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Bannockburns’ Shortfalls

Calum Mechie

BannockburnsRobert Crawford
Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination, 1314-2014
Edinburgh University Press, 2014
288 pages
ISBN 978-


Between 1995 and 1997, the Scottish actor Robert Carlyle played the eponymous hero in the BBC drama Hamish Macbeth as well as the “total fuckin crazy psycho” Begbie in Danny Boyle’s adaptation (1996) of Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting (1993). Carlyle’s voice is one of Scotland’s best-known. He is an excellent and appropriate reader of Robert Burns’s raucous 1792 poem “When Princes and Prelates”, better known by its more explicit title, “Why should na poor folk mowe”. Published in The Merry Muses of Caledonia in 1799, Burns’s poem is a bawdy celebration, inspired by the French Revolution, of the common man’s sexual autonomy: “The great folk hae siller, and houses and lands, / Poor bodies hae naething but mowe”. Burns hymns cross-class, global equality—everybody “mowes”—and in so doing flicks, as Begbie might say, the vickies southward, in the direction of the court of George III: “Here’s George our gude king and Charlotte his queen, / And lang may they tak a gude mowe!” According to Robert Crawford, Burns “is preoccupied with the meanings of independence both personal and political”. As a brief scan of, or listen to, “When Princes and Prelates [1]” shows, Crawford’s claim is incontestable. Yet that poem is not mentioned in his Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination, 1314-2014; Crawford prefers the 1794 song “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn [2]“—better known as “Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled”. The reason for this preference is, presumably, the titular resonances and, as such, it reveals a problematic limitation of Crawford’s simultaneously slight (at 237 pages, plus notes) and near-millennial study. Attracted to the symmetry of Scottish Independence being voted on in the 700th anniversary of its last being, somewhat more bloodily, won, Crawford shifts his focus between the historic battle for an Ancient Kingdom and the contemporary debate surrounding a modern nation. The links between Bannockburn, Scottish Independence, and Literary Imagination are never made clear and, as a result, seem rather arbitrary.

Sometimes, Crawford operates his categories as if a cluster of interdependent criteria. Thus Trainspotting, a coruscating account of unemployment and drug addiction in less “well-set”, to quote W.H. Auden, Edinburgh, is largely skipped over because Welsh’s anticipation of “a cynicism that has intensified among many twenty-first-century voters” makes “any supposed ‘Bannockburn spirit’ [seem] hard to invoke”. At other times, however, aspects of the cluster are dispensed with so that Crawford’s study is not confined exclusively to “literary imaginations” drawn explicitly to Bannockburn. For example, Crawford’s discussion of Hugh MacDiarmid’s “difficult” and “eccentric” Scottish voice is considerate, nuanced, and illuminating, nowhere more so than in the evident enjoyment with which he lingers over the wonderful couplet which ends “The Bonnie Broukit Bairn”: “But greet, an’ in your tears ye’ll droun / The haill clanjamfrie!” This is a beautiful assertion of the importance of little voices but, beyond the pleasing alliterative echo, “The Bonnie Broukit Bairn” seems devoid of any “Bannockburn spirit”. Crawford’s justification for the exclusion of Trainspotting, then, seems strange when set against the inclusion of “The Bonnie Broukit Bairn”. Similarly, from Crawford’s discussion of Burns, initiated by the self-proclaimed Patriot Bard’s remark that “the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest” and concerned principally with his inheritance of Bannockburn’s Wallace-Bruce dichotomy, an unusually and disappointingly staid figure emerges. Bannockburn, it seems, is not the most affirming lens through which to read Burns, of whom Crawford has written an excellent biography; the reader of Bannockburns cannot help but wish the Bard had received the more holistic treatment granted to MacDiarmid. The rather summary treatment of Trainspotting is similarly disappointing, but at least Burns and Welsh are mentioned: James Kelman may be, in Crawford’s view, “Scotland’s most influential novelist” but his most influential novel, How Late It Was, How Late, is missing entirely.

