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Alba gu bràth: Scottish Resistance to English Union in the Eighteenth Century

by Anthony O’Connell

“There is so much about language, culture, the people, food, laws that are different. There has always been an otherness in Scotland, from education to buying a house. There’s a long history of independence of mind, so why not extend that further and finalise it”

––Bill Bailey, Daily Record, 19 April 2013.

Scotland has long been a point of contention within the United Kingdom. For much of its history, it has been a separate kingdom with its own language and customs. It was not until the fourteenth century, following a series of wars with England, that Scotland entered a union with England, and it was not until 1707 that Scotland and England united to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Scotland has its own parliament and laws, operating with some level of autonomy. This level of autonomy paired with the history of subjugation by England has continued to foster feelings of resistance and independence within many of Scottish descent.

This paper examines the argument for and against Scottish integration and compliance with English law given by the Scottish during the eighteenth century. Culture is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively . . . [and] the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society” (“Culture”). When these definitions are applied to Scotland and its people, it is clear that a separate Scottish culture and country exists. Scotland has a distinctly separate flag, as well as language, clothing style, separate seat of monarchy, currency, music and oral tradition. However, Keith Cameron states that “Although there are many colourful symbols of Scottish identity like the kilt, the Bagpipe and Whiskey (Scotch) whose association with Scotland is recognised all over the globe…these are ultimately rather superficial manifestations of cultural separateness and hardly compare…[to] language…the bedrock of collective cultural identity” (Cameron). Cameron argues that due to our shared language, English, Scotland has no unique culture and is not a separate entity in its own right (Cameron 10). However, Scotland has had its own distinct language, Scottish Gaelic, which is native to the Gaels of Scotland. A member of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages, Scottish Gaelic developed out of Middle Irish. It developed at the same time as Middle English but did not develop from English itself.

The notion that Scotland is a single entity is due to the two primary pieces of legislation: Firstly, the 1707 Act of Union saw Scotland become a domain of England by removing Scottish parliament and having Scotland follow laws set by English parliament. Secondly, in 1746, the Dress Act imposed by the English sought to remove all traces of a separate Scottish identity and culture by outlawing the wearing of national dress. It was during this period that Thomas Blacklock published his first edition of Poems on Several Occasions, which countered the popular theory of Scottish writers as nationalists following the Act of Union. Blacklock used Scottish cultural history to advocate that the Jacobites stand down whilst promoting unionism. Blacklock’s second edition, published in 1756, shows the desire to appear English by removing Scottish vernacular and all mention of previous resistance and dissent. However, many Scots did speak out against the loss of independence and cultural identity; this loss caused an uncertainty in the place of Scots’ vernacular and Scottish cultural identity, often being seen as inferior to English. This perception is something Scotland is still struggling with today. It is still overshadowed by the Scottish Education Department’s language policy during the 1940s, which stated that Scots had no value: “It is not the language of ‘educated’ people anywhere, and could not be described as a suitable medium of education or culture” (Kay).

Colin Kidd states that “literary historians have always thought that Scottish writers became more nationalistic and defensive after the Act of Union in 1707” (21). However, Blacklock’s poem, An Ode On the Surrender of Edinburgh, published in 1746, is contrary to this belief as it looks to decry those who seek to fracture the recently created Kingdom of Great Britain and threaten the people’s freedoms. Through the use of the persona Edina to describe Edinburgh, Blacklock invokes Edinburgh’s history. Blacklock does this to remind people of Scotland’s unique cultural identity. His use of Edina shows the sense of an historic connection between the inhabitants, as the word itself dates back to at least the medieval times. Arguments suggest that the name is first found as Din Eidyn in Y Gododdin, a poem that depicts events relating to the Battle of Catraeth, thought to have been fought around 600AD. Blacklock does this to appeal to those who are siding with the Jacobite army, under Charles Edward Stuart, to remember their history and not be manipulated. Blacklock’s choice to stand beside George, “thee and George,” shows that he feels what he is doing is best for the country, against the “base-born” rebels who seek their own gratification first (43-46).[1] Furthermore, through the use of “like his kindred fiends below”, Blacklock places himself beside George upon the ramparts of Edinburgh castle, shoulder to shoulder with those who are defending Edinburgh and the history and culture of Scotia, which these fiends look to destroy through their baseborn desire (43-46). Blacklock uses an us vs. them mentality to draw clear lines between what he feels to be right or wrong. Describing the rebels, Blacklock uses a lexical field of evil and damnation, for example: “when our remorseless foes, arm’d in a baseborn coward’s cause” and “kindred fiends below” (43-46). His use of biblical imagery creates the notion that those who side with the Jacobites are siding with the devil himself (43-46). His imagery sets the rebels below the defenders, suggesting that the rebels are giving up their humanity by lowering themselves or moving towards hell itself (43-46). This, in stark contrast to the higher position of the defenders, denotes their almost angelical position and pure actions. Blacklock suggests that the defenders have the backing of God as the poet calls on him to “let all those plagues descend” (43-46).

