'In this way I shall preserve many things that would otherwise be lost in oblivion. I shall find daily employment for myself, which will save me from indolence and help to keep off the spleen, and I shall lay up a store of entertainment for my after life.'

For James Boswell posts please follow the labels on the right.

This blog mainly contains reviews from the Edinburgh Festivals from 2008 to 2010 which I wrote for the Edinburgh Festivals Magazine. These reviews cover everything from comedy to contemporary dance; children's theatre to Handel.

Monday, 17 January 2011

'No Scots! No Scots! Out with them!'

Alex Salmond recently appeared on Desert Island Discs. As ever, he was a capable and interesting speaker. Yet, as a professional politician of the first order, his nationalist views were never far from the surface of his conversation. Even in his choice of music we had to endure 500 miles by The Proclaimers and Caledonia by Dougie McLean. Does any sober human actually enjoy 500 miles? It's become nothing more than the musical wet fart left at the end of otherwise enjoyable sessions on the town.

Yet, crap as 500 miles undoubtedly is, this is not quite the equivalent of Ed Milliband asking Kirsty Young to play The
 Internationale. Nor is it the equivalent of David Cameron requesting Pomp and Circumstance by Elgar. The reasons for this come from the curious nature of Scottish nationalism and identity.    

From the outset, I should say I am no ardent nationalist. Nor am I about the retrospectively turn James Boswell into one. Yet, as Alistair Campbell notes in his journal, awareness of a Scottish identity is intensified on English soil. Where better, then, to examine it?

Many of the reactions in England to the very idea of Scottish nationalism and identity are often mystifying to me. They sway between gentle ridicule, lack of understanding and shock. Such a failure to empathise with the idea of nationalism surely comes from the lack of any coherent English/British identity, post-Empire. This is the crux of Jeremy Paxman’s The English, and a point well made. ‘English’ nationalism has, unfortunately, too often been hijacked by football louts and racists. National sentiment north of Hadrian's Wall, then, is often assumed to be similar; an intellectually violent and disruptive idea, one with no place in multicultural Britain. 

Not supporting the English football team is one thing. Yet this is not to say I am not willing to live peacefully alongside you; work in your cities, integrate myself with your culture, and sleep with your women. Indeed like the Scottish personality, the nationalist ‘tint’ is rarely showy or obvious; it is often deeply introspective and engrained. It does not require flags, kilts or malt whisky. Although the former never hurts.

Mr Salmond then, is not of a radical creed. He is, in fact, one of the most entertaining and sensible political speakers in the country. Independence for Scotland - whether you agree with it or not - is not about raising saltires and singing Caledonia as Salmond points out. It is a legitimate economic argument and comes from deep cultural roots, difficult, perhaps, for an outsider to easily place their finger on. 

Boswell too, was hardly a nationalist. Indeed, he holds a status as one of the archetypal Scots who abandoned Scotia and 'took the high road to London' in the eighteenth-century. Along with Allan Ramsay the painter, the Adams brothers, and the 3rd earl of Bute, he was part of a host of influential Scots who sought their fortune in the capital. Indeed, long before the 'Scottish Raj' of 1997 - 2010 was coined by Mr Paxman, the Scots had become very influential - and resented - in government in the 1760s under George III. 

The young George III by Allan Ramsay
Boswell's contacts in London, at least initially, are mainly Scots who are acutely aware of their identity. A friend's wife then, is described as good humoured, yet 'that sort of character which is often met with in England: very lively without much wit.' Much more obvious nationalism bubbles forth from Boswell at the theatre, where he prepares to watch the comic opera Love in a Village. As two Highland officers walk in and prepare to take their seats, the English mob in the upper gallery roars out. 'No Scots! No Scots! Out with them!' Hissed at, the officers are pelted with apples. Boswell's 'Scotch blood boiled with indignation'. Jumping to the benches he cries 'Damn you, you rascals!' Then, talking to the officers, he finds out they have come from Havana. 'And this is the thanks that we get - to be hissed when we come home. If it was French, what could they do worse.' 

In this moment then, despite his search for polish, wisdom and women in London, Boswell 'hated the English'. Outwardly he is the very image of the refined gentleman, able to carouse and cavort with the most respected in London society. Yet, inwardly, he has a strong sense of identity, which on this occasion, suddenly made him wish 'from my soul that the Union was broke and that we might give them another battle of Bannockburn.' 

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