‘Followers to the bone’: Mick Imlah and taking Scottishness seriously

The late Mick Imlah’s short narrative poem about the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, The Lost Leader, treats its subject with both seriousness and an absence of sentimentality. A rare combination in examining Scottish history.

The poem opens with what is a persistent atmospheric theme of the poem – rain. Rather than give us a history lesson of the Jacobite tragedy, we meet our battered narrator hero in the moment of waiting, in the miserable rain that fell after the bloodshed of Culloden. The phrase ‘followers to the bone’ fuses the loyalty of Highlander soldiers with the showering rain, beaten men stand drenched and shivering in the logical ends of a warrior’s code.

Mick Imlah, who died in 2009, devoted his last collection of poems to Scottish history and culture, giving his subjects a gravity and seriousness they have long lacked in literature

Mick Imlah, who died in 2009, devoted his last collection of poems to Scottish history and culture, giving his subjects a gravity and seriousness they have long lacked in literature

What comes is not an order, not an inspired, Shakespearean oration to rebuild the glory of the White Cockade.

Rather, a message to disband: ‘Let each seek his own safety/The best way he can.‘ This feeble last word from a leader that has already fled, marks the first break in the loyal hearts of the Jacobite survivors. If we are to believe the accounts of John Prebble’s Mutiny, in this small but durable civilisation, if the clan warrior survived he was duty bound to carry on. Turning back was never an option.

Each stanza ends with a lingering tail, a question, an unfinished doubt. The second stanza ends: ‘If we’d wanted to save ourselves…’

Next comes the galling arrogance, a ‘fleeting gesture’ in the form of a quote from Jeremiah:

Royal of him, as well,

That with that fleeting gesture

He sent a verse from Scripture

A screed from Jeremiah:

Weep ye not for the dead,

Neither bemoan them:

but weep sore for him that goeth

away: for he shall return no more,

nor see his native country.

So how could he leave it?

A high pitched cynicism and resentment starts to seep through the cracks of a fractured heart. A kind of ringing, inarticulate shock of betrayal, brought out by the naturalness of rhyme between ‘gesture’ and ‘scripture’.

The words rhyme, but the conceptual meaning is a direct clash. For a clansman, biblical quotes were grave things, not cherry-pickings for cowardly sophism. The assonance of ‘fleeting’, ‘screed’ and ‘weep’ raise the pitch of this stanza’s music. The innocent loyalty of the soldier’s heart is now tainted with a baffled sarcasm, evident form the first line of the stanza: ‘Royal of him…’

Bad omens follow. Charlie’s men are left to piece together the horrifying truth of their predicament. It’s not the physical hardship, not the loss of life and the rainy winds punishing their battle-battered bones, that gives cause for grief. It is the ease by which they have been left to fend for themselves, the simplicity of unconscionable retreat. Work it out.. is the message, like the parting words of a callous lover.

The narrator stares at the shadows cast on the ‘grey-green walls of the world.’ What walls are these? A future available to us, walls of rotting moss, or concrete? Within a few decades of the 1745 rebellion, the Highlands, along with the newly minted Great Britain, would be transformed by technology and industrial revolution.

And once a dismal scrowl

Of wild cats, mating or fighting

The future is unstable and uncertain, but dark and full of turmoil for sure. The heart finally gives way to a cold reality of loss and defeat with the beautiful line, ‘the fire of belonging was out’. A phrase that captures the incalculable loss of the ’45, the picture of a people betrayed by unionists and rebels alike. Identity, community, culture wiped out like the last embers of a crofters fire in the leaking rains.

The tragic meditation ends:

The cause was light

A flower worn in the heart

The secret white of the rose:

And all we did was sweetened by it.

Is it a quote? Immediately we are brought to Hugh MacDairmid:

The rose of all the world is not for me

I want for my part

Only the little white rose of Scotland

That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.

The sharp and sweet rose, the white emblem of Jacobite loyalty, represents the intangible humanity of a doomed and depressing fact of history. MacDairmid clung to it for dear life. Most Scots, and British, choose to dismiss it, overlook it, and make pious gestures about ‘putting the past in the past.’ Others romanticise it, serving only to deepen the ignorance in the undergrowth of Victorian sentimentality.

All of these are wrong-headed. Without the seriousness of Mick Imlah’s treatment, without a poet’s defiant honesty about the scandal and betrayal that formed our current constitution, the debate about independence is condemned to bitch-fights and intellectual short-cuts. History doesn’t always repeat itself, sometimes it simply spirals into posturing and dishonesty.

A lot of what it means to be Scottish has been submerged in popular culture – Burns night, shortbread, Braveheart, Irn Bru, Buckfast. It is fetishised by the middle class, but what they are fetishising is not Scottish culture, but a rather patronising idea of working class culture. Those who would describe themselves as working class in Scotland seem to associate their Scottishness with a pouting philistinism – chip shops and two-for-one drinks, kebabs outside the casino on Sauchiehall Street.

