Joke Jocks or moral models: Centuries of cross-border bias

Where do the English acquire their prejudices about the Scots? Writers must share some responsibility


The most fascinating aspect of last week's Future of England survey of south-of-the-border attitudes to Scottish independence was its apparent dualism, a stance that might be compared to that of the headteacher who stresses his reluctance to expel a misbehaving pupil while emphasising the unusually large number of detentions he or she is going to have to sit through in recompense.

On the one hand, 59 per cent of English people maintained they wished the Union to stay intact. On the other, 56 per cent declared that public spending levels in Scotland should be reduced to the UK average, while a whopping 63 per cent, asked to adjudicate on the notorious West Lothian question that has bedevilled parliament these 30 years and more, believed that Scottish MPs should be prevented from voting on English laws.

The public, in other words, seems a whole lot less emollient in its opinion of life beyond the Tweed than a somewhat nervous Westminster government, whose dealings with Alex Salmond and his Caledonian horde very often seem to smack of straightforward appeasement. They want the Scots to remain in the United Kingdom, but also seem to think, in terms of fiscal and political liberty, the Scots are getting away with murder.

And yet, seen in the context of recent and not so recent English history, the survey results shouldn't surprise us, for in their advocacy of a Unionism that is simultaneously respectful and punitive they reflect a view of Scotland (not to mention that tantalising abstract "Scottishness") which has pervaded English life for nearly 200 years, where contempt and idealisation are sometimes very uncomfortably combined.

One need only read Samuel Johnson's dictionary, or a best-selling novel from the later part of the 18th century, to see what English people in the two or three decades after Bonnie Prince Charlie's incursion of 1745 thought of the Scots. As envisioned by a writer such as the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett – see in particular Roderick Random (1748) – the young Scottish adventurer who turns up in London is regarded by the natives as a kind of barbarian half-wit, ripe to have his pocket picked and to be sneered at for his uncouth speech and flagrant lack of sophistication.

It took perhaps another half a century for guilt about Culloden and the Highland clearances to manifest itself in the pronounced English vogue for Walter Scott's novels, volumes of Scottish minstrelry and Queen Victoria's Jacobite phase, reflected in everything from her fondness for Balmoral to the publication in 1868 of Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands.

But by the end of the 19th century, a full-blown cult of Scottishness had begun to make its presence felt in the southern counties of England. Its representative figures came from all walks of life – the celebrated army commander Sir Colin Campbell, the variety hall performer Sir Harry Lauder, a whole host of writers belonging to what was known as the "kailyard" ("cabbage patch") school – but what united them, curiously enough, was the sense of moral superiority wished on them by southern observers.

George Orwell's essay "Such, Such were the Joys", about the horrors of his south coast prep school in the years before and during the First World War, has some withering remarks about the intoxicating compound of tartan, heather and bonnie braes foisted on English youth by their intellectual guardians, but his principal complaint is about its ethical underpinning.

Here what had once been regarded as the dourness and inflexibility of Scottish manners (see Johnson and half-a-dozen other English chauvinists) was reinvented as high moral seriousness. To many a moral arbiter of the Edwardian era, it was an article of faith that the further north you lived the better a person you were likely to be. In this atmosphere, Scottish roots were highly prized, and one of the most common plot-lines for an English comic novel of the early part of the 20th century is for someone with a plausibly Scottish-sounding name and a propensity for kilt-wearing and Burns-quoting to be unmasked as a Home Counties impostor from Hampstead Garden Suburb.

The drawback to this fixation was not only that it co-existed alongside the usual comic postcard versions of Scottish people as misers and drunks, either attending three church services on a Sunday or brawling in tenement yards (Evelyn Waugh's definition of Hogmanay was "people being sick in the streets of Glasgow") but that the resentment it inspired should have undermined so many of the artistic and literary movements that were one of Scotland's great contribution to 20th-century UK cultural life. The 1930s, for example, are the age of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, the novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, but they are also the era of Orwell's ferociously anti-Scottish letters (the best way of referring to the Scots, he once asserted, was as "Scotchmen" as this was a term they particularly disliked) and Anthony Powell's satirical poem "Caledonia", in which every Scottish arts world fad of the inter-war period is riotously lampooned.

It hardly needs pointing out, of course, that the Orwell with such bitter memories of prep school contemporaries back from the grouse moors was also the Orwell who spent the last three years of his existence living on an island in the Inner Hebrides and in doing so considered that he had fulfilled a life-long dream. But exactly the same kind of double-sided views attended the Scottish literary renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s when writers such as Agnes Owens, James Kelman and Alasdair Gray (and later on Irvine Welsh) carried all before them, exercises in Scots patois were de rigueur and it was sometimes scarcely possible to open a novel without being introduced to Big Malky from Leith who'd had mair Es than a python and was going to chiv you Jimmy easy as fuck.

The complaints that the Kelman-Gray-Welsh school attracted from certain English writers in the 1990s were not that their works lacked merit (although the late Francis King once remarked he was prepared to allow Kelman the Booker Prize once he started writing in English) but here, essentially, was a movement sponsored and promoted by English publishers, exclusive, divisive, in that it excluded other brands of Scottish writing (little room for, say, Allan Massie or Ronald Frame) and, at bedrock level, as partial and bogus as one of Queen Victoria's Jacobite moods.

Meanwhile, trying to establish what England thinks of Scotland here in 2014 is made that much more difficult by the widespread assumptions of homogeneity, the notion that one Scotsman or woman is pretty much like another, and a tendency to ignore the fact that Dumfriesshire is as different from Sutherland as Norfolk from Worcestershire.

If, as now seems increasingly likely, the Noes prevail three weeks hence, then the post-referendum period might be a very good time to set about debunking some of the myths and illusions on which the English view of Scotland has always been based. A political impasse, after all, is nearly always a cultural impasse by another name, and one of the great defects of the current debate is its straightforwardly materialist taint. You don't have to be a direct descendant of Sir Harry Lauder to think that there are more important issues at stake.

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