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The Scottish cultural cringe

Updated: May 16



The Scottish Cringe as described by Beveridge and Turnbull (1989) refers to the Scots lacking personal and political confidence in their ability to govern themselves. Beveridge and Turnbull (1989) argue the Scots suffer from a sense of psychological inferiority in which Scots have come to see themselves and they are seen by England i.e. as being inferior to and dependent upon the largesse of England. Sociological theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence can be deployed as another means to understand Scotland’s sense of culture inferiority because this notion of Bourdieu is used to explain how the more powerful are able to structure the self-perception of the weak, so that social groups are not only conquered or colonised militarily by a more powerful nation as there is another defeat or war waged that is done via or by culture (Bourdieu and Waquarant 1992) i.e. Scots collude in and co–produce their subordination because they sincerely believe their culture is not equal to that of England. On this matter, Carol Craig (2003) argues that Scots are harshly disparaging to their own culture and by doing so create apprehension in the Scottish persona.


Another key term utilised by Bourdieu (1979) is the concept of habitus that describes how and why people become subdued by social conditions and exercise amor fati rather than rebel against their subordination because their habitus aligns the agent with his objective possibilities and so his subjectivity ‘falls into line’ with their objective life possibilities; so, that rebellion becomes an unrealistic course of action. In this regard, Beveridge and Turnbull (1989) applied Franz Fanon’s (1967) notion of inferiorisation in Third World nations to the Scottish context to highlight Scotland’s self-colonisation. Through the lens of Fanon, then, inferiorism is the processes in which the indigenous population comes to internalise the dominant culture or narrative of the coloniser at the expense of their own native, local, traditional culture.


For Fanon, to effectively penetrate another culture and to colonise another population’s self-consciousness, their history must be revised to mirror the point of view of the oppressor. On this point, Billy Kay, a renowned advocate of Scottish culture, recalls how the Scots were not taught Scottish history prior to the Act of Union (1707) as this would mean a ‘return of the repressed’ (Robinson 2008). The idea of repressing the events of Scottish history prior to 1707 seems to corroborate Fanon’s idea of inferiorism as this practice has become so entrenched in the Scottish psyche that historian Ash (1980) has talked of the “strange death of Scottish history” and of the Scots being a people without history (Wolf 2010). In terms of culture, inferiorism as articulated by Fanon was deployed by Beveridge and Turnbull (1989) to express the historical neglect of Scottish culture which led Scots to absorb a sense of natural or spontaneous subordination within the national character.


Through the neglect of Scottish history as previously documented not only corresponds with Fanon’s concept of inferiorism but exemplifies Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic violence. By some Scots disregarding their own nation’s history it reinforces the idea of Scots yielding to England by seeing their own history as over and so they never give a thought to making it in their own right again as an independent nation and so they fail to challenge their own alienation. Perhaps the key areas where cultural inferiority has been established among the Scots is language. Well into the 1700's Scots remained the established national language and the medium of high and low culture that was distinct from English. During this period Scots was the language of administration, legal documents, parliamentary records and the royal court with all social classes embracing it without any hint of inferiority (Hoffman 1996).


As England had a Protestant Reformation first in the 1520’s, the 1559 Reformation in Scotland was Scotland falling into cultural line with England and already in the sixteenth century however during the Protestant Reformation, Catholic apologists such as Winzet and Kennedy criticised the Protestant Reformers for importing German theological errors via England and doing so in the medium of the Southern tongue i.e. English. During the seventieth century Scots’ linguistic value began to recede amongst the middle classes who perceived it as tainted and as the language of the less educated working class (Hoffman 1996). In 1561, the Bible was translated into English but, crucially, not in Scots so that Scots lost its prestige, while the Union of Crowns in 1603 saw King James VI of Scotland becoming James I King of England with the court being relocated to London where all royal affairs were now in English (Hoffman 1996). Crucially, King James’s relocation to London saw the Scottish upper classes follow with the intention of imitating their English peers leaving Scots socially adrift (Hoffman 1996).


Through the Scotland Education Act (1872) the English language was promoted with the desire of suppressing Scots as well as Gaelic (Hoffman 1996). Education Scotland (2016) reveals the mistreatment of Scots in education was still evident until the 1980’s as children who spoke Scots could suffer corporal punishment for not speaking English at school. When viewed through the sociological lens of Bourdieu (1979), such realities evidence how language is crucial for securing cultural subordination and how the notion of ‘linguistic communism’ (where every social actor possesses the right and ability to speak and be heard) is not true in Scotland. The Scots language corresponds Bourdieu’s concerns as everyone does not have the right to communicate via Scots, as this can place them in opposition to the deemed universal language of English. If we take the term field (Bourdieu 1979) used to describe arenas where social agents operate within and include politics, parliament, patronage, court, and religion which grants legitimacy to the language which Scotland has lost, one player was Sir John Clerk of Penicuik (one of the Scottish negotiators of the Union of 1707) who remarked ‘’the English language … since the Union wou’d always be necessary for a Scotsman in whatever station of life he might be in, but especially in any public character’’ (cited in Balilyn and Morgan 2012, p. 85). This prophetic comment is epitomised in an incident at an Edinburgh court where a young man was held for contempt of court for answering aye (Scots for yes) instead of using the English form of yes (Crowther and Tett 1999). Similarly, Lord George Robertson remarked “Scotland has no language and culture” (NewsNet Scotland 2014) during the 2014 Referendum; a comment which is a wonderful example of cultural inferiority insofar as it suggests Scotland is void of a recognised culture by its own political elite and representatives.


Billy Kay enquired to a Fife headmaster if pupils were encouraged to engage with Scottish Literature and was startled by his response: ‘’No. This is not a very Scottish area” (Robinson 2008, p.5). Other examples of what seems to be cultural ‘self-hatred’ came when, in response to the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, Conservative councillor Callum Campbell and Labour Councillor Danny Gibson proposed to have the Scottish Saltire removed from Stirling council’s headquarters and to replace it with the Union Jack (Wings over Scotland 2013). Both councillors said they wanted to see the emblem of ‘our country’ flying from Stirling council’s rooftop, evidencing perhaps the native abandoning their own national identity and culture and embracing that of the coloniser. These councillors allude to Fanon’s theoretical perspective of inferiorism but also to Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic violence whereby Scots not only participate in their own servitude but are the creators of it. The loss of the yes campaign in the Scottish Independence Referendum (2014) can be identified as a contemporary example of the Scottish cringe. The people of Scotland shunned their opportunity to reclaim their liberty the reasons for which are captured in sociological theorist Paulo Freire’s quote:


‘’The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom’’ (Freire 2016, p.46).

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