Dr Lee Rotherham is an author, historian and political campaigner, who has served as a TA reservist on three overseas deployments.
Brian Monteith’s articles about Scotland’s coming referendum are a must-read on this site. But where might a reader go if you’re digging deeper into Alba’s soul? What exactly, psychologically and practically, marks out a Scotsman? How can it be that an Irish colonist in Wales could once have been as Scottish as an Irishman who is a Scot originally from Ireland, whose forebears used to live alongside a Welshman in Scotland…and why are people from Edinburgh technically Geordies? That’s before we get anywhere near the business about 1500 year old monsters in lakes, plot devices lifted for Game of Thrones, or people who throw limber around.
Hopefully, my latest book may marginally lighten the journey. Now, I am not Scottish, though my middle name by chance happens to be Stuart. What do the State of Georgia, the Welsh Assembly, and an association of Australian donkey breeders all have in common that this author doesn’t? Well, at least they all have their own tartan.
So I’ve written as an outsider. The concept’s simple: what does a Sassenach need to know about Scottish identity and ‘otherness’ for the first ten seconds after he opens his mouth outside a Glaswegian chippy at two in the morning? How did this regional history become a national one?
Despite the title, it’s not a manual for English people seeking to escape Scotland, but as an aid to escaping the awkwardness of being English in the middle of a Scottish debate. A few bobbing facts may be useful for shipwrecked conversationalists who’ve struck a reef.
Take the Darien colony disaster, which in the current climate may conceivably crop up at some point at a dinner party. That adventure was Scotland’s belated attempt to enter the New World power stakes by occupying a slice of Panama in 1698. The plan’s failure proved so harmful to the Scottish economy that it motivated grandees to push for full political union with Westminster, and indirectly gave us RBS in the process. Ardent nationalists you’re in discussion with may point to evil imperial administrators in London doing over hardy Highland souls left withering in the steaming rainforest. The reality, looking at the colonial correspondence, is less straightforward.
The settlement was founded on land clearly claimed and previously settled by Spain. An Anglo-Spanish treaty of 1670 had already delineated territory between those two powers in the region. Furthermore, the land was so evidently of strategic interest that it was impossible for the Escorial not to act.
Still under pressure as you pass the salt? Then throw in an obscure detail. As recently as 1697, a small group of 300 English settlers (notably, also disavowed by London) had set up a colony in Campeche, a bit further north in territory perhaps familiar to a philanthropist associated with this website. The response on that occasion had been unequivocal. The settlers, a ministerial explanatory memorandum details, found themselves a target “whom the Spanyards seized, destroying many of them upon the place, and carrying others to Mexico, where they kept them working in chains. This they did lest by Degrees we should habituate our selves in those partes & settle there.” London had done them no special favours either.
It is true that Whitehall was also worried about Darien’s broader impact, but not as some nationalists claim because they feared success. Rather, they feared the magnetism of failure: gold fever which would suck in resources and manpower from successful plantations and colonies, “alluring away their inhabitants with the hopes of mines and treasure.”
So much for the Panamanian Gambit. If Darien doesn’t get a mention amongst the pudding then another episode may. Britain’s first ‘Black Friday’ fell on 6th December 1745. A half-Polish immigrant, who most definitely was not a plumber and who went by the name of Charles, found himself in the Midlands. The man whose job he was after, a certain George, thought the number was up and was busy packing his bags in London. Meanwhile, the markets were in such a state of panic that the Bank of England was cashing cheques using six pence pieces in order to slow down the pay outs.
The clue that reveals the story is in the date. The year of course marks out Bonnie Prince Charlie’s famous march south, the last major export of angry Scotsmen (New Labour excluded). The Young Pretender’s forces had just quit Derby having collected £12,000 of the £19,000 it had demanded from the city from excise and other due taxes. So at this very high point of Stuart fortunes, once again it turns out that the English were wondering about collapsing banks and excessive subsidies to their northern neighbours.
To some of course these pivotal points represent lost opportunities to be lamented. History has passed into legend. We might reasonably expect more of it during the coming weeks Arachnaphobes will have to confront toiling spiders, and proto-Commonwealth Games rowers will be remembered transporting cross-dressers off the Isle of Skye. Human nature is at cause. The call will go out for something more than another suit and tie. ‘Yes’ campaigners will soon be finding their main opponent is campaign fatigue amongst the voters, with the media increasingly desperate for new ways to flavour stories that their readers and viewers can still chew. The AV campaign showed some grassroots examples that were particularly innovative (and for ‘innovative’, read ‘off-the-wall’).
There is a reason why Alex Salmond wanted to fight this referendum this year and not last. 2015 is the anniversary of Bannockburn; last year, of Flodden. Of the two, the consequences from the victory were probably more devastating to the Scots than their crushing defeat. If ever there has been a clear cut justification for introducing a proper UK-orientated curriculum into the nation’s class rooms, this debate is it. In the interim, at least this book may give political tourists a head start. I wish the best of British, though, for the true brave hearts among readers outside that Glaswegian chip shop. A top tip, though: don’t in that venue aim for double digit points in the suicidal Poke-a-Nationalist debating game.
Lee Rotherham’s latest publication, The Sassenach’s Escape Manual, is now available at book shops.