnic groups and nationalities, brought about in the wake of capitalist development.  There were at that time diverse groups occupying Swiss territory, which itself underwent changes, but no Swiss nation, for there was no “common economic life” (Stalin) which might, other conditions being present, have given rise to the formation of a Swiss nation.   This being the case, no decision of the Swiss state could have served to constitute a Swiss nation in 1291 anymore than the decision of the British state in 1891 could have constituted an English or British nation in 1291.  If decisions of the state could replace all historical development, all discussion on the subject would be pointless; for it would be ever so easy to conjure into existence all manner of entities which have no historical foundation.

There has not existed a single Swiss nation since 1815 either, for Switzerland is a multinational state, with four languages, which enjoy equal status.  Apart from the economic cohesion consequent upon the development of capitalism what secures this state the loyalty of its citizens and inculcates in them a sense of being Swiss in relation to the non-Swiss, is the degree of democracy that has permeated the Swiss state since 1848.  In the words of Lenin: “… there is only one solution to the national problem (insofar as it can, in general, be solved in the capitalist world, the world of profit, squabbling and exploitation), and that solution is consistent democracy.

The proof – Switzerland in Western Europe, a country with an old culture, and Finland in Eastern Europe, a country with a young culture” (‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, CW Vol 20, p202)[2].

It is clear from the above remarks of Lenin, that he is firmly, and correctly, of the view that the Swiss state was a multinational state, which had been able to solve the national question, to the extent it is capable of a solution under the conditions of capitalism, through the application of consistent democracy.  Had the Swiss state been a nation state, there would self-evidently be no national problem within its borders.

As if not to leave anyone in doubt, a mere two months earlier, in his article ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, arguing against the opportunists on the national question Lenin specifically says this: “to be sure, Switzerland is an exception in that she is not a single-nation state” (Collected Works, Volume 20)

Probably having a sneaking feeling that he was wrong, and in order to cover his theoretical nakedness, Davidson enlists the services of a witness, just as naked theoretically as Davidson himself.  In note 6 of chapter one of his book he drools thus:

It is perhaps appropriate that Leon Trotsky, the man who did most to uphold the classical Marxist tradition against Stalin, also offered an alternative to his checklist procedure using precisely the example of Switzerland:

“… ‘the Swiss people, through their historical connection, feel themselves to be a nation [our emphasis] despite languages and religions.  An abstract criterion is not decisive in this question, far more decisive is the historical consciousness of a group, their feelings, their impulses. But that too is not determined accidently, but rather by the situation and all attendant circumstances [whatever they may be! – Lalkar]’” (p214)

If by citing the above purely subjective nonsense, all in the name of fighting against Stalin’s “checklist procedure” and his purely “objective” criteria for determining nationhood, Davidson may have wanted to bring credit to Trotsky, all he has succeeded in doing is to reveal Trotsky’s total theoretical bankruptcy and his substitution of concrete, solid, historical processes and phenomena by historical consciousness, feelings and impulses of a group.  Since the Swiss, goes the argument, have feelings, etc., they must be a nation.  By this procedure, a lot of non-nation entities, Jews, for example, can claim to be nations, whose claims must be accepted, if for no other reason than they entertain such consciousness, feelings and impulses.  From such a slippery and opportunist stance one quickly rolls down the hill and finds oneself in the swamp of Zionism and the worst kind of bourgeois nationalism.

Besides, before quoting Trotsky so uncritically, Davidson ought to have paid heed to the following words of Lenin in regard to Trotsky: “Trotsky has never yet held a firm opinion on any important question of Marxism.  He always contrives to worm his way into the cracks of any given differences of opinion, and desert one side for the other.  At the moment he is in the company of the Bundists and the Liquidators.  And these gentlemen do not stand on ceremony where the party is concerned”.

These words were written precisely as a time when Trotsky was speculating “on fermenting differences between the Polish and Russian opponents of Liquidationism and to deceive the Russian workers on the question of the programme [especially section 9 dealing with the right of nations to self determination]” (ibid.)

Trotsky had written in the journal Borba that the “… Polish Marxists consider the ‘right to national self-determination’ is entirely devoid of political content and should be deleted from the programme”.

The blatant falsity of Trotsky’s assertion prompted Lenin to respond thus: “the obliging Trotsky is more dangerous than an enemy.  Trotsky could produce no proof, except ‘private conversations’ (i.e. simply gossip, on which Trotsky always subsists), for classifying ‘Polish Marxists’ in general as supporters of every article by Rosa Luxemburg.  Trotsky presented the ‘Polish Marxists’ as people devoid of honour and conscious, incapable of respecting even their own convictions and the programme of their Party.  How obliging Trotsky is!”

Having dismissed Stalin’s definition as purely “objective”, Davidson falls into the morass of pure subjectivism and wriggles like an eel as he labours over “granting national status” to such groups as Zionists, South African white supremacists and Ulster loyalists (p10).  He goes as far as to approvingly reproduce the following purely subjective definition of a nation given by the Zionist philosopher, Ahad Ha’am:

If I feel the spirit of Jewish nationality in my heart so that it stamps all my inward life with its seal, then the spirit of Jewish nationality exists in me; and its existence is not at an end even if all my Jewish contemporaries should cease to feel it in their hearts”.

The meaning of this solipsist absurdity, if it has any meaning, can only be that the worthy Mr Ha’am will constitute a Jewish nation on his own and will be applauded all the way to some lunatic asylum by Davidson.

Having waded through incredible confusion, Davidson says that he would use the word nation “to describe a human community that has acquired national consciousness”.

Contrary to what is written by Stalin and other objectivist theorists of the nation”, asserts Davidson, “there is no underlying reality of nationhood…”   Contrasting a class with a nation, and in an attempt to be profoundly original, Davidson says that while there can be class ‘in itself’, i.e. the working class exists as a matter of fact whether or not its members are conscious of their position as workers, there “can never be a ‘nation in itself’”.  Let Davidson expound his original profundity:

Class consciousness arises through a process of recognising real common interests, a recognition which is only possible as a result of social classes having material reality prior to consciousness.  National consciousness arises through a process of constructing imaginary common interests, a construction which can result in the establishment of a territorial nation state, but only at that point will the nation have a material reality outside of consciousness.  The resulting difference in aspirations may be summed up schematically by saying that a member of a social class may achieve class consciousness (bring their consciousness in line with reality) and a group with national consciousness may achieve statehood (bring reality in line with their consciousness)” (p13) (Davidson’s emphasis).

Such idealist twaddle, according to which nations are the product, not of a long historical process connected with the development of capitalism, but of conjuring up “imaginary common interests”, is worthy of a Bishop Berkeley and not of someone claiming to be a Marxist.  This nonsense stands reality on its head, for it asserts that it is not the material reality of the existence of a nation which produces national consciousness but, on the contrary, it is the national consciousness which brings forth the material reality of nationhood.  Obviously poor Marx laboured in vain for his profound materialist teaching that it is the social being that determines social consciousness, not the social consciousness that determines social being, has had little effect on some of those who profess to follow his teaching.

Having haughtily, and foolishly, dismissed Stalin’s definition as a purely objectivist checklist, he goes on to use exactly the same criteria which characterise Stalin’s definition of a nation, to devastating effect in annihilating the right and left nationalist assertions as to the existence of a Scottish nation prior to the 1707 Union with England.  As an adherent of Trotskyism and loyal member of the Socialist Workers’ Party, an incurably counter-revolutionary Trotskyist organisation, Davidson had willy-nilly to perform this conjuring trick of dismissing in words Stalin’s highly precise and scientific definition, while making use of it on the sly in practice to demolish the absurd claims of bourgeois and ‘left’ Scottish nationalism.  Be that as it may, Davidson has amassed a tremendous amount of empirical evidence to reveal the hollowness of nationalist claims and shown them to be the myths that they are.

The thrust of Davidson’s thesis is that there could not have been, and there was not, a Scottish nation before the 1707 Act of Union.  It is entirely mistaken, he maintains correctly, to attribute to medieval formations, or to entities earlier still, the notions of modern nations.  Although doubtless most states, almost invariably, surround themselves with a mythical narrative, with roots going back to ancient history, all the same it is entirely misplaced to project present-day nations backwards into times long past.


Part of the problem, says Davidson, lies in the long usage connected with the word ‘nation’, whose meanings have changed beyond recognition over nearly two millennia.  In the Vulgate Bible, first produced in the third century, the original Greek ethnos was rendered as the Latin natio.  In the first English versions of the Bible (14th century), natio was translated as nacioun, becoming in turn nation in the authorised version of 1611.  For the authors and translators of the Bible, the word ‘nation’, far from conveying what we understand by the use of this word today, had ethnic and racial connotations, designating ‘gens’ or ‘populus’ with a presumed common biological descent.

Davidson says that “…if the feudal idea of a nation was essentially defined racially, then the feudal idea of race was itself defined linguistically”, adding that it “…was on this basis of common language that the student fraternity in medieval universities was usually, if not exclusively, divided into ‘nations’ from the thirteenth century onwards” (p25).  A similar situation prevailed in the knightly orders, with the Hospitallers in the Levant being grouped into tongues depending on their place of origin in Western Europe.

Thus it is clear that the word ‘nation’, as used in medieval and earlier times, far from being a source of clarity on the subject, has caused much confusion and provided fertile ground for the propagation of nationalist myths.

Declaration of Arbroath

In this context, we cannot avoid referring to the famous Declaration of Arbroath, which has been variously interpreted by some historians as expressing “all the fierce nationalism of the fourteenth century”[3]; the clearest “….statement of Scottish nationalism and patriotism in the fourteenth century” and the finest “… statement of a claim to national independence… produced in this period anywhere in western Europe.”[4]

Far from it.  As Davidson rightly observes, “The sonorous wording of the Declaration is in fact a clear statement of, among other things, the fact that the feudal ruling class still considered themselves to be a nation in a racial rather than the modern sense” (p.48).  This Declaration took the form of a letter from the leading Scottish nobles “and other barons and freeholders and the whole community of the realm of Scotland” to Pope John XXII, asking the latter to intercede with Edward II in the interests of peace between Scotland and England, which had been intermittently at war since 1296.  Probably the contents of the Declaration had been settled at an assembly of nobles at Newbattle Abbey in Midlothian in March 1320, and a final text was prepared and sent by Bernard of Linton, the Chancellor of Scotland and Abbot of Arbroath, dated 6 April.

