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The City of Guelph, Ontario, Canada
Fall Colloquium at School of Scottish Studies


School of Scottish Studies
University of Guelph, Ontario
Fall Colloquium
Saturday, 28 September 2002

By W. Neil Fraser, Chairman
Clan Fraser Society of Canada

The theme of the all-day colloquium conducted by the School of Scottish Studies at University of Guelph was "(Re)-Inventing the Scottish Tradition" which was attended by some 110 people. Representatives from the University included Dr. Jacqueline Murray, Dean of the Arts Department and Drs. Elizabeth Ewen and Linda Mahood from the History Department. Dr. Kevin James, Chair of Scottish Studies, welcomed the large audience and explained the Scottish Studies program at Guelph that now attracts some 500 registrants each year including undergraduate and graduate students as well as doctoral candidates in Scottish history. The Scottish Collection at the University of Guelph Library is now considered to house the largest collection of Scottish books, periodicals and documents outside of Scotland, including some rare editions not found in Scotland.


Dr. Elizabeth Ewen, Dr. Ian Maitland Hume, Dr. Kevin James


Here is a more recent photograph of Dr Kevin James

The first paper entitled "Tartan and the kilt – symbols of the past or present?" was presented by Dr. Ian Maitland Hume, a graduate of University of Edinburgh who now lives in Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders. Dr Hume began his presentation by showing many of the earliest paintings of a gentleman in kilt and Highland dress, the oldest being of Lord Murray in the 1680s. The 1714 painting of the Piper to Grant and a 1745 painting of James Murray provided examples of pre-Culloden tartans and Highland wear.

Dr. Hume traced the suggested history of tartan and the kilt based on writers such as Tom Nairn, Trevor Roper, David Macrae and Hugh Cheape to illustrate how tartan and Highland wear have evolved from being the primary identity of the Highlander to what is now considered to be the national dress of Scotland. He commented that the transition is an invented tradition that sought to provide continuity with the past, and has been exploited for tourism purposes but is gradually being returned to the people in Scotland. He showed the famous painting of the Battle of Culloden with Highlanders wearing various tartans, and the painting of King George IV in full Highland costume during his visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Dr. Hume pointed out that the artist carefully avoided depicting the pink tights the King wore, no doubt in hopes of being paid for the painting.

He explained the 1747 Proscription against wearing of tartan and Highland dress, which lasted for 34 years before being reversed through the influence of the Highland Society of London. He commented on the Highland Regiments being the only legal way to wear the kilt and tartan, and the role that these regiments played in recruiting able-bodied men from all areas of Scotland. He showed several paintings of various members of the gentry in full Highland dress, painted during the time of the proscription, and he explained how the kilt and tartan thus became largely associated with the local gentry during that era.

Dr. Hume compared the adoption of "national dress" by Norwegians in gaining independence, with a similar recent phenomenon in Scotland. He explained the growth of kilt rental firms in Scotland and estimated that at 95-per-cent of the weddings held in Berwickshire today, the groom and male members of the wedding party wear the kilt and Highland wear, although neither were ever historically associated with the Scottish Borders. He showed photos of people like Sean Connery. Michael Forsythe and the Lord Provost of Edinburgh in kilt and Highland garb, and he suggested that none of them had likely ever worn the kilt until recently. He mentioned that the Lord Provost wears five different tartans, none of which have any connection to his name. When asked about it, the Lord Provost told a reporter he just liked to wear a variety of colours. Dr. Hume’s favourite photo featured Mohammed (Al) Fayed wearing a kilt of the specially designed Harrod’s Tartan, sitting on a bench reputedly made of Oak from William Wallace’s Oak tree. To round off his presentation, he showed several photos of the Singh family, all attired in the kilt of the officially registered Singh Tartan, and their heads adorned with the traditional turban. The elder Singh is a Baron in Scotland, with his own coat of arms, and his children are all proud Scots now.


