Out of History (Part 1)

historyCairns Craig’s 1996 Out of History is an undoubtedly dense but definitely rewarding exploration of the ways critical theory has framed modern conceptions of Scotland.

He claims Scotland’s experience has been excluded from contemporary theoretical models and has in addition been depreciated by unfair comparison with an idealised “organic” model of English culture. In the passing he critiques Marxist readings of culture and history that are fixated on the deterministic historical path towards a worldwide proletarian revolution where “everything dissolves in ‘class consciousness’”. With the notable – if partial – exception of Tom Nairn this dominant dogma erases geographical contexts, Scotland’s included, and de-privileges alternative and peripheral paradigms, including nationalism and its myths.

Craig argues that this espoused belief in (Anglo-British) history-as-progress actually conceals a deeply reactionary position among many Scottish intellectuals, namely ‘the profound hatred of the intellectuals for the culture they inhabited” (p107). It is hard not to connect this with Craig Beveridge and Ronald Turnbull’s thoughts on the class and cultural divide that has separated the English-speaking intelligencia from the Scots-speaking working and rural classes.

Craig almost makes the connection himself. For any ambitious Scots aspiring to the “role of fully achieved civilised Britishness” (p12) there was a problem. “It is not by our color, of course, that we have stood to be recognized as incomplete within the British context, it is by the colour of our vowels: the rigidity of class speech in Britain” (p12, Scots live within the “vowel system of the oppressed” (p12). As well as self-hatred and – he claims – its alter ego sentimentality, “our cultural analysis has been obsessed with images of our self-hate” (p13). This has resulted in a rupture of intellectuals from the national community and (quoting Stanislaw Brzozowski) a retreat into “the vision of life in abstract, simplifying dogmas” (p13). (This may also explain the erstwhile dominance of the Labour Party in Scotland).

In the essay Absences, Cairns explores the theories of Tom Nairn on the lack of a traditional nationalist trajectory, quoting extensively from The Break-Up of Britain (1977, 1981, 2003). Nairn observes “in every superficial respect except one – language – Scotland was quite exceptionally well-equipped for the usual nationalist struggle… “[p145]. However “the most common form of national class alliance…between the popular masses and the middle class which undertakes the establishment of the modern state” [p38] simply never materialized, leading to  “decapitation” [p172] of the culture. To Cairns Scotland thus had “a void where the intelligentsia should be” (p105).

There was an intelligentsia, of course, but it was disconnected from the masses and in response instead of reflecting on its own role it turned on the popular but ostensibly vulgar and ‘incomplete’ form of depolicitcised but most importantly deintellectualised indentity that had emerged. Edwin Muir, in Scott and Scotland (1936) of course famously exhorted fellow writers to write in English to achieve “completeness” and essentially turn their back on an inferior tradition. Nearly fifty years later Murray Grigor and his wife Barbara curated the influential Scotch Myths touring exhibition three years after the 1979 referendum failure critiquing a Scotland portrayed by romantic kitsch and stereotypes. According to this well-received analysis, Kailyard literature and tartanry had led to a ‘perverted’ self-image and a national inferiority complex.  Grigor even made an amusing Scotch Myths film to help identify and presumably destroy this pernicious identity.

Cairns is scathing; “what the intellectuals in Scotland were appalled by was not Scottish identity – it was popular culture…resolutely national, and which had all the vulgarity, sentimentality and vitality of popular culture everywhere” (p107).  Moreover “…they did not want to negotiate with the actualities of Scottish culture; they wanted to abolish it and create it in their own image” (p107).

In my view the Scots language, forever associated with Kailyard’s ‘couthiness’ is intellectual collateral damage in this debate. In one sense Hugh MacDairmid was recognising the low reputation of Scots when he tried to to intellectualise and extend the language though his poetry. Similarly the apparent revulsion of some Scots language enthusiasts to popular (or ‘Angicised’) spelling reveals traces of this attitude.

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