Scottish Identity- A Christian View

When Will Graham greeted the first meeting of his celebration of Hope mission in Falkirk stadium he did so with the words, “I am Scottish, and I have returned to the homeland.” He then pointed out that his people had come to South Carolina from Scotland and if my information is correct he could have gone further and named Glen Conon in Skye as the homeland. His self-identification was greeted warmly but it did seem odd roared out in his Southern drawl.
The question of national identity or even local identity is a key question in today’s world of hypermobility and migration. The question “where you are you from?” isn’t a straightforward one for me to answer. I could answer Coatbridge which is where I stay. I could say St Andrews which is where by an accident of location I was born or Glasgow where I spent seven years as a youngster, but I invariably answer- from Skye because my identity has been shaped by the culture of the home, by the ties of land and people and language. I am emotionally Highland in a way that I am not emotionally Glaswegian for example.
To give that personal illustration is to immediately flag up an objection that many have to the very idea of Scottish identity which his that commitments to belonging to the Borders or the islands or to Orkney are stronger than a commitment to Scottish identity.
The other objection moves in the other direction arguing that globalisation and especially the globalisation of youth culture has rubbed out national distinctives. Young people in Govan are no different from young people in Grimsby and so speaking of national identity makes little sense.
What is a national identity and how does the Bible perceive it. The idea of nationhood in the Bible is complex. There are always elements which reflect God’s grand design as well as elements which reflect the reality of sin. Nationhood and national identity always lies within this tension. Creation reminds us that we have all sprung from the one-man Adam and therefore there is no place for biological or ethnic superiority a point Paul makes in Acts 17. All bear the divine image, and all are sent out into the world to fulfil the creation mandate of filling the earth and subduing it. At the same time men and women are fallen. One of the early expressions of this fallenness is the demonic desire for a unity that will challenge God and results in the creation of the Tower of Babel. The dispersal of the people of Babel into nations speaking national languages is both a judgment and a blessing. It thwarts the co-operation of the builders and frustrates their project but at the same time it reinforces the diversity of creation and drives forward God’s command to fill the earth. So, it is not diversity and language or nationhood that is cursed at Babel but rather the imperialist urge to unite in an anti-God unity of one people one tongue.
The blessing to Abraham includes the promise that he will not only father a great nation but that in turn all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Nations are not, therefore, to be regarded negatively as a symptom of fallenness. They are instruments that God uses to bring in his elect. Paul in his evangelistic address to Greeks in Acts 17 speaks of God’s positive evangelical use of nationhood. “ From one man he made every nation of men that they should inhabit the whole earth and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” Acts 17:26,27. So we can rule out the notion that the concept of nationhood is a product of the fall rather than something God owns and blesses.
That still leaves us with some basic problems. To begin with it is very hard to define what a nation is. Indeed, the historian Hugh Seton Watson who has studied the phenomenon more closely than most concluded after years of reflection “I am driven to the conclusion that no ‘scientific definition’ of a nation can be devised; yet the phenomenon has existed and exists. ” -“All that I can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation or behave as if they formed one. It is not necessary that the whole of the population should so feel, or so behave, and it is not possible to lay down dogmatically a minimum percentage of a population which must be so affected. When a significant group holds this belief, it possesses ‘national consciousness’.” ( Hugh Seton-Watson, Professor of Russian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London: Nations & States – Methuen, London 1977)
Another name which comes up in the literature repeatedly is that of Benedict Anderson who speaks of nations as “imagined communities” (Benedict Anderson “Imagined Communities- the Origins and Spread of Nationalism Verso, London 1983)
“In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign
It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion…In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.
The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations;
It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. .
Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”
These definitions of nationhood are much more realistic and certainly much less exclusive and potentially dangerous than the blood and soil kind of nationalism which is based on notions of racial purity. National identity then is the imagined community of people who see themselves as one, who perceive a comradeship with people within a defined boundary whom they have never met. And that imagined nationhood is expressed by visible symbols such as flags, emblems, national saints or institutions such as parliaments, churches and sporting teams.

In the case of Scotland, it has always been the case that the nation has been a mixture of many people groups. Think of the mixture of Picts and Celts and Britons and Scots that was the melting point of peoples in early Scotland. Robert the Bruce the iconic Scottish leader was descended from both Anglo Normans as well as Gaelic nobility. But even though Scots were made up from very different racial backgrounds by the early 14th century there was a clear notion of Scottish identity. In the Declaration of Arbroath, the nobles appeal to the Pope based on Scotland being an ancient nation. It even has its own myth of nation hood.
