National Identity, Origin Myths, and Culloden

Road from Edinburgh to Inverness
Road from Edinburgh to Inverness

About midway through our trip to Scotland, Steve picked up a rental car and we headed north to Inverness. Inverness is in the heart of Highlands, where the kilt and the bagpipe and the clans ruled for hundreds of years.

Yes, Steve bravely drove on the wrong side of the road for several nail-biting days on our trip. He may or may not have dinged up the back bumper on a narrow road one day. He said the first day was stressful, but after Day One, he felt fine. We could have done just fine using the train and bus system for that part of the country, but a car was nice, because we able to really explore the quiet lanes of the country. It would have been cool to have more time to drive up the coast and see even more remote areas and islands. Next time.

One of our day trips was to the ancient battle site, Culloden. Here, in 1745, thousands of Scots — massively outnumbered, exhausted, and out-gunned — stepped onto the battle field knowing that they wouldn’t make it out alive. The dead bodies were later just dumped in mass graves with big rocks laid through the field with clan names.

The fields of Culloden

There’s a big museum commemorating the battle there and you can walk through the field to think about the despair and the bravery of the troops.

Urquhart Castle, Scotland

This battle and the ramifications of the massive Jacobite revolution is everywhere in the area. Later, we visited Urquhart Castle or the remains of it. It had been blown up at some point during the whole Jacobite mess. And every site we visited on our trip had been impacted in some way by the lost battle, the bravery of the men, the brutal oppression of the British afterwards, and the decimation of the clan system.

Memorial at Culloden

This battle was the core of their national identity. A battle that they lost and arguably was a stupid, stupid fight; there’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity. But I thought it was fascinating that a country could identity itself as losers, especially after looking up at all the monuments to winning in London; the English are not shy about their colonial past.

Southerners also embraced the loser identity for years, focusing on the bravery of the soldiers, rather than the fact that they were fighting for the slavery. I wonder how many Southerners were of Scottish descent and took their cues from that country.

Every country has its own origin myths. For us, it’s the George Washington and the cherry tree, Betsy Ross and the flag, and Thomas Jefferson in Monticello. We won our war, so that makes things easier. People like their myths clean and simple. For Scotland, it’s bravery and honor, regardless of the cost. For us, it is founding fathers and the birth of democracy. Even if things weren’t perfect in the beginning, the myth goes, our country had seen a gradual march towards greater freedom.

Trump and his supporters are struggling to maintain old notions of the American Origin Myth at a time when the contradictions are too clear. We’re in a period where we’re redefining ourselves as a nation and trying to make peace with the past. It’s fine to have an origin myth based on being losers, as the Scotland example shows, but you can’t have an origin myth based on evil. Maybe a country doesn’t need an origin myth at all. It’s fascinating to see how all this turns out.

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