The Reshaping and Preservation of a Culture
The 18th and 19th century held many important historical shifts for Scotland. The Act of Union, Jacobite Rebellions of 1745 and 1746 and the Highland Clearances significantly shifted Scottish culture in both positive and negative ways. The Act of Union led to indirect suppression of Scottish culture and yet, Scottish writers found a way to push back and revitalize their culture through poetry and song. While the act of revivifying Scottish culture was important, it is not the most important aspect of these texts. Rather, the most important aspect is how the poetry revivified Scottish culture. Poets such as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott helped change the way that Scotland was portrayed both in the centuries they wrote their pieces in and for centuries to come. Based on how they wrote about Scotland in their texts, these proto-Romantic and Romantic writers shaped an image of the Scottish population that was in touch with nature and the Highlands but also told the story of the common people. In true Romantic fashion, Burns and Scott wrote from an individualistic and reflective perspective, writing of emotions in connection with the landscape and emphasizing Scottish history and social issues throughout their work. With this revival, these writers preserved stories and safeguarded the interests of the common man. Further, by their usage of Scots, they inspired a strong ‘Vernacular Revival’ that coincided with the overall revitalization and Romanization of Scottish culture through poetry and song. All of these outcomes were due to the writers’ literary choices such as writing in Scots, using classic forms like the Habbie Stanza or writing in English but still having the content full of Scottish themes. These effects stretch farther than just the 18th and 19th century however, as it also set up material for the modernist movement in the 20th century to occur with writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid whose goal was to rework this Romantic image of Scotland to one that was more fitting for the century. Today, the poems and songs written in the 18th and 19th century allow for readers to understand the plights of those who lived in that era by taking common and grand issues and portraying them in a way that the reader can understand. Further, one could argue that the Romantic influence of that period still effects how foreigners view Scotland and how writers portray Scotland today.
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The Union of the Crowns took place in 1603 when James the VI of Scotland became James the I of England and inherited the throne from Queen Elizabeth I. With the Union of the Crowns, the court shifted down to London and adoption of Standard English became more commonplace over the usage of Scots and Gaelic. Beginning in this era, Scottish poets wrote to show Scottish pride but, still kept the dialect in Standard English and wrote in classic forms such as the sonnet or ballad. Sir Robert Aytoun exemplified this with his poem written after the Union of the Crowns titled, ‘Sonnet: On the River Tweed’. While this poem takes the Shakespearean sonnet form, it uses the devotional nature of the form to direct love and longing towards a location while also discussing political and social shifts. Sir Aytoun uses the River Tweed, a border between England and Scotland, to discuss the union. He begins with quickly addressing this topic in the first stanza writing,
Fair famous flood, which some time did divide,
But now conjoins two diadems in one,
Suspend thy pace, and some more softly slide,
Since we have made thee mistress of our moan.
He then further discusses what he perceives as the death of Scotland as a nation with the lines,
And since none’s left but thy report alone,
To tell the world our captain’s last farewell. (Scottish Verse, p.158)
The poem also shows a strong love and yearning for Scotland as well as what is lost with the Union of Crowns with lines such as,
And straightway send them, with his murm’ring sounds,
To that religious place, whose stately walls,
Do keep the heart, which all our hearts inthralls. (Scottish Verse, p.158)
Even with Ayoun’s work, it is not until the 18th century when the Act of Union occurs in 1707, making Scotland and England into the United Kingdom, that larger shifts away from Scottish culture occur and Scottish writers readily respond. This political and cultural shift created a larger need for the usage of Scots and the preservation of Scottish culture. By 1746, after the Jacobite’s had been defeated at the Battle of Culloden, England purposefully suppressed and targeted Highland culture. With the Act of Proscription, livestock were confiscated, Highland clothing was outlawed, property was destroyed, and Clan culture was effectively ended. It is also during this time that the Highland Clearances made families move from their homes in the Highlands so that the lands could be used for sheep farming. With all of these changes, the Habbie Stanza and usage of Scots in poetry increased in an attempt to reclaim Scottish culture through art and to create a stronger Scottish identity in an era where British identity was becoming more commonplace. While the Habbie Stanza was initially used for mock elegies, poets such as Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns used it to instill national pride. This Scottish pride and vernacular usage are portrayed in Fergusson’s ‘Caller Oysters’. Ferguson draws attention to the plentiful oysters found in Scotland thus showcases his own beliefs that Scotland is a plentiful nation with much to offer. He expresses his pride for Scotland as he writes,
O’ A ‘ the waters that can hobble
A fishing yole or sa’mon coble,
An’ can reward the fisher’s trouble,
Or south or north,
There’s nane sae spacious an’ sae noble
As Firth o’ Forth.
