Rab Houston is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews, and the author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction. In the piece below he questions whether kilts are as integral to Scottish identity as some people think.
His previous OUPblog post can be found here, and remember to check back next week when Rab will be writing about Burns Suppers.
Some wag once wrote that kilts outside the Highlands were merely fancy dress. Fortunately that is no longer the case. Seeing the kilt worn with a new confidence is an inspiring sign of how far modern Scotland has come from the tartan tokenism of the 1970s.
Yet it is worth remembering that the kilt was a skirt invented by an Englishman in the 1720s. Highlanders traditionally wore bolts of cloth called ‘plaids’ that could fall off the hips or be gathered like trousers. Lowland men wore trousers. Tartan too comes not from some authentic ancient pool of Scots historic culture, but gained its importance during the eighteenth century as a national symbol of what Scotland could contribute in men and materials to British imperialism. Highland identity became firmly associated with Scottish identity in the nineteenth century, encapsulated in the romantic image of the Scot-as-Highlander that was popularised by Queen Victoria.
Scots have appropriated another ambiguous way of showing they are not English. It is surely right that the ancient Gaelic language should experience new life and be granted equal respect, for it may for a time have been Scotland’s majority tongue. However, it was never the only one. Even in the Dark Ages there was extensive English- and Scots-speaking in the south-east and Norse dialects too thrived across much of the north-west. What is truly distinctive about Scotland’s linguistic past is not Gaelic, but the remarkable diversity of tongues in so small a country.
The lobby for Gaelic shows that we appreciate diversity now more than ever and it has helped us to focus on what it means to be Scottish. Indeed there is much that is more substantial and more completely distinctive to Scottish identity than these symbols. Scots are proud to be different without always appreciating just how distinct Scotland past and present really is from the rest of Britain. What makes us Scottish is above all a sense of history that goes much deeper than the tokens of dress or even a discrete language that arguably allows us to speak more eloquently about being different.
What do we know of that history? Like others in the Anglo-Saxon world, we understandably seek identity, empathy, and meaning for our private present by researching family or local history and we want to know about wars and history’s celebrities. After all, history is experienced by individuals and to be alive is to be touched by the past.
But our social and political present is also formed by powerful forces that constitute our public past. There was a separate national church, both Catholic in the Middle Ages and Protestant from the Reformation, the latter in turn a set of religious changes far more radical than occurred in England. Add to this a distinctive legal code, rigorously grounded on principle yet at the same time flexible and potentially humane. Scots law drew on indigenous influences, but it came mostly from the Continent rather than England, as did the most important artistic, architectural and musical styles exemplified in Scotland. In turn, Scots could be found all over north-west Europe and later around the globe. Among the ideas, techniques and technologies they took with them there was an ethos of educational opportunity, fostering a belief in common humanity that flourished during the Enlightenment and after.
Top this off with a very different experience of government. From the Middle Ages ideas of political freedom and individual liberty created an egalitarian ethos that has never faded. An important reason Scottish devolution has worked so well is not just because it had its own parliament until 1707. Historic Scotland was a highly de-centralised state and there was an effective civil society: forms of association below and outside the apparatus of the state, such as churches, communities, and families, mediating between public institutions and private lives, which now so concern the modern West. Scots felt that central authority could and should intervene for benign ends, but that most power should be diffused. This internal devolution was essential because of the remarkable local and regional diversity of the country, creating a rich mixture of cultures that allowed people to forge multiple identities within Scotland.
All of these marked Scotland out from England and the legacy of this distinctive past touches us still in ways we only dimly appreciate. More tangibly, it means that Scots are no less Scottish if they do not wear kilts and they do not speak Gaelic. We should wear kilts and speak Gaelic with pride if we want to, but we do not need them nearly as much as an appreciation of the historic forces that have given us our unique identity.