The preamble to the Declaration is characteristically medieval: it traces the wanderings of the “Scots nation” from “Greater Scythia” to Scotland, celebrates its triumphs over Britons and Picts, and survival from attacks by “Norwegians, Danes and English” (p.49).  As Davidson remarks, those who assert that these statements serve to “prove the existence of a primordial Scottish nation must logically also accept the existence of primordial ‘British’ and ‘Pictish’ nations” (ibid.).

Apart from anything else, the names of Roger Mowbray and Ingram Unafraville, among the signatories, are evocative of a descent from Anglo-Normal settlers invited to settle in Scotland during the reign of David (1124-1153), who themselves descended “…from earlier Viking invaders of what is now France from what is now Norway – a place somewhat removed from Scythia” (p.49).

A key passage in the Declaration runs thus: “Yet if he [Robert the Bruce] shall give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or to the English, we would strive at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and we would make some other man who was able to defend us our king; for, as long as hundred of us remain alive, we will never on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. For we fight not [for] glory, nor riches, nor honours, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up without his life” (quoted in Davidson, p.49).

The above passage has been represented by some as the prototype for modern nationalism.  Some have even gone so far as to assert that this doubtlessly brilliant example of medieval bombast represents “the first national or governmental articulation, in all of Europe, of the principle of the contractual theory of monarchy which lies at the heart of modern constitutionalism.”[5]

In truth, this passage suggests the function of the noble estate “as the defender of the kingdom against the claims of the individual monarch in a way that was entirely typical of absolutist Europe” (p.50).  It is no more than a statement, albeit exceptionally eloquent, of medieval regnal solidarity.  Its message was two-fold.  First, it was directed at Edward II, informing him that it was pointless for him to attempt to depose Robert with a more subservient king, since the remainder of the Scottish aristocracy would not cease its resistance.  Second, it was addressed to Robert, making it clear that they would not brook his jeopardising their interests – which lay in their god-given right to unhindered exploitation of the mass of the peasantry – through making concessions to Edward.  In this sense, the message can rightly be seen as a Scottish version of the Magna Carta, imposed by the barons of England on King John at Runnymede in 1215.

To attribute to the Declaration of Arbroath modern connotations of nationhood is as false as to impart similar meanings to the Magna Carta.  Both these documents should be seen for what they really were – an expression of regnal solidarity by the barons of the respective kingdoms and their determination to hang on to their privileges, against the monarch.  As Davidson correctly points out, to read into the Declaration the notions of a modern nation, not merely obscures its motives but “establishes a false identity” and “confers legitimacy on a key element in nationalist ideology, namely the primordial continuity of ‘the nation’ throughout history”.

Cosmopolitan feudal elite

The kings and the nobility of both kingdoms – England and Scotland – were feudal lords, who did not even understand, let alone entertain, modern-day ideas of nationhood, nor could they.  They were possessed of a culture drawn from the Norman French, who married across the whole of the north-western part of Europe and were, in this sense, cosmopolitan to their fingertips.  To them the very concept of wars of national liberation would have been entirely alien.  Their domains of exploitation, their rivalries and their commonalities invariably coincided.  Norman French was the first language of the Anjou and Plantagenet kings of England, not English. They were also paramount lords in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  They held large tracts in France and derived most of their wealth, surplus produce and their military-political power, from their French, not their English, domains.  In this regard, Henry II can be best viewed as Henri of Angevin.

Long before the 1066 Norman conquest of England, invading Angles had settled along the east coast up to the north and over the Lothian plain, which was for long part of the English kingdom of Northumbria.  The battle of Carham (1018) added the Lothians to Scotland.  It did more than fix the present border between England and Scotland: it determined that Scotland would not be a purely Celtic country and that it’s most fertile and economically promising part would have a language akin to the one spoken in the north of England and open to feudal influences from the south.

After 1066 a feudal baronage grew up closely connected with England and holding large estates in both kingdoms.  For example, Robert Bruce, the Earl of Carrick and a vassal of Edward I, held 90,000 acres of land in Yorkshire, while his rival, John Balliol, held large tracts of land in Normandy and England as well as Scotland.  The kings of England – the Plantagenet and Anjou – held large areas of France – Gascony, Aquitaine and Poitou, inter alia – and regularly laid claims on the French throne.  Members of the nobility from the kingdom of Scotland, for example John Comyn, fought on the side of Edward I in the latter’s conquest of Wales, while the armies of Edward I and II, deployed in the wars in Scotland, which were firmly rooted in feudal, not national rights, were recruited from their feudal realms in France, Wales and Ireland.

Undoubtedly Edward I laid claims to the kingdom of Scotland and sought to include it into his own kingdom.  Edward got his chance with the death in 1286 of Alexander III of Scotland.  By the Treaty of Brigham it was arranged that Edward’s son and heir should marry Margaret of Norway, the heiress to the Scottish throne, thus bringing the two kingdoms together in a personal union, with each side preserving its rights and privileges.  However, the arrangement collapsed with the death of the Maid of Norway at sea, triggering a crisis of succession in Scotland, and Edward I moving fast to achieve his object by other means.  With 13 rival claims to the throne of Scotland, the barons turned to Edward to settle the dispute.  He marched his army to the border, proclaimed himself lord paramount of Scotland, and decided that John Balliol had a better claim than Robert Bruce.  John Balliol was accordingly crowned king and duly paid homage to Edward in 1292.

Contradictions within the feudal elite in Scotland, and harsh demands made by Edward on his vassals, drove John Balliol into revolt, but his forces were roundly defeated at Caddonlee.  Balliol was captured and humiliatingly stripped of his feudal trappings during a ceremony at Montrose Castle in July 1296, with his tabard, hood and knightly girdle physically removed.  Following several shifts of alliances, the feudal elite in Scotland turned the tables on Edward I and then Edward II – at Stirling Bridge (1297) and then at Bannockburn (1314), after winning which battle the nobility of Scotland attempted to expand its influence into Wales and Ireland. Thereafter, the so-called war of independence turned into a mutually ruinous war between the Bruce and Balliol families.

In substance, the conflict between the ruling elites of England and Scotland was not much different from the Wars of the Roses in England, that is, an internecine struggle between competing feudal inter ests whose belief systems were based on the then-prevailing notions of fief and vassalage, not on the present-day notions of nationhood.  The Norman lords in Scotland were engaged in a desperate struggle to defend and safeguard their traditional monopoly to exploit their peasant serfs against the centralising power of Edward I.  Be it said in passing that, at the time under discussion, both England and Scotland were mere geographical entities, with the kings of the former waging wars in Scotland.  Neither entity constituted a nation.

Broadening the discussion out from the Declaration to the time in which it was drafted, participation by the peasantry and urban plebeians in the wars at Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn, says Davidson, is frequently cited, particularly by those on the left, as evidence in the middle ages of national consciousness.  He answers such assertions, first, by pointing out that in fact “mass participation” had no appreciable effect on the outcome of the battle of Bannockburn (1312), although it did at the earlier battle of Stirling Bridge (1297).  Second, he says, it is not at all clear why such participation in itself proves the existence of national consciousness, since popular mobilisations in support of powerful elites “can be traced as far back as the Greek city states”.  There is evidence, says Davidson, that the “community of the realm”, referred to in the Declaration, viewed itself – just like other similar groups across Europe – as a “regnal group based on racial identity”, with little to indicate how those excluded from this community regarded themselves.  He goes on to quote with approval George Kerevan’s following observation:

The notion that illiterate peasants, who lived and died their short brutal lives within a few hundred yards of their village, had a conception of nationalism beyond a gut xenophobia for everyone beyond the village is stretching the imagination” (p.51).[6]

Doubtless there were commonalities in the medieval and earlier periods, none of which were sufficient to constitute the inhabitants of various geographical entities into nations.  Take the ancient Greeks, for example, who spoke the same language, shared a common territory, and a common culture, as against the non-Greeks, but who were far from being economically united.  They waged endless wars against each other. Their mode of existence, characterised by scattered and self-sufficient agriculture, combined with petty manufacture, tribal identity, and the exceptionally poor development of the means of communication, ensured that the Greeks lived in several competing polities.  Notwithstanding myths, propagated in equal measure by Greeks and non-Greeks, the ancient Greeks did not constitute a nation, nor could they, for the objective requirements for the existence of a Greek nation were plainly absent.  And what is true of the ancient Greeks is equally true of medieval Europe.

The defeats of the feudalists of England at Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn, far from furnishing proof of a people’s war on the Scottish side, are an eloquent testimony of feudal arrogance and incompetence on the part of the armies of Edward I (Stirling Bridge) and Edward II (Bannockburn).  For example, at Bannockburn, if Edward II’s armies had made use of the English and Welsh longbowmen, a tactic which soon became accepted practice and which proved its worth against a far more powerful French feudalism, they would have decimated any stationary force.  Instead, fighting on extremely dangerous terrain, they unleashed a frontal cavalry charge against Bruce’s massed pikemen, suffering a humiliating defeat.

As for Stirling Bridge, the assertion that William Wallace led a people’s revolt in a ‘war of national liberation’ against the ‘English’ does not stand up to scrutiny.  Although the imposition by Edward I, following his 1296 victory, of a puppet parliament and his plans for a more intense feudalism aroused widespread resentment and opposition, including on the part of small landowners, no natural leadership, willing an able to take up the fight, emerged, as many aristocrats were incarcerated in England waiting to be ransomed, others were unable to join the fight owing to injuries suffered in 1296, and still some others were temporarily overawed.

It was this vacuum that made for the emergence of Andrew de Moray in the north and William Wallace in the south.  But it must not be forgotten that behind these commanders of “the community of the realm” stood the great noblemen – Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, and James the Stewart, who was Wallace’s lord.  Following Moray’s death as a result of injuries suffered at Stirling Bridge, Wallace came to be Guardian in Scotland, in the name of the “illustrious king” in exile, John Balliol, not the people.  Even if, for the sake of argument, he had become Guardian in the name of the people, it would not be sufficient ground for asserting the existence of a Scottish nation at that time owing to the absence of a number of characteristics of nationhood.