This is not Scottishness. And it is easy to see why many Scots feel dissociated from their heritage. Even the token gestures towards cultural pride are filtered through bourgeois, anglicised voyeurism. Robert Burns was a dangerous and seditious Republican. It’s debatable whether he would have been in favour of independence or not, and it is irrelevant.

What’s more important is his grief at the loss of a tradition, his devotion to the organic, grass roots culture of Scottishness. His knowledge that even Scotland’s regal lineage, the murderous story of its kings, is tied up with the stories of the people.

Parcel of Rogues reads better as a poem than it does sung. Calmly recited we get the full gravity of what he was saying. Sung today, it is in danger of being nothing more than a melancholy curiosity.

Burns’s Parcel of Rogues is a song about the essential schizophrenia at the heart of Scottish identity. A desire to be different, to carve out distinctiveness coupled with a desire to progress, grow and flourish. In a sense, the Scottish experience since the Union is a microcosm of the wider world, the awkward advancements of the human experience since the industrial revolution. The question of Scottish independence is intimately linked with the cultural revolution that emerged from moving from agricultural communities into an age of technology, and societies dominated and driven by technological power.

‘The Sark rins o’er the Solway sands/An Tweed rins to the ocean…’ That is Burns demanding that the difference between the nations is real, and that they be recognised as such. The ‘ancient glory’ and ‘martial story’ are not mythical fantasies of a Spartan ideal, or the pompous nationalism of sentimental affectation. They refer to real battles fought with real blood, against ‘English steel.’

The tragedy is not that those negotiating the terms of the Union of 1707 were betraying an idea of Scottish independence. They were betraying the people, the families and communities that had sacrificed their lives to resist political hegemony on the British isles. The Scots’ national identity, whether we like to admit it or not, is intertwined with this movement of resistance. To turn away from it is dangerous, and according to Burns, a form of genuine political treachery.


‘What force of guile could not subdue

Thro many warlike ages,

Is wrought now for a coward few

For hireling traitor’s wages.’

It wasn’t just the betrayal of a country whose very self-image had been forged in righteous claims for sovereignty, it was that this claim had been so easily relinquished for the promise of money and land.

Burns cannot be read as a raving nationalist war-monger. Though the independence movement is so often dismissed as advocating ‘separatism’ and a return to long-dead conflicts. These simplistic attempts to quell the civic movement of the independence campaign deliberately, and counter-productively, miss the point.

Burns, rather, is casting light on the sickly irony of the Union of 1707. Its defenders to this day paint a picture of a progressive movement, as if the Act of Union was some kind of emancipatory hand out from the powers that be to the working people of Britain. It was nothing of the kind. It was, and will always be, a sell out, a capitulation at gun point, trading culture, national pride and constitutional integrity for booty and land.

The inconvenient truths about Scottish identity, that it was formed by resistance to English hegemony, and the trade off between cultural authenticity for the wealth of a class of grasping lowlanders, is the something both the pro-independence and anti-independence movements are at pains to avoid facing up to.

If we were to unravel these cruel, strong of facts from history, we would have half a chance of dressing the wounds that continue to fester under the veil of British prosperity. It is disingenuous of the SNP and the pro-independence movement to make claims for nationhood without addressing the anti-English nature of Scottish identity. Equally disingenuous is the anti-independence movement’s insistence on a Victorian, safe and romanticised Scottishness, one that degrades and condescends to the Scottish people while showing a philistinic disregard for the unpleasant truths of history. Only by facing up these truths, and their unpleasantness is there any hope settling the independence question once and for all.

What’s lost is the seriousness of Scottish self-reflection, and as a result the wholeness of the Scottish self-image. Why are such things important? Are they, particularly in the case of Scottishness, nothing more than a fetish?

The fact that Scots people feel the need to ask themselves this, and the fact that the independence debate was swamped in accusations of false nationalism and ‘sham patriotism’ betrays the real problem at the heart of the Scottish question. Since the Union of 1707 Scottishness has been commercialised and commodified first as a way of giving legitimacy to imperial ambition, and then as a way of generating the industry of tourism. To many English people, and I include the Scotophiles in this, Scottishness is a quaint artefact of history, like thatched roofs and steam trains. Interesting, worthwhile, but practically redundant. When the spectre of independence rears its head, when Scottishness asserts itself as a political reality, most English people act affronted and offended.

The same is true for most Scots, particularly the middle class ones. They are embarrassed and secretly suspicious of any claim to national identity beyond the Six Nations or wearing a kilt at a wedding. Embarrassed because they know that much of what passes for Scottishness is as Edwin Muir put it, ‘a sham’, a Victorian fetish or a myth told to American tourists.

