PRINT October 1995


the Highland Vogue

SCOTS WINCE AT the prospect of Hollywood descending on the Highlands. The cultural alarm system kicks in. Hope and reason flee in advance of bad tartanry, ultraphony accents, and gooey caricatures of Gaelcult, itself the longest-running caricature of national identity in a field of world-class competitors. So when we heard tales about the starring role of ethnicity-jokester Ted Danson in a film called Loch Ness, and about the umpteenth remake of Rob Roy, the “Highland rogue,” and when Mel Gibson described Braveheart’s 13th-century freedom-fighter William Wallace as “a really straight-ahead dude,” the cringe index shot up as swiftly as the Scottish Tourist Board got hard. As it happened, the latter two films allayed our worst fears, proving that the genre had at least moved into its Dances with Wolves phase, with more than the customary doff of Hollywood’s bonnet to local authenticity. The dialect-impaired performances of Jessica Lange and Liam Neeson aside, the production of Rob Roy was responsibly driven by native talent and resources. And if Gibson appeared to have modeled his accent on Alec Guinness’ rough bark in Tunes of Glory (1960), this was no mean achievement—the equivalent, perhaps, of Paul Hogan successfully imitating Laurence Olivier’s brave rendition of Big Daddy in the 1976 made-for-TV version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Most audiences would be oblivious to the gravity with which these derring-do depictions of national icons were dissected in Scotland itself. There, the sovereignty movement is in the saddle again, spurred on by the promise of a Home Rule bill that has come up in the Westminster Parliament, in one form or another, over 30 abortive times in the last 100 years. Now that its elites have ceased to be junior partners in the Empire’s vestigial trading spoils, the Claim of Right to self-government saturates all fractions of the Scottish polity as never before, and in the same fierce measure as it is denied by the Tory masters of the decaying state to the south, whose absolutist rule over British affairs has been exercised, in the Thatcher-Major years, as arrogantly as the royal houses of yore.

If this standoff looks like the Wars of Independence depicted in Braveheart, it is no accident. The Scots, like other stateless nations denied their share of autonomy, have perfected the knack of interpreting contemporary affairs in the light of medieval events. For the citizens of secure nation-states, the total recall of battles fought 700 years ago, and the moral application of their military lessons to modern politics, must seem quite ludicrous. But for those seeking the resumption of their own history, such precolonial battles cast a long shadow on the present, each with its significance to evoke: Stirling (1297), Falkirk (1298), Bannockburn (1314), Flodden (1513), Sherrifmuir (1715), Preston pans (1745), and Culloden (1746). Having grown up within jogging distance of four of these battlefields, I may be excused for overstating this interpretive tradition. While few Scots would deny the tradition, many lament its durability as evidence of parochialism, an infantile disorder thought to have been cured by the Scottish Enlightenment but still in the business of providing what Tom Nairn has called “alibis of inaction.”

More reviled yet are the cultural mythologies now associated with the international currency of Scots identity, associated with an antique dress as no other. In this domain, the sentimental legacy of the Jacobite cause lingers on, royally decked out in the Celtic paraphernalia and gentrified relics of the messianic cult of the Stuarts, the ultimate family of losers. That Wallace’s 13th-century Lowland soldiers can be depicted in Braveheart in the 18th-century Highland garb of the Jacobites is as typical an expression of the cult as the mostly innocent, though sometimes prurient, inquiries about kilt wearing that are habitually directed at expatriate Scots like myself. Indeed, the story of how a demonized, “barbaric” way of Highland life came to be the official face of a modern industrial nation is part of the story of internal colonialism in the multinational British state, tottering toward partition now that the resurgent English nationalism of its southern center helps itself to the lion’s share of power and prosperity.

As we all know by now, however, the meaning of cultural symbols is not fixed in time. In the last three centuries, tartanry, for example, has moved from its shabby, plebeian prehistory north of the Highland Line through a harsh government ban (1746–82), a romantic, upper-class revival, royal Victorian patronage, and overseas service in the Empire, to its multifarious existence today in military pomp and circumstance, in tourist superkitsch, in nationalist protest and carnival, in worldwide preppy couture, and in the subcultural regalia of punk and gay pride.

The preoccupation with history, especially a history of lost causes, is not simply reactionary or atavistic; it is the heady medium through which a people who believe themselves to be a “nation” distinguish themselves from their colonizers, and debate their own postcolonial future. This is true of all anticolonial nationalisms, and especially of those that feed upon the brisk spectacle of usagainst- them on the battlefield or the playing field . More important in the long run, however, is to see the forces that well up behind each nationalist awakening. In the call for national “freedom” bellowed by Gibson’s Wallace, we might also hear the early voice of urban mercantile capitalism, hoping to liberate itself from the rule of landed nobility. The personal creed of “honor” claimed so often by Neeson’s Rob Roy is not just a sop to the semifeudal clan loyalties that fueled the Jacobites’ Catholic cause, it is also the voice of naked Protestant individualism seeking social respectability for its predatory, worldly ambitions, ultimately achieved in the Victorian gentleman’s code of honor. So, too, in the nationalism of today, we hear not simply the Claim of Right to ancient sovereign powers, but also the voice of regional and ethnic self-determination responding to the forces of globalization that have so rapidly eroded the singular powers of the nation-state.

This local-global development has become a widespread feature of the New World Order, taking different forms in different countries. In the imperial American core, for example, it has surfaced in the war over national identity between mono- and multiculturalists and in the authoritarian populism fomented by the Republican devolution of power to the states. At the same time, the federal government is completing the dissolution of the old national state by removing all impediments to the new supranational markets created by NAFTA, GATT, and the WTO. Among the primary beneficiaries are the media Goliaths like Time Warner, Paramount, Disney, and Rupert Murdoch (who was easily persuaded to convert his Scottish version of the Sun tabloid into a nationalist organ). All of history is now a quarry for spectacular allegories of their global reach and their local bite. The trick, as nationalists from Hawaii to Chechnya have been learning, is to perfect the counterart of turning spectacle into history.

Andrew Ross is a professor and director of the American studies program at New York University. His latest book is The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s Debt to Society (Verso).