Welsh, Irish, English — is the claim
now we have us a wee identity crisis
The British Broadcasting
EDINBURGH — The one sure way to irritate
a Scotsman is to call him an Englishman. That happens to Scots all the time when
they travel abroad, and many of them feel as strongly about it as Hercule Poirot
felt when people called him a Frenchman. "Belgian," the great detective would
say, with polite emphasis, mustache bristling. And of course it would be unwise
to call a man wearing green on St. Patrick's Day an
There's an old Scottish
toast, lightly ironic in its tone but reflecting quite a strong sense of
Scottish specialness. It goes like this: "Here's tae us; wha's like us?" (Here's
to us; who's like us?) One of the answers to this has always been: "Damn few —
and they're a' deid!" (Damn few, and they're all dead!)
But now comes the intriguing
evidence from geneticists, particularly from Stephen Oppenheimer and Bryan Sykes
at the University of Oxford, that the people of the British Isles are more closely related than the history
books had suggested.
According to these
scientists, the core populations of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are of
very much the same stock, with only minor add-ons at the edge from Viking and
other invasions. So being Scottish is not, in genetic terms, all that different
from being English.
If we are to believe Drs.
Oppenheimer and Sykes, then the new answer to the old toast might be: "Many
actually — including the English!"
The scientific news is
especially provocative this year, because in May the people of
Scotland will elect a new Parliament.
This Parliament is not the one at Westminster,
with the iconic clock tower and Big Ben, but a Parliament in Edinburgh, which was opened in 1999 in direct response to a
widely perceived desire in Scotland for more
In Scotland, a
great many people see themselves as Scots first and as British second. Some
think that the whole notion of Britishness is out of date and pointless. The
Scottish National Party, which some polls suggest just might win the May
elections (or at least be in a position to enter a coalition government), wants
to re-establish Scotland as an independent state
within the European Union. This is the vision of Scotland as being something like
Norway, but a bit farther
south, and physically joined to England.
What is happening in
Scotland reflects, to a
greater or lesser extent, a cultural and political argument that has been
rumbling for a long time in other parts of the British
Ireland, which was under English
rule of one form or another from the 12th century, a much-resented indignity,
eventually asserted its independence in the early 20th. The Irish had no doubt,
it seemed, that they were a separate people, and used some rather fine songs to
make the point.
In Wales and Scotland, which had been more integrated into the
Kingdom, there were movements that similarly resented what
they saw as the subjugation of their culture, but most of the population were
happy to go along with the Union. In a way, the
situation was not dissimilar to the one in Quebec, where most people appear content to
remain part of the Canadian federation. Now, however, the "united" in the
Kingdom's name is rather more
Does the new genetic evidence
take the wind out of the sails of the cultural nationalists in
Scotland, or those in
Ireland? To an extent, it must,
because such people are often convinced that the Irish and Scots are a quite
different breed, that their ancestors came from somewhere other than wherever it
is that the English came from.
But if that is shown not to
be true, then the differences — however profound and important to cultural
identity — are demoted to the incidental variations that flow from living in
separate places and developing distinct local cultures.
If the message from these
geneticists is accepted, then the whole notion of Britishness and its political
embodiment, the United
Kingdom, might summon up some of the confidence it needs if
the Union is to survive. It may chip away at
the sense of separateness upon which the nationalist cause in
Scotland relies for its
Ultimately, of course, this
sort of genetic disclosure could be very helpful for everyone, and at a
universal level. The more we are shown to be related, the more our sense of
shared humanity must come to the fore. That may be hopelessly idealistic, but it
was very much the message that the great poet Robert Burns gave to the world.
And he was Scottish. Or was he?
Alexander McCall Smith is the
author, most recently, of "The Right Attitude to Rain."