The Greek Connection
Furthermore, Blacklock demonstrates a patriotic viewpoint with his intermingling of Greek language and mythology, “lyra,” amongst his Scottish vernacular, “Edina,” to suggest that Scotland is on par with the culture and strength of ancient Greece. He looks to highlight Scotland’s distinct separation from English vernacular (43-46). This mixing of Greek theology is present throughout the piece as Blacklock draws inspiration from William Shenstone’s The Judgement of Hercules within the second stanza. However, he reverses the meaning of the piece. Within Shenstone’s piece, the female is described relaxing, “waved wanton” and “reclined,” both holding connotations of peace and comfort (Shenstone 233-250). Shenstone’s description of how the robe flows freely in the wind and her head drooping in her hand creates a submissive air to the piece:[2]   

She ceased; and on a lilied bank reclined,
Her flowing robe waved wanton with the wind;
One tender hand her drooping head sustains,
One points, expressive, to the flowery plains. (233-250)

In contrast, Blacklock’s poem situates himself in the place of the female and converts the peace of Shenstone’s scene by showing his suffering in Edina’s fate as he reclines upon the lilly’d bank. He groans and trembles, twisting Shenstone’s piece into one of death and conflict instead:

Along the lilly’d bank recline’d
My Being all to grief resign’d
Which ev’n my groans restrain’d;
While ev’ry trembling fallow bough.’ (43-46)

Also, the use of Hercules’ legend within the poem is placed alongside another Greek legend relating to Prometheus, known as the titan who was the creator of mankind and stole fire from Mount Olympus to better the human condition. As a result, Prometheus was chained to a rock by Zeus for his transgression. By summoning Prometheus’ image, Blacklock suggests to his countrymen that Scotland should be a bastion in aiding mankind, not like the gods who sought to constrain humanity under their power. Blacklock also personifies Scotland though the reference “Scotia mourns in chains,” giving form to the loss of freedoms and liberties. This reference alongside his Shenstone allusion creates a sense of desire to protect in the patriotic reader (43-46).

Blacklock’s choice to publish his first issue of Poems on Several Occasions in 1746 may have been a deliberate choice to promote unionism during a time when many Scots would have felt a sense of increased patriotism at the potential loss of independence and cultural identity due to the Dress Act. In 1721, Allan Ramsey’s Tartana, or the Plaid called for Tartan’s adoption as the patriot garb of domestic manufacture, “before base foreign Fashions interwove,” a clear reference to the cultural influence of England following the Act of Union (Ramsey 63). He writes:

We’ll find our godlike fathers nobly scorn’d,
To be with any other dress adorn’d;
Before base foreign fashions interwove,
Which ‘gainst their int’rest and their brav’ry strove.
‘Twas they could boast their freedom with proud Rome,
And, arm’d in steel, despise the senate’s doom;
Whilst o’er the globe their Eagle they display’d,
And conquer’d nations prostrate homage paid,
They, only they, unconquered stood their ground’. (63)

Ramsey also looks to compare Scotland to a great historical power through his references to the Roman Empire. Ramsey shows how only through their steadfast determination in denying anything “which [was] ‘gainst their interest[s]” were the Romans able to remain a global power and “boast [of] their freedom” (63). This is again a call to resist the English and the weakening of Scotland and its history at England’s hands. Similarly, in her piece titled “Modern Dress,” Mrs. G. Armytage suggested that men had “emancipated” themselves by accepting the limited wardrobe of the eighteenth century (Armytage 344 qtd. in Aindow 60), while an anonymous writer in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine writes that “there was a time when…colour, shape and substance were at the equal disposal of both sexes” (Aindow 60). Both quotes suggest that the acceptance of English styles at the expense of traditional Scottish attire weakened both Scotland and Scottish identity and removed the qualifiers that they were best known for, such as their kilts, in favour of the more effeminate and limiting choices of the English. It was during the Era of the Jacobite Risings from 1715 to 1746 that tartan became confirmed as the uniform of that party. As early as 1689, it was noted that non-Highland professionals, such as “Mr Drummond, the advocate” attached to Dundee’s army, were wearing “Highland Habit; as a signifier of their loyalty to ‘old Scotland’” (Brown 36). However, this desire to show loyalty to old Scotland, a separate Scotland, was one of the driving forces behind the Dress Act as Britain could not afford further rebellion in its provinces. The act remained in force for 36 years and was finally repealed in 1782. The act was successful in its purpose as it effectively outlawed Highlanders’ customs and traditions for an entire generation, and their traditions and attire were never again a part of everyday wear in Scotland.