Stirling Bridge was to be the only victory won by Wallace.  In July 1298 his forces were comprehensively destroyed at the Battle of Falkirk by the army of Edward I – this time deploying longbowmen – and his position as Guardian was severely undermined.  With their resistance much weakened, the aristocracy opted for a peace deal, forcing Wallace to resort to tactics of guerrilla warfare and launching raids into northern English Counties.  He was captured near Glasgow in August 1305, carried to London, tried for treason, found guilty and executed.  Long after, he was to furnish the theme for stirring poetry, novels and songs, his name used by working-class and democratic forces in just the same way as the destruction of the mythical Anglo-Saxon liberty under the Norman yoke was used by Levellers and Diggers and many others.  But we must not allow myths, however well-intentioned, to pass for history.  We must not see nations where none exist; and consequently, we must not perceive national liberation struggles where nothing of the sort exists.

The ‘Holy Trinity’

Most historians who hold the view that the Kingdom of Scotland was a nation before the Union with England in 1707 also assert that “it was maintained afterwards through the various institutions preserved in the Treaty, the so-called ‘holy trinity’ of Scottish nationhood” (p.51).  This ‘holy trinity’ is a reference to the Kirk, the education system and the law.  As there was no Scottish nation before 1707, no institutions could have preserved that which did not exist.  To assert otherwise is merely to assume precisely that which must be proved.

Besides, the supporters of the ‘holy trinity’ never explain precisely how, and in what way, this trinity managed to perform the role of ‘preserving’ national identity.  If these institutions really played “the role ascribed to them, then they must have acquired their social significance before 1707”.  However, “… the examples which are often cited as demonstrating their importance are from a later period, particularly in the case of education”, the latter only gaining prominence in Scotland following the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 (p.53).

Davidson is correctly of the view that no Scot, on being asked to define his national identity, has ever responded with a sermon on the beauties of the sheriff system, the merits of Scottish education, and the marvels of Kirk homilies.  He adds that the only groups who identified themselves with, and felt any loyalty to, these institutions “were the cadres who ran the professions, but these men were the most Unionist of all in their politics” (p.54).

Scotland’s status in the light of Marxist theory

Having disposed of the baseless assertions of the existence of a Scottish nation before 1707, we now pass on to the most important question, namely, Scotland’s status – both before and after 1707 – in the light of the Marxist-Leninist theory concerning the formation of modern nations and the indispensable significance of such characteristics as language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up and culture, in the process of nation formation.


Prior to 1707, Davidson says, “Scotland had one of the lowest levels of capitalist development in western Europe” (p.55).[7].  Sir James Stewart, writing in 1767, stated that Scotland could even then be compared to fourteenth century Europe.  Even if Sir James was exaggerating, his remarks would not have been misleading a hundred years previously, according to Davidson.

All the same, the fact remains that immediately preceding 1707, the Scottish economy was organised on feudal lines, with the main source of ruling class income emanating from the surplus produced by the peasantry, under threat or actual use of force, exercised “through the territorial jurisdictions” by the use of which the feudal magnates could bring their tenants to their own courts.  This had two-fold implications.  First, the loyalty of the feudal lords to the Scottish Crown took second place to their own local, particular interests.  It is hardly surprising that one of the important concessions conceded by the English parliament during the treaty negotiations was the inclusion of Article 20 which explicitly retained the heritable jurisdictions which were the bedrock of the power of the Scottish lords over their tenants.

In the absence of peasant revolts, which were not known in Scotland until the mid-17th century, combined with the near-absence of an urban sector, it follows that burghal support for a rural rebellion, had there been one, was missing.  As the peasantry was by and large quiescent, the danger from below which might have compelled the Scottish aristocracy to strengthen the monarchy, instead of exploiting its weakness, never surfaced.  In the absence of the need for an absolutist monarchy to suppress the direct producers, absolutism remained weak, with the result that “the individual lords retained a local weight unparalleled elsewhere in western Europe” (p.58).  Between 1455 and 1662, the Stuarts attempted on no fewer than seven occasions to outlaw the jurisdictions that were the basis of the nobility’s power, but they failed – a failure which speaks eloquently of the balance of power between the Crown and the nobility.

Second, it made for the absence of economic cohesion, that is, an economy connecting all regions within the Kingdom of Scotland.  In the memorable words of Thomas Johnston: “Scotland was not a nation: it was a loose aggregation of small but practically self-supporting communities, and scanty supplies and high prices at Aberdeen may quite well have been coincident with plenty and comparatively low prices in Dundee and Glasgow”.[8]

To use the words of Stalin, “…an internal economic bond which welds the various party of a nation into a single whole”, was characterised by its absence in pre 1707 Scotland.

Local heritable jurisdictions, by which the lords ran their baronies and regalities (which were specifically retained in the Treaty of the Union), this feudal particularism was one of the greatest obstacles to the development of capitalism, the formation of a single market connecting all the regions of the Kingdom, and hence to the formation of a Scottish nation.


Lack of a common language was another factor which stood in the way of the formation of a Scottish nation.  Instead of being united by a common language, the inhabitants of Scotland were divided by language.  In addition to the remaining survivals of Scandinavian in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, the Kingdom was split between the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and the “…vast majority of Scots” who, “even in 1688, spoke what was originally the dialect of English spoken in Northumbria and brought from there to the Lothians and beyond by trade and conquest from the tenth century onwards, long before the border was established” (p.56).  It was the latter (‘Scots’ or ‘Lallans’) that eventually supplanted Gaelic. Scottish literary works of the Renaissance were written in Lallans – a language which was also used at the Royal Court in Edinburgh.  Lallans was just one among many dialects, and it is conceivable that it might have become the Scottish language if the autonomy of the Kingdom had been maintained.  Since that did not happen, Lallans (the dialect spoken in the Lothians and the south-east) simply reverted to being “one among many Scottish dialects, and these in turn became merely several Scottish dialects of English” (p.57).

It is notable, however, that the poets who wrote in Lallans did not regard it as distinct from English.  In The Goldyn Targe, an early 16th century work, William Dunbar “acclaims Chaucer simultaneously as the finest of British authors and as one of the Makars – the contemporary Scottish poets first given this name by Dunbar” (p.57).  Most significantly in this regard, though, is his assumption that they share the same language.

Be that as it may, in the words of Kenneth White: “Nobody in contemporary Scotland speaks consistent Lallans – that is part of our historical linguistic situation.  What we speak is English with local accents and intonations, and sprinkled with elements of Lallans, and indeed of Gaelic, which have come down to us”.[9] White adds: “I can see in this no cause for lamentation, and certainly no justification for trying to write systematically in Lallans, as some literati have done and are still doing” (ibid.).

The process which hindered the emergence of Scots as a distinct language was under way before the 1603 Union of the Crowns and the departure of James VI and his court to London.  Most probably, the use in Scotland of the English vernacular Bible following the Reformation, and of the authorised version after 1611, played a more significant role in frustrating the emergence of Scots as a separate language than the Union itself.  Thus English became “the language of solemnity and abstract thought, of theological and philosophical disputation.”[10]

It is worth nothing that the ‘holy trinity’ is so often invoked by the supporters of Scottish nationalism as the basis for the supposed national continuity precisely because language could not play that role.  In the apt words of A D Smith, “Among the Scots, language long ago ceased to play a differentiating and unifying role, once Lallans had become the language of the lowlands”.[11]

In the course of this historical process, in Scotland as well as in England, English superseded Latin as the language of theology and philosophy and Norman French as the language of administration.  While the majority of the people in both Kingdoms spoke English, they would have equally perceived the emergent ‘Standard English’ as distinct from the everyday English they used at home or in their localities.  Certainly, language “did not hold the lowland Scots and the English apart, nor did it define them as protonations” (p.57).

The Highland/Lowland divide

The Highland/Lowland divide was not merely a function of geography, but also of culture; in the final analysis, it was a reflection of the prevailing social relations marked by the absence of economic cohesion, of an economic bond which could have welded the various parts of Scotland into a single whole.

The Lowlands regarded the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders as culturally inferior and closer to ‘Barbaric’ Ulster, while the Highlanders themselves were riven by internal divisions and rivalries, who thought of themselves as Scots “… only in the sense of being notionally subject to the Scottish crown” (p72).  The word ‘Sassenach’, normally an abusive Scottish term for the English, and derived from the Gaelic word ‘Sasunnach’ for Saxon, was originally applied by the Highlanders to all non-Gaelic speakers, be they Lowlanders or English who were, in the eyes of the Highlanders, indistinguishable and both equally aliens.

The Gaelic-speaking Highlanders were regarded by the Lowlanders, among others, as ‘wild’, ‘untamed’, ‘rude’, ‘savage’, ‘murderous’, ‘thieving’, ‘treacherous’ and plundering hordes; ‘robbers’ given to rapine and lacking in civility; and wretches lacking in honour, friendship and obedience.  To add further insult, their very language – Gaelic – was considered to be a factor contributing to their supposed degradation.  As late as 1736, an anonymous ‘Highland gentleman’, who had doubtless imbibed the Lowland attitudes towards his fellow Highlanders, wrote thus:

Our poor people are from cradles trained up in Barbarity and Ignorance.  Their very language is an everlasting Bar against all Instruction, but the barbarous Customs and Fashions they have from their Forefathers, of which they are most tenacious, and having no other languages, they are confirmed to their miserable Homes”.[12]

Given the status the Makars are given as representing the early modern Scottish nation”, says Davidson, “poems by William Dunbar from the early decades of the sixteenth century like ‘The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie’ contain a level of abuse towards the Highlanders which suggests they were not part of it” (p.65)

The semi-official history of the 1688 revolution, published in 1690, fares no better, characterising the Highlanders in these far from flattering terms:

The Highlanders of Scotland are a sort of wretches that have no other consideration of honour, friendship, obedience, or government, than as, by any alteration of affairs or revolution in the government, they can improve to themselves any opportunity of Robbing and plundering their bordering Neighbours[13]

From the fourteenth century onwards, says Davidson, “the behaviour, language and, in a minority of cases, religion of the Highlanders, led them to being described as ‘Irish’”, particularly, “all the negative characteristics which the Lowland mind identified with the Highlands appeared to be confirmed by the close links which existed between Ulster and the Western Highlands”, the political implication of which connection was made clear during the civil war (p.70).

Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, for their part, thought of themselves as the genuine representatives of the Scottish people, in contrast to the Lowlanders who had abandoned their original linguistic traditions.  This is what Alexander MacDonald, the Highland Jacobite poet, wrote of the Gaelic:

She still survives

and her glory will not be lost

in spite of the deceit

and great ill-will of the Lowlander.

She is the speech of Scotland

and of the Lowlanders themselves,

or our nobles, princes and dukes without exception

(quoted in Davidson, p.73).

Language alone did completely explain the hostility entertained by the Highlanders towards the Sassunachs.  In 1724, this is how George Wade – an Irish man himself – soon after assuming the office as Commander in Chief of the British army in Scotland, tried to explain Highland attitudes towards Lowlanders in a report to George I:

They have still more extensive adherence one to another as Highlanders in opposition to the people who inhabit the Low Countries whom they hold in utmost Contempt, imagining them inferior to themselves in Courage, Resolution, and the use of Arms, and accuse them of being Proud, Avaricious, and Breakers of their Word.  They have also a tradition that the Lowlands were in Ancient Times, the Inheritance of their Ancestors, and therefore believe that they have a right to commit Depredations, wherever it is in their power to put them in Execution” (quoted in Davidson, p.73).

Thus it is clear that the Highlanders fully returned the compliment paid to them by the Lowlanders.

Be that as it may, the Highland economy was extremely backward and the people there had a parochial and isolated existence; by comparison, the economy of the Lowlands, particularly around Edinburgh, being commercially oriented and with close connections to the market in England, was characterised by a certain degree of dynamism.  These two parts of the Kingdom of Scotland stood poles apart.  Far from forming a single entity, they may as well have been two separate countries.  The deep social, economic and cultural chasm that divided the two found its reflection in politics too.  “The name Scotland”, observes Davidson, “concealed the existence of two regions whose inhabitants had been antagonistic to each other for centuries” (p.75), with neither able to accept that the other was Scottish.

The following few lines written in the 1720s – a whole 20 years after the Union, by Edward Burt, an English officer serving in the Highlands, makes abundantly clear the deep chasm that still divided the Highlands and Lowlands:

The Highlands are but little known even to the Inhabitants of the low country of Scotland, for they ever dreaded the Difficulties and Dangers of Travelling among the Mountains; and when some extraordinary occasion has obliged any one of them to make such a Progress, he has, generally speaking, made his Testament before he set out, as though he were entering upon a long and dangerous Sea Voyage, wherein it was very doubtful he should ever return[14]

Lowlanders knew little of the Highlanders, and the little they did was not encouraging.  From the fourteenth century onwards, when the Highlanders were first identified as a distinct group, the Lowlanders had nothing but contempt for them, fearing them as lawless and outside the constraints of state authority, with a different language and religion.

The Lowlanders had far more in common with the English than they had with the Highlanders, and in the minds of the later the first two were seen as Sassunachs.

In the light of the foregoing it would be stretching the imagination to assert that before the 1707 Union with England, or even a few decades following it, the Scots were a nation in the modern scientific meaning of the concept, for they were lacking in a community of language, economic cohesion and psychological make-up reflected in a community of culture.

Bridging the Gap

The hostility between the Highlands and the Lowlands, on the one hand, and the suspicion between England and Scotland, on the other hand, was only heightened by the outbreak of the 1745 counter-revolutionary Jacobite rising, which served to strengthen in popular English thinking the identification of Scotland with feudalism and “gave the already high level of English xenophobia towards the Scots a harder political edge” (p.77).  All Scots came to be seen as Jacobites.

It was precisely to counter such sentiments that an ideological counter-campaign was undertaken by spokesmen of the nascent Scottish bourgeoisies which portrayed the Highlands as “the barbarian Other to Lowland civilisation” (p.77).

This triangular hostility between the Highlanders, Lowlander and the English, which had survived the Union, and had, if anything, been heightened by the Jacobite risings, was nevertheless brought to an end whereby the Lowlanders and the Highlanders began to regard themselves as Scots, and all the three began to consider themselves as Britons.

From the Jacobite rising and the 1746 Battle of Culloden, followed by the army occupation of the glens, the British state emerged militarily victorious over clan society before going on to destroy its feudal social structure.  The pacification of the Highlands brought peace, civic virtue, inward investment, access to a large new market and unprecedented opportunities for commercial profit and advancement to high and profitable positions in the military, political and bureaucratic state apparatus of Britain.  Left to itself, Scotland most probably would have remained stuck under the tyranny of Scottish feudal lords for a much longer period.

Unity with an England that had overthrown absolutism at the cost of so much blood, installed bourgeois liberty, and set upon the path of capitalist development proved irresistibly beneficial to the rising bourgeoisie in Scotland.  Shortly after 1745, Scotland underwent a massive economic boom and an unprecedented industrial revolution.

For the first time, the economic integration between the Lowlands and the Highlands, as well as between Scotland and England, began to become a reality.  The Scottish component, though numerically a small portion of the ruling class, was most keen on this integration taking place.  The rising bourgeois elements in Scotland were at the forefront of these attempts at integration, and the principal advocates of Britishness, for the British state was far more important to them than to their English counterpart.  Scottish capitalist landowners, tobacco and sugar merchants, as well as textile manufacturers; professional groups such as lawyers and Church of Scotland ministers – the two groups that had provided the majority of Enlightenment thinkers and theorists; the Scottish constituent of the British military officer class; and poets and playwrights – all greeted with enthusiasm the new emerging society and were most insistent on being recognised as British.

The suppression of internal reaction and the pacification of the Highlands had opened new and compelling opportunities.  The military and juridical onslaught on the remains of Scottish feudalism saw to it that every landowner was obliged to enter into commercial relations with their tenants; the destruction of the power of the nobility had cleared the path for undreamt of commercial and industrial development in Scotland, in turn laying the ground for the integration of the Scottish and English economies and the construction of a Britishness, which was not simply an extended English nation state into which Scotland was absorbed, but “an entirely new formation, a new nation state with its own attendant national consciousness” (p.80).

Thus, from the second half of the eighteenth century, when all the necessary conditions for the formation of a Scottish nation had emerged, such were the dialectics of history that just at that time the rising Scottish bourgeoisie threw in its lot with the much bigger English bourgeoisie and devoted itself wholeheartedly to the construction of a new British nation state, of which the Scots were an integral and crucial part.

Scotland an oppressed nation?

Scottish nationalists, in addition to claiming that Scotland has been a nation since early medieval times, if not earlier, also assert that Scotland has been an oppressed nation, it being variously declared that since the Union with England in 1707, Scotland has been a victim of English expansionism, English internal colonialism, English imperialism or English cultural imperialism.  The natural corollary of this stance is that Scotland is ruled by an alien power, that there is a Scottish nation and an English nation, but no such thing as a British nation.  That Britain is an artificial construct, or simply an English racket, to imprison Scotland and Wales.  In the eyes of Scottish nationalists, the nation of Scotland languishes in the suffocating embrace of the state and ruling institutions which are English or British waiting for its moment of freedom with the ‘inevitable; break up of Britain.

In this scenario, Scotland is put in the category of heroic nations, such as Algeria, Vietnam, Kenya, Yemen, Congo, India and China – countries that fought for independence against various European colonialist and imperialist powers.  Only through such obviously fraudulent devices, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and their left-wing appendages can see some equivalence in their demand for an independent Scottish state with the national movements of colonial peoples. 

Furthermore, the nationalists make a vain attempt to deny Scotland’s part in the construction of Britishness, or the establishment of a global British empire, which practised slavery on a gargantuan scale, devastated India and exploited and oppressed the vast masses of many countries.  England/Britain did all that, not Scotland, is the national mantra.

Unfortunately”, says Davidson derisively, “mere facts have not deterred” the nationalist writers from confusing the issue by making false claims (p103).  All the same, he marshals an array of facts and irrefutable statistics to knock the bottom out of the nationalist assertions and prove their utter falsity.

Since it is impossible to substantiate the argument that Scotland went through an experience comparable to that undergone by the nations that fell victim to colonialism and imperialism, the more intelligent and cunning of the ideologues and defenders of Scottish nationalism turn for help to the softer and more pliable concepts of ‘internal colonialism’ and ‘cultural imperialism’.

The concept of internal colonialism with regard to Scotland was the brainchild of the American sociologist Michael Hechter, in connection with his study of ‘Celtic’ nationalism on the British Isles.  In this study he divided the UK into two zones – the ‘core’ and the ‘periphery’ – the latter zone (in which he placed Scotland) being marked by economic dependence, a retarded development designed to complement that of the core, specialised export-oriented industrialisation and lower standard of living than in the ‘core’.  “Internal colonialism, therefore arose out of the same systemic needs which later spawned its more notorious overseas cousin”[15]

The implication here clearly is that Scotland’s ‘peripheral’ position is just another version of the process experienced by those nations subjected to colonialist and imperialist domination and exploitation.  In the Hechter narrative, the English state successfully turned Scotland into an internal colony with the Union of Crowns in 1603 – a state of affairs which was continued even after the Parliamentary Union of 1707, when, notwithstanding the formal dissolution of the existing two states (England and Scotland), the ‘core’/’periphery’ relationship was maintained within Britain.

Hechter did point out, however, that of all the ‘peripheral’ nations, Scotland was least amenable to this type “of categorisation” (p92). Although he retreated further still from his original stance, it was too late to prevent his narrative becoming a theoretical underpinning for Scottish nationalism.  For instance, the ‘left’ nationalist James Young has made this ludicrous statement “Scottish society [was] pushed into a subordinate role [as] a victim of ‘internal colonialism’ with an economy peripheral to the core of British capitalism, and with institutions dominated by the ‘conquering metropolitan elite’[16]

Davidson demolishes the Hechter-based nationalist narrative by empirically reviewing the progress of three leading non-agricultural sectors of the Scottish economy in the eighteenth century – coal, linen and tobacco.  

