A Worthwhile Read

I went home this past weekend and went into my family’s spare bedroom to print something out. While waiting, I browsed the bookshelves and came across this gem: How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It, by Arthur Herman. I flipped through it, and while I have yet to finish one book for personal pleasure this semester (how sad), I brought it back with my in hopes that this just might be the first. I came across some interesting facts in the meantime that I thought I would share on the blog:

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  1. Page 4: The Scottish legal system used to have three options when the jury considered the culpability of a person charged for a crime in court: “guilty,” “not guilty,” and “not proven.” The last choice meant that the prosecution did not execute a persuasive argument even if the person being charged did indeed commit a crime.
  2. Page 98: After Scotland came under English rule, many Scots felt conflicted about their language and culture and how they could—or could not—be reconciled with those of England. Some of the Scottish began to refer to themselves as “North Britons” in an attempt to unite themselves with their southern neighbors—even though no one in England referred to themselves as “South Britons.”
  3. Page 104: Here Herman delves into the origins of the clan, or “clann” in Gaelic, which means children. The clan had a familial structure, with a chieftain at the head, as Professor McInerney discussed in class. Four or five generations composed a clan, of which there were over fifty in 1745. Those within a clan were not blood-related, however; they “were no more a family than is a Mafia ‘family,’” Herman humorously writes. (Maybe HBO should make a TV show about this…)
  4. Page 200: Rednecks did not originate as the Confederate-flag toting, muddin’-loving, truck-driving people we know today: it was a Scots border term for “Presbyterian” that became used when the Scottish settled in the southern parts of the United States.
  5. Page 294: The notion of a British empire originated from the mind of a Scot. Charles Pasley from Eskdalemuirin Dumfriesshire published An Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire in 1810. This work influenced Britain’s decision to spread its power around the world because, Herman wrote, “true national security rested on policy and power—especially military power,” including colonies.  
    1. *Fun fact within a fun fact: Charles Pasley translated the New Testament from Greek when he was eight years old.

Welsh Archers

Conwy Castle

Here’s what I know about the Welsh and the longbow (it’s not really very much). After the Norman Conquest, the Welsh caused the Normans a great deal of trouble by refusing to submit; the parts of England closest to Wales (the “Marches”) were in fairly constant turmoil for several generations, and the Norman lords of those parts (the “Marcher Lords”) were allowed to deal with the pesky Welsh very severely. The preferred weapon of the Welsh (and it’s an ideal weapon for guerilla warfare) was the longbow. Edward I Longshanks is the king credited with finally subduing the Welsh. He built a ring of extraordinary castles around Wales to contain it, presented the Welsh with “a Prince who does not speak a word of English” (his own infant son, who thus became the first English Prince of Wales) and by hiring a great many formidable Welsh archers and making them an elite unit within his army. In fact, many of the archers who made the victories of the Hundred Years’ War were actually Welsh.

In Act IV scene vii of Henry V, Fluellen (Shakespeare gives him a funny Welsh accent) insists that Henry himself is Welsh too:

Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!
What is this castle call’d that stands hard by?

They call it Agincourt.

Then call we this the field of Agincourt,
Fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus.

Your grandfather of famous memory, an’t please your
majesty, and your great-uncle Edward the Plack
Prince of Wales, as I have read in the chronicles,
fought a most prave pattle here in France.

They did, Fluellen.

Your majesty says very true: if your majesties is
remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a
garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their
Monmouth caps; which, your majesty know, to this
hour is an honourable badge of the service; and I do
believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek
upon Saint Tavy’s day.

I wear it for a memorable honour;
For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.

All the water in Wye cannot wash your majesty’s
Welsh plood out of your pody, I can tell you that:
God pless it and preserve it, as long as it pleases
his grace, and his majesty too!

Thanks, good my countryman.

