Reviewed by: Rab Houston
Author: Hugh Trevor-Roper
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £9.99 (paperback)
Hugh Trevor-Roper is remembered for mistakenly authenticating faked Adolf Hitler diaries, while a distinguished career of scholarship is forgotten. He was puzzled by why Scotland, a country with such a rich and important history, should depend so much on mythical constructions of its past. This posthumously published collection of essays offers his thoughts on three Scottish myths: political, literary and sartorial.
In the 16th century, George Buchanan, humanist scholar and tutor to James VI, used the fabricated ancient king-line of Hector Boece to forge a version of Scotland’s past that promoted the regime which toppled Mary Queen of Scots and introduced the Reformation. Two centuries later James Macpherson exemplified the culturally based nature of post-Union nationalism when he too looked for Scottish roots in the mists of time and invented the bard Ossian (‘the Gaelic Homer’) for the purpose. Trevor-Roper gleefully exposes Macpherson’s lies – as he did so brilliantly with another fraud, Sir Edmund Backhouse, in Hermit of Peking (1978).
One more supposedly ancient symbol of Scotland is debunked. It was during the same Romantic age which spawned Ossian that kilts were first made and a manufactured lineage for tartan was later woven into Scotto-British imperial identity. It is unfortunate that Trevor-Roper falls back on another myth, that of the imaginative Celts, to explain why Scots were such myth-makers, but this is a modest failing. Meticulously researched yet provocative and engrossing, this book exemplifies his best work. Anyone who prizes first-rate scholarship, a powerful voice, a sense of irony and a mischievous spirit will find it a delight.
Rab Houston is author of Scotland: a Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008).