Anti-Scottish Sentiment in Action
Blacklock’s second edition of Poems on Several Occasions was published in 1756, after the Dress Act, when it was illegal to wear Highland dress, and when being Scottish was seen as inferior. People of the time actively tried to disassociate themselves from anything that may draw likeness to their Scottish connections. David Shuttleton states that “young Blacklock’s self-conscious awareness of the cultural difference between England and Scotland and his anxieties over ‘exotic’ linguistic ‘idioms’ suggest a somewhat reluctant acceptance of prevailing pressures” (31). Indeed, Blacklock’s second edition opens with an essay by Joseph Spence that seeks to espouse Blacklock’s virtues. In doing so, Spence shows him as holding the English qualities of kindness, virtue, and unrestricted intelligence. In addition, Spence is keen to show how Blacklock’s family, “since time immemorial,” are English, and how “Mr. Thomas Blacklock was born…in Scotland; but of English parents; for both his parents were natives of the county of Cumberland” (Spence i-lv).[3]  Furthermore, he states that Blacklock’s paternal ancestors have lived in that county from time immemorial,” suggesting that there is no problem with enjoying his works as an “English” poet (i-lv). Furthering this, Spence looks to remove the notion of otherness that surrounds Blacklock by showing how this poet embodies many English qualities such as knowledge of the ancient languages. Blacklock “attained much mastery in the Greek, Latin, and French Languages”, and a gentleness and kindness not found in the Scots (i-lv). He continues, “The goodness of his heart is very visible in the general colouring of his works; and breaks out, here and there, in almost every one of his particular poems” (i-lv). Spence separates Blacklock from the prevailing notions of the rough and barbarous Highlanders of Scotland that were seen as brutish and in need of civilisation. However, Spence’s description of Blacklock serves a dual purpose: The language is deliberate as it brings forth connotations of a childlike simplicity— small, innocent, and non-threatening but eager to learn. It is a depiction that ties into his comments on how Blacklock avoided the 1745 rebellion and disassociated himself with his countrymen by escaping to the countryside. This disassociation is also evident within the selection of poems contained within the second edition of Blacklock’s work. The poem “An Ode, On the Surrender of Edinburgh” is absent and has been replaced with a poem bestowing the virtues of God, titled “PSALM CXXXIX Imitated.” However, this may be unintentionally ironic. Spence suggests that Blacklock’s belief in God is a redeeming quality that has helped him overcome the faults of his birth. It was precisely in “An Ode on the Surrender of Edinburgh” that Blacklock implored God to strike down on those that “blast our freedom[s], peace, and laws” and to visit plagues upon the “Tyrant Victor” (Blacklock 43-46).

Shifting Mindsets
By replacingAn Ode On the Surrender of Edinburgh” with “Psalm CXXXIX Imitated” in his Poems on Several Occasions,  Blacklock moves away from the us vs. them mentality expressed within the previous edition. Instead, he looks to suggest that since everyone is united under God and all men are equal he will forgive their previous transgressions, as expressed by omitting the previous edition’s poems. Psalm 23 represents an idea of God as a shepherd leading a flock of his followers and providing security by overseeing them and making sure they have no desires. This idea is mirrored within Blacklock’s piece: As long as his fellow countrymen do not desire anything, they will not rebel. The line “the latent, kindling, young desire” suggests the youngs’ desire is a kindling, ready to burn and spread to create larger fires of desire; it is latent as God fulfils all needs (Blacklock 16-20). Similarly, Blacklock mirrors the sense of God as the protector: “O my God! Thy piercing eye/ Thy mighty presence circles all the scene” (16-20). He promotes disarmament by suggesting that his countryman do not need weapons and should give up their arms for the all-seeing divine protection offered by God (16-20). In addition, although the piece was commissioned by the Scottish church, it is noteworthy that Blacklock chose to focus on a Christian God in place of the Greek mythology and the shared vernacular of the previous piece. The piece does away with the different aspects of Scottish culture and shows how quickly Scotland lost its unique aspects and became a component of Great Britain as English culture intermingled and was seen as the prominent one at the time.

