“I was born in Inverness, I’m a passionate Highlander, and I love Scotland. I will take a stand to keep the United Kingdom together. I will give my life for my country as my grandfather did in the First World War. And his brother Charlie. Highland regiment! British Army! I am British forever! We will never, never change! We will keep our union together in the name of Jesus!”
Social media has erupted over Nigel Kirk Hanlin, whose appearance on Question Time’s final show recorded in Scotland before the referendum was certainly memorable in comparison to the usually fairly bland and tepid proceedings of the show. I really didn’t feel much desire to talk about him: he’s just like dozens of other No voters I’ve encountered along the campaign trail, with the same anger and repudiation of the “Nationalists” attempt to break up their country.
I didn’t see much point in commenting on him, but the media seems to disagree: not only did Huffington Post UK and The Independent run it, but the Scottish Daily Mail are interviewing him. Meanwhile, unionist Facebook pages and Twitter accounts are extolling the passion, energy and heart of Mr Hanlin in his determined patriotism.
Or is it… nationalism?
I can’t say anything worthwhile about the first time Dimbleby went to him: it’s a series of non-sequiturs about how his grandfather and great-uncle died in the First World War, and that he will willingly give his life to keep the Union together. What possible response is there to that? That his grandfather and great-uncle did not die for the Union, they died for aristocrats itching for imperial conquest who sent thousands of Scots to a hell on earth – a hell from which one out of every four never returned? What’s worse, believing the lie that your grandfather and great-uncle died for a just and noble cause, or knowing the truth that they were casualties of monstrous and cataclysmic folly? What do you think he would choose to believe? Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Nor can I make fun of what he said. I just feel a great sadness that this man bears a passion and loyalty to a union that will just chew him up and spit him out, like his grandfather and great-uncle, and their Highland Regiment mates. It’s difficult to know which of the Highland regiments Mr Hanlin’s grandfather and great-uncle served in, though if they too were from Inverness, it’s a good chance they were part of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, headquartered at Inverness- the same as that of the legendary Gaelic war poet Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna (Red Donald of Coruna). His most famous song – indeed, one of the most famous of modern Gaelic pieces – is “An Eala Bhán,” “The White Swan.” Even translated into English, the lyrics are powerful and sombre:
Sad I consider my condition
With my heart engaged with sorrow
From the very time that I left
The high bens of the mist
The little glens of dalliance
Of the lochs, the bays and the forelands
And the white swan dwelling there
Whom I daily pursue.
O Maggie, don’t be sad
Love, if I should die –
Who among men
We are all only on a journey
Like flowers in the deserted cattle fold
That the year’s wind and rain will bring down
And that the sun cannot raise.
All the ground around me
Is like hail in the heavens;
With the shells exploding –
I am blinded by smoke:
My ears are deafened
By the roar of the cannon;
But despite the savagery of the moment
My thoughts are on the girl called MacLeod.
Crouched in the trenches
My mind is fixed on you, love;
In sleep I dream of you
I am not fated to survive;
My spirit is filled
With a surfeit of longing
And my hair once so auburn
Is now almost white.
But if it should happen
That I am killed in France
And laid in the grave
As thousands are already,
My blessings go with the maiden,
So noble and fair.
May her every day be free of care,
And her life a source of pride.
Goodnight to you, love
In your warm, sweet-smelling bed;
May you have peaceful sleep and afterwards
May you waken healthy and in good spirits.
I am here in the cold trench
With the clamour of death in my ears
With no hope of returning victorious-
The ocean is too wide to swim.
Red Donald survived the First World War, but as Fred MacAuley notes, he never truly left it behind:
Dòmhnall Ruadh was in the Militia before the War and would therefore not have had to wait too long before going across to France. There, a murderous, merciless, pitiless world awaited him, as he himself relates… but I believe that, at least up to this point, some of the old philosophy survived which ennobled war and in some strange way glorified it. I am certain too that, for that generation, these sentiments died forever in the trenches of France. All this is to be found in Dòmhnall Ruadh’s poetry. There is vanity and pride, charity and love, simplicity and youthful innocence, valour and the nobility of long ago, and they are all interspersed with lament and sorrow for the dead and the maimed. One cannot help being aware of this and being touched in some measure by the emotions in a situation which is difficult to comprehend in today’s brash and ever changing world. He is sorely pressed, his heart bruised at the brutality of his position, anguished and sometimes with little hope; at other times, his poetry is resolute and strong, then changes to regret and sorrow, questioning man’s function and purpose in the situation and occasionally turning to God and Creed for succour when there is not other solution… He was in the 7th Batallion of the Cameron Highlanders and was badly wounded on the Somme in the autumn of 1916. Invalided back to England, he later returned to France with the West Riding Field Regiment, as he was no longer fit for infantry duties. But whatever regulations said, he continued to wear the Cameron badge on his cap…
Like Mr Hanlin’s grandfather, Red Donald was a passionate highlander who loved Scotland. Highland regiment. British army. Yet he wrote of World War 1 not as a great paean to the union, but in something rather closer to the reality: the juxtaposition of a Scots’ mundane life in Scotland with the chaotic nightmare of the trenches. Red Donald, Mr Hanlin’s grandfather and great-uncle, several hundred of their brothers in the Cameron Highland regiments, and the thousands more in other Scottish regiments. And here is the descendent of those men who were sent to die in the muck and rain, ready to die at the whim of those who have proven themselves unworthy of such loyalty.
Yet amazingly, Mr. Dimbleby returned to Mr Hanlin later in the program. This second comment is far, far worse, to my mind.