By Jeshu, I am your majesty’s countryman, I care not
who know it; I will confess it to all the ‘orld: I
need not to be ashamed of your majesty, praised be
God, so long as your majesty is an honest man.

Longbows: Past and Present

Like many of the boys with whom I grew up, I found myself obsessed, from about the age of seven to fifteen, with weapons, imagined battles, and military history. The Middle Ages undoubtedly the coolest. Broadswords, battleaxes, crossbows all served to tantalize the imagination with vivid scenes of glorious battle and unprecedented demonstrations of chivalry. That such implements were meant to harm never seemed to factor into the picture.

Of all the heroic tales and armaments I imagined, however, nothing seemed as majestic or powerful as the tale of the English archer and his longbow. To this day, something about the awesome power of a one-hundred-fifty pound draw weight bow sending an arrow three hundred meters sends chills down my spine. It should not be a surprise, then, that Hugh MacDiarmid’s casting of Dylan Thomas’ elegy in the form of an arrow’s flight impressed itself upon my mind and urged me on to write a blog post about the history of such fearsome weapons in the British Isles.

The poem, In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, makes beautiful use of image and symbol in positing—in my reading, at least—Thomas’ final poem (or poetic effort) as an arrow shot vertically. The fast-flying arrow is at first glorified: “Up and up it went, not weaving as it would have done / With a snatching loose, but soaring, swimming / Aspiring towards heaven, steady, golden, and superb.” Such a perfect flight, however, is quickly subverted by the entrance of an ominously named “gore crow” that snatches the arrow from flight and extinguishes the poet’s symbolic flight. Rather than ending on a pessimistic note, however, the poem insists that the arrow must eventually return to earth and uses the repetition of the opening lines (“there comes from Wales once again / The fff-putt of a triple-feathered arrow / Which looks as if it had never moved!) to signal a certain a-temporal character of Thomas’ poetry.

Moving beyond the poem itself, I found myself extremely interested in the question of why the English longbow is often referred to as Welsh. Although most writers on the internet do not do more than take a perfunctory jab, saying that the bow itself originated with Welsh clans, I think there might be more of a back story—something with which I am hoping Professor McInerney might be able to help. On the other hand, my searches did yield an overwhelming amount of references and analysis of the role of the longbow in English history. Books have been written on the subject, but the short history is that around the year 1250 AD, the English army began to actively employ longbowmen in their armies, having initially seen them used successfully by the Welsh. Over the next hundred years, a culture developed in which all peasants began training at a very young age to develop the strength and accuracy needed to use the longbow in war. Then, between 1346 and 1415, the English used longbowmen to devastating effect in the Hundred Years’ War, literally massacring the French nobility (who fought as mounted, armored knights) in the battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. The success of the weapon and its imprint of the national consciousness of England are represented, I think, in two documents I found on the Early English Books Online database. The first, Toxophilus, or, “Lover of Bows,” was written in 1545 as a dedication to Henry VIII who required all men under sixty to practice the art of archery. The second is an announcement by king Charles I in 1631 officially a commission designed to explore the importance of archery in that day and age.

Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus

Charles I’s Proclamation

Considering that MacDiarmid found himself writing Thomas’ elegy in the twentieth century—a full seven hundred years after the initial adoption of the longbow by England—I am truly struck by both the importance and the persistence of the figure of the longbow in British historical and literary traditions.

Scots and English: Common Roots and Connotations

I’ve always been interested in language; in particular the hows and whys of just exactly what happened to form language into what it is today and the discussion of the Scots language the other day provoked more than just a few ideas to spring out of my head and actively turn about.

