Thursday, January 23, 2014

Scottish? British? Burns and Bruce

The repetitive old debate is back on again this week - was Robert Burns a Unionist or a Nationalist? I have mentioned it here before.

Like haggis with chilli flakes it has all been given a bit of extra spice this year with the forthcoming Scottish referendum - would Robert Burns vote 'yes' for Independence from Britain, or 'no' and remain in the United Kingdom? Even academics are weighing in on the debate, which seems to be getting pretty nasty.

The referendum has been timed to coincide with the 700th anniversary of King Robert the Bruce's victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Even the commemoration of this event - a huge battle re-enactment and a multi-million pound visitor centre at Bannockburn on the outskirts of Stirling, costing about £20 per person to attend - has been drawn into controversy as Stirling City Council have booked a completely free of charge British Armed Forces Day event for the very same weekend, and the two events may now be marketed together. There is a view that this has been done deliberately, to diminish the likely nationalist sentiment at Bannockburn.

As ever, history is not that simple. There is a view that the Bruce masterplan was to ultimately take control of all of what today we call Great Britain and also Ireland. I'll post a bit about this soon.

If that is what Bruce was at, then of course he (and his brother Edward) failed. But nearly 300 years later it was Robert the Bruce's successor, King James VI of Scotland, who succeeded in this mission. In July 1603 he was crowned as King of England and Ireland as well as Scotland. James created the United Kingdom. And a few years later, the disgruntled Englishman Guy Fawkes famously attempted, in his own words, 'to blow the Scots back to Scotland'.

Ambitious Scots were the first Unionists. James did what Bruce had failed to do. Historical events and commemorations do not easily fit onto today's simplistic political debates - and that applies in Northern Ireland just as much as Scotland.