Saturday, May 30, 2015

Building a Nation, One Symbol and One Legend at a Time

The Stone of Scone (Destiny)
The Stone of Destiny. It's the rock upon which the kings and queens of Scotland are coronated. In the late 1200s, the King of England (Edward I, or Edward the Longshanks) stole the stone from Scotland, hauled it to England, put it in Westminster Abbey where it lay for more than 700 years. The thinking was if the Scots believed that standing on the stone made one King of Scotland, that Edward and his successors would become the monarchs of Scotland if they were coronated whilst sitting on the stone.
Robert the Bruce, outside Stirling Castle

In the 1950s, the Stone was stolen by four university students from Glasgow in a daring heist, returning it to Scotland. Eventually, they turned the Stone over to authorities and was returned to Westminster Abbey where it again lay in the coronation chair.

Until 1996.

In 1996, the Stone was returned to Scotland as a gesture of goodwill. It is officially on "loan" to the government of Scotland, displayed in Edinburgh Castle. We got a good look at it yesterday, but were not able to take pictures. When a new king of the United Kingdom is crowned, the Stone will be returned to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony. It is unclear if it will then be returned to Scotland.

Today, we spent the day touring some sights important to Scottish national pride and nationhood, so it was fitting that our driver just happened to be one of the Scottish policemen who drove the Stone of Destiny back to Scotland in 1996!

The Scots have built a strong and distinctive national identity, which they relish in. They keep it alive with their powerful stories and national mythologies. The United States, too, has a strong sense of national identity. The difference is that national identity was created from scratch and has only really existed for about two hundred years. The Scots, however, have a national identity far older--going back to the Kenneth Macalpine, the so-called first King of the Scots.

View from The Wallace Monument, looking at the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge
National identity rests on places, symbols, and stories. We visited Stirling Castle and the William Wallace War Monument, which overlooks the site of Wallace's victory over the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297. Stirling sits at an important strategic crossroads where the Highlands meets the Lowlands, and at a narrow spot on the Forth river which represented one of the best crossing points. Many pitched battles for Scotland have been fought here or nearby, including Stirling and Bannockburn. We've read or heard about the story every day we've been in Scotland--from our tour guide, our driver, and a gentleman dressed in 13th century battle garb at the Wallace Monument. They relish in telling the tale of how the poor, outnumbered Scots crushed the hapless and witless English. And, truth be told, the English did seem to make some rather questionable military decisions.

In thinking further about the future of Scotland, what is striking is the presence of so much pride the Scots have in their symbols, story, and national character. It's often said in Modern European History classes that the 16th-18th century represents the rise of the nation-state, and in the process of building nations, new national identities and connections were forged while old allegiances were either assimilated in the new identity or ruthlessly crushed.

The problem is this process seemed, in some instances, to have failed quite spectacularly and national identities and symbols that were once thought relegated to the distant historical past are reemerging to fuel a new drive of nationalism. I remember when Yugoslavia broke apart in violence in the 1990s, and many commentators at the time noted that Yugoslavia was a bastardized state created from the ashes of World War I--a conglomeration of many different nationalities that had very little in common to bind them together. Once Communism collapsed and Tito died, those national impulsed which had been quashed came flooding out in an orgy of violent hatred.
Our intrepid storyteller, regaling us with the tale of Wallace's victory over the "Anglish"

What's interesting in the case of Scotland is those very strong national feelings--tied to stories, legends, and symbols--have always been nurtured in Scotland at home and in school. We asked our driver today if it's possible to remain a patriotic Scot and, at the same time, be proud of being British or a part of the UK. He believed it was--and so did Gordon Brown. But looking at that long history of violent struggle against England and efforts of the United Kingdom to extinguish the Scottish national identity, it's hard to square that with a pride in a nation that seems itself at odds with what Scots want, especially if British becomes synonymous with Tory.

I noted in my last post that perhaps monarchy is enough to keep the United Kingdom together. But now I wonder if perhaps the best chance for survival is for the United Kingdom to more explicit acknowledge and appropriate Scottish nationalism into its own greater national identity. Maybe the next monarch of England should consider two coronations: one in Westminster, and one in Scotland--leaving the Stone of Destiny where it is.

Oh, and yeah. I did shout out from the top of the Wallace Monument, "You may take our lives, but you will never take our Freedom!" Had to be done. And so did this:

Really. Did you expect any less?

1 comment:

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