 I remember watching a documentary on the history of the English language on the history channel that I found extremely fascinating, however  at the time I was especially interested in how the French entered into the language since that happened to by my other-language-of-choice at the time. In my unsuccessful search for anything as much as a snippet to share here, I found this very interesting time-line of the evolution of the English language that begins with the Celts (it also gives several links to other sites to read about the history of English). www.danshort.com/ie/timeline.htm

What I found so interesting from this lost documentary I mentioned, however, was the many diverse languages that English had borrowed from and how the origins of particular words themselves seem to give some layer to the connotations that particular words hold. For example, the distinction between house and mansion: the word ‘house’ has clear Germanic roots (the word for house in Danish is hus and in German haus) while the word ‘mansion’  clearly has Latin roots (it is very similar to the French for house, maison). House and Mansion have very different connotations—house being slightly more humble. One could argue that the majority of words in English with Germanic roots come across as slightly more humble than their Latin-rooted equivalents.  Interestingly enough, there is a similar Scots word with a latin origin as well— manse—which is a house inhabited or formerly inhabited by a minister.

These connotations also are particularly important to English poetry. In one of my early college poetry writing classes there was a discussion of the use of ‘viking words’ as the professor liked to call them. These ‘viking words’ were words that packed more punch or gave more action to a poem and the professor recommended a healthy dose of both Germanic and Latin words to make a  poem more complete. It is evident that words do carry some semblance of the culture that their derived from. I’m well aware of the similarities between Danish and English, having just returned from a semester abroad in Copenhagen. I’m also aware that the Danish are the kind of people who would prefer a house to a mansion, or at the very least would call their mansion a house.

But this choice of words in the English language based on their roots brings me back to the choice of using Scots or a mix of Scots and English in poetry. Obviously, there are connotations that words from the Scots language hold just as with words of any other language. In class, we discussed the the use of the language for humor. In fact, the idea that humor is indeed an important quality of the Scots language is quite viable. In my search for information on humor and the Scots language I came across this online copy of Charles Mackay’s The Poetry and Humor of the Scottish Language. You can read it online here: www.archive.org/stream/poetryhumorofsco00mack#page/n5/mode/2up

Also, the discussion of ‘sister languages’ led me to find this diagram of a ‘language family’, namely the Indo-European language family:

From what I’ve read, Scots has retained more Germanic rooted words  than English has. I can’t help but wonder what exactly it is that gives languages particular over-all traits… and in relation to that… does English have some kind of connotation or particular attribute to it that makes it more useful for particular things… other than it’s international audience?

Irish and Scottish Music & Dance

I found Susanna’s post on the relationship between Ireland and Scotland very interesting. It made me realize that while I feel like I know a bit about the relationships between England and Ireland and England and Scotland, I don’t really know how Ireland and Scotland relate to one another.

According to the Wikipedia and Britannica entries, one of the first notable connections between Scotland and Ireland was in the 5th century, when groups of Irish invaded and settled on the west coast of the country, bringing the Gaelic language and Irish cultural influence with them. The Irish only held influence over Scotland for a brief time, however. Irish / Scottish relations began to deteriorate in the 7th century as the Anglo-Saxons expanded from the north of England. Gaelic was still spoken in the Scottish highlands, but variants of Middle English began to influence language in the Scottish lowlands. As the English expanded into Ireland under Tudor rule, Irish influence in Scotland “collapsed almost entirely”. More recently, however, relationships between the two countries have been “rekindled” due in part to their attempts to retain their cultures in the face of overbearing English expansion. The Irish are also the largest minority group currently represented in Scotland.

The issue of culture between the two is interesting, as they both seem to have very similar cultures and traditions that are retained so dramatically by their borders, and that are so very different from English and even Welsh culture. I find it surprising, however, because from the little bit I understand about Scottish history, apart from early Irish invaders, Scotland had more dealings with Romans and Anglo-Saxons, and seems as if it should have been influenced more heavily by those cultures than by the Irish. Celtic culture, for whatever reason (perhaps due to the people that continued to speak Gaelic in the highlands?), caught on and stuck.

