Out of History (Part 2)


Culture is a place of dialogue, between self and other, between inner and outer, between pasts and present, between invented pasts and discovered pasts and value systems past and future.” (p117)

In Part 1 of my critical read of Cairns Craig’s 1996 Out of History I wondered if the Anglicisiation of the Scottish intelligentsia had contributed to the ‘mysterious’ non-awakening of nationalism in the 19th century or as Nairn put it “Why was Scottish nationalism so belated in its arrival on the European scene?” [p95].

Craig challenges Nairn and others’ Marxist time-based hypothesis of “a historical process which develops in determinate stages from feudalism through capitalism towards socialism and communism” (p149). He suggests post-colonialist theory challenges the primacy of a time-based model. “History is not simply a progress through time, but a dialectic in space: it is through the effort to create and control the production of space that states and classes operate and they operate in as pace which is under constant reconstruction by other states and classes” (p114). The dynamic is not succession but opposition, between those who dominate space (cores) and those whose space is occupied by others (peripheries). Language is critical in core ideologies. “One of the major components for control of space in the period since the invention of printing has been the control of linguistic space. The establishment of England and France as the core of Europe was paralleled by achieving the highest degree of linguistic integration” (p115). Thus by identifying with Anglo-centric culture, Scottish philosophers “actively peripheralised their own history and their own culture” (p116). This could be considered culturally disabling, the notion that “the division of the linguistic environment between Scots and English or Gaelic and English produces a divided consciousness”  (p174).

Over in Ireland, however, things were different. “What Ireland led the way in, in 1916, was not simply a political revolt against British Imperialism by one of England’s earliest colonies, but a revolt in English against the Imperium of the English language, a revolt conducted in and through the medium of the English language itself” (p175). This is an important point, at the time of the uprising only a tiny percentage of the population spoke Irish thus “whatever the political rhetoric about the Irish language, it is a nationalism that accepts that its medium is English, that its identity will be made not by the overthrow of the language of the oppressor, but by its inclusion into the very nature of the new Irishry” (p176, emphasis in original).  This process was not unique to Ireland  but was part of a global counter-imperialist linguistic cultural movement “it flowered into the space created by the collapse of English authority over the whole domain of English speech” (p176).

Nairn and others have suggested that Scotland’s nationalism had been impeded by its lack of a language question. But Ireland evidently had no traditional language question either, or rather a “language question in reverse” (p176) where the English language had become detached from English cultural identity – Irish intellectuals had been writing in English for a long time – and could be co-opted as a local(ised) communicative tool against English power. As a part of this was a process of “vernacularisation” of English,  “its inflection into a local speech while retaining the utility of an inter-national one” (p176).

Craig then applies this model to Scotland. “In this perspective, Scotland’s ‘nationalism’, far from being ‘belated’ comes at the moment when the language question, in this reversed form from the language questions of nineteenth-century nationalism, becomes pressing; it comes at the moment when the core reveals its exhaustion, its inability any longer to maintain the centrality to the whole world’s cultural system that it had, until then been able to claim” (p179). In addition the “standardisation of English in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – driven first by the Oxford English Dictionary (which exiled ‘dialect’) words and then by the efforts of Daniel Jones et al to create a standard of pronunciation – produced a linguistic environment in which speech innovation was minimised” (p188). It was this ‘deadness’ of the English language that was noted by MacDiarmid and others. If “the political aspect of the nationalism of the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s was to seem disloyal during the Second World War” (p193) it later found a different type of demotic expression in for example the anti-poetry of Tom Leonard.  “What happened in Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s, and what laid the foundation for the enormous creative achievements in the 1980s, was the liberation of the voice. The Scottish voice declared its independence” (p193). Whether the contemporary rise in political nationalism was causal or rather coincidental is a debate for another time.

According to Craig in the space of a generation Muir’s linguistic ‘disassociation’ therefore became a creative ‘dialectic’. However this was not expressed via the tradition language question either; “the real liberation of the voice came not from the assertion of the rights of the vernacular itself, but from the assertion of the right to move without boundaries between the vernacular and standard English, between the demotic and the literary” (p194, original emphasis).

This has a number of causes apart from the poetic drivers mentioned by Craig above. One is the postmodern unease with essentialism, and the development of ideas of language as practice. Secondly, I suggest, is that by the 60s and 70s only a minority of Scottish speakers would have any deep knowledge of Scots. Unlike MacDairmid, few of the intellectuals would be native Scots speakers and many would express a dislike of the traditional tongue, having absorbed the Kailyard myth. A line from poet Douglas Dunn is quoted “I am Scots, a tartan tin box”. Tom Leonard, James Kelman and other Glasgow writers therefore rejected both English and Scots standards (as Leonard puts it in one poem “even thi Scottish National Dictionary tellt mi… ma language is disgraceful”) in preference for pseudo-phonetic faux-linguistic “authenticity”. Here we have the intellectual roots of the “Robertsonianism” that some claim debilitates the Scots language movement.


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