“Most Holy Father and Lord, we know and from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous. Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today. The Britons they first drove out, the Picts they destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, they took possession of that home with many victories and untold efforts; and, as the historians of old time bear witness, they have held it free of all bondage ever since. In their kingdom there have reigned one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken a single foreigner.”
There is a tortuous relationship to the truth of many of these statements, but the point is not whether the story is true or not. The point is that there was a story to tell that sought to account for the cohesion of a very disparate group of people. That Scottish identity survived the union of the crowns in1603 and the Union of Parliament’s in 1707. Historian Tom divine points to the nineteenth century as a time of “profound crisis in Scottish nationhood.” This was the time of Empire when Scots had a strong stake in the economic prosperity and the prestige that came from Britain’s imperial project. It was the time when hotels and railways were labelled “North British” -something which would be unthinkable today. Some commentators also point to the 1843 Disruption as having negative implications for Scottish identity. The Church of Scotland had been culturally dominant, and its General Assemblies were a focal point of national interest but when that unity began to disintegrate an element that contributed towards national identity was diminished. The nineteenth and early 20th century also saw the greatest waves of immigration to Scotland since the Vikings and the Scots and the Britons had settled. Wave after wave of Irish, Lithuanian, Italian, Jewish, Polish Asian and English people settled in Scotland.
Nevertheless, Scottish identity has not only survived but it has strengthened the rise of Scottish Nationalism and the close-run referendum on independence demonstrated.
The mention of “nationalism” leads on to the question of whether that position is compatible with Christianity. In 1982 the Church and Nation Committee of the Church of Scotland produced a report that reflected on the Christian significance of Scottish identity. Professor TF Torrance who was strongly influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his experience of resisting the racist nationalist movement of the German Nazis denounced it in the strongest terms. The report’s affirmation of a religious dimension to national identity showed, “the same subtle twist to biblical ideas given by “German Christians” who provided a “religious dimension” for the racist ideology of National Socialist Germany.”
In 2012 Christianity Today ran a series of articles on patriotism. One contributor made the following distinction between patriotism and nationalism. “Patriotism can be defined simply as love of country—it’s a love that seems to include much of the world’s population. It’s the kind of love that makes you thankful you’re an American whenever you hear the National Anthem, or that makes you thankful you’re British whenever you hear “God Save the Queen,” or that makes you thankful you’re from whatever country whenever your country wins an Olympic medal. It’s that feeling of altruistic gratitude for freedom, or democracy, or culture, or any of the other values people around the world treasure in their nation.

Nationalism, on the other hand, takes that love of country and expands it to mean love of country at the expense of other nations. It’s when someone believes they are better because they come from a place, or that someone else is less valuable because of the country that issued their passport.”
So, there you have it patriotism is good, but nationalism is bad. But the trouble is that one person’s patriotism is another person’s nationalism. And most of the people who lambast nationalism in others are blind to their own nationalism. For example, someone can claim to oppose Scottish Nationalism on religious or ethical grounds whilst being unaware that they harbour notions of British exceptionalism eg. British attributes of doggedness or ingenuity mark British people above the rest of the nations.
But such a binary view of nationalism is not adequate. There are good and bad forms of the phenomenon. As Calvinists we believe both in the original goodness of human culture as well as its tragic fallenness. Nationhood and nationalism have the capacity either to be a thing of beauty that elevates the human spirit or a monster that can unleash terrible suffering. As Christians it is best to recognise the phenomenon of nationalism and to evaluate it from a Christian perspective.
The Left-wing writer Tom Nairn is responsible for the notorious comment “Scotland will not be free until the last Presbyterian minister is hung by the last copy of the Sunday Post.” But he offered the helpful comment on discerning nationalism. “When nationalism is based upon assertions of inherent racial or cultural superiority, the people turn in on themselves and develop a diabolical insensitivity to other nations. That kind of nationalism can lead people to evil and that cannot be denied. On the other hand there is evidence that when a nations does no more than assert the economic ,social and cultural identity of a distinctive group of people, insists that while they are no better than anyone else, they are no worse; insists upon a full entitlement to exercise freedom of judgement in both internal and external policies and contributes constructively to the world’s life it presents dangers to none.”
A helpful definition is that provided by Jonathan Hearn (Rethinking Nationalism : A Critical Introduction; 2006 p11) “Nationalism is the making of combined claims , on behalf of a population, to identity, to jurisdiction and to territory” Note that there is no implication of national exceptionalism nor would the definition in a Scottish context necessitate commitment to independence.
Politically national identity has been opposed by Marxists with Karl Marx famously saying, “The workers have no country… the worker knows no frontier except that between the classes.” Globalisation has fostered the idea of cosmopolitanism which scorns national distinctives claiming instead a single community of humans based on a shared morality especially of mutual respect. But in practice these notions are unworkable.