The most notable shared aspects of their culture are discussed in this article: ezinearticles.com/?The-Special-Relationship-Between-Ireland-and-Scotland&id=3837879 . Ireland and Scotland are both influenced heavily by Celtic music, and their traditional musics are composed mainly by fiddles, bagpipes, whistles, and bodhrans (a small drum). While it is easy to find compilations of ‘Irish’ or, more broadly, ‘Celtic’ music, it is not very easy to find an album labeled as specifically ‘Scottish’ music. On that note, Irish music has undergone a sort of revival (likely spurred on by Riverdance and Michael Flatley) that definitively Scottish music has not, and modern versions of traditional Irish music supplemented by synthesizers, drums, and electric guitars and violins is very popular.

While I couldn’t find a great deal about specific differences between music between the two countries (although it is often noted that while their music is very similar, Celtic music aficionados say there are marked differences between them), I took Irish dance throughout middle and high school, and can speak a bit on the differences between Irish Step and Scottish Highland dance (there is another type of Scottish dance called Scottish Country dance, but it has more in common with ballroom dancing than Irish Step, and is not exactly considered a “folk dance”).

While there are similar aspects in Scottish Highland and Irish Step dance, a big difference between the two is the hands. Hands are often either on the hips or in the air in Scottish Highland dancing. In Irish dancing, arms are almost always kept at the sides, and only sometimes placed on the hips for certain steps or effect. The exceptions are céilí dancing (group dancing, when you would entwine your arms with other people), and, as the joke goes, Michael Flatley. My dance instructor always used to say that the arms are kept at the sides in Irish dancing because when the English were in control of Ireland and trying to squash out Irish culture, people would keep their arms stiff so that if an English soldier happened to walk by the house and look in the window, he wouldn’t be able to tell that the people inside were dancing, as only their feet were moving. I don’t know how true that actually is, but it sounds plausible to me.

Scottish Highland dance

Irish Step dance

The more traditional or less fancy dress of Irish dance is similar to that of Scottish dance (although Highland dance seems to involve more plaid..). Sometimes Scottish dancers will wear long dresses, however, which Irish dancers never wear–theirs always end around the knee. Schools of Irish dance have their own specific styles of the more traditional dress for beginning students (men wear a pants or a plain kilt, shirts, and sometimes a blazer or sash. I only ever saw a man dancing Irish Step in a kilt once or twice, whereas in Scottish Highland they always wear kilts). When dancers advance to the upper levels in competition, women design their own dress, and men choose their blazer and sash. Solo dresses can be embroidered with Celtic patterns from the Book of Kells or designs of Irish stone crosses, and dancers often secure sashes on the shoulder with brooches designed to look like the Tara Brooch. The really gaudy, sequined solo dresses only started becoming popular in the 70s and 80s. Personally I’m a fan of the more traditional solo dresses with the stitched embroidery rather than the newer ones with the bright patterns, but the traditional dresses are made out of heavier material and a bit more difficult to dance in.

Newer style of solo dress

More traditional style of solo dress

The final main difference is the shoes. The only shoes used in Scottish Highland are ghillies, which are soft shoes that lace across the top and up the ankles and are worn by both men and women. In Irish Step, men wear exclusively hard shoes, and women wear either ghillies or hard shoes, depending on the dance. The hard shoes used in Irish Step have bulky heels and large blocks of wood under the toe used for tapping.

Probably due to Riverdance, Irish Step dance tends to be more well known than Scottish Highland dance. Like Irish music, it has evolved into a very modern version of its traditional self.

A video of the “Highland Fling”, which is one of the three basic dances in Scottish Highland: www.youtube.com/watch?v=k71sHKbnMnQ&feature=related

Hard-shoe Irish Step dancing: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OraC81Mc1WA&feature=related

Scots Dictionaries

As I’m learning the hard way, not all Scots is particularly close to English. And John Weston, in preparing the collection we have of MacDiarmid’s poems, chose not to gloss terms like “muckle” and “maun” that, even pronounced aloud, may not have an obvious English equivalent. I found a couple of online glossaries and dictionaries that I found useful, and figured  I would share them here.

