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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Invention of Tradition (1983) Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

The modern kilt was an early 18th century invention, by an Englishman no less.

Book Review
The Invention of Tradition
 Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger
Canto Edition 1992
Cambridge University Press
book cover showing how the highland "Scots" dressed in the 16th century.
      I watched the recent independence vote in Scotland with interest (I was pro-Union, anti-Independence) and it was a good cue to revisit my Amazon Wish List Titles and read The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hosbawm and Terence Ranger, which contains a key chapter on the explicit English involvement of many of the trappings of so-called Scottish Nationhood in the 18th century.  The chapter in question is called The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland, and it concerns the integration of a previously Irish/Celtic highland ethnicity into the greater Scottish nation.  And although I don't normally take the approach on this blog of presenting lengthy recapitulations/descriptions of the material I've read, I think it is worth abandoning that habit where The Invention of Tradition is concerned, since the Scottish vote is so recent in memory, and since the "Yes" votes are like an echo of the 18th century creation of the Scottish national tradition, which itself intimately involved the English, also involved the relegation of a brother Celtic culture in favor of the Scottish identity, and, I would argue, would tend to show up the very idea of an independent Scotland as an example of "false consciousness," or at the very least a manipulation of the sentiments of the less educated by a local elite with much at stake in terms of personal gain.

   Hugh Trevor-Roper, the author of the Highland Tradition of Scotland chapter starts with the state of play before the invention of a highland culture,

      "Before the later years of the seventeenth century, the Highlanders of Scotland did not form a distinct people.  They were simply the overflow of Ireland.  On that broken and inhospitable coast, in that archipelago of islands large and small, the sea unites rather than divides and from the late fifth century, when the Scots of Ulster landed in Argyll, until the mid-eighteenth century, when it was 'opened up' after the Jacobite revolts, the West of Scotland, cut off by mountains from the East, was always linked rather to Ireland than to the Saxon Lowlands.  Racially and culturally, it was a colony of Ireland."

   You can't get more explicit than that.  Further:

   "Being a cultural dependency of Ireland under the 'foreign', and somewhat ineffective, rule of the Scottish crown, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were culturally depressed.  Their literature, such as it was, was a crude echo of Irish literature."

   Trevor-Roper describes a three step process: the cultural revolt against Ireland, the artificial creation of new Highland tradition and finally, the offering to and adoption of these new traditions by the people concerned.    This first part is very much part of the story of the Novel and 18th century British literature, specifically the famous Ossian forgery that created a fake epic poetic history of native Highland Scots.  The fact that the Ossian epic was eventually exposed was no matter, for it got the ball rolling and eventually led to the pioneering work of Sir Walter Scott, a Scot with strong English ties, who blew the door wide open on the so-called Scottish highland tradition and essentially created a national mythology out of whole-cloth.

  This literary invention was matched by the creation of the Highland tartan by Thomas Rawlinson, a member of well established English Quaker family.  In 1727, he made an agreement with a local Scottish chieftain to lease a wooded area and operate a furnace to create charcoal for industrial operations on the north of England.  While he was there, he became interested in the Scottish costume as it related to the efficiency of his own workers, who wore a "belted plaid" that was inconvenient for work in and around the furnace.  He used an English tailor to create the "felid beg," phlbeg, or "small kilt", which was achieved by separating the skirt from the plaid and converting it into a distinct garment, with pleats already sewn.  Rawlinison himself wore this new garment, and his example was followed by his Scottish associate, Ian MacDonnell of Glengarry.  After that, the clansmen, as always, obediently followed their chief and was promptly adopted by the rest of Highland Scotland.

  This transmission of an invented tradition from top of the social scale to bottom is repeated in many of the others chapters in this book.  Everywhere, the motivation is to inspire nationalist fervor in populations who previously lacked such an attitude.   Considering the detrimental impact of Nationalism on the course of history in the last several hundred years, it is important to understand the role tradition plays in supporting the acts of political and economic elites, and the way such traditions are consciously  created by those elites for a variety of purposes, benign and otherwise.

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