The book of the week: The Invention of Scotland

John Morrill delights in a teasing of the Scots

July 17, 2008

Hugh Trevor-Roper loved solving mysteries. He was a senior intelligence officer in the Second World War, trained to cut through the subterfuge and camouflage of the enemy. His masterly account of Hitler's last days - essential to establishing that the Fuhrer really had killed himself and not staged his own death the better to re-emerge, as Napoleon did a year after his first downfall - is riveting history using all the guiles of military intelligence. His unmasking in the 1970s of Edmund Backhouse, author of forged memoirs of the fall of the Chinese Imperial dynasty, was just as clinical and even more fun. Many of his essays use the same techniques.

He had one spectacular fall from grace, of course, when he misauthenticated documents being touted as Hitler's memoirs, but that costly error of judgment was the result of excessive haste, when he suspended his accustomed painful sifting of evidence. He loved to rumble fraudsters, and in The Invention of Scotland he was at the very top of his form.

"Was" on top form: this is a posthumous publication. It was written in the form in which it is now published in the 1970s. Trevor-Roper died in 2003: he had published prodigiously, but in the last 30 years of his life, he was quintessentially an essayist - brilliant, witty, sensationally catholic in his interests. Looking back over his career one can see that he was an essayist in the great tradition. It was not that he could not write books; but he was never happy with the form of the books he wrote. He left a whole pile of them in a nearly finished state, but not in a state he was willing to let go of.

The problem for his executors is therefore whether to hold on to work he felt to be unfinished, or whether to publish that which he was unhappy to publish. The difference, of course, is that while he was alive these torsos were capable of being finished; but now it is all or nothing. And thank goodness the latter view has prevailed. So this book on The Invention of Scotland is published without the introduction exploring the nature of myth and the nature of Scottish - what shall we say? - insouciance, that it really needs. It is more unfinished than his magisterial account of Europe's Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, Huguenot physician to James I and multifaceted intellectual, diplomat and intelligencer, which came out last year.

What we are offered is a gleeful account of three Scottish delusions: the elaboration of a political myth - the delusion of a Scottish ancient constitution that kept Scots warm in the long hard nights of English oppression from the Rough Wooing to the Cromwellian occupation; the literary myth of Ossian, ancient bard and supposed composer of Celtic epics to match Homer; and the sartorial myth of the kilt and the tartan. These are three detective stories told with glee and relish. And that glee and relish apply both to exploring the manufacture of the myth and to the stubborn refusal of Scots to confront the frauds they contained. It is a book that has already, in the pages of the Scottish press, elicited the kind of rage about the charge of Scottish gullibility that is also evidenced in George Buchanan, defending indefensible lists of Scottish kings, or the Highland Society of London defending the authenticity of the Ossianic epics of Fingal and Temora. The Scots, Trevor-Roper would have retorted, are not very good at laughing at themselves.

Trevor-Roper liked to make people feel uncomfortable about their past. When he gave the Wiles Lectures in Belfast in the 1970s he talked about Erasmianism - thin on the ground in the province in its time of Troubles. He liked teasing the Church of England about its most sacerdotal bishops - nothing defines his work more than an articulate anticlericalism that the French or Irish must envy. But nowhere has he written a book more calculated to give offence than this one. He was a Northumbrian, a man born among the descendants of Border reivers (raiders), with his very title in the English peerage - Lord Dacre - resonant of the ancient Anglo-Scottish feuds. The book grows (and it shows) out of separate lectures given on separate occasions in the 1970s, and then partially reworked into a single volume in three parts - a trident to prod the Scots with.

Another context is relevant. Trevor-Roper was a strong opponent of the Scottish Devolution Bill reluctantly promoted by a Callaghan Government in need of friends. Trevor-Roper was instrumental in getting hereditary peers to change the habits of a lifetime and turn up in the House of Lords to support a wrecking amendment to the Bill (the clause set a minimum proportion of the electorate needed to vote in favour of devolution in a referendum). His reward was a peerage from Margaret Thatcher soon after she came to power. The lectures that make up this book gave intellectual credibility to what in Scottish history has been oft called "a political job". So this is a ferocious tease of the Scots; but it is a tease with a purpose.

And ironically, just as Buchanan abandoned his great exegesis of the myth of the ancient Scottish constitution because the purpose for which he was writing it (to justify the "election" of James V's bastard, the Earl of Moray, as successor to the deposed Mary Queen of Scots) came to an end with Moray's assassination, so the urgency to publish this book ended with the very success of the wrecking amendment to the Devolution Bill.

The Invention of Scotland is, then, a congeries of reworked lectures that seeks to unmask myth-inventors and to calibrate Scottish gullibility, to erect it into a national trait for political purposes. It succeeds brilliantly. It is a book of its time, but it remains huge fun to read. The Scots can rightly fume that what is revealed in this book about Scots and Picts, about the forging of the Ossian epics by James Macpherson (and more particularly by the less well-known Lachlan Macpherson, Laird of Strathmashie), about the invention of the kilt by an English Quaker and of the tartan by a pair of Polish-Scottish fantasists known as the Sobiewski Stuart brothers, is all well enough known and that this book reinvents many wheels.

Indeed, all these subjects have been treated with a great weight of scholarship and a great attention to detail in the past 30 years, in large part because of the challenge laid down in the lectures that lie behind this book. Nonetheless, the relish with which Trevor-Roper unmasks the culprits; his great set-piece descriptions of George IV's visit to Edinburgh - an invention of tradition if ever there was one - that culminated in George IV's face-to-face encounter with a portly alderman who had by chance allocated himself the same tartan as had been invented for this Hanoverian King of Scotland; let alone his engagement with the giants of the Scottish Renaissance and Enlightenment (his dissection of Buchanan with a resolutely second- rather than first-hand knowledge of God, of the queasiness of David Hume and the ebullient good sense of Dr Johnson in the face of implacable Scottish belief in the authenticity of Ossian); all make this a book as exhilarating to read as Tristram Shandy. Some qualities are timeless.

THE AUTHOR

Hugh Trevor-Roper was born in Northumberland in 1914. Educated at Charterhouse, he went on to Christ Church, Oxford. During the war he served in the Radio Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service.

Although he was originally a classicist, the ending of the Second World War marked a change in Trevor-Roper's interests. The intelligence services asked him to investigate Stalin's claims that Hitler was still alive. He travelled through Germany, interrogating survivors of Hitler's inner circle, which led to his book The Last Days of Hitler, published in 1947.

In 1946 he returned to Christ Church, where he took up the position of fellow and censor. In 1957 he was appointed Regius professor of modern history at Oxford, and in that year he also married Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnston. He became a Conservative Life Peer in 1979, taking the title of Baron Dacre of Glanton in the County of Northumberland.

In 1980, he moved to Cambridge as master of Peterhouse. Despite attracting some criticism, he made strides in modernising the college.

He retired from Peterhouse in 1987, and as director of Times Newspapers in 1988. His mind stayed sharp, but in his 80s he faced the gradual loss of his sight and then the onset of cancer, which resulted in his death in 2003.

The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History

By Hugh Trevor-Roper

Yale University Press

304pp, £18.99

ISBN 9780300136869

Published 13 May 2008

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