The Wikipedia Scots-English-Scots dictionary entry is useful insofar as it provides connotations and particular usages alongside simple translations, and Lexilogos has a searchable Scots dictionary, which fills in some gaps in the Wikipedia site.

Giant’s Causeway, or a View of Scotland from Ireland

As we move into a discussion of Scottish poets, I want to return for a moment to the film Michael Collins, and the treaty whose signing split the island in two.  The six counties of Northern Ireland that currently remain under British rule are a part of the Province of Ulster, the center of British power in Ireland, as well as an historic center of Irish rebellion. Following the Home Rule Bill in 1920, Northern Ireland became separated from its Southern counterpart, officially a part of the United Kingdoms, and culturally split. Place names are fair markers of this cultural divide: the second largest city in the province is called either Derry or Londonderry, depending on one’s political or cultural leanings. The divisions fall along religious, political, and ethnic lines, as Catholic/Republican or Nationalist/Irish in Northern Ireland generally stand against the Protestant/Loyalist or Unionist/British there – the paradigms of native/colonizer still stand, with stereotypes about each group reflecting the same ideas of sophistication versus tradition. The divisions are not, of course, ever complete: there are nationalist Protestants, Catholics Brits, and loyalist Irish, just as there are Protestants with messy households and Catholics with clean ones. The limited political autonomy they had led to outbursts of violence between extremist groups throughout the twentieth century, which in turn pushed the UK government to revoke home rule on a number of occasions.The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 officially called for a ceasefire among paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland and instated a power-sharing government, but Home Rule was revoked after the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) gained power in 2006 and refused to recognize Sinn Fein. Home Rule was not reinstated until 2008.

My introduction to the British Isles took place in Northern Ireland. Although my aunt is British (and has fairly strong anti-Irish prejudice), my perspective on British history comes from my understanding of Irish history beginning in the thirteenth century. Thus, my understanding of Scotland is rooted in a sense of the British monarchy as an inherently imperial force. My first sight of Scotland was from a castle in Belfast, where you can just make out the western-most tip of Scotland. I have never set foot in Scotland, or on Britain proper (outside of its airports), but being that close to it, the links between the two lands were tangible.

A little south of Belfast, Giant’s Causeway speaks to the physical connection between Ireland and Scotland, the remnants of the historical connection between their peoples. Geologically, Giant’s Causeway is a volcanic formation, basalt columns which naturally take the form of hexagons. Visually, it is a stunning array of hexagonal rocks so regular they seem manufactured, rising and falling along the sea coast. The exact same formations appear directly across the North Sea in Scotland, and from this geological constancy comes a legend of ancient rivalries and Irish cunning. Fionn mac Cumhaill, a giant warrior in Ireland, is said to have built the Causeway to cross to Scotland to fight the warrior Benandonner. Benandonner crossed the bridge before McCool could and, as it happened, was much much larger than Fionn had anticipated. In response, Finn disguised himself as his own son. Benandonner saw the size of the infant and, fearing the man who could have created such a large child, fled back to Scotland across the causeway, ripping it up in his haste, causing most of it to sink back into the sea.

The legend casts the Irish hero as clever, adaptive, in contrast to the brutish Scottish hero who gets away with mayhem thanks only to his size and power. The exact origin of the legend is unclear, though the image of Fionn mac Cumhaill moved to Scotland as “Fingal” in the eighteenth century. I am curious as to how this story reflects Irish understandings of the Scots, as opposed to the Brits, whose warriors are not commonly portrayed in Irish legends. However, the portrayal of the Irish hero as somewhat cowardly and cunning, rather than courageous and forceful, in contrast to the physically imposing but unthinking Scottish warrior, points to a cultural identity of subjection, the need always to outsmart the stronger foreigner. I am interested, as we continue our discussion of Scottish poetry, to see how the Scots understand themselves in contrast to the British and the Irish, how they construct their own cultural and national identity.