The output in the coal industry in the 18th century rose as much as eight or ten times, a rate nearly double that for Britain as a whole.  And, be it noted, this industry continued to use the most advanced forms of technology.

Linen production increased four-fold between 1730 and 1775, with the majority of this output being for sale in the English or colonial markets, the scale of the latter was hidden by the circumstance that perhaps half of the linen exported from England was in fact of Scottish origin.  After 1747, the share of Scottish manufactured linen exported from Britain rarely dropped below 20%-30 %, and on occasion reached 35%-40%.  Since these figures relate exclusively to linen which qualified for a ‘bounty’, the total might have exceeded 50% if other linen be taken into account.[17]

Tobacco was the most successful Scottish import, and this rose, in just three decades, more than six-fold from 8 million lb in 1741 to a peak of 47 million lb in 1771.  By the early 1760s, Scottish overseas tobacco trade accounted for 40 per cent of British imports.  These figures have a particular significance since, of all the sectors of the Scottish economy, tobacco received the most stimulus from access to the previously restricted English domestic and overseas markets after the Union of 1707. Without the Union it is inconceivable that Scottish tobacco imports would have reached the heights they did in the middle decades of the eighteenth century.

Thus, far from revealing retarded and peripheral characteristics, Scotland stood ahead in terms of technique, per capita production and capital accumulation.  Only in the absence of English coal, linen and tobacco industries, which was not the case, would the idea of ‘complementary’ development have any bearing on Scotland.

From the early years of the industrial revolution, Scotland achieved outstanding performance in the principal exporting trades, with early successes in tobacco, cotton and jute being surpassed by heavy industrial goods – pig iron, steel, railway locomotives and shipbuilding.  Shipbuilders on the Clyde alone produced 70 per cent of all British iron tonnage between 1850 and 1870; in the latter year they employed 20,000 out of a British workforce of 47,500 in that industry.  Until the Second World War, Glasgow was the biggest exporter of steam locomotives in the world.

By the end of the nineteenth century”, says Davidson, “the proportion of Scots employed in primary industry was one third higher than in England and Wales, and 11 per cent higher in heavy industry”.

He continues thus: “Had Scotland been an independent centre of capital accumulation, it could be said to have ‘caught up and overtaken’ its one-time English rival by, at the latest, the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.  By that date there were no longer ‘Scottish’ and ‘English’ economies separate from that of Britain, except in the geographical sense which allows us to talk about the ‘southeast of England’ or ‘the Midlands’ as distinct economic regions.  Nevertheless, abstracting ‘Scotland’ as an economic unit from Britain  as whole, these figures clearly indicate that, far from being ‘peripheral’ to the British economy, Scotland – or more precisely, the Lowlands – lay at its core” (p94).

The Scottish success in the field of trade and industry was replicated in other fields, ranging from the professions to politics and the army.

Qualified Scottish physicians moved to England in great numbers, “Without either graduating from Oxford or becoming Anglicans – both obligatory for English physicians” (p94).  Before the mid-eighteenth century, anyone in Britain desirous of taking up the medical profession was obliged to go to Europe for training, often in Leiden or Paris.  The first important medical faculty in Britain was established in Edinburgh after 1750; by the end of the century it had become the most important institution for medical training in all of Britain.  Subsequently, a further medical school was opened at Glasgow.  During the first half of the 19th century, the majority of the British medical practitioners would have received at least part of their education in Scotland.

Turning to politics, there was a marked increase in participation by Scots in political life, especially outside Scotland.  Whereas between 1747 and 1753 only 8 of the 45 Scottish MPs had paid state office, by 1780 the number had risen to 23 or over half.  In addition there is the striking phenomenon of more than 60 Scots being elected as MPs between 1754 and 1790 from constituencies outside of Scotland, while during the same period no English or Welsh MPs represented Scottish constituencies.  Between 1790 and 1820 the number of Scots sitting for seats in England and Wales had risen to 130.  Campbell Bannerman, Asquith and Bonar Law, hailing from the Scottish legal, banking and commercial dynasties, stood at the apex of the British political establishment for nearly the first two decades of the twentieth century – holding the office of prime minister.  In more recent times, of the 23 Cabinet portfolios allotted following the General Election of 1st May 1997, six were held by Scots, including those of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Lord Chancellor.

Having furnished the above details, Davison approvingly cites the following commendably restrained remark of Keith Webb!  “It is unusual for a colonial nation to provide the political leaders for the colonising nation”[18]

Cultural imperialism

Even while accepting the above facts, it is still possible to cling to the belief that Scotland is the victim of English colonialism.  The key to this antinomy lies in the notion of cultural imperialism.  As proof of Scottish subjection, some nationalist writers refer to the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment and their desire to assimilate Scottish to English history.

It was not the crude type of colonial relationship that English capitalism was imposing on large parts of Africa and Asia”, says the left national James Young, adding that “… the very subtlety of the mediating role of the indigenous elite of the agrarian capitalists, merchants and intellectuals in assisting the English to impose cultural imperialism on the Scottish populace has obscured its importance in dictating cultural, political and economic developments …”[19]

Davidson cites a host of Scottish nationalists, who give their backing to such claims, and draws parallels between the cultural “inferiority” experienced by Scotland and the colonised “third world”. Even the denial of British/English “cultural imperialism” by any Scot provokes the accusation that the latter has become assimilated – ‘assimilado’ to use a Portuguese term for a native who, in addition to adopting the Portuguese language and culture, adopted too the Portuguese contempt for his native culture.  Most preposterously, Pat Kane has attempted to draw inspiration from black people’s struggle in the US against centuries of brutality and racism for the Scottish nationalist project, for “… both projects serve the same nationalistic ends; the broadening of one’s national community into its true complex of history out of the hands of the wilful mystifiers”.[20]

Having quoted from the writings of various nationalists, Davidson says: “In all of these extracts it is through the domain of culture that analogies with classical imperialism, impossible to sustain frontally, are readmitted through the back door, so to speak” (p97).

Davidson successfully counters the above nationalist nonsense by demonstrating that the Scottish intellectuals played a preponderant role in the construction of Britishness.  Adam Smith elaborated an economic theory that served as a framework for Britain’s destiny as a capitalist nation; David Hume and Sir James Mackintosh laid the foundations for a modern English history; James Mill, in his History of British India, mapped out Britain’s future as an imperial power legislating for the entire humanity; Sir Walter Scott who provided the English with the artistic expression of their national myth: that of the Saxon race indomitably struggling against Norman yoke and the eventual reconciliation between the two ‘races’; Thomas Carlyle extended and developed this into a philosophy of the English character and a critique of industrialisation; and Macaulay, the one single writer whose view of England was more influential than that of Carlyle, though not a Scot himself, was deeply influenced by the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment.

These Scots were not, nor did they regard themselves as, agents of cultural imperialism.  The very notion that they were culturally inferior would have been laughable to them, for they were the architects of the new British identity.  In the words of Cairns Craig: “As England was being transformed by the construction of a new British identity which had significant Scottish components – to which the likes of Hume were prime contributors – so Scotland was transformed by English elements of that same British identity”.[21] Thus, if England influenced Scottishness, as it certainly did, Scotland for its part played a crucial role in the transformation of England by helping to remould it as an integral part of the new British nation.

James Watt, the famous inventor and one of the most important non-literary enlightenment figures, who was proud of being a Scot, nevertheless turned down the invitation from Catherine the Great, asking him to move to Russia, by saying that he could never leave his own nation which was Great Britain.  “Scots like Watt”, aptly observed Linda Colley, “do not seem to have regarded themselves as stooges of English cultural hegemony.  Far from succumbing helplessly to an alien identity imposed by others, in moving south they helped construct what being British was all about.[22]

In the light of the above facts, the proposition that Scotland was an ‘internal colony’ of England or a victim of English ‘cultural imperialism’ rings hollow and devoid of all substance.


Davidson concedes that the term ‘colony’ might legitimately be used in the case of the Highlands.  He does though go on to ask penetratingly: “But who were the colonists?” (p102).

In dealing with this question, Scottish nationalists, not only conflate the experience of the majority of Scots with that of the Highlanders, but also “… shift the attention from class divisions within Scotland, on to a supposedly external national oppression” (p104).

All the same, the claims of the nationalist ideologues are unsustainable.  Davidson alludes to historical evidence to demonstrate that Culloden was not a defeat inflicted on the Scots by the English, nor was the following persecution carried out by the English – the assertions to the contrary by the ideologues of Scottish nationalism notwithstanding.  Nationalist assertions merely serve to blur the national, social and class content of the struggle.

The 1746 Battle of Culloden, saw the rout of the Stewart dynasty and the destruction of Highland clan society by the combined forces of Lowland Scots, German and English regiments paid for by the British state.  During the military occupation of the glens following Culloden, in “…almost every instance it was the Lowland Scottish officers, rather than their English counterparts”, who committed the worst atrocities (p104).

As regards the clearances, with one solitary exception (that of the Duke of Sutherland), those responsible were not only Scottish but Highland Scotts.  The clearances were carried out “… at the behest of Scottish landowners, organised by their Scottish factors and, where necessary, enforced by Scottish police or Scottish regiments” (p105).  In other words, the Highland peasantry was mercilessly ejected from the land by their ‘own’ lairds and sent packing to the Americas in the interests of “indigenous” capitalist accumulation (p106).

It is worth stressing that Britishness offered alluring opportunities for betterment to the Highland gentry and, for this reason, they turned their back on the Highland society and traditions willingly.

The Highlands peasantry suffered terrible oppression, but in essence the clearances were no different from the forcible eviction of the English peasants through the enclosures carried out 400 years earlier in England, or similar suffering of the peasants across Europe in the transition to capitalism.  The eviction of Highlands peasantry can no more be described as colonial oppression any more than can the eviction of the English or European peasantry.

