Dr Gill Plain: English at the Crossroads of History- Bannockburn and the First World War

I fear I might be here under false pretenses. I’m more usually a literary critic, working on topics from twentieth century crime fiction to the fiction and film of the 1940s. So, Scottish history is not my usual territory – but it’s hard to live in Scotland and not recognise some historical landmarks, even if it isn’t always clear what they signify or why (as Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus asks of Bannockburn in Black and Blue, ‘did we win that one?’). Similarly, whether you side with Blackadder or Gove, it’s impossible to live in the UK and not register the impact of the First World War upon the national mythology. And back in 2014 it was the ‘anniversary culture’ surrounding Bannockburn and World War One that led me actually to do something with Scottish history.

Some context: together with Professor Kate McLoughlin at Oxford, I’ve been running a virtual organisation called WAR-Net since about 2010. The War and Representation Network aims to bring together scholars working on war from across the disciplinary fields – Literature, History, Art History, the Social Sciences, Film – you name it, we embrace it. We’re also interested in trans-historical approaches to the study of war: the ideological frameworks, myths and tropes that connect culture’s legitimation, prosecution and writing of conflict across the centuries.

So, imagine a restaurant sometime after an enjoyable conference on ‘War and Something’… Imagine drink has been taken. Imagine two women wondering what on earth would be an original way for an organisation called WAR-Net to approach the massively overcrowded commemorative landscape of World War One. The historical record is hazy on the question of which one of us actually came up with the idea of paired anniversaries, but I should probably take responsibility for matching the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It was one of those ideas that starts out as a joke. Wouldn’t it be funny to have a conference on two things so vastly different and absurdly far apart? But once we started looking, the cultural questions thrown up by the juxtaposition were fascinating. There were questions of mythology, of national identity and nation building, citizenship and belonging, class and gender – in particular, questions concerning the construction of ‘national’ masculinities. Then there were issues of iconography, influence and omission. Why remember Bannockburn rather than, for example, Stirling Bridge? Why did Scotland, so recently arguing for Home Rule, produce a disproportionately large number of volunteers to fight for a cause both British and Imperial? How across the centuries has ‘Bannockburn’ been deployed and in what causes? Much has been written about the impact of the First World War on culture and politics – but what literature shaped the minds of the young men imagining war in 1914?

To cut a long story short, then, a dinner led to an idea, which led to the WAR-Net conference ‘Bannockburn 1914: Anniversary Culture, War and National Identity in Scotland’, held at the SHN Blog BannockburnUniversity of St Andrews. This is turn lead, after the customary existential struggles, to the publication in 2017 of Scotland and the First World War: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Bannockburn (Bucknell University Press). Putting this collection together was a fascinating and eye-opening experience for me. The book contains essays by a mixture of historians and literary critics, all writing to their specialism, but with an eye to comparative and transhistorical questions of cultural memory and national identity. It would be invidious to pick out favourites from amongst the 11 essays, but in terms of understanding what a difference it makes to change the conventional national focus of the First World War, Peter Mackay’s essay on Gaelic poetry of the conflict had a huge impact on me, while Michael Brown’s account of the emergence of Scottish martial identity in the late middle ages confounded my clichéd understanding of the ‘mad highlander’ trope! Similarly, in an alignment that has, sadly, become newly resonant, Stefan Goebel found that – when it came to memorial practices at least – Scotland had more in common with Europe than England, while Fran Brearton’s opening essay on ‘magic numbers’ provocatively explores poetry’s implication in the matter of what we remember and why. In all of this, it was particularly interesting for me to read a series of essays tracing ‘commonalities and differences’ across such a wide span of time. I’ve been more used, in my 20th century literary day job, to tunnelling into the detail of cultural context – reading the history of the Second World War, of the British film industry, of the women’s movement – to help understand and explain the preoccupations and anxieties of literary texts. But I seldom step outside my habitual century, and doing so was a reminder of an earlier time and of what was, I suspect, my first encounter with Scottish history – so I’ll end this blog with a dose of nostalgia…

Growing up variously in England and Wales, where Scottish history did really not feature on the syllabus, I came late to the subject. But I should nonetheless confess that although I’ve spent 25 years teaching English literature, for the first two years of my undergraduate life I was a fully paid up History student. And it was during these formative two years, while taking a course on early modern Europe, that I first began to understand that there might be radically different plots being enacted on the island I had once thought fairly homogeneous. The specific instance was witchcraft, in which Scotland followed a trajectory far closer to Europe (again!) than to England, and I was genuinely thrilled by reading Christina Larner’s Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland. (That I changed to English for the final year of my undergraduate degree probably gives you some idea of how seldom I felt thrilled about the reading lists I encountered). But this book was revelatory, not just about the differences between Scotland and England, but also about the work that history could do as a socio-cultural discipline. While studying witches was not ‘literary’, it was about stereotypes, contested representations and forgotten narratives – all things that would come to drive aspects of my literary research, albeit in different times and contexts.

But in the end, after a particularly traumatic encounter with medieval sheep farming, I abandoned undergraduate history for the lure of the novel. I took up residence in the Twentieth century and wrote a PhD on women’s fiction of the Second World War. It wasn’t the end of my encounter with Scottish History – Naomi’s Mitchison’s The Bull Calves (1948) ensured I spent an uncomfortable six months swotting up on the 1745 Jacobite rebellion – but it was the end of my official days as an Historian. It’s nice to be back, even in a part-time capacity – and I’m enormously grateful to the SHN committee for inviting me to reflect on what has been for me a very welcome return.

Gill Plain is a Professor of English Literature and Popular Culture at University of St Andrews.  She can be reached at gill.plain@st-andrews.ac.uk

Cover Image : ‘A letter home! A gallant Jock writing home finds a smashed staircase makes a good writing desk’. Used with permission from the First World War Official Photographs Collection, National Library of Scotland.

Second Image: Flyer for WAR-Net conference ‘Bannockburn 1914: Anniversary Culture, War and National Identity in Scotland’ provided by author

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