“31 million people of the United Kingdom pay into the Exchequer. Only 4.2 million people in Scotland pay for that – that’s the health service, that’s for all the social services, and the people that suffer most in this country are the poorest. I’M CONCERNED FOR THE POOR! You understand? And with Gordon Brown I can say this: Scotland can lead – AND WILL LEAD – the United Kingdom. And like Mr Hastings there, I used to play the rugby… They said to me, you’ll never get on the team. I said, “WATCH ME!” And I can tell you this: I WILL GIVE MY OWN LIFE – keep this country together with my own blood!”
If we take Mr Hanlin’s numbers as accurate, then that would mean only 49% of the people of the UK pay into the exchequer, yet 77.8 of all Scots do. If we subtract the Scottish numbers from the 31 million to leave 26.8, then that would mean only 41.1% of the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland pay into the exchequer. “Only” 77.8% of Scots? Something’s definitely quite wrong with Mr Hanlin’s calculations.
But his concern for the poor is the most heartbreaking, for surely – surely – he should know that if anyone’s “spitting on the grave of (his) mother’s father,” it’s the people who have destroyed the support for the poorest and most vulnerable to the point where one in four Scottish children are living in poverty, the Red Cross has delivered aid to Britain for the first time since the Second World War, housing legislation is found to be in breach of human rights by European agencies, and the problem of homelessness in major cities is dealt with by erecting steel spikes? This is what you will give your life for? This is what you will shed your blood for?
And yet, there’s something even more disturbing about all this. Mr Hanlin has become something of a celebrity, praised on Facebook pages, the #highlander hashtag soaring to the top of the twitter trends, and he’s highly sought after for interviews. Why is it disturbing? Because people are praising a man who spoke of giving his life for the union, to keep it together with his own blood. Understand that he is not talking about martyrdom, or even that he’s dedicating his life metaphorically – the constant repetition of militaristic, jingoistic refrains, invoking the name of Jesus, all the way to evocation of his warrior ancestors make it clear he’s talking about war. He’s framing the referendum as a war in which he would gladly die fighting.
This referendum is often considered a war, but it is always on a metaphorical level. Between this, the constant scaremongering about concerted cybernat attacks, and George Galloway’s despicable sectarian incitement, it seems that many want this metaphorical war to become all too real. And that will only serve the UK government. They know how to deal with violence – they’re good at it. What the BBC have done here is continued the normalisation of the “referendum is divisive and dangerous” meme. By hailing Mr. Hanlin as a “voice of reason,” a “true patriot,” or whatever you like, you are normalising the idea that it is acceptable to say you would die for your country. Because it is not too far away from saying you would kill for your country.
As with the sectarianism, there is only one way to stop this – don’t give them the opportunity. It’s an oft-repeated mantra among Yes supporters: “700 years ago, Scots fought and died for their country’s independence – on the 18th of September, all they have to do is vote.” Nobody has to die. There is no need for a Battle of the Barrowlands, a Siege of Coulport, a Harrying of Holyrood. The best memorial to those who have died for Scotland’s self-determination, from Andrew de Moray to the martyrs of the Radical War, is to ensure that there don’t need to be any more martyrs.
I’m voting Yes so that nobody will ever have to die for Scotland again.
Gur duilich leam mar tha mi
‘S mo chridhe ‘n sàs aig bròn
Bhon an uair a dh’fhàg mi
Beanntan àrd a’ cheò
Nan loch, nam bàgh ‘s nan sròm
‘S an eala bhàn tha tàmh ann
Gach latha air ‘m bheil mi ‘n tòir.
A Mhagaidh na bi tùrsach
A rùin, ged gheibhinn bàs-
Cò am fear am measg an t-sluaigh
A mhaireas buan gu bràth?
Chan eil sinn uile ach air chuairt
Mar dhìthein buaile fàs
Bheir siantannan na blianna sios
‘S nach tog a’ ghrian an àird.
Tha ‘n talamh leir mun cuairt dhìom
‘Na mheallan suas ‘s na neòil;
Aig na ‘shells a’ bualadh –
Cha leir dhomh bhuam le ceò:
Gun chlaisneachd aig mo chluasan
Le fuaim a’ ghunna mhòir;
Ach ged tha ‘n uair seo cruaidh orm
Tha mo smuaintean air NicLeòid.
Air m’ uilinn anns na truinnsichean
Tha m’ inntinn ort, a ghràidh;
Nam chadal bidh mi a’ bruadar ort
Cha dualach dhomh bhith slàn;
Tha m’ aigne air a lionadh
Le cianalas cho làn
‘S a’ghruag a dh’fhàs cho ruadh orm
A nis air thuar bhith bàn.
Ach ma thig an t-àm
Is anns an Fhraing gu faigh mi bàs
‘S san uaigh gun tèid mo shìneadh
Far eil na mìltean chàch,
Mo bheannachd leis a’ ghruagaich,
A’ chaileag uasal bhbànn –
Gach là a dh’fhalbh gun uallach dhi,
Gun nàire gruaidh na dhàil.
Oidhche mhath leat fhèin, a rùin
Nad leabaidh chùbhraidh bhlàth;
Cadal sàmhach air a chùl
Do dhùsgadh sunndach slàn.
Tha mise ‘n seo ‘s an truinnsidh fhuar
‘S nam chluasan fuaim bhàis
Gun duil ri faighinn às le buaidh –
Tha ‘n cuan cho buan ri shnàmh.