Historians, what are they like?


Given the querulous response of most British historians to the prospect of Scottish independence, I think the collective pronoun for a group of historians must be a ‘querul’. David Starkey, Niall Ferguson, Dan Snow, Neil Oliver and Simon Scharma all seem to become apoplectic about the prospect of an independent Scotland. As far as I know only Tom Devine is pro-independence.

This thought occured to me as a result of reading yet another diatribe against Scottish independence in the Times newspaper, this time from Max Hastings, the war historian (and one of 200 ‘public figures’ who signed an anti-independence declaration prior to the 2014 referendum), has waded in with an article titled ‘Dressing down to enjoy my Highland fling’. In the article, Hastings posits the idea of dressing in jeans and tee shirts rather than in 19th century toffs’clothing (tweeds and breeches). He suggests that this mode of dress along with the ostentatious flaunting of wealth does little to endear the hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity to the average Scot. In this he’s probably correct and it’s about the only thing in his otherwise ignorant, arrogant article which I agreed with.

Hastings has apparently spent many summers enjoying ‘sporting’ activities in Scotland since his early 20’s, mostly in Sutherland and Caithness, which he claims to ‘know so well’  That’s a bit like a Scot averring to know Lancashire well having spent many summer holidays in Blackpool. Except that the Scot in Blackpool would probably meet a wider cross section of Lancashire society than Hastings does on his annual jaunts to the Highlands. There he will mostly interact with estate workers who are probably somewhat guarded in their opinions due to the client relationship, while sharing his sporting activities mostly with other English ‘toffs’ and foreigners. So while he may be familiar with the topography of the Northern Highlands I very much doubt the degree to which he’s in tune with the views, values and culture of the average Highlander. Hastings himself acknowledges that there is justifiable pain caused to Scottish sensibilities by visitors who meet no local people but only stalkers and ghillies.

Hastings goes on to rail against the ‘Nats’, asserting ‘that the spring tide of Nicola Sturgeon has ebbed after experience of her flawed Government’. Such evidence free assertions from a supposedly reputable historian are truly breathtaking. His big beef however, seems to be the Scottish Government’s proposals for land reform. He argues that there is a strong economic case in favour of private shooting estates and their sporting visitors, that they have a ‘cash value unmatched by any other activity, actual or prospective’ Tell that to the people of Eigg,  Gigha and Assynt all of whom have bought out the previous private owners and are in the process of diversifying and transforming their economies. Hastings goes on to say that ‘In Sutherland and Caithness… we glimpse pathetically few non-sporting English tourists because there are no theme parks to lure them and no sane person would build such facilities at the extremity of Britain’ Apart from the fact that there are more economic possibilities for the vast spaces of the Highlands than simply tourism (Space port anyone?), he obviously isn’t aware of the transformative effect on tourism of the North Coast 500, created without needing to construct anything but simply by advertising what was already there!

To counter the accusation that Highland estate owners are exploiting the Scottish people Hastings cites a cluster of estates around Tomatin, whose accounts demonstrated that the owners make annual net contributions in the order of £100,000 each.  What Hastings fails to mention are the many wheezes that estate owners use to mitigate their tax liabilities, such as being registered offshore or placing the estate into family or charitable trusts and of course the rates relief and grants available to Highland estates as a result of being registered as both sporting and agricultural entities.

Then there is the resale value of Highland estates, which according to the Financial Times (‘Why Scottish Highlands and Islands are still in buyers sights’) remain sound investments despite Brexit and the prospect of land reform. Their enduring value is apparently due to their attraction as the playthings of rich men. While some of the mega rich buy super-yachts, others buy Highland estates. Anders Holch Povlsen, the Danish fashion empire billionaire, currently owns 218,000 acres spread over 11 Highland estates. His aim is to ‘re-wild’ the landscape, to take it back to it’s ‘former wilderness state’ No mention is made of repopulating the land, which was a more recent aspect of the Highlands.

Which leads me to Hasting’s most egregious assertion. Quoting from an observation by Michael Fry, he states that there is no rational justification for the volume of grievance about the Highland clearances. ‘Ugly though they were, Scotland did not suffer remotely the scale of English injustice and persecution that fell upon Ireland’  That’s a bit like saying that the Armenians should shut up and stop complaining about the Turkish genocide of Armenia because it was less catastrophic than the Jewish holocaust of World War Two.

Hastings ends his piece by writing, ‘I once told a friend that playing a salmon and shooting grouse in the Highlands have provided me with some of the most euphoric experiences I have ever known’ Like many other British Nationalists who profess undying love of Scotland,  Hastings clearly has a wistful and wholly mythical sense of all things Scottish, from the landscape to the skirl of the pipes. Of the people, not so much.  The Times article is useful in that it offers us yet another window into the minds of the English ruling class, that even a supposedly forensic historian is unable to get to the heart of what drives the quest for Scottish independence and instead takes a purely sentimental view. He is clearly unable to engage with the real argument for independence, that of self-determination and is therefore blind to the economic possibilities, particularly in his beloved Highlands. Why is it for instance, that the more extensive wild land in Norway can be economically viable, able not only to retain but to increase its population, while Scotland apparently must depend on and be grateful for the largesse of mostly foreign estate owners?




7 thoughts on “Historians, what are they like?”

  1. If Hastings’ views were not so serious you could not help but laugh. His sole piece of advice to those of his type is to wear jeans and t-shirts to fit in at the heilan’ dancin”? That’ll calm the natives down, old boy.

    The sheer arrogance is breathtaking.

  2. Congratulations. A very worthwhile contribution to the discussion on the future of Scotland’s land ownership.

  3. Postscript. In a sense, Hastings has a point about Scotland’s ‘grievance culture, though not the one he was trying to make. Ireland has got over any resentment against their appalling treatment by the English and later British because it’s been an independent country effectively since 1922. Scotland however is still subject to Westminster rule on many key matters where decisions are taken that are not in Scotland’s interest, notably Brexit. So any grievance, both current and historical, becomes magnified as a consequence.

    1. I agree, Phil. The way to stoke a grievance is to keep feeding it, something the UK elite continues to do through its everyday actions – Brexit, austerity, ignoring Scotland’s democratic rights, and so much more.

      Starve a fire of fuel and it goes out.

  4. Thanks Phil a great assessment of Hastings and his like and their collective “condescending love” of Scotland and in particular the Highlands- just as long as we all still doff our caps to their masterly over us- as the song goes “born to reign over us etc”- aye no more!

  5. Your ‘selection’ of historians is a bit of an insult to the rest of us in the profession. You could and should have prefaced it with “right-wing”. Having had the painfully embarrassing experience of having one of your rogues’ gallery as a colleague, I know of which I speak. The real connection is the usual one – membership, natural or grovelled for, of the Establishment of the English ruling class. There, the unwritten social ‘rules’ ensure that even writers capable of honest and graphic accounts of particular historical pasts – Max Hastings is a painfully apt example – descend into the most arrogant, patronising and myopic tosh at the clink of a pre-shoot sherry glass. I haven’t read the article you cite, but it reeks of the whole ghastly crew and reminds me that one of the very best things about the independence in Europe which we are shortly to achieve, is that, from the disappearance of the House of Lords from our nation’s life onwards, we will be on a track to render their world extinct.

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