Saturday, September 15, 2007

Scotland on My Mind

When my kids were little, they listened to Neil Diamond tapes endlessly--those old eight-tracks--on cross-country trips, and to this day they can sing most of his songs, including "Georgia on My Mind." But these days it's not Georgia but Scotland that's on my mind. We've made our reservations, and I've paid for business-class tickets--a hefty investment, but, hey, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. Today I went through the photo and application process to renew my out-of-date passport. I'm really going to Scotland!
I've been reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World, a fascinating book that taught me a lot of Scottish history and made me believe that without the Scots we would be primitive intellectually and morally. I really have learned a lot. But last night, reading about Sir Walter Scott, I was struck by a comparison. In graduate school, my dissertation was on the development of the myth of the American West, the ways in which our mythologized and romantic view of the West shaped out whole sense of ourselves as a nation--we still either glory in it or suffer from it, depending on your view of the wannabe cowboy in the presidency.
The Scottish Highlands were for centuries considered rough and uncultured territory. Kilts were "barbaric frummery" and were at one point outlawed. But for an 1815 visit to Scotland by the Prince of Wales, tartan kilts turned up on civic officials who only twenty years earlier would not have been caught dead in them. The difference had been rendered by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, who rescued Highland culture "from the rubbish heap of history" and made it respectable. He gave it a panache that has made us identify Scotland by the Highlands ever since.
Scots who came to America in the 19th century found a similar land in the American West: inaccessible, governed by tribal warriors, about to be displaced by the forces of progress. Until the novelists and the artists got hold of the American West, it was often dismissed as a rough land, uncivilized, needing only to be conquered and civilized. But then novelists like Owen Wister (The Virginian) and artists like Charlie Russell and Frederic Remington saw the imaginative possibilites of the American West. They mythologized it, and it became the symbol of American virtues and strength--courage, fearlessness, strength, determination, a certain willingness to endure hardship, and a large dose of heroics. Those are pretty much the virtues of the Scottish Highlander too--our heroes wear buckskin; Scottish heroes wear kilts. Either is, to most modern minds, outlandish. Wister, Russell and Remington did for the American West what Sir Walter Scott did for the Highlands. And both myths endure to this day.
It might be a bit much to draw parallels between the Highland Clearances in the 19th century, with the potato blight, and the removal of Native Americans to reservations and the disappearance of the buffalo that sustained their way of life--still, the thought lingers.
And where do I most want to go when I go to the United Kingdom? London? Edinborough? Nope, you've got it--the Highlands. I want to go to Inverness, where's there's a MacBain Memorial Park, and to St. Bean's Kirk at Fowlis Wester, north of Inverness, where early MacBains are buried. And I'll find the homestead, no longer in the family but still standing. I haven't read Scott in years, but maybe I should again.

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