The evidence is that where there is no national identity cohesion breaks down and individuals begin to look for their roots sometimes in extremist positions. In the oil rich Arab Emirates Dubai has embraced radical globalism. Most of its population are not Dubai citizens do not speak the language, know its history or even eat its traditional food. It has led to a sharp disorientation with many turning to ISIS for a sense of their identity.
To what extent is Scottish national identity shaped by Christian values? The rise of secularism in the west has made religion less of a factor. In 2016, the Pew Research Centre took a closer look at public attitudes toward religion and national belonging in the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia. In the survey they asked people whether being Christian or Catholic (reflecting religious traditions in the countries polled) was important to national identity. A median of just 15% across the 13 countries surveyed said it is very important to be Christian to be a true national – significantly fewer than the proportion who pointed to shared language or customs. Only in Greece did most respondents think that being a Christian was important to being Greek.
Historically Scottish identity was strongly influenced by Christianity. At key moments in Scotland’s history when her leaders have had cause to define her identity it was crafted in Christian terms.
The Declaration of Arbroath imagines that the Scots are among the first to be honoured by Christ after his passion and resurrection through the legend of Andrew bring the gospel to Scotland. Christ is described as the King of Kings, the Lord Jesus Christ after his Passion and Resurrection. Declaration stated that if even Bruce betrayed the cause of freedom he would be deposed, and a more faithful king put in his place.
Scotland had enjoyed favoured status- the “filia specialis” of Rome and its popes and had enjoyed freedom and peace until Edward 1 subjected the Scots to terrible suffering and bondage. God in his providence had raised up another lawful Scottish king, “like another Joshua or Maccabeus.”
John Barbour (Archdeacon of St Machar’s Aberdeen) in his poem “The Bruce” written when Scotland’s fortunes were at a low ebb in the reign of a weak successor of Bruce, David II, intended to renew patriotism based on her past. Barbour sets the situation in religious terms He compares the Scots to the Maccabees – a small nation defending their God given right and God given freedom with God’s active help against vastly superior forces.
The thorough going nature of reformation in 16th century Scotland led to a consciousness that to be Scottish was to be Presbyterian to the extent that Rev John Ker a Professor in the United Presbyterian College in his book Scottish Nationality in 1887 could write that “Wallace made a nation and Knox a people.” The Midlothian Journal of 1909 declared that “The civil and religious freedom we boast of, the fairer outlook upon the world that we enjoy, and the independence of thought and action that are peculiarly Scottish were won for us largely through the instrumentality of the great man (Knox)whose memory Scotsmen are determined to keep green and fresh in the minds of their countrymen.”
In the seventeenth century the Covenanters cast Scotland in the role of a modern-day Israel. Scotland was a covenanted nation. Her kings were only to be recognised as lawful monarchs in so far as they upheld the national covenant. And armies rode to battle singing psalms and fighting for Christ’s Crown and Covenant. However much we admire the piety and the courage of the covenanters we surely must acknowledge that this period represented a dangerous confusion over the uniqueness of Biblical Israel as state under God and a slide in the direction of identifying political movements with the gospel.
That “great man” Knox is of course now almost universally ignored or derided in his own country. Knox has featured as the villain of the piece in works by Fionn MacColla, the poems of Edwin Muir and Iain Crichton Smith, the stories of George MacKay Brown and many others. Journalists lazily attribute to Scotland’s dark Calvinism anything they regard as joyless or negative in the life of the nation. And they do so confident that they will not be called out because this is the new narrative. The new emblems of identity are secularism, moral pluralism and materialism.
Which takes us finally to more practical and missional reflections that I want us to close with. Scottish identity is a given. It is in inherently neither good nor bad. But given the 180-degree change from being self consciously a nation under God to being self-consciously a nation guided by shared secular values how does the Christian Church relate to Scottish identity. How important is it to identify as a Scottish denomination? Should we give up on the notion of a national identity informed by Christianity and instead seek a nation where there is a true pluralism and Christian rights are respected. Where does this leave the establishment principle.
These are huge issues and so my contribution by way of response will be quite limited.
First there is the question of the Scottish identity of the Free Church of Scotland. Our challenge is to be truly incarnational in our outreach and that must imply identifying with Scotland the nation. We cannot sit apart from Scotland, we must challenge caricatures that represent us as being bad for the welfare of Scotland and we must seek to identify with the whole of the country. We must be in the best sense of the word an inclusive church. For the Free Church of Scotland in 2018 that means that we must represent the whole of Scotland. We urgently need to present to the country a face that is both Highland and Lowland, both urban and rural, that reflects Doric and Scots as well as Gaelic tradition. One of the inhibitors for growth has been the perception that the Free Church is a Highland denomination chi is unable to connect with the rest of the country. Now that is increasingly a myth, but we need to present the modern face of the Free Church of Scotland to the country as one that reflects the nation. The desire to shed old images should not lead us into self-loathing. We ought to take pride in the spirituality of island communities and we ought to take pride in the fact that we are intimately connected with living Gaelic culture.
