Jeremy Paxman, the Newsnight inquisitor, has incurred the wrath of Scottish nationalists by insisting the kilt was invented by an Englishman, and claiming there is “a head of steam in Scotland for hating the English”. Speaking on Radio 4’s Saturday Live yesterday, Paxman, 64, also said that the Highland clearances, which Scottish nationalists often link to brutal English repression, have been the subject of myth-making.
In a sign that his remarks might not be popular north of the border – where he occasionally enjoys a spot of fly fishing – a spokesman for the Yes Scotland independence campaign immediately dismissed Paxman’s comments about hatred of the English as “mad as ever”.
Describing how he liked the inclusiveness of ‘Britishness’, Paxman said: “Increasingly, since there is now such a head of steam in Scotland for hating the English, I describe myself as English, although I am in fact one quarter Scottish.
“It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in this union of supposed equals, only one side gets to vote on whether the union continues.”
Challenged by Saturday Live presenter Aasmah Mir, the notoriously combative Paxman did backtrack slightly, saying he did not equate the case for Scottish independence with hatred of Englishness: “Hate is overstating it, and I apologise. But it is to do with a detestation of being ruled from London.”
Moments later, however, Paxman, the author of The English, returned to the offensive, saying: “I would absolutely love to write a book on the Scots. We might start tackling some of the great sustaining Scottish myths, like the kilt, which was actually invented by an Englishman as far as I can tell. And the Highland clearances ….”
Nor did his BBC paymasters escape unscathed. Paxman told Saturday Live listeners that the typical Newsnight hospitality room “tends to be a disgusting basement with stained carpets, where very occasionally a glass of Moldovan riesling may be dispensed to some unfortunate guest. And there is a strictly rationed limit of about four bottles of whatever beer is cheapest at Costco”.
Paxman did not develop his point about the clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, when poor Highland farmers were evicted from their lands, but some historians have claimed clan leaders who backed Bonnie Prince Charlie were as responsible as English-supporting landowners.
It was also unclear whether Paxman, the quizmaster for University Challenge, was right to say the kilt was invented by an Englishman. Since the 18th century it has been claimed that the philabeg, the small kilt that is now regarded as traditional, was invented by Thomas Rawlinson, a Lancashire Quaker, to be worn by workers in his Highlands iron smelting factory.
But this has been challenged by researchers who have found illustrations showing such kilts being worn long before Rawlinson arrived in Scotland in the 1720s.
This is not the first time Paxman has outraged Scottish patriotic sensibilities. Writing about Robert Burns in an introduction to the 11th edition of the Chambers Dictionary in 2008, he said: “I’m afraid I find the Scottish national poet no more than a king of sentimental doggerel.”
He was not available at the time to answer the ensuing criticism, because he was fly fishing in the Scottish Highlands.
In a statement, the Yes Scotland campaign said: “We’d be very interested to read a book on the Scots by Mr Paxman. He would realise very quickly that he is mistaken in his assertion that there is a ‘head of steam for hating the English’. We’re fortunate to have lead volunteers and key people who are English born. The case for independence is made in many accents.”