In turn, the Highlanders evicted by their lairds from the land, and forced to emigrate to America, soon began to assume a colonial role in their new homelands.  “The native Americans”, says Davidson, “to whom the Highlanders were so frequently and inaccurately compared, might have expected different treatment at their hands than was generally dispensed by settlers from elsewhere in the British Isles.  Alas, this was not the case” (p105).

As a matter of fact they had no scruples about displacing the native inhabitants “from territories the latter had occupied for much longer than there had been Gaelic-speaking Scots in Scotland[23]

The Highlanders, forced off their land by an indigenous capitalism, proceeded to establish their own control over the inhabitants of another land, in the interests of the same capitalist class. “There is tragedy enough here, surely, without inventing a wholly fictitious colonisation of the Scots, either by the English or themselves” (p106).

A junior partner?

Far from being a victim of any form of colonialism or imperialism, Scotland was, as an integral part of the British state, a significant component of it.  Reality has forced some of the ideologues of nationalism to largely abandon the view of Scotland as an English colony for one which portrays it to be a successful “junior partner” in the larger enterprise of British colonialism and imperialism.  Apart from distracting attention from the unity of the British state and supporting suggestions that elements of the Scottish state survived the 1707 events to operate externally in partnership with England, the notion of Scots as ‘junior partners’ with England flies in the face of facts.  Since in many cases the Scots were in the senior position, the purpose behind the “junior partner” thesis can only be to shirk responsibility.  Scots were crucial to conquering and running the empire.

After the liberation of the American colonies in 1783, the greatest opportunities for the relatively impoverished Lowland landowners – at any rate their younger sons – were to be found in India.

By the mid-eighteenth century 60 per cent of British imports normally came from India.  A small number of merchant agencies controlled this trade.  At their peak, in 1803, of the 23 agencies based in Calcutta, the six most important were dominated by Scots.  And, in Bombay, where trade was controlled by an even fewer number of privileged agencies, there were just five of them, of which at least three were Scottish, exercising a degree of political power beyond the reach of their Calcutta counterparts – in no small measure because of their willingness and ability to make funds available to the East India Company in times of crisis.  In 1772, one in nine of the Company’s civil servants, one in eleven of its soldiers, and, one in three of its officers, were Scots.  The most important economic significance of the Scottish presence in India was the investment in Scotland of the vast amounts of wealth accumulated by them upon their return home.

India had an impact upon eighteenth-century Scotland out of proportion to the number of Scots who went there”, according to one historian.[24]

One might as well say”, adds Davidson, “that Scotland had an impact on India out of all proportion to the number of Scots who went there, although this is an impact the Indians might well have done without”.  Davidson then goes on to reproduce the following description of Britain’s rule in the subcontinent of India by James Callender, a radical Scot active during the 1780s and 1790s:

In Bengal only, we destroyed and expelled within the short period of six years, no less than five millions of industrious and harmless people; and as we have been sovereigns in that country for about thirty-five years, it may be reasonably computed that we have strewn the plains of Indostan with fifteen or twenty millions of carcasses. … The persons positively destroyed must, in whole, have exceeded twenty millions …. These victims have been sacrificed to the balance of power, and the balance of trade, the honour of the British flag …”[25]

Whatever the ideologues of Scottish nationalism may say, it was not ‘English capitalism’ which was responsible for the bleaching of the bones of countless Bengalis in the sun, but British capitalism, of which the Scots were an integral part and in which they played a leading role.  On top of being at the forefront of colonial expansion, the capitalist class in Scotland played a leading role in the export of capital – one of the characteristics of monopoly capitalism.

At the turn of the 19th century, says Davidson, “the Scottish bourgeoisie could legitimately have cried: yesterday, America; today, India; tomorrow, the world.  By 1858, with ‘Pax Britannica’ – or perhaps one should say ‘Pax Caledonia’ – at its height, Williams Burns, a tireless campaigner against real and imagined English slights to Scotland, compiled a comprehensive account of how much the Empire owed to his native land:

“‘Allow us to ask. What portion of our present colonial possessions belonged to England prior to her union with Scotland?  We know of none, except one or two West Indian islands – very profitable appendages they are! – and some narrow strips on the sea-board of Hindustan.  Our Indian empire has risen under the joint energies of Scot, Irishman and Englishman; as the names of such men as Munro, Malcolm, Wellington, Dundas, Stewart, Burness, Napier, Dalhousie, and the recorded exploits of Scottish soldiers assure us.  Australia, New Zealand, the Cape, Malta, Gibraltar, our Chinese establishments, are all in the same position.  The remark, however, applies particularly to Canada, Nova Scotia, and our other North American possessions.  Canada was conquered by Scotsmen; Scotsmen were the pioneers of all our operations, and now form the staple of society in that great country’”(p111)[26]


Now what about Britishness and a British nation?  How did it come about?  Linda Colley has argued that Britishness was constructed between 1707 and 1837 from four interconnected elements.  First, popular mobilisation by the British state in its recurrent wars with France; second, the identification of France as the Catholic ‘other’ as opposed to British Protestantism; third, the monarchy, esteem for which welded the other elements into a basically conservative national identity; and finally, the Empire.

Davidson disagrees with Colley saying that these factors were actually “either obstacles to the construction of Britishness (Protestantism) or the cause of political divisions within an already existing national framework (counter-revolutionary Francophobia, Monarchism)”, even though he adds “the latter two factors were clearly important in making the dominant strain in British nationalism a reactionary one after 1789” (p89).  Empire, he agrees, certainly played an important part in the process of the construction of a common British nation.

Whatever role these factors played, in our view the most important factor was the phenomenal commercial and industrial development that Scotland underwent following the defeat of the counter-revolutionary Jacobite risings and the resultant destruction of the fabric of feudal society in the Highlands of Scotland, followed by the industrial revolution in England and Scotland experienced from the final two decades of the eighteenth century.  In the case of Scotland, these developments were truly phenomenal as she was transformed from being a self-sufficient peasant economy to one characterised by capitalist industrialisation within a time frame of three to four decades, whereas development of capitalism had been going on in England for a very long time.  These developments had the effect, on the one hand, of integrating the economy within Scotland, bringing the Highlands into the maelstrom of modern economic development, and bringing the Highlands and Lowlands closer, and on the other hand of creating an integrated British economy embracing England and Scotland.  This, the most important factor, underpinned all others, including participation in the Empire, and provided the material requisites for the creation of a British nation – one with a common language, a common economy, a common territory, a common psychological make-up. Britain, in sum, is not an artificial construct or some casual or ephemeral conglomeration, but a stable and historically constituted community of people.

Once the material basis for the formation of a British nation was in place, the consciousness of this reality increasingly began to be reflected at all levels and in various spheres of life, giving rise to what can be described as a genuine British consciousness.  Our main difference with Davidson on this question is that he quite often incorrectly imputes the existence of the British nation to consciousness, rather than the other way around, namely, explaining British consciousness as arising from the construction and reality of the existence of the British nation although, it must be said, in practice he frequently departs from his wrong theoretical framework.

With the defeat of the Jacobites, and seeing the writing on the wall, the Scottish aristocrats and the traditional elite quickly went over to commercial agriculture and jettisoned Jacobitism for loyalty to the Hanoverian monarchy without much difficulty.  Soon the Highlanders were to become the super-loyal phalanx of British – not English – colonialism.

The unprecedented industrial growth in the late 18th and early nineteenth century, which has been aptly called the Industrial Revolution; an astounding increase in capital accumulation; joint colonisation, exploitation and administration of what was to become a vast British empire; commercial and colonial wars with France, with the entire globe as their theatre – all these served to form a British nation and, with it, a genuinely British consciousness.  In the construction of the British nation, Scotland played a crucial role and was an integral part of it.

Through their participation in industrialisation, the British market, the British overseas expansion and the British state machine, Scottish aristocrats, capitalists and professionals prospered beyond their dreams.  Scots were disproportionately represented in top posts in British politics, the civil service and the armed forces.  Glasgow became on of the principal industrial cities of Britain. 

Edinburgh rose to banking prominence, second in importance only to the City of London.

Fictitious Highland culture

Once the Highlanders had been defeated and switched their loyalty away from Jacobitism, as feudal clan society faded, as the Highlands stopped being the bandit country they had been, as loyalty to the Jacobite cause became a forlorn memory and made way for mass recruitment of Highlands regiments into the army, as Gaelic was superseded by English as the principal language of the Highlanders, Lowlanders, for once felt safe and confident to accept, adapt and rejoice in a fictitious Highlands culture, conjured into existence through the efforts of poets and writers – most notably Sir Walter Scott.  This inauthentic Highlandism became the prototype for a supposedly original and common Scottish culture, now closely harnessed to the interests of, and in the service of, British capitalism.  Highlandism, from being something to be “disavowed as a source of shame”, was transformed into something that was “a source of pride” (p129).  Its accoutrement – the plaid, bagpipes and an allegedly ancient, though patently forged Ossianic literature, and other paraphernalia, such as kilts, bonnets and differentiated tartans – were absorbed into an emergent Scottish culture.  The fact that tartanry, earlier on a symbol of the Stuart dynasty and its supporters, was incorporated into the uniform of Highlands regiments, ensured its survival.  Differentiated clan tartans did not originate in antiquity; they were introduced to differentiate different regiments and only afterwards adopted by the clans that spawned them.  The kilt, said Trevor Roper, having been invented by an English Quaker industrialist to bring the Highlanders “out of heather and into the factory”,[27] was “saved from extinction by an English Imperialist statesman [i.e. Pitt the Elder]”.[28] In due course, it spread to all parts of the empire, and wherever the Scots or their descendants settled.

The first to suggest that the kilt had been the traditional dress of the Highlanders was Sir Walter Scott, interestingly in an article in 1805 in which he disputed the authenticity of the Ossianic poems.  He was also the person who stage-managed the ceremonial surrounding George IV’s state visit of August 1822 to Edinburgh, with the King clad in a tartan kilt, greeted by the gathered Highland landowners (whom Scott insisted on calling ‘chiefs’) and the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, while Scott was fully aware of the historical falsity of the undertaking.  Tartanry was simply being used as an embellishment of British imperialism.   The King had sought to show his respect for the customs, which had purportedly prevailed in Scotland before the Union, by wearing what, in the words of Macaulay, “was considered by nine Scotchmen out of ten as the dress of a thief”.[29]

The point, however, is that it had ceased to be so.  Although Sir Walter has been given the credit for welding together the Highlanders and Lowlanders, the truth is that actual developments, as remarked earlier, were driving the two regions of Scotland into fusion.  What Sir Walter did was to give them a literary and artistic, not to say a romantic, expression.  He was not alone in this regard.  There were several institutions engaged in the Celtification of Scotland.  This Celtification added momentum to the forces which were in any case serving to unite the Highlands and Lowlands. 

