As the Gaelic Proverb says: the bonds of milk are
stronger than the bonds of blood
Edinburgh International Festival Cultural
Reflections lecture, 9 August 1999,
first published as Saturday essay in The
Herald, Glasgow, 7-8-99, p. 15.
It is to the Stornoway Gazette that one might turn to discern the oceanic forces
that ebb and flow in the spirit of a nation. Its obituaries often cap the lives
of a modest people in extraordinary light. The Hebrides, after all, comprise a
society that still understands a thing or two about belonging. Here are a people
for whom the soil, traditionally, was not property, but providential identity.
Here is a rootedness that deepens with each successive generation that enters
into rest within the very sod of place.
In struggling to express this relationship with land and sea I am pushed to
Biblical imagery. Genesis 27:27 has the poetry that an urbane world lacks.
"See", said the aged Isaac, reaching out to test Esau’s
belongingness at its most visceral level: "The smell of my son is as the
smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed".
It was in a Stornoway Gazette obituary of March 4 this year that James Shaw
Grant wrote a last tribute to the great Bearnaraigh patron of poetry, Callum
Macdonald. Hefting this man’s achievements to the mountainside of nationhood
and describing them as "a lasting seed, folded in the rich earth of
Callum’s name", the Gazette’s onetime editor said that, "The
future of Scotland does not depend on our political parties - any of them! - or
even on the new Scottish Parliament. It depends - if we can achieve it - on a
deeply accepted recognition by our thinkers, in all fields, of the existence of
a commonwealth or community, to which the individual has obligations which
cannot be measured in cash or paid in taxes".
Now, allow me, alongside this almost mystical sense of community responsibility,
to place some important remarks made by the historiographer royal, Christopher
Smout. Writing in Scottish Affairs (6:1994), he has said: "Modern Scottish
identity is much more firmly allied to a sense of place than to a sense of tribe
- ‘I am a real Scot from Bathgate’ has much more resonance than ‘I am a
real Scot because my granny was a real Scot’".
This, continues Smout, "is at least part of the explanation as to why Scots
in Scotland find Scots in America embarrassing: the latter are emphasising a
tribal identity, divorced from every aspect of place and modern Scottish popular
culture; their ethnic consciousness based on genealogy seems a false
consciousness in Scotland".
"Today", he concludes, with perhaps forgivable overgeneralisation,
"it implies that no-one asks about ancestry in claiming to be a real Scot:
it is enough to come from a really Scottish place, like Bathgate. Because tribe
does not matter and place does, there is unlikely ever to be ethnic cleansing in
Scotland. Settler Watch will fail".
Smout was hopefully right, but is his rationale sufficient? Consider this.
Recently I received a letter from a Herald reader in Inverness. "The
crofting township where I was born", he said, "had forty indigenous
Gaelic speakers living there when I was a child, two are left, both childless
and in their seventies, the rest of the people are southerners".
And consider this. It comes from a group of Scottish African women who took part
in the recent People and Parliament exercise. "We feel like strangers,
unnoticed, unseen, unheard, alienated, dehumanised, invisible in the scheme of
affairs but visible enough for racial attack and with the fear that this may
increase... We feel anti-English feeling will be turned against ethnic
minorities when the English are gone... One wonders how minorities will fit into
the new Scotland".
Let me cut back to the Herald reader. "Daily, here in Inverness, southern
accents seem to be more common than local", he continued. "I believe
the ethnic cleansing and replacement of the population started by the Clearances
is nearly complete".
Where ought a compassionate person’s sympathies lie in all this? If we say
that it doesn’t matter who lives and works here, indigenous community may
suffer the cuckoo effect. Its culture gets pushed out of the nest.
If, on the other hand, we say that ethnicity does matter, then we invite
discrimination. Racial discrimination is the power of one group to decide about
others on the basis of ethnic characteristics. If accepted in the allocation of
housing and jobs against people who are "southerners", in other words,
our English fellow humankind, why stop at Dover? The African women’s logic,
whilst hopefully overstated, is impeccable.
End of conversation, then. Yet silence sounds like the voice of complicity,
easing a growing "Anglicisation" in our educational institutions,
corporate life and civil service. Popular resentment thickens as Scottishness
dilutes. There is a wound here, and a poison. Perhaps the scab must be picked.
"I prefer it when they’re rude", writes the Lewis poet Mary
Montgomery in her poem called The English, "because they’re easier to
destroy in my thoughts/ and my conscience can be at peace". Her honesty
jolts, but this is not the racist diatribe it first appears to be. It is not
against English incomers in general. The invective is aimed, rather, at a Raj:
one which, partly because English people outnumber Scots in Britain by 10:1,
usually happens to be English, but could alternatively be Arab, Swiss or Scots.
This is a ruling class characterised by Montgomery as "showing themselves
without warmth ... old chap, dear sir and dame". Her context is important.
Montgomery was born in 1955 in Arivruaich on the boundary of three big sporting
estates. In December 1886, within memory of old folk alive when she was a child,
a gunboat of the British state was sent to quell hungry crofters who had raided
the local deer herds of Pairc. Montgomery’s onslaught is actually more ethical
than ethnic. In her experience, wielding power over others has become identified
with Englishness. But her conclusion exposes the actual target: "The kind
of value they lay store by/ is each one for himself/ that’s what’s going
away with my country/ and what leaves them in it".
The objection, then, is to values that take over, alienate and oppress. The
domination system to which these belong has no true life of its own. Its
parasitical emissaries are hollow figures for whom "to have is to be".
Such is the idolatry at the heart of a rootless global monoculture that worships
competition and mocks cooperation. Call it Anglicisation. Call it
Americanisation. Call it, heaven forbid, if you are a Mi’Kmaq living on a
reservation in Nova Scotia, the legacy of Scottish settlers.
Turning again to my Herald correspondent’s letter, the writer acknowledges all
the "psychological brutalising of a proud, courageous and honourable people
which produced the insecurity and low self-esteem I saw around me in my
childhood". And yet, astonishingly, he concludes: "I accept all this
and welcome people to this land of ours... A culture that ran straight on for
some sixty generations is turning a corner".
Now, that is quite some perspective. It might be discounted were it not so
commonplace. Indeed, Smout hints at "something unusual in the Scottish
sense of identity" that accounts for it being "a famous enigma to
students of nationalism". Let us look at an icon thereof.
In 1994 nearly all of the native residents of Eigg felt that their English laird
was trying to drive a wedge between them and incomers - English included.
Accordingly, they wrote an open letter which said, "The incoming islanders
have tried hard to adapt and continue a culture that was not their own. [They]
play an active, caring part in the community ... and have organised a Gaelic
playgroup so that their offspring will have a chance of learning Gaelic in order
to preserve the traditional culture of the island".
Such a statement acknowledges cultural difference. At the same time it suggests
an open pathway towards attaining a locally rooted sense of belonging. One is
reminded of scholars’ observations about Ireland, the spirit of which,
reputedly, conquers even its conquerors. Estyn Evans called it an
"adjustment to the personality of Ireland". Spenser was more acerbic:
"Lord," he proclaimed, "how quickly doth that country alter
So, as Smout recognises, geography is certainly important in creating identity.
In Gaelic culture this is called duthchas -or sense of belonging to a particular
place. But also important are certain social principles that lie at the core of
community - dualchas, which is heritage in the sense of the people of your place
who moulded you. It is duthchas and dualchas together that generate the
classical Scottish virtues of fostership and hospitality. From these can be
derived an understanding of belonging that permits the grafting on of new stock.
Here is the taproot beneath the grassroots that repudiates "each one for
himself". Here, indeed, might be a pattern and example to a troubled world
wherever shifting populations conflict with local ethnicity.
In his nineteenth century study of one of the last relatively intact Celtic
societies, the folklorist, Alexander Carmichael, wrote that fostership "was
a peculiarly close and tender tie, more close and more tender even than
blood". He pointed out that Gaelic has many proverbs on the subject. One
says, "Fuil gu fichead, comhdhaltas gu ceud" (Blood to the twentieth,
fostership to the hundredth degree). Another, in Nicolson’s Gaelic Proverbs,*
is: "The bonds of milk are stronger than the bonds of blood". In other
words, choosing to belong and being chosen matters more than belonging by
accident of birth.
Such principles confound the Nazi notion of blood and soil. Instead, they locate
sense of belonging in soil and soul. They invite consideration that a person
belongs inasmuch as they are willing to cherish, and be cherished, by a place
and its peoples. Yes, we might say, you may be of Polish or Chinese origin. Yes,
we seek to welcome you, bringing with you gifts from your culture that will
contribute to the rich diversity and economic resilience of both this place and
community. And yes, we understand that where you came from will always remain an
important reference point. You will hold a dual identity as Pakistani-Scot,
Afro-Scot or Anglo-Scot. But equally, we expect you to help build on what we all
are together as a Scottish people. This, after all, is the culture that
traditionally treated hospitality as "sacred". That is the core value
by which your presence is welcomed.
As Scots we have always understood ourselves to be a nation of many confluences.
Our most ancient origin myths affirming this laid the foundations of nationhood
in the coronation of Alexander III and the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. Early
texts like the Lebor Gabála Érenn present the Scots as migrants from the Black
Sea’s Caucasus region of Scythia. We reconstructed Gaelic as the language of
Eden out of the seventy-two tongues of Babel, became "Scots" through
marriage with Pharaoh’s daughter Scota - who repudiated her father’s ethnic
cleansing by rescuing Moses from the bulrushes, we gave food and wine to the
Israelites on the eve of their flight through the Red Sea, received Moses’
blessing en route to our own promised land, waited for many years in Spain and
finally, we arrived via Ireland with the Stone of Destiny - Jacob’s pillow of
Genesis 28 - reminding that all are, in the words of Leviticus 25, no more than
"strangers and sojourners" on God’s land. As Patrick Kavanagh
surmises, "Only those who have flown home to God have flown at all".
Little wonder, then, that Scots can take a sixty-generation perspective. William
Storrar writes of Scottish identity being a "Christian vision [of] national
identity through time and across space". Certainly, we can see where
hospitality and fostership might be coming from in, for instance, Leviticus 19
which instructs that the alien shall be loved "as thyself; for ye were
strangers in the land of Egypt"; in Matthew 25 which reminds that the
suffering Christ walks in the stranger’s guise; and Ezekiel 47 specifying that
the second generation of migrants should receive full citizenship and land
We may, of course, be Muslim, Sikh or atheist rather than Judeo-Christian. And
we certainly might harbour doubts about Irish-Scots mythology from the first
milennium. But these traditions point to psychological if not historical truths.
As such, and regardless of our religious orientation, they beg consideration of
the very spirituality of nationhood.
It is an intriguing fact that sovereign power often seeks spiritual legitimacy.
American banknotes proclaim "In God we Trust". All British coins carry
the inscription, DG and FD, asserting that the Crown’s power is conferred by
divine grace as "Defender of the Faith". Lord Stair, the "father
of Scots law", looked to Moses made gentle by Christ for "the prime
positive law of God". This, he maintained, makes "the absolute
sovereign divine law". It provides the framework within which all other
legislation ought proceed.
In The Powers that Be (Doubleday), Walter Wink, an American liberation
theologian, brings penetrating fresh light to such views on the spirituality of
power. He sees spirituality as the "withinness" or interiority of
things. "The Powers", he writes, "are not just physical" as
expressed in the outward forms of, say, a person, institution or country.
"The Powers", he says, "are simultaneously an outer, visible
structure and an inner, spiritual reality".
Old Testament psychology understood this inner dynamic in terms of the
"prince" or "angel" of a nation (Daniel 10). Nations, like
people, have a vocation - a higher calling - from which they usually fall very
far short. Addressing such corruption of the "Powers that Be" (Romans
13) requires, firstly, a process of naming. Names like Moloch and Mammon give a
grip on the dynamics of the domination system. Only then can they, secondly, be
unmasked. In today’s terms this might reveal, for example, nuclear strategy as
the Moloch-like fire-filled idol that, throughout history, has devoured the
Once the Powers have been named and unmasked, they can be engaged. The highest
spiritual engagement, says Wink, is nonviolent. It aims to redeem fallen power
rather than destroy it. Lesser paths succumb to the "myth of redemptive
violence". They mimic fallen power’s terror and therefore fail to
underpin spiritual transformation back to God-given vocation.
"O flower of Scotland" - and there you have it. There you have the
mixed-bag spirituality of a nation. But "I want for my part", said
MacDiarmid, "Only the little white rose of Scotland/ That smells sharp and
sweet - and breaks the heart".
Like Isaac with Esau’s raiment ... smell and know this rose. But beware
deception. The challenge facing Scotland today is not whether we should be
multi-ethnic. That is the wrong question. The challenge, rather, is whether we
who cherish and are cherished here can attain the highest vocation of both self
and nationhood. Do we accept our obligations to community? Can we love ... fur
a’ that? Are we "real Scots"?
Alastair McIntosh is a fellow of Edinburgh’s Centre for Human Ecology. This
essay is based on a BT sponsored address for the Edinburgh International
Festival’s "Cultural Reflections" at The Hub on August 9.
* Note added in 2010.
This essay stands the test of time. I have nothing to add, but one error to
correct. I attribute the '"Bonds of milk ..." proverb to Nicolson, but I have
since been unable to find it there. I'm pretty sure I first read it in the West
Highland Free Press during the mid 1990s. It very much stuck in my mind at the
time. But where it originated from I cannot now say, and attempts to Google it
just go round in circular reference back to my own website. If anybody can shed
light on the original source I'd be much obliged, until then, the faeries, the
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