Criticising a book for what is not in it may be cowardly. At the same time, when the book in question “makes claims for the lasting importance of literary voices as contributors to political debate” and all but ignores the most influential of contemporary voices (Crawford does quote from Kelman’s 2009 interview with the Scottish Review of Books), the selection process becomes a relevant critical question. How Late It Was, How Late is insistently pertinent to Crawford’s project. Kelman’s novel tells the story of and is narrated by Sammy, a shop-lifting ex-convict struggling to regain his independence (Independence?), having been blinded in a drunken fight with the “sodjers” (police). After it won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1994, How Late It Was caused a controversy after the Times writer Simon Jenkins described Kelman as “an illiterate savage”. Looking back on that remark in an interview published in the Guardian [3] in 2008, Kelman said: “These bastards think they own the language. They already own the courts. They own everything. They want to block your stories, and they will, if you let them”. Independence and the Literary Imagination seem expressly linked here, which makes the absence of How Late It Was from Crawford’s study strange. It is frustrating, also, for a reader who has endured lengthy quotations—which, Crawford rightly suspects, may make modern readers “snigger”—from Surrey-born Jane Porter’s 1810 epic The Scottish Chiefs, to have Kelman’s spiky prose withheld.

Bannockburns evokes adjectives like “frustrating” and “disappointing” because of the promise it offers but fails to deliver. Literary voices are lasting speakers in political debate, as Kelman has asserted. Here we have sparkling voices, a stirring debate and, in Crawford, an eloquent writer and a prodigious researcher. Too often these promising ingredients are meagrely mixed or kept apart entirely by the strictures of Crawford’s arbitrarily-applied criteria. Only in the rare instances where Bannockburn and Scottish Independence happen to align within a particular literary voice does Crawford’s eloquence and skill properly emerge. The part played in the Scottish Renaissance by the American-born James Whyte—who, as editor and patron of The Modern Scot, articulated a nuanced and internationalist version of Scottish Independence—allows for one such alignment, and Crawford’s discussion of Whyte and his St. Andrews circle is illuminating of both the historical and the contemporary resonances of the Scottish Question. Crawford credits Whyte for “acknowledg[ing] nationality’s contingency and changing nature”. He quotes Whyte’s statement that

National identity is not a concrete thing given to a people in its beginnings, but a corporate sentiment that is moulded by history: hence the unreality of the arguments of those Scottish Nationalists whose chief desire is to recapture pre-Union traits we have lost.

Instructive in the context of the current political debate between “Yes Scotland” and “Better Together”, Whyte’s inclusion in Crawford’s study places the history and mythology of Bannockburn in an important critical context and helps develop Bannockburns‘s excellent first chapter on the battle. In that opening section, Bannockburn, “from the start […] the most literary of battles”, is read as a fight for, above all, liberty. Such a reading, as well as Crawford’s ambitious hyphenating of seven hundred years of history, is aided by the work of Edwin Morgan. Appointed Scots Makar in 2004, Morgan’s first act as national poet was to translate into modern English the verses of friar-poet Robert Baston, taken to Bannockburn by Edward I to celebrate his victory, but captured by Robert the Bruce and forced to hymn him. Morgan’s oeuvre, in this way, spans the near-seven centuries between Bannockburn and the present. His careful, often difficult but sometimes popular work is discussed at illuminating length in Bannockburns, which concludes with a brief but interesting discussion of the National Trust of Scotland’s commissioning of ten poets (Crawford himself was one) to write poems marking the seven hundredth anniversary of the battle.

While these poems intelligently and often movingly reflect on what Crawford calls “the richness of the literary inheritance in the Bannockburn story”, they reflect on lots of other stories as well. This poetic playing with dates is a sort of rhetorical trick: if Bannockburn was “a written triumph” from the start, it is ironic that almost none who fought to win it could write. Robert Carlyle could also be presented as having covered, in just two years, an entire millennium of Scottish history by playing first a fictional detective, who takes his name from an eleventh century Scottish King, and then Begby, reading Burns in between. This is pedantic, but a deeper point stands: stories of Scottish Independence have many different makars, and many different tellers. Asked to pick one moment, most viewers of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting will remember Ewan McGregor, as Mark Renton, orgasmically invoking Archie Gemmill’s goal against Holland at the 1978 World Cup. Telescoping seven centuries of history into the legacy of one battle, however literary, Crawford inevitably misses some of the story. As a literary history, then, Bannockburns—despite its numerous and often interesting discussions of some of Scotland’s Literary Imaginations—is limited. His title hints at a problem which his book never solves. Pluralising a battle but leaving Imagination in the singular, Crawford gives the conjunction and the hyphen that follow far too much work to do. To read his short history is, ultimately, to realise how much history is seven hundred years, how contested a concept is Scottish Independence and perhaps how little Bannockburn has now to do with it.

Calum Mechie [4] is reading for a DPhil in English at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.