Dr. David Wilson, Dr. Kevin James

The second paper entitled "The Celtic Myth in Scott’s Waverley" was presented by Dr. David Wilson, a native of Ireland, who is Head of the Department of Celtic Studies at University of Toronto. He suggested that the notion of Scots being "Celtic" is relatively recent (post 1707), prior to which time the people in Scotland had never defined their race as Celtic. He attributed the phenomenon to a defense by some rural Scots against the Industrial Revolution, which was well established in England and the central belt of Scotland. The view of the English and Scots in the larger cities was that the Scots who lived north were primitive, irrational, savage, and they were often compared with the North American Indians. To counter that view, many northern Scots responded by claiming that primitive was merely traditional; irrational equated to passionate; and superstitious became spiritual. In one bizarre analogy, Adam and Eve spoke Gaelic, while their servants spoke English. The Irish had saved civilization, and the Welsh, Irish and Scots were equated with the artistic, while the English were not. Thus, the many myths associated with the Celtic culture of Ireland and Wales were adopted by some Scots to defend against a change in their rural way of life in the face of inevitable adoption of more modern practices.

Dr. Wilson made reference to the Macpherson "translations" of the Poems of Ossian, which remain controversial to this day. That Sir Walter Scott recognized the "Oral Tradition" suggests that Macpherson had the misfortune to be born too early. Had he waited a bit, he may well have been a famous historical novelist like Scott. Dr. Wilson used Scott’s character Edward Waverley, an Englishman caught up in the Jacobite Rebellion fed on fantasy and legend, to explain how Waverley preferred the romantic life to that of the humdrum everyday life. Dr. Wilson suggested that Sir Walter Scott regarded Waverley an imbecile for his blind loyalty to Bonnie Prince Charlie until he considered responding to his own good sense and reason. When he did, he realized that James, the Old Pretender had forfeited his own reason and plunged Britain into a civil war. Therefore, in Dr. Wilson’s view, their reasoning equated with loyalty to the government, while passion meant loyalty to the Jacobite cause.

Waverley suffered a series of shocks after joining the Jacobite Army, including finding the dead body of the son of his neighbour, and was consumed with guilt. In the classic romantic ending, romantic heroes always die. In the end result the Highland "Celts" passed out of history, but their image lives on with the English and Scots working together within the Union. Dr. Wilson suggested that Sir Walter Scott was ambivalent in his representation of the Highlander as both a savage and a romantic hero.

To provide some relief from the academic presentations the Halton-Peel Region Burns Club, a representative from a volunteer group near Toronto, read from a selection of Burns’ poetry and performed some of the bard’s famous songs, before lunch. Prior to the start of the colloquium and during the breaks, there was a sale of surplus books from the University of Guelph Library’s Scottish Collection, many from donated collections, including a few rare books from Scotland. The surplus book sale is always popular with attendees, and the proceeds are used for future acquisitions, to enhance what is now considered the largest collection of Scottish books and periodicals outside Scotland.

Following the luncheon break a panel comprised of Rob Falconer, a PhD candidate at University of Guelph School of Scottish Studies; Dr. Sarah Tolmie, Professor of History, University of Waterloo; and Dr. Scott-Morgan Straker, Professor of History, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, discussed "Mediaeval and Early-Modern Scotland".

Rob Falconer, Dr. Graeme Morton
Rob Falconer, Dr. Graeme Morton

Rob Falconer’s paper was entitled "The King’s Probi Homines: A royal perception of nationhood". He commented on Robert Bruce’s attempts to gain support in Ireland, and the incoming Normans who, he suggested did not feel in conflict with the people in Scotland at the time, including the Picts. Scotland had three distinct societal groups – the King, the landowners and the people, who all formed part of the greater Scottish community. In effect, Scotland was an early "melting pot" nation with Anglians, Flemish, Norse, Normans, Picts and Celts.

Dr. Sarah Tolmie’s paper was entitled "Barbour’s Bruce: The King as a Political Animal". She explained the political intent of the poem "The Brus" by poet John Barbour (c1320-95), sometimes called the father of Scottish vernacular poetry. Barbour, who became the Archdeacon of Aberdeen in 1357, used his poetry to trace the Wars of Independence from their origins through Bannockburn, to the Irish wars and the deaths of Bruce and the Black Douglas. His works have been declared a Romance, and he departed from historical accuracy when it suited his purpose. The idea of liberty is retained in its purity by grafting the patriotic deeds of Robert I’s grandfather (Bruce the Competitor) onto his grandson’s later life, thereby omitting reference to the early period when Robert I served the English.

