Demilitarising the Scottish Imagination


By Jason Michael

When people around the world think of Scotland they think of tartan, bagpipes, haggis, and soldiers. Sadly the soldiery has seeped deep into the tartan and the bagpipes. Is this what we want, and can we imagine something else?


Robert Burns wrote of the Highlands that it was the “birthplace of valour,” and Walter Scott asked: “Where is the coward that would not dare to fight for such a land as Scotland?” Our national anthem praises the thistle that “fought and died for [its] wee bit hill and glen.” Tourists pour into Edinburgh and Stirling to lap up the spectacle of Scots martial glory; the kilts, dirks, and rifles. We are, for such a placid wee country, caked in all the muck and trappings of warmongering empire. But is this what we really are, a nation absorbed in militarism and violence?

One answer to this question has to be yes. There is no avoiding the association of tartan and the bagpipes with battlefields spanning the whole width of the world. Scots regiments marched on and subdued Egypt, Afghanistan, and India. Scottish graves litter the fields of Flanders and the Somme. Scotland has made its mark on the world and left behind it a horrendous trail of misery, suffering, and blood. Search for Scottish music on YouTube or Vimeo and you will be presented with an endless list of military tattoos and pipe and drum dirges and requiems for fallen heroes.


Watching an old video of the Black Watch regiment’s 2005 march past in Dundee – a celebration of the soldiers’ return from active service in Iraq – I was struck by the awesome horror of this fame. Iraq was not a glorious war. It was far from it. As now it is coming at last to light that the man who blew the whistle on the Labour government’s sexed-up dossier, Dr. David Kelly, was most likely assassinated by the British government for his troubles, we know that Iraq was an unnecessary Anglo-American war of aggression that was responsible for the deaths of well over one million human beings.

In its 310 year history Britain has not fought a single justifiable war. Some will argue that stopping the Nazi genocide was a just basis for armed conflict, which indeed it was, but this was not the reason Britain went to war with Nazi Germany in September 1939. Britain declared war on Germany and its allies to defend its own allies and empire. Even when the RAF was in range of the Nazi extermination camps the bomber crews were instructed not to waste munitions on disrupting the railroads used by the Nazis to transport their millions of victims. Since 1707 Britain’s wars have always been wars of expansion, conquest, and domination, and Scots have fought in them all.

When we discuss the British colonisation of Scotland the unionists are driven to distraction. Scotland, according to their limited definition of colonialism, was never a colony. They will point to our ancient military tradition and remind us that Scotland was itself a driving force of the British Empire – an empire that killed as many as 150 million people, which it was. They will tell us that Scots were key players in London’s imperial project and that Scotland benefited from empire, and all of this is true. None of this means, however, that empire and murder in the name of Britain was Scotland’s doing. Scotland and Scots too were imperial possessions; England’s long economic war against Scotland forced many into the British Army, lack of opportunities at home drove middle class and educated Scots to seek their fortunes in the furthest reaches of the empire, and, yes, as one of the “home countries” Scotland prospered from the theft of empire as working class Scots were worked to death in disgusting and dangerous factories while being forced to live in slums and tenements.

Scotland and Scots were never the instigators of this atrocious empire. That much is a stinking, dirty myth. Worse, it is a lie. Britain’s empire was the imperial ambition of England, into which Scotland was absorbed in 1707 and Ireland in 1801. Great Britain was and is Greater England, an aggressive and expansionist state political ideology that only ever – as it still does – marches to the beat of a London drum. Scotland, as England’s second oldest colony after Wales, has long been a source of cannon fodder for the British Crown and so it is little wonder that militarism has soaked deep into the fabric of the Scottish psyche. We were bred to be soldiers.

Faced now with the prospect of independence and the final dissolution of this poisonous British state we are left with the problem of this tradition and reputation. What are we to do with it? It would be inadvisable to throw away everything we have gained from our “union” with England, not everything was evil and twisted. Much of this is our history and we must embrace this as part of our national story, but some things are toxic.

We don’t need nuclear weapons. We don’t need little girls and boys running around with guns. The war is over. The empire is dead. Independence requires that we start right now to live as a free and independent people, and this means ridding ourselves of the things that keep us in thrall to our London masters – their traditions and reputations. One of these is the army lark. Between now and independence we have a job to do in rewriting Scotland – not whitewashing the past, but reframing how we think of it so that we are free to imagine a future unencumbered by the weight of an awful and brutal history that was foisted upon us. Our task as independentistas, as far as I see it, is to re-imagine Scotland; finding new and imaginative ways to present ourselves to the world. Our traditions and cultural resources are far richer than the violence of the past. So before we get to the ballot box again we have to know what sort of a country we are going to be.

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1st Battalion Scots Guards homecoming parade Glasgow 2013


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3 thoughts on “Demilitarising the Scottish Imagination

  1. Why it is that I keep on writing to you, “Nearly Right” but..? This is very true in this one, for there are a number of glaring problems with your article.
    The first one is that you talk about Scotland as if it had its own persona. Scotland and the Scots did this or that. It is actually at an army museum that you will find the answer to that. In the introductory video of The Highlanders Museum at Fort George it tells us that the Chiefs in the Highlands had been sending their clansmen to fight as mercenaries throughout Europe and that after Culloden they continued this tradition by raising regiments for the British Army. Thus it was that the ruling class were the people who promoted the concepts of martial glory which you allude to in your first paragraph.
    One of the byproducts of the Clearances was with the depopulation of the Highlands there were no longer enough males to take their place in the line. The reply of the highlander to the Duke of Sutherland (or his Factor, depending on your source) during the Crimean War, and repeated in “The Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil” “‘We have no country to fight for. You robbed us of our country and gave it to the sheep. Therefore, since you have preferred sheep to men, let sheep defend you.’ “ The problem was that the Highlander dispossessed into the Lowlands and abroad still joined up as it was what they believed as their heritage.
    It was not the Stalkers and Gillies of the Lovett Estates who chose to go and fight the Boer in 1900, but the wishes of Lord Lovett which drove them.Yes Scotland has got a military culture but when your young are pushed off to war, it is necessary for society to have some kind of Myth which justifies their loss. The people who were responsible of course were the Lairds (or the 1%) What was different about the 1st World War was that large number of their children also were sacrificed on the altar of militarism as well as the children of the masses.
    Scotland as an independent nation has to celebrate her history even as the side kick of the Empire, but having celebrated it we have to move on.
    What surprised me most was that when you were discussing National Anthems you made no mention of the Great Anthem for a Nation, the Freedom Come Aa Ye
    Try verse 2
    Nae mair will our bonnie callants
    Merch tae war whan our braggarts crousely craw
    Nor wee weans frae pitheid an clachan
    Murn the ships sailin doun the Broomielaw
    Broken faimilies in launs we’ve hairriet
    Will curse ‘Scotlan the Brave’ nae mair, nae mair
    Black an white ane-til-ither mairriet
    Mak the vile barracks o thair maisters bare

    No you blamed Scotland and the Scots for the actions of the 1% The lairds and the entrepreneurs in whose economic interest the rest of the community went to war.
    An independent Scotland will be adequately armed to defend her social and economic interests. We will still hope remember the exceptional actions of a our bonnie callants while holding up to contempt the choices of the braggarts who sent them there.
    There is so much remedial work which has to be done on Scotland’s self image so that we can truly be an independent nation, but demilitarisation is not one of them.

    Liked by 4 people

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