In being a Scottish church for all the people of Scotland we ought to remember Andersen’s wide definition of a nation as an imagined community and be as inclusive to the new Scots living within our bounds as well as those who will never see themselves as Scots because they are sojourning here.
In the history of the Church of Scotland an ugly incident of racism surfaced in the 1920 in relation what was referred to as “the Irish Menace” In 1924 the General Assembly had described recent waves of Irish immigration as “a menace to Scottish nationality and civilisation” because of the inferior quality of the type of Irish who emigrated to Scotland and the contrast between their social and moral conduct and those of the “native Scots”. In1927 a Church and nation report called for the regulation of Irish immigration stating “The Church of Scotland whose interests in the past have been so intimately associated with those of the Scottish people has clearly an obligation to defend Scottish nationality such as no other organisation or institution has. The Church has reacted on the nation and the nation has impressed its own genius on the Church in a most notable way. If ever there was a call to the Church of Scotland to stand fast for what men rightly call dearest- their nationality and their traditions- that call is surely sounding now, when our race a culture is faced with a peril chi h, though silent and unostentatious its greatest with which the Scottish people have ever been confronted.” Regular reports on the “Irish Menace” continued up to 1939 and although the Church and Nation’s reports were not inciting the Scots to racial hatred, in the light of what was going on in Nazi Germany in these later years, they are a reminder of how easily we forget the melting pot that is our own Scottish history and the need to welcome and assimilate well people from different backgrounds. The Free Church should be a place where New Scots are not a threat or an embarrassment.
Secondly there are issues of identity and cohesion within the Free Church of Scotland. I was in a discussion recently where someone commented on the fact that you could walk into of several our church plants and city centre churches and not know that you were in a Free Church. There is no sign of the denominational magazine, no interest in Free Church organised events and little recognition that the fellowship is part of a wider Presbyterian body. Now I believe that this is a self defeating approach to making the Free Church relevant. If our more contemporary congregations were willing to more publicly acknowledge their denominational loyalty then they would accelerate the breakdown of some of the old unhelpful stereotypes. But by remaining completely under the radar they appear as generically evangelical churches and, in a day, when people are looking to connect with roots and tradition they are missing out. The denomination should not be the first thing we want people to recognise when they engage with our churches but it shouldn’t be hidden away. There is a good story to tell and much to be gained by encouraging young people especially to discover loyalty to the wider church.
Thirdly I don’t think we should ever give up on the goal of cultural transformation through the gospel. We cannot rest content with the secular nationalism that is offered to the nation today. The answer is not to reject nationhood in favour of cosmopolitanism and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather we should seek the transformation once more of our national identity by the gospel.
As many missiologists have reminded us, Christians are living once more on the edge of society as aliens and strangers. We are pioneer missionaries once more and we can take inspiration from some of those who were courageous and sufficiently confident in the gospel to seek the transformation of a pagan people. I am thinking especially of Columba
Columba came as a believer chastened by failure to begin anew in God’s service. He first established a Christian community where shared life and theological reflection were a reality. Under Columba’s inspirational and charismatic leadership, Iona would become one of the major powerhouses of Christian learning and culture in the whole of Europe.
Once Columba had established a thriving monastic community, he looked beyond Iona’s shores. Columba was at home, culturally in Dalriada where he had settled as the culture was shaped by centuries of immigration from Gaelic speaking Ulster but beyond was the enemy territory of Pict Land. Columba was determined to make the dangerous journey through the densely wooded mountains by journeying through Scotland’s natural waterways of river and lochs.
Columba eventually arrived in Inverness and met with the Pictish King Bridei. He did not convert to Christianity, but Columba had won his respect and ultimately Columba and his mission would succeed in transforming the pagan Picts to a civilised and cultured Christian people. Interestingly, the Picts not only adopted the new Christian faith but also the Gaelic language of Columba and his monks. This unification by faith, language and culture would eventually lay the foundations for a united kingdom of Scotland under a Christian King.

Maybe its time to go back to the rock from which we were hewn and rediscover the importance of Christian community, holistic Christianity, evangelistic boldness and the vision for a Scottish identity one again shaped by allegiance to Christ the King of kings.


Scottish Identity- A Christian View