Fighting Scots–History and Mythstory

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The Fighting Scots…Highland Warriors…the Women from Hell (a reference to kilts)…the Pipes sounding over the glens and heather of the Scottish landscape…Culluden…”Aye”…William Wallace and Robert the Bruce…Blue Face Paint…Broadswords…and on it goes.

As a lover of history and of stories–and the two fit nicely together–it is easy to fall in love the with themes and images of Scottish legends and lore.  From the stories of Sir Walter Scot–who was a Scot–and Robert Louis Stevenson to movies such as Braveheart, Scots inspire lots of readers and fans.  Festivals are held in America celebrating Scottish heritage and young men, not the least bit confused in their gender identity, don kilts and work at playing pipes.

What Presbyterian can not love Scotland?  From John Knox, Andrew Melville, Thomas Chalmers, and a host of theologians, pastors, and preachers down the ages to Eric Liddel and John Murray of more recent vintage to Sinclair Ferguson and Alister Begg (who, incidentally, is a Baptist), Scots have rallied behind the cross of Christ and the theology of Calvin across the continents for centuries.

Even the history of America can be told as an almost totally Scottish affair.  Who settled the frontier from Pennsylvania down through the Appalachians?  The Scots.  Where did the defeated, but still determined Scottish soldiers from Colluden go to lick their wounds and wait for another and better day of battle?  The American colonies.  The War for Independence itself may very well have been caused when the colonies ran off with a Scottish parson.  That parson, in the minds of many, was the Scottish theologian, teacher, scholar, politician, and patriot John Witherspoon.

Those delighting in the American versions of Scottish plunk and persistence enjoy books like James Webb’s Born Fighting.  From athletes to politicians to soldiers, it has been the Scots, the Irish, and the Scots-Irish who have won our sports events, led our country, and fought our wars. Webb’s book is a fun and frolicking version of the story.

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A bit weightier is Arthur Herman’s How the Scots Invented the Modern World.  It is no coincidence that the title alludes to Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, and one hopes that Cahill will add another volume to his “Hinges of History” series with a study of Scotland.  Herman focuses quite a bit on Scotish intellectual contributions ranging from Adam Smith to David Hume among others.  It

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Another weighty and yet popular study is Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fischer.  It covers far more than just the Scots, but it does reinforce the idea that this small clannish people played a great role in the settlement and direction of the emerging American nation.

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A Southern angle on the Scottish heritage is seen in Grady McWhiney’s fine book Cracker Culture along with the book he co-authored with Perry D. Jamieson, Attack and Die: Civil War Military Tactics and the Southern Heritage.  The thesis of both books, which focus on Scots and Celtic heritage and culture, may have been a bit over-emphasized, but both books are good and enjoyable studies.

Image result for grady mcwhiney                  Image result for grady mcwhiney

Personally, I treasure Iain Murray’s fine volume of biographical studies titled A Scottish Christian Heritage, which is Published by Banner of Truth Trust, which is located in Edinburgh and is the source of many reprints of Scottish theology.

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Scotland is an amazing land.  With geographical challenges, with a long history of subjugation by their more wealthy and numerous southern neighbors (or oppressors or rulers)–the English, with religious convictions that resulted in theological battles at home and missions to every corner of the world, the Scots have made an impact on history that outweighs their country’s size, wealth, or resources.

Along with the Netherlands, Scotland is one of the dominant influences in American and world history.  Even those who cringe at the sound of bagpipes and try to avoid Celtic jigs and would never touch haggis still love the Scots.  Or, in some cases, maybe they just love Scotch, or Scotch tape.

Teaching history and reading history often hinges on finding the most enjoyable accounts, the most thrilling stories, and riveting interpretations that fed our joys and predilections.  Perhaps those with last names beginning with Mc or Mac are even more prone to such accounts in regard to Scots.  (I often find it amazing that so few people in America that I talk to claim to have any English heritage.  They are all Scots, Scots-Irish, German, French, and Cherokee Indian.  I tend to think that my last name–House–is about as English as it gets.)

History taught as stories is essential for the elementary, junior high, and high school teacher.  We history teachers have an obligation to create an environment for romance; that is, we are to kindle a growing love between the student and the subject.  So, we sometimes dance lightly among the facts and weave in the fictions.  I experienced this often in regaling my students in tales of Southern bravery in the War Between the States. Let no one doubt this:  I love the South and consider the Confederate armies to be incredible exampes of fighting skill and bravery.  But, often Southerners ran in battle–from the enemy, not toward him.  Some, after being captured, became “galvinized Yankees” and fought for “those people.”  Many southerners sided with the north from the very beginning of the war.  Southerners deserted in droves.  While there was a great revival in the Confederate armies (and in the Yankee armies as well), the south had its share of Unitarians, unbelievers, false professors, and immoral scoundrels.  General Earl Van Dorn wasn’t shot by a Yankee for leading a Sunday school class.

History can become Mythstory.  The history teacher–matchmaker and romantic that he or she is–still has an obligation to sometimes dig deeper and uncover the myths, prejudices, hasty generalizations, lies and deceptions, and even favorite anecdotes.  We are obligated to be truth tellers, not propagandists.

This brings me to an incredible book titled Fatal Land: War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in British America by Matthew P. Dziennik.  This book is published by Yale University Press. Like many university press publications, it is very well done, and, unfortunately, like many university press publications, it is a bit expensive–$65.  I was blessed with getting a review copy and am supposed to add that I am completely free to like or dislike the book.  But, there was no way I was going to dislike this book.

That being said, this is a challenging read.  I was not propped up late at night on my pillows refusing to turn out the light because I was engrossed in the exploits of the Scottish Highland soldiers.  Instead, I read this book in the mornings.  (By an amazing turn of events, I became a morning person years ago by necessity.)  It took strong coffee and a clear mind and lots of time for me to work through the book. In this post, I will only begin to discuss this worthy book.

First, the personal:  I was at Yorktown Battlefield Park in 2007 after attending the Christian Worldview Student Conference.  I asked one of the uniformed park workers a question about the Scottish Presbyterians who did play a big role in Continental Army that whipped Cornwallis at Yorktown.  I was referred to a young park historian who happened to be from Scotland.  It was then that I met Matthew Dziennik.  I am sure that he talked to many people over the course of the months.  In this case, however, the talk led to an exchange of emails and a correspondence that has continued over the years.  Matthew sent me a paper he had written and I used a quote from it in my book Punic Wars and Culture Wars.  I had the sense that this guy was going places in the academic world.  For once, my senses were right.

Now, Matthew is Dr. Dziennik and has been teaching history at the University of Saskatchewan and now at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.  In spite of having an Eastern European last name (Polish, I think), Dr. Dziennik is a true Scot.  Born and raised in the Highlands, he also received his degree from the University of Edinburgh.  To make matters worse–worse for us jealous types–he readily slips in phrases or whole paragraphs in Gaelic in his writings.  I suspect he golfs, pipes, and has a kilt as well.  I also rejoice in that he and I share a connection to Presbyterianism.  He was born into it and married a Presbyterian girl, while I came to it later in life.

Matthew Dziennik obtains both a doctorate and a bride. What a blessed man!

Dr. Dziennik had a series of wonderful occurences on the road to scholarship and academic acclaim.  He married a girl named Sarah McCaslin (and to they know the connection of that last name