Thoughts on Reading: “The Invention of Scotland”

I bought Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Invention of Scotland when Borders was still in business (the price label is permanently gummed to the back cover) which should give you a thumbnail idea of how long it has been sitting on my shelf unread. This wasn’t through lack of interest or a sudden hatred for the Scots; more to do with lack of time and, honestly, forgetting that this particular unread book was there amongst all the other unread books.

But one of the wonderful (?) things about moving is that it pulls things to the surface that you forgot were there. I’m rather enjoying the involuntary reshuffle of our library system as I take advantage of it to find things that had been sitting on one shelf for so long that they became furniture, not actual things I could pick up and read.

The edition of Invention that I have (2009, Yale University Press) has a lengthy introduction by Jeremy Cater, the editor (compiler? assembler? finisher?) who was responsible for its final production after Trevor-Roper’s death. Cater takes pains to make clear that this is in no way a finished piece of work; Trevor-Roper had worked on the three thematic sections (history, poetry, clothing) of the book for some years and then abandoned it. He hadn’t returned to it by the time of his death, but the sections were more or less complete and these are what Cater has brought together into the book.

The book itself is readable, amusing, fairly light; some of the material I’d already read as Trevor-Roper used it in his piece for The Invention of Tradition and I assume he was playing off the title of that book with his own intended title.

One of the things that strikes me as problematic about the book is that, as Cater openly acknowledges in his introduction, Trevor-Roper was a diehard Unionist. The rise of Scottish separatist nationalism appalled him and he was energetic (and loud) in arguing against it to the point of being, essentially, rewarded for his efforts with a peerage (he died Lord Dacre). There’s no problem with historians having political opinions, of course, and no problem with them engaging with historical material to support their point; we probably all do it on some level even if it’s only “I read something about [Topic X] and did you know that in 1855…”

Trevor-Roper’s writing presents his view of Scottish nationalist ‘myth’ as authoritative, calm, reflective: the real deal, so to speak, and at no point engages with the importance such ‘myth’ might have to those who created it, those who supported it, or, perhaps most critically, those who use it today.

He draws freely on his own versions of the narrative — e.g., that there is no sound historical basis for believing the tartan kilt to be anything other than a late 18th century invention or that the man behind Ossian was a terrible amateur poet. Debunking the ‘myth’ is set up as simple honesty: we have been told that the kilt is an ancient, tribally honored piece of clothing and it isn’t. Here’s the real story (as presented to you by the completely neutral Oxbridge-educated Unionist don).

However. This ignores the cultural politics around the adoption of the tartans and the kilts; the choice of the (somewhat more historically grounded) plaid to make into the kilt — if it was simply a scam, surely Trevor-Roper wouldn’t have been the first to call it. It isn’t like mid-century Victorians were unaware of the fine art of the fiddle.

So, the overall question seems to be if Trevor-Roper’s ‘real story’ should be in quotation marks as much as the ‘myth’ of Scottish history? I’m not arguing for a hitherto undiscovered 12th century background for the kilt; if nothing else, it’s not a very practical piece of clothing and if you’re nipping around in Scotland in the 1100s, I think you’re going to want practical. And warm.

But the undiscussed theme of Invention — as with many other works along similar lines — is the author’s adoption of a stance of honesty and authority and lack of bias: “You can trust me,” is the undertone of the work.