In the words of one writer: “The kitsch Gaeldom of the nineteenth century would conveniently obscure the sacrifice of the Highland peasantry on the altars of political economy”.[30]In fact, tartanry attained its dominance at precisely the moment in which the existing Gaelic culture was being destroyed” (p139)

Whereas previously Highland clan society had been associated with ‘barbarism’, after the publication of the Ossianic poems by James McPherson it was perceived as not only characterised by backwardness, but also by qualities of nobility and bravery.  MacPherson, as the one who had rescued this world from oblivion, had to be defended – and was defended.  Adam Smith was practically the only one who declined to endorse the revised view of the clans that his colleagues were busy putting forward, saying that they were only sentimentalising the harsh reality of social relations embodied within clan society.

The contradiction between a realistic historical assessment of Scottish feudal society and hankering after a mythical romantic past allegedly representing Scottishness, was only resolved rather late in the post-revolutionary period.  Sir Walter Scott was the foremost figure in this endeavour.  While being aware of the historical inaccuracies of the Ossianic poems, he was not entirely dismissive of them, saying:

“… while we are compelled to renounce the pleasing idea, ‘that Fingal lived and that Ossian sung’, our national vanity may be equally flattered by the fact that a remote, and almost barbarous corner of Scotland, produced … a bard, capable not only of making an enthusiastic impression on every mind susceptible to beauty, but giving a new tone to poetry throughout Europe[31]

One historian has said that Scott was a ‘valedictory realist’. While his valediction is conferred upon a heroic but defeated feudal past, his realism compels him to the conclusion that it would be sheer madness, even if it were feasible, to set that past in opposition to the unheroic but commercially and industrially successful present.[32]

Scott was, though, engaged in using his perception of the Scottish past to create a myth, whereby the virtues of the Highland society could be recognised retrospectively, if only for the purposes of pressing them into service of the British state.  He thus supplied the ideological connection “between the deeds of the Highland soldiers and those of their clan ancestors” (p133).

The fictitious world of the Scottish past, imagined by MacPherson in the Ossianic poems, then by Scott in his poetry and novels, gained much of its conviction, first, from the spread of mass tourism to the Highlands, aptly described as ‘Ossianic touring’ by one writer, and, second, from its former inhabitants who were increasingly the backbone of the British army.

Doubtless, from time to time, middle class Scots harboured grievances about their position within the Union, but they realised only too well the advantages of the Union and the solid reality underpinning it.  Equally, some of them occasionally harked back nostalgically to a mythical Scottish past – a past gone for ever.  Sir Walter Scott gave literary expression to this dual consciousness by showing them how to focus “their confused national emotions upon inessentials.  By validating the making of a fuss about nothing, Scott gave to middle class Scotsmen … an ideology – of noisy inaction.” (pp184-186)[33]

Although Scott had internalised the Scottish enlightenment theory of historical change, and given it artistic expression in his novels, all the same “he can be more usefully seen as the literary representative of the class of improving landowners, who were being replaced in the Scottish class structure by the manufacturers, who brought factories and workers in their wake.  He admires both Union and Empire, but is unwilling to pay the price in the transformation of the Scottish social structure” (ibid, p 163).  Hence his constant fretting over the possibility of armed insurrections during the great working-class demonstrations of 1819.  His ideal is stability through a combination of enterprise, authority, common sense, and paternalist responsibility.

With the advent of industrialisation, this was a forlorn hope, for the bourgeoisie had “… pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘national superiors’, and … left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’, … drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervours, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculations”.  It had resolved “personal worth into exchange”, and “for exploitation, veiled by religion and political illusions”, it had “substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” (pp33-34)[34]

Scott was only too well aware of it, even if he did not quite enjoy the spectacle of masses of wage labourers increasingly getting organised, and increasingly becoming class-conscious, in response to brutal exploitation and the conditions of squalor in which they lived.  Scott understood the significance of the class conflicts which erupted after the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.  It was not merely the middle class that he hoped to imbue with an ideology of “noisy inaction”.  He also clearly saw the usefulness of Scottish national identity to be administered to an increasingly restless proletariat.  Scott was passionately keen to press into service his version of Scottish national identity precisely to prevent class divisions and class consciousness from becoming a dominant feature of the working-class movement; in this context, the Royal visit of 1822, so spectacularly stage-managed by him, was a fairly successful attempt.

Davidson is surely right to observe that “… the major contribution made by Scottishness to the events of the radical years was a component, not, as is so often claimed, of working-class militancy, but of the ideology of a counter-revolution.  In a letter [written in 1826], Scott suggested that only the retention of the Scottish identity prevented Scottish people, or at least their lower orders, from becoming ‘damned mischievous Englishmen’” (p199).

It is a matter of great pride for the British working class that Scottish workers, ignoring Scott’s advice, and overpowering “proud feelings” about their own romantic past, were to become militant class fighters and “formidable revolutionists” in 1820.

A number of nationalist historians have asserted that Britishness was a primary and permanent identity only for the tiny minority at the top: the aristocracy and the upper rungs of the gentry, who alone periodically intermingled in their London houses, intermarried, and sent their sons to posh English schools; that occupationally this group belonged to the officer corps, high officials of the East India Company, as well as diplomatic representatives of British missions abroad.  These historians go on to add that after the 1707 Union, Scottish identity was largely maintained by the lower orders of Scottish society.

In view of the following, such an assertion is devoid of substance.  Between 1746 and 1820, Scotland witnessed an industrial transformation unprecedented in European history, the scale of which would not be repeated until the world historic industrialisation of the Soviet Union from 1929 onwards.  “Scotland packed into about thirty years of crowded development from 1750 to 1780 the economic growth that in England had spread itself over two centuries.[35]  Consequent upon this “Scottish Great Leap Forward[36], the Scottish economy grew in a remarkably short time to equal and even to exceed temporarily that of England.  As a result there was created a single British economy.

This transformation was, to repeat, only made possible by the suppression of the 1745 insurrection and, following it, the destruction of the patriarchal power of the Highland chiefs, the abolition of heritable jurisdictions, and the elimination of the Jacobite party, which had long boasted as the proud guardians of Scottish manners and customs.  The resulting influx of wealth, the expansion of trade, and the advent of industrialisation, transformed the people of Scotland by 1805 into a class of beings as different from their forefathers, as were their English counterparts from those of Elizabethan times.

Though a late starter, by 1820 Scotland’s mills employed a huge 78,000 weavers, who came from the Highlands, Ireland and rural Lowlands in that order.  By 1850, with the sole exception of England and Wales, Scotland had become the most urbanised place in the whole of Western Europe – Glasgow being the second city of the Empire.

With industrialisation came the proletarianisation and, with it the slums of Glasgow and its satellite towns, in which a mass of humanity lived in intolerable conditions of squalor, poor sanitation and frequent outbreaks of epidemics.  This combustible human material was confronted by an unreformed British state in Scotland, totally unresponsive to the needs and demands of the working class, possessed of the most narrow oligarchical franchise, and with governmental power monopolised by members of the aristocracy and its party – the Tory Party – to the exclusion of the Whigs.  There was no freedom of the press, and no political activity, which was not friendly to the existing power structure, was allowed.

The condition of the working class assumed unbearable dimensions following the British victory in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, which concluded 20 years of counter-revolutionary war against France.  The result was a collapse in the demand for armaments and ammunitions and the resultant unemployment, exacerbated by demobilisation of soldiers and renewed immigration from the north of Ireland.  Further, the abolition of income tax meant the transfer of taxes on to essential consumer items such as salt and soap, which hit working-class pockets – the hardest his being the handloom weavers.

This post-war crisis drew the mass of the workers for the first time into the movement for political reform, hitherto the preserve of the petty bourgeoisie and a sprinkling of the dissident members of the bourgeoisie.  The most important demands of this movement, for franchise for working men and annual parliaments, met with contempt on the part of the ruling class.  As a result, on 1st April 1820, a group describing itself as the Committee of Organisation for Forming a Provisional Government, called for a general strike and rising in support of these demands.  The response was nothing short of dramatic, with 60,000 workers striking along the Clyde valley.

At no time in the history of the radical movement between 1792 and 1820”, says Davidson “was Scottish nationalism the predominant political ideology”.

He is able to substantiate this statement by reference to the slogans, proclamations, oaths and actions of this militant movement.  He alludes to the United Scotsmen’s oath, which called upon prospective members to swear that they would persevere in endeavouring “to form a brotherhood of affection amongst Britons of every description and to obtain an equal, full and adequate Representation of all the People of Great Britain”.

Virtually the same formulation finds its way into the oath of one of the secret societies which surfaced in 1815.

It is undeniable that from time to time Scottish radicals dug into Scottish history for inspiration, however this search for revolutionary ancestors was not motivated by sentiments of Scottish separatism, but by an inclination to locate and emphasise every incident or occurrence, whether recent or ancient, that epitomised, and was evocative of, resistance to established authority.

Thus it was not uncommon at working-class demonstration to see banners bearing the names of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, side by side with those invoking the Magna Carta and the rights of Britons, to the accompaniment of the singing of ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia’, incidentally written by the Scottish James Thomson.

Scottish radicals were just as well occupied with the events in England.  On 11 September 1819, a meeting to demand reform was held in Meikleriggs Muir near Paisley.  The participants marched in military style to the venue of the meeting with slogans, accompanied by a brass band.  The most popular song on the march was Burns’ ‘Scots Wha Ha’e’. The flags were edged with black crepe, the platform was draped over with black cloth, most of the speakers were clothed in apparel reserved for funerals, all in token of mourning for those who had been slaughtered in the ‘Battle of Peterloo’.  At the end, a collection was taken for the widows and orphans of the victims on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester.