Throughout its history, Scotland was a separate country with its own unique culture and traditions. However, following the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland became a part of the United Kingdom, and, although it no longer held its own government or monarchy, it continued to be partially separate as the United Kingdom “is made up of four countries; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” (Johnson). Furthermore, Scotland still has maintained some sense of a unique cultural identity until today; however, during the eighteenth century and after the 1746 Dress Act, its culture became uncertain and muddied, leaving the Scottish uncertain of the value of their heritage compared to the dominant English aspects that began to pervade their culture. This situation split the country into two groups: Those, like Blacklock, who in his first edition of Poems on Several Occasions in 1746 suggested that the English have Scotland’s best interests at heart and will seek to protect its freedoms against Tyrants, and those who saw their freedom disappearing due to English rule and desired to resist the changes being forced upon them by a distant government that did not represent their people. However, the absence of any negative opinions in Blacklock’s second edition, published in 1754, and the choice to remove his previous Scottish-isms show how many people had the desire to appear more English than Scottish to avoid persecution. This is exemplified by Spence’s preface where he repeatedly describes Blacklock through his English ancestors and shows him as a learned and God-loving man, removing any negative connotations associated with Scotland and the Scottish at the time. Finally, to argue Scotland was never a separate country with a separate culture is to deny both recorded history and the continuing presence of a separate culture that exists into the present day.


1.I believe this reference may be to the then governor and acting general of the castle General George Preston, who was in charge during both the rebellions in 1715 and 1745, and who although confined to a wheelchair was wheeled round all the guards, every two hours (including the battlements). This connection seems more probable than that of King George, the second due to Blacklock’s line within the text “For, like his kindred fears below”, suggesting both that he was above the Jacobites, interpreted in a physical sense as holding the higher ground of the castle, but, also, that he shared some form of bond with the Jacobites through the use of kindred. I believe this bond to be that of countryman. See T.F. Henderson’s entry onGeorge Preston” in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

2.I made this link due to the out of place word clusters within the second stanza suggesting external influence. It should be noted that both authors were published through William Shenstone and may have seen or been influenced by each other’s pieces.

3.Cumberland itself has an interesting history relating to its unique cultural influences and whether it can be said to have a separate culture, the first record of the term “Cumberland” appears in records in 945 AD, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded that the area was ceded to Malcolm I of Scotland by King Edmund of England. However, on the death of King Henry I in 1135 AD, the area was regained by Scotland’s King David I and it was not until 1157 AD that King Henry II of England resumed possession of the area from Malcolm IV of Scots.

Works Cited

Aindow, Rosy. Dress and Identity in British Literary Culture, 1870-1914. Routledge, 2016.

Barrow, G.W.S. The Kingdom of the Scots: Government, Church and Society from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth century. 2nd ed., Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

Blacklock, Thomas. “An Ode, On the Surrender of Edinburgh.” Poems on Several Occasionsvol. 1, 1746.

Blacklock, Thomas. “Psalm CXXXIX. Imitated.” Poems on Several Occasions, vol. 2,Hamilton, Balfour and Neill, 1754.

Brown, Ian, ed. From Tartan to Tartanry: Scottish Culture, History and Myth: Scottish Culture, History and Myth. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Cameron, Keith, ed. National identity. Intellect Books, 1999.

Fulton, Rick. “Comedian Bill Bailey admits he loves Scotland so much he’d rather perform inOban than at the O2 arena.” Daily Record, 19 April 2013, Accessed the 2 Oct. 2017.

Henderson, T. F. “Preston, George (1659?–1748), army officer.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sept. 2004, Oxford University Press, Accessed 21 May 2018.

Johnson, Ben. “The UK & Great Britain – What’s the Difference?” Historic UK, Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.

Kay, Billy. Scots: The Mother Tongue. Mainstream Publishing Company, 1986.

Kidd, Colin. “Union and the Ironies of Displacement in Scottish Literature,” Literature and Union: Scottish Texts, British Contexts, edited by Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd, Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 21.

“Culture.” Oxford Dictionaries,  Oxford University Press, Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.

Ramsay, Allen. “Tartana, or the Plaid.” The Cambridge Companion to Scottish Literatureedited by Gerard Carruthers. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Shenstone, William. “The Judgement of Hercules.” The Works, in Verse and Prose, of William Shenstone, Esq’, vol. 1, H. Woodfall, 1768.

Shuttleton, David. “‘Nae Hottentots’: Thomas Blacklock, Robert Burns, and the Scottish Vernacular Revival.” Eigteenth-Century Life, vol. 37, 2013.

Spence, Joseph. “An Account of the Life, Character, and Writings, of the Author.” Poems by Mr. Thomas Blacklock, 3rd ed., R. and J. Dodsley, 1756, pp. i-lv.

Anthony O’Connell is an undergraduate studying English Literature at the Winchester University in the United Kingdom. This piece mixes his interests in eighteenth century literature with the history of the United Kingdom, and was inspired in part by his Irish heritage.

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