Dr. Scott-Morgan Straker, Dr. Sarah Tolmie
Dr. Scott-Morgan Straker, Dr. Sarah Tolmie

Dr. Scott-Morgan Straker’s paper was entitled "The Kingis Quair as a Flight from Politics". He reviewed four quotations from the poem, written in Old Scots, and attempted to provide a modern explanation of their meaning. I’m afraid poetry written in Old Scots is not one of my great interests, which could be interpreted as a kind way of suggesting that I find the subject dead boring. To illustrate, I offer a few lines from the following quotation:

I mene this by myself, as in partye,
Though Nature gave me suffisance in youth,
The rypenesse of resoun lakkit I
To governe with my will, so lyte I couth,
Quhen stereles to travaile I begouth,
Amang the wavis of this warld to drive —
And how the case I will discrive.

Dealing with such a subject after the lunch break is not an easy task for the presenter. If I felt guilty about my lack of rapt attention, I was not alone, as I noticed a few in the audience who had actually nodded off for an impromptu afternoon nap. Granted, mediaeval Scottish history is not the most exciting subject, at the best of times.

Fortunately, the afternoon coffee break followed and the audience returned, refreshed and ready to listen to the keynote address "Scottish Nationalism and the Uses of History" by Professor Graeme Morton, University of Edinburgh. Dr. Morton is a tall young Scot with a priceless sense of humour, and an outspoken critic of the way such legendary "heroes" as William Wallace have been exploited for political purposes by modern Scottish nationalists, particularly in the wake of that historical gem of a film "Braveheart".

Dr. Morton used a computer-generated slide presentation to illustrate his points about the way Scottish historiographical literature has been selectively exploited for political advantage – thus comparing it to a list of militaristic, great lives, political, social and cultural attempts to fragment history. He used William Wallace as a perfect example. There is no documented evidence of Wallace’s date of birth, only the account of his cruel death at the hands of Edward I in 1305, and tales of his exploits at various times in early Scottish history. While there is no way to know what William Wallace really looked like, that has not stopped generations of artists and sculptors from creating supposed likenesses of Wallace, and Dr. Morton presented a large sampling of images depicting the legendary hero. His personal favourite is a poster of Mel Gibson who, complete with blue paint on his face, now IS Wallace to the world.

In reviewing slides of the dozens of monuments of Wallace, Dr. Morton noted that most depicted an image somewhere between Jesse Ventura and Hulk Hogan; at least 6’-5" tall, muscular, and invariably carrying a scroll under his arm. Dr. Morton is not convinced of the authenticity of the so-called "Leubeck Letter", and got a lot of laughs when he kept pointing out that the ever-present scroll depicted in the various statues could very well have been the famous letter, before it was sent off by a courier to Germany.

Most statues of Wallace project a larger-than-life image, save one monument erected in 1819 in Ayr. The builders of the monument decided to complete the structure, including the decorative niche intended to receive the statue of Wallace being sculpted elsewhere, before the statue was completed. Therefore, when it came time to install the statue in the niche, Wallace was too tall to fit the available space. What to do? With characteristic Scots ingenuity and frugality, the statue was shortened to fit the space in the niche, and "Brave Wallace" came out looking like a 4’-6" dwarf. Dr. Morton refers to that one as "The Wee Wallace".

Dr. Morton suggested that with William Wallace, it is the story that counts and facts don’t matter; it is a myth, and in politics the myth is more important. He drew comparisons between the stories about William Wallace, and those translated from the poetry of "Blind Harry" (1474-79), which may have been the basis for much of the Wallace image we know today. The poems were supposedly based on the "oral tradition" – some evidence of him being real, but subject to interpretation both by the translator, and the reader of the translation. Dr. Morton raised some interesting questions about "Blind Harry", who was supposed to have been born blind. If true, how did he manage to "see" his subjects, learn Latin and French and do the necessary research for his historical poems? His poems, with their excessive spilling of English blood, suited the purpose of Scottish nationalists, and certainly provided the required exploits for a hero figure of the stature of William Wallace.

Holding the rapt attention of an audience that has been sitting all day listening to dissertations on Scottish history can be a challenge for the final speaker. Dr. Morton used his dry sense of humour and obvious knowledge of his subject to keep everyone amused and interested. If there were any closet Scottish National Party supporters in the audience, they may not have appreciated Dr. Morton’s comments about William Wallace, but the vast majority who did so, showed their appreciation with a hearty round of applause, before heading home. I have attended numerous colloquia at Guelph since the early 1990s, but have seldom enjoyed one more — which only proves that those speakers who are able to add a wee touch of humour to their presentation can make the dullest subject come to life, and make their presentations more memorable.

Neil Fraser, Dr. Ian Maitland Hume
Neil Fraser, Dr. Ian Maitland Hume

Photos: Marie Fraser


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