Think of something typically Scottish and images of highland games and tartan and imaginary lake monsters will no doubt come into your head. For the most part these images are modern creations, a part of a fantasy built up during the nineteenth century, and very little to do with ancient or traditional Scotland or Scottish culture at all. For over two hundred years, however, these images have persisted and through popular culture have cemented themselves in the public imagination. But why did this happen in Scotland? Why not with other parts of the British Isles? Why not, for example, with Wales?
I’m sure that I’m not alone in sometimes thinking that modernity sucks. Looking back into the past it can seem like things were better. There wasn’t so much muck and corruption flying about the world and sometimes things, general things like buildings or cars, looked better. Also the environment wasn’t going to shit and Donald Trump wasn’t running for president. The past seems like a golden age. But to think like this is looking at it through rose tinted spectacles. The past was never as glorious or as great as we like to pretend it was. There has always been muck and corruption, more so than there is around today, and more often than not life itself was pretty shit most of the time, especially if you weren’t one of the elite few. Compared to the modern world it is the past that actually sucks.
When people try and recapture the past it isn’t actually the past they’re recapturing but their own rose tinted view of things. Take the medieval era. It seems absurd that anybody would want to go back to that time, a time of plague and hardships and feudal servitude and getting your head lopped off by some crazed knight in the midst of a violent battle, but in the nineteenth century there was a whole medieval revival and a clamouring for all things middle ages. They eulogized and celebrated heroes like King Arthur (as in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King) and Robin Hood (Ivanhoe was one of the major starting points for the movement.) They came up with the neo-gothic style in an attempt to emulate the great cathedrals- The Houses of Parliament in London are a great example, as is Tower Bridge but there were hundred and hundreds of these building types across Britain. Go to any city in the country and you’ll be able to find at least half a dozen examples and maybe more. There were the designs of William Morris and the Kelmscott Press, intended to emulate, celebrate and take things back to a pre industrial age. It was all nonsense of course. Most of the ‘medievalist’ ideas were nothing more than a fantasy. It was a rose tinted view of a past that never existed. It wasn’t medieval at all, it was ‘Victorian medieval.’
Unsurprisingly it was the wealthy and the aristocratic who were the ones into this medievalism, the ones who wanted to go back to the past. Mostly this was because it was only really they who could afford the money and the time to indulge in building neo-gothic follies and go around pretending to live in a pre-industrial age. The poor were too busy trying to make ends meet, living life the hard and tough way on the land or in the factories. And would they have wanted to go back to the medieval past? Life would have been just as bad for them in medieval times as it was in the 19th century, only with the added bonus of being enslaved to the local lord of the manor. It was alright for the wealthy, going back to the past. Most likely they would have been those lords of the manor I mentioned and they wouldn’t have had to endure the agony of feudal serfdom.
When we look at the context of the 19th century when related to this medievalism lark something interesting crops up. This was the age of revolution, don’t forget. It was the time when the dispossessed were starting to rise up and cast of the shackles of oppression. It was the time of Chartism and workers rights. I think it was 1849 that was dubbed the year of revolutions because almost every country in Europe had one of some kind or another. Do these sound like people who’d want to go back to an age of serfdom to you? No. Me neither. Many of the wealthy, on the other hand, didn’t want to give the workers their rights. They wanted to keep them in their place- A liberated worker was a dangerous worker in their opinion. So is it any wonder then, that with such thoughts that they sought solace in a past (albeit a fantasy past) where the workers remained in their place? Not all would have thought like that, obviously, but some might have done.
Back in the modern age nostalgia for a glamorous past that never was still goes on. ‘Retro’ is supposedly in right now and a few years ago there was supposed to be ‘eighties revival.’ You always hear people going on about going back to the ‘swinging sixties.’ But when you look at them the eighties were awful (One word beginning with T and I don’t need to tell you what it is!) and the sixties only ever swung for a select few in London and San Francisco. Most hippies were drugged up wastrels and being one isn’t something you should aspire to. Ok… You can say the general aesthetics of life were better in the sixties- they looked better than today, in one respect- but you certainly can’t say that about the eighties. There’s a reason they call it the decade that taste forgot. Going back to the eighties is as bad an idea as going back to the medieval era.
And you know what, the modern era may suck but it has some good points as well. We can communicate like never before across vast distances. I’m sat here writing this in an attic somewhere on the neglected edge of one horse town in the north of England but you could be reading it in the Australian outback or a entirely different one horse town in the American mid west. Technology and modern society allow us to do amazing things, things like 3D printing or designing posters. A person could look up how to build the world’s greatest snowman in seconds if they wanted. This week I was looking at one bed roomed apartments in Morecambe from the comfort of my office chair. Could I do that without technology? No. I’d have to go to Morecambe to look at their one bedroom apartments. Not that I particularly want to move to Morecambe anyway- I was looking at Lancaster and it came up with stuff in Morecambe. But the point still stands. People coped without these things in the past but now we’ve been exposed to the luxury and the comfort going back to a time without them is unthinkable.
But if I really had to go to a glamourised, rose tinted past I’d go for the thirties- Cool music, cool films and awesome clothing style. We can do without Hitler and the Fascists and the depression (we’re already putting up with similar in the modern world, isn’t that right Trump?) Plus, saying it gives me an excuse to drag this wonder from my archives: