Why should Hugh Trevor-Roper scotch these myths?

By Ben Macyntire (THE TIMES, 13/06/08):

There is a certain sort of Englishman who, on seeing a man in a kilt, feels it incumbent on him to curl his stiff upper lip and point out that the wearing of tartan is nothing but a Victorian fad.

If that Englishman is feeling brave, he may go on to sneer that the entire system of clan tartans was invented in 1842 by a couple of fraudulent English brothers claiming to be grandsons of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

And if that Englishman is the late Hugh Trevor-Roper, a brilliant historian and champion lip-curler, he will write an entire book debunking Scottish mythology. Trevor-Roper died in 2003, but his assault on Scots myth-making, written almost 30 years ago, has just been published for the first time as The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History.

From a Scots point of view, it is Culloden, as three successive waves of cherished myth are brutally hacked down. First, historians are dispatched. Scots chroniclers, he says, simply filled in the gaps with heroic inventions of their own, tracing royal Scots lineage back to a Greek Prince, who married Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Then literary types get skewered, as Trevor-Roper rehearses the tale of Ossian, the Gaelic bard whose verses were “discovered” in the 18th century, hailed as the work of “the Celtic Homer’ and finally exposed as an elaborate hoax.

The final assault is sartorial: the kilt, he declares, was invented by a Lancashire industrialist for his Scots employees, while the system of tartan patterns was published in the invented Vestiarium Scoticum by the Sobieski Stuart brothers, born John and Charles Allen in Egham, Surrey.

With magnificent disdain, Trevor-Roper dismisses all this as the purest nonsense, the “replacement of history by myth”, romantic fantasy “thickened and prolonged by national pride and deliberate myth-making”. He is right, of course. Scottish myths are not true. But that is because they are myths: self-sustaining, fictionalised narratives about the past that a group adheres to as part of its collective identity. All societies nurture national myths, particularly small countries with powerful neighbours.

In Scotland, this means a heroic past of poets and warriors in natty knee-length tartan. In France they cling to Charlemagne, and the legends of the Revolution; “Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette said; except that she never did. Estonians exalt the myth of Kalevipoeg the giant, while Albanians recall the 15th-century warrior Skanderbeg, leaping from mountain to mountain on his charger, slaying Ottomans. William Tell, the 14th-century Swiss hero, shot an apple off his son’s head, killed his Austrian oppressor and sparked the rebellion that led to the Swiss Confederation. He probably never existed, although 60 per cent of Swiss believe that he did.

We believe what we want or need to believe. In America that means Pocahontas, a future president who could not tell a lie and a Wild West image of true grit this is not true.

Trevor-Roper is dismissive of all this: “In Scotland, it seems to me, myth has played a far more important part in history than it has in England”. But that, it seems to me, is England’s loss.

There are English myths, of course, but they lack the cultural purchase of other national fictions: Alfred and his cakes, Arthur and his knights, the promised land of Milton, the green and pleasant land of Blake.

H.G. Wells, observing Germans in lederhosen, was proud that England had no national dress, but it seems sad that the closest England gets to a collective outfit is a bowler hat, a hoody or a St George’s cross T-shirt on football match days.

As the parts of the UK become ever more distinct, England seems to be searching for its own mythological figure. St George (who, if he existed, was probably born in Cappadocia, now part of Turkey) does not quite seem up to the job. Robin Hood is a hardy English myth, but, according to some historians, he may actually be Rabbie Hood, a Scot. His story, according to some, was adapted from that of William Wallace, or possibly Robin MacGilchrist, one of Wallace’s chief lieutenants. If tartan was the invention of two likely Surrey lads, Lincoln Green might just owe its origins to an Argyllshire aristocrat.

Trevor-Roper derides the Scottish intelligentsia for clinging to the Ossian fraud and other elements of mythology to bolster an unconfident identity. But Scots believed in a fictionalised past because they wanted it to be true. Scottish historians have been long aware of the gap between mythological history and the real thing.

Sometimes myths have to be sustained by artificial means. Everyone in England knows that if ravens quit the Tower of London, the monarchy will crumble; fewer know that the ravens’ wings are clipped.

It is human nature to believe what we fervently hope might be true, and to defend the version that we find most appealing. No historian knew this better than Trevor-Roper. In 1982 he set aside his demolition of Scottish mythology. A year later he authenticated the forged Hitler diaries.