Ragouts, Olios, and Fricassees Galore

In keeping with the gastronomic theme covered in the last several posts, I wanted to dig into (pun intended) Robert Burns’ portrayal of competing nationalities in his delightful poem “To a Haggis.” As I mentioned today in class, I am particularly intrigued by the stanza that juxtaposes Scotland’s “rustic” haggis with the culinary culture of the European continent:

Is there that owre his French ragout,

Or olio that wad staw a sow,

Or fricassee wad mak her spew

Wi’ perfect sconner,

Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view,

On sic a dinner?

Having taken the time to revisit the stanza, I do not think that our initial reading stands quite as firm as we would like. In class, we came to the conclusion that foreigners, those “French[men]” eating their ragouts, were condescending towards the baseness of the haggis. By positing their “fricasees”—perhaps the haughtiest name that might be applied to a dish—in opposition to the Scottish, offal-based dish, the poem seems to mock the notion that foreign culinary cultures were superior.

Upon further reflection, however, I think a few words in the poem undercut this reading to a small extent. Although the individuals do gaze upon the haggis with “scornful[l]” eyes, all three dishes mentioned are not as gastronomically complex as one might assume. The French “ragout” and the Spanish “olio” are both simple meat stews that incorporate whatever the cook has available. In its present form, “olio” connotes a hodgepodge, which is a nod to the variability of the dish’s ingredients. And, perhaps most surprisingly, “fricassee,” the word we assumed implies a sort of French haute cuisine, is actually just a ragout of small animals like wood pigeons or squirrels. All three words/dishes, then, represent the peasant food of foreign lands. Much like the Scottish haggis that literally crams everything available into an animal’s stomach, these stews originated as a mish-mash of what French and Spanish farmers could grow or kill.

With such a reading in mind, Burns’ ironic portrayal of the French and Spanish does not seem so very farfetched. Their peasants ate a bizarre combination of foods as well.

More Haggis

I’ve remarked before that every time I try to keep a blog, it winds up being about food. Turns out this is no exception. I had haggis on my mind because of Robert Burns, and found the following recipe in the online Burns Encyclopedia:

‘Make the haggis-bag perfectly clean; parboil the draught; boil the liver very well, so as it will grate; dry the meal before the fire; mince the draught and a pretty large piece of beef very small; grate about half the liver; mince plenty of suet, and some onions small; mix all these… and season them properly with salt and mixed spices; take any of the scraps of beef… and some of the water that boiled the draught, and make about a choppin of good stock of it; then put all the haggismeat into the bag, and that breath in it; then sew up the bag; but be sure to put out all the wind before you sew it quite close… If it is a large haggis, it will take at least two hours boiling.’ Susanna MacIver, Cookery and Pastry, 1787.

You will note that, as is characteristic of early recipes, there are no proportions given and very little explanation; this recipe is really intended for someone who already knows how to make haggis.  The only thing even vaguely comparable I’ve ever tried to make is Christmas pudding, which also involves suet and long boiling, but has raisins and other dried fruit instead of liver.  I’m not certain how you grate a liver, never mind how well boiled it is, or what a draught is.  I assume the meal that is being dried before the fire is oatmeal.  I’ve never tasted haggis, I must admit, but I have eaten both Irish blood sausage and the French andouillette (tripe sausage) with great relish, so I’m perfectly willing to admit that it might be tasty indeed.

A final note: there is, of course, a wonderful Canadian band called Enter the Haggis (Amanda obviously already knows about them).

In response to Aya’s post…

I grew up on more or less the same music– the album I remember best, and the one most like the one you remember is The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, Live at Carnegie Hall. Here’s a link to a discussion about the band, which also remembers “Are You Ready for a War” but doesn’t mention another favourite of mine, “Shelicky Shelicky Bookie” which, as an ode to a snail, is not political.  At least not as far as I can see.