The mistake for both the offended Englishman, and the embarrassed Scot, is not in being suspicious of this cartoon Scottishness and all those who appeal to it for political legitimacy. They are right to be suspicious and embarrassed. And they are right to view it as dangerous.

Both the affronted English commentator and the bourgeois Scot assume that this is the only Scottishness on offer. In this they are alike. Both have invested in this idea of Scottishness, because it is the easiest form of Scottishness to assume under the banner of popular British identity.

It is not the Queen Victoria, shortbread and Irn Bru Scottishness, however, that causes the independence question to persist like a political boomerang. It is in fact the tartan cornball flummery of Burns Night and the Edinburgh Tattoo that is the very problem.

As long as this idea of Scottishness fails to confront the truth about the country’s history, and fails to allow people to take seriously their origins, their identity and their authentic, rooted cultural experience, then the question of Scottish independence threatens to cast multiple shadows of ignorance and confusion on both England and Scotland, and from both sides of the border.

Perhaps it is not only the idea of Scottishness that is confused and ill-fitting, it is the idea of Britishness also. Shortbread tin Scottishness exists within, and for, the greater mythical claptrap of simplistic Britishness, a Britishness that is now buckling under commercialism, globalisation and immigration.

We must be careful not to compound our mistakes, however. Because the cultural egos of Scottishness, Englishness and Britishness have proven themselves phony, does not mean there is not something authentic hidden beneath them. Equally dangerous would be to throw out the idea of cultural integrity and a value-based patriotism.

Nicola Sturgeon’s recent speech at UCL prompted a predictable backlash from the London press, trying turn around the independence debate to one of ‘English votes for English laws’, rather than seeing it for what it is, an alternative source of power, and alternative voice in British politics making itself heard.

How dare she arrogate herself in this way? As a Scot, and a representative of this loud bunch of whiners north of the border, she should get back in her place. Pipe down little lady.

The succession of Nicola Sturgeon has put the lie on the Salmond haters, who insisted that the independence movement was nothing more than a hysterical mob consensus, driven on by the whipping rhetoric of a smirking demagogue.

The truth is that Sturgeon’s non-austerity (a better term than anti-austerity) approach, her common sense, confident, and dare I say it, female approach to social democracy, presents a workable and popular alternative to simply punishing the public for decades of government overspending and neo-liberal backslapping.

All the right-centrist self-pity and sense of being affronted by the uppity Scots, will not make the problem go away. The reaction in Westminster to the independence vote, and to the fact that the SNP seems to have gone from strength to strength since the referendum, is met with a kind of violent, ostrich-like exasperation. The unionists resort to a John Wilkesian, venomous defensiveness, instead recognising the facts.

What are those facts? Well, deeper than the economic arguments, and the controversy about austerity, is the fact that Britishness remains an ill-defined idea, something that can be found only in James Bond films and Kate Middleton’s fashion sense.

Let’s not let the nationalists off the hook either. The use of public concerns about austerity, and the manipulation of anger at Westminster mediocrity, is as cynical and short-sighted as the Daily Mail/Spectator attitude of ‘how dare they?’ when confronted with the rise of Scottish nationalism.

The jingoism from both nationalist movements and unionism leaves the crucial matter of history and culture unresolved. For the London centrist right, Scots need to put up or shut up and stop being so damn myopic and childish. For the nationalists and anti-austerity left, Britishness is not only redundant, but went to the grave with Margaret Thatcher.

Despite all the tedious Blairite talk of multiculturalism, it is the very idea of Britishness that needs to be examined.

There’s the famous story, probably apocryphal, of that great Hanoverian sympathiser and committed unionist Sir Walter Scott, who, after a meeting of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh on how the justice systems of England and Scotland should be integrated, broke down on Union Street and said to is companion, ‘what makes Scotland Scotland has gone.’

The moral of this is not that Scott, when push came to shove, couldn’t hide his patriotic allegiances. Rather, that the great unionists of Scotland, and you can arguably include Robert Burns in that bunch, never saw Scottishness and Britishness as mutually exclusive. If Britain is to survive as a country, whatever the politics might or might not look like, old wounds and historical diversities must be taken seriously.

The biggest mistake middle class Scots and observers south of the border make is in viewing the persistent sense of Scottish identity as at best a romanticised throwback. This falsehood is compounded by the SNP’s brand of opportunistic, money-obsessed patriotism.

Just as the Jacobite rising of 1745 was not a Scots versus England affair, but rather a cross-border civil war based on political and cultural allegiances, the constitutional challenge of the Scottish independence movement needs to be understood as something deeper and more intangible than an expression of dismal, domestic grievances.

Unfortunately this means that instead of political grandstanding, we need more poets and artists like Mick Imlah who are willing to look beyond the tourist board cliches of the British Isles, and confront the historical subconscious, and the cultural personality disorders of its scattered peoples.


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