The most striking example of Britishness, however, is furnished by the General Strike of April 1820.  The proclamation which heralded the strike was addressed to “the inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland”, evoking “those rights consecrated to them by the MAGNA CHARTA and the BILL OF RIGHTS”.  The General Strike call announced that the workers in Scotland had joined the workers in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Cardiff in forming a united working class that was British.  The aim of this insurrectionary movement was to overthrow the government on each side of the border.

The adoption of English radical images in Scotland was reciprocated by the adoption of Scottish radical images in England, with the appropriation of ‘Scots Wha Hae Wi’ Wallace Bled’ as a rallying cry for liberty in Lancashire cotton mills.

British consciousness became dominant among Scottish people following the industrialisation and urbanisation of the Lowlands, especially the industrial west, which became identified with Scotland as a whole through the influx of immigrants from the Highland and Ireland.  Not only did these developments unite the Lowlands and Highlands, welding them into a single whole, they also served to make Scotland indistinguishable from England.  By 1815, there were no separate English and Scottish economies, but a single British economy, which accelerated the process, already under way since the suppression of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, of the formation of a single British nation. 

The unprecedented development of capitalism, we may say after Lenin, replaced the ignorant settled peasants of self-sufficient agriculture in isolated communities by mobile proletarians whose conditions of life broke down specifically local narrow-mindedness.

This material reality found its reflection among all classes of Scottish people, who for their respective class reasons, increasingly between 1746 and 1820 began to regard the British aspect of their identity economically, politically, geographically and even culturally as decisive.

In the case of the Scottish working class, the process was facilitated by a number of reasons.  First, the Scottish workers suffered no racial or national oppression similar to that which the Irish workers did; had they been subjected to discrimination and oppression, joint organisation between the English and Scottish workers in the industrial and political arena would have been impossible.  Second, with industrialisation and urbanisation, the industrial west became the centre of economic gravity, and with it the very notion of what it meant to be Scottish changed.  Increasingly the industrial west and Scotland became synonymous.  For its inhabitants and workers, a goodly proportion of whom were of Irish or Highland origin, this was the only Scotland they had ever encountered.  A Scottishness, of which these migrants were an integral part, was very different from that which prevailed even as late as 1776 – the year of publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.  And this industrial west of Scotland was, in turn, indistinguishable from the industrial heartlands in England.  Third, the state which faced the Scottish as well as the English workers was a British state, that was susceptible to reform or overthrow through their joint actions alone.  Finally, Scottish history was characterised by a near-absence of radical values which the rising working-class movement desired to adopt.   Neither Wallace, nor Bruce, nor the Covenanters, were enough to provide the basis for the construction of a radical tradition.  Thus the proletarian movement in Scotland, notwithstanding its incorporation of radical symbols from past Scottish history into its own traditions, was just as well-disposed to English radical beliefs and symbols.

It has been argued that the Scots display a kind of duel consciousness, made up “partly of loyalty to the actuality and opportunity of modern Britain; and partly of loyalty to the memory and tradition of Scotland”, and that this duality “represents a real emotional tension, a contradiction within the citizen which is never resolved[37].  But more important than this, as Davidson remarks, is the fact “for the Scots, their British and Scottish identities do not merely exist in parallel, but interpenetrate each other at every point”.  He adds that “ Scottishness as we know it today not only emerged at the same time as Britishness, but is part of Britishness, and could not exist … without it” (pp201-201).

If the truth be known, a lot of the most demonstrative displays of Scottishness are just because Scottish identity requires constant assertion, whereas British identity is just taken for granted by the overwhelming majority of the British (including Scottish) people, requiring no such assertion.[38]


A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture” (ibid, JV Stalin).

At the time of the 1707 Union, as Scotland lacked some of the essential characteristics of nationhood, it did not constitute a nation then.

When, in the latter part of the second half of the 18th century, Scotland acquired all the characteristics of nationhood, the Scottish people from all classes – bourgeois and proletarian – threw their lot into the construction of a British nation, which was neither English nor Scottish, and in the construction of which Scotts played a crucially important role.  There is nothing artificial or elitist about the British nation as such.  It is well and truly “a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture”.

Our purpose in emphasising this material reality, far from being motivated by an inclination to become propagandists for British imperialist nationalism and chauvinism, is, on the contrary, driven by the need to recognise that which is factually true and the product of real historical development, as well as a burning desire to expose the unscientific, divisive and poisonous nonsense spewed out by the advocates of Scottish nationalism, and thus minimise the danger of a calamitous split in the historically constituted British proletariat.   Our aim is to counter bourgeois Scottish nationalism, which by its very logic and narrow interests is compelled, on the one hand, to deny the elephant in the room – the material reality of the British nation – and, on the other hand, to conjure into existence a phantom Scottish nation.  It is our utmost duty to fight against bourgeois nationalism, which “… drugs the minds of the workers, stultifies and disunites them in order that the bourgeoisie may lead them by the halter …” (Lenin, ibid)

It is our ardent duty to wage an uncompromising struggle against the contamination of the proletariat with bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined, ‘left’ and ‘socialist’ variety.  “True”, in the never to be forgotten words of Stalin, “such nationalism is not so transparent, for it is skilfully masked by socialist phrases, but it is all the more harmful to the proletariat for that reason.  We can always cope with open nationalism, for it is easily discerned.  It is much more difficult to combat a nationalism which is masked and unrecognisable beneath its mask.  Protected by the armour of socialism, it is less vulnerable” (Stalin, p29).

Hence our duty to fight against the ‘left’ nationalism of the ‘socialist’ Tommy Sheridans and John Fosters of this world, as much as against the bourgeois nationalism of the SNP.

We are fully aware that this article is only too likely to provoke the ire of our nationalist opponents and cause them to accuse us of being British nationalist enemies of the Scottish people – “paper will bear anything that is written on it” (Stalin) – but the interests of the unity of the British proletariat and of its struggle for social emancipation are far too dear to us to be deterred from stating the truth by such threats.


[1] J V Stalin, Marxism and the National Question, FLPH, Moscow 1940

[2] V I Lenin, ‘Critical Remarks on the National Question’, CW Vol 20.

[3] T C Smout, A history of the Scottish people, Fontana Press, Glasgow, 1969, p.27

[4] GWS Barrow, Robert Bruce and the community of the Realm of Scotland, 2nd edition, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1976, p.430

[5] E J Cowan, ‘Identity, freedom and the Declaration of Arbroath’ in D Brown, R J Finlay and M Lynah (eds), Image and Identity, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1998, p.51.

[6] ‘Arguments within Scottish Marxism’,  The Bulletin of Scottish Politics, Vol.1, No. 2, (Spring 1981), pp. 111-33 at p.125

[7] Davidson’s emphasis

[8] Thomas Johnston: The History of the working classes in Scotland, Fourth edition, Unity Publishing Company, Glasgow, 1946, p.146.

[9] Scotland, history and the writer, Edinburgh 1998, p.149.

[10] David Murison, The Guid Scots Tongue, Blackwood, Edinburgh, 1977, p.5.

[11] The ethnic origins of nations, Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, p.26.

[12] Edward Burt, Robert Jamieson, Sir Walter Scott, The Highlanders’ Complaint, Transmitted by a Gentleman of that Country To his Friends at Edinburgh, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1737, p.24

[13] The History Of The Affairs Of Scotland From the Restoration of King Charles II In The year 1660.  And the Later Great Revolution in That Kingdom, Edinburgh, 1690, p.128-9.

[14] Burt’s Letters From the North Of Scotland, with an introduction by R Johnson, Edinburgh, 1974, Volume 1, pp4-5.

[15] Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism, London and Henley, 1975, pp9-10,80.

[16] J D Young, The Rousing of the Scottish working class, London 1979, p11

[17] See Alistair Durie, ‘The Markets for Scottish Linen: 1730-1755’, Scottish Historical Review 153-154, 1973, pp30, 38)

[18] Keith Webb, The Growth of Nationalism in Scotland, Glasgow, 1977, p.93

[19] J D Young, ibid, p41.

[20] Soul Brothers Under the Skin, Tinsel Show, Edinburgh, 1992, p168.

[21] The Modern Scottish Novel, Edinburgh, 1999, p30

[22] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837, London, 1992, p125

[23] James Hunter, A Dance Called America, Edinburgh, 1994, p237.

[24] G J Bryant, ‘Scots in India in the Eighteenth Century’, Scottish Historical Review 177, April 1985, p41.

[25] The Political Progress of Great Britain; Or an Impartial Account Of the Principal Abuses In The Government OF This Country From the Revolution in 1688, Edinburgh, 1792, Part 1, pp1-2.

[26] W Burns, Scotland And Her Calumniators: Her Past, Her Present and Her Future, Glasgow, 1858 pp19-20

[27] Hobsbawm and Ranger (Editors), The Invention of Tradition: the Highlands Tradition of Scotland

‘The invention of tradition’, p22).

[28] Ibid p26.

[29] Thomas Macaulay and Hugh Trevor-Roper, The History of England, London and New York, 1906, Vol. 2. p452.

[30] C Kidd, British Identities before Nationalism, Cambridge, 1999, p145.

[31] W Scott, ‘Report of the Highland Society Upon Ossian, etc’, Edinburgh Review and Critical Journal, 12 July 1805, p462.

[32] T Nairn, ‘Scotland and Europe’, The Break Up of Britain, London 1981, pp114-17.

[33] Nicholas Phillipson, ‘Nationalism and Ideology’, J N Wolfe (Ed), Government And Nationalism In Scotland, Edinburgh, 1969.

[34] Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, FLP, Peking 1965.

[35] Rosalind Mitchison, A History of Scotland, London, 1970, p345.

[36] See Immanuel Wallerstein, ‘One Man’s Meat: The Scottish Great Leap Forward’, Review, Vol.3, No.4, Spring 1980.

[37] Christopher Smout, A Century Of The Scottish People 1830-1950, Glasgow, 1987, pp239-238

[38] See Joyce McMillon, ‘Foreign Lessons In Dressing For Home Rule’, Scotland on Sunday, 22 August 1993.

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