Similarly, Burns uses his poem ‘To a Haggis’ to portray pride for Scotland and its uniqueness. He writes,
Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu prayer,
Gie her a Haggis.
Burns notes the distinct nature of Haggis and simultaneously, the distinct nature of Scotland, praising Haggis over other food and likewise praising Scotland over other counties. Both poets have specific ways in which they speak of Scotland therefore, have very specific, nationalistic ways in which they resurrected Scottish culture.
Burns took the standard Habbie and Scots vernacular further than his predecessor Fergusson, using the pairing to comment on the individual in a proto-Romantic manner. British academic, Nigel Leask comments that, ‘Burns was a vital influence on the British Romantics…in championing the values of rural and peasant life’. This is showcased throughout Burns’ work in how he presents the common speaker of the poem in a reflective manner that is expressive, setting up the scene for the true Romantic period that takes place later. Leask also commented on Burns’ impact writing that, ‘Burns breathed new life into the ‘broken and mutilated’ Scots vernacular tradition by engaging it with rural modernity and social change’. This is clear in his poem, ‘To a Mouse:On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785.’ He shows the Scottish farmer’s connection to nature and most importantly, comments on the Highland Clearances and how they affected the families who had to leave their homes. Burns switches between Scots and English with expressive stanzas such as,
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickerin brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
Burns expresses his regret, exclaiming that this mouse need not be fearful of him but, when relating this event to the bigger social issue of disrupting what he calls a ‘social union’ in the second stanza, he writes in English to ensure that the themes get across. This stanza reads,
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
Burns conveys that in this ‘social union’ between the mouse and farmer, the farmer has overstepped his boundary. This is likely directed at the social union between Scotland and England with England being the farmer who has overstepped into Scotland’s land and life. Scottish culture could have been revived in any way during this period but, because of the individualistic approach, poets such as Burns ensured that the common man’s plight is not forgotten in the fast-paced history of giants.
Scottish poets in the 18th and 19th century reshaped an idea of Scotland that was nature based, Romantic and full of tropes that would continue past their lifetimes. This Romanization of the Highlands is portrayed through songs such as Burns’ ‘Farewell to the Highlands’ as it reads,
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
He directly connects the landscape to the individual and to emotions, giving the Highlands an passionately charged and mystical portrayal. Sir Walter Scott has a similar effect with his song, ‘Bonny Dundee’ but this time it glorifies the failed Jacobite’s cause reading,
Come fill up my cup, come fill up my can,
Saddle my horses and call out my men,
And it’s Ho! for the west port and let us gae free,
And we’ll follow the bonnets o’ bonnie Dundee!
Whether the words are accurate or exaggerated, the writers take on the important role of supporter and preserver. With Walter Scott, ‘his readers had (and often still have) demanding expectations of him not just as an interpreter of Scotland to an international public but also as a preserver of Scotland’s traditions and its historic artifacts’. Scott, Burns and Fergusson’s work acts as a way for history, people, issues and emotions to be archived in the elegant form of songs and poetry. Additionally, without this Romantic portrayal, the modernists would have nothing to work against in the 20th century and thus expand further the way in which the Habbie Stanza and Scots could be used. Also, the way in which Scotland is depicted in books, movies and TV shows today would differ greatly because the idea that Scotland is magical, mystical and rugged is represented regularly only because of its deep roots in Scottish culture by poets such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Further, their work fills readers, Scottish and foreign alike, with love for Scotland which is invaluable.
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The Romanization of Scotland that took place during the 18th and 19th century was crucial in setting up what was to change in the following centuries. This Romanization served many purposes such as popularizing the Highlands again, providing stories and tales that those who had moved from the Highlands during the Clearances could read, preserving the perspective and culture of the common man and the Scots vernacular and providing material for current writers to shape their own perspectives of Scotland. Often, it is not the act that is significant but rather, how the act was executed. In this case, the writers created content that would live on, inspire and preserve over anything else. They preserved the common man’s perspective which is vital in a time when Scotland’s history is being changed rapidly by the greater political powers that care very little about the common people in the rural areas. The choices made by these writers created grand impressions on the writers that came after them and the people that read their work. Because of this impact and their success at how they chose to Romantically portray Scotland, their work will remain crucial in defining the complete Scottish identity always.
- The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Crawford, Robert, and Imlah, Mick,(London: Penguin Books, 2006).
- McClure, J. Derrick, ‘What’s Scots?’, Fortnight, no. 318 (1993), p.3-5, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25554102>.
- ‘443. Bonny Dundee. Sir Walter Scott. 1909-14. English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald. The Harvard Classics’, <https://www.bartleby.com/41/443.html> [accessed 11 November 2018].
- Mackillop, Andrew, ‘Jacobitism, Union & Empire 1688-c1788’, Introduction to Scottish Culture A HIST 1022, Class Lecture at the University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK, 31 October 2018.
- Leask, Nigel, ‘Robert Burns’ in The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature, ed. by Carruthers, Gerard, and McIlvanney, Liam, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.71-85.
- Robertson, Fiona, ‘Walter Scott’, in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: Enlightenment, Britain and Empire (1707-1918), ed. by Brown, Ian, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p.183-190.
- Young, Ronnie, ‘Enlightenment and Romanticism’, Introduction to Scottish Culture A HIST 1022, Class Lecture at the University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK, 31 October 2018.
- Young, Ronnie, ‘The Habbie Stanza’, Scottish Literature 1A SCOTLIT 1013, Class Lecture at the University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK, 4 October 2018.
 J. Derrick McClure, ‘What’s Scots?’, Fortnight, no. 318 (1993), p.3-5, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25554102>.
 The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. by Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah,(London: Penguin Books, 2006), p.158.
 Andrew Mackillop, ‘Jacobitism, Union & Empire 1688-c1788’, Introduction to Scottish Culture HIST 1022, Class Lecture at the University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK, October 31, 2018, slide 15.
 Ronnie Young, ‘Enlightenment and Romanticism’, Introduction to Scottish Culture HIST 1022, Class Lecture at the University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK, October 31, 2018, slides 1-6.
 The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, p.268.
The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, p. 290.
 Nigel Leask, ‘Robert Burns’ in The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literature, ed. by Gerard Carruthers and Liam McIlvanney, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.71.
 Leask, p.74.
 The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, p.281.
 Ronnie Young, ‘The Habbie Stanza’, Scottish Literature 1A SCOTLIT 1013, Class Lecture at the University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK, October 4, 2018, slide 27.
 The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, p.281.
 The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, p.293.
 ‘443. Bonny Dundee. Sir Walter Scott. 1909-14. English Poetry II: From Collins to Fitzgerald. The Harvard Classics’, <https://www.bartleby.com/41/443.html> [accessed 11 November 2018].
 Fiona Robertson, ‘Walter Scott’, in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature: Enlightenment, Britain and Empire (1707-1918, ed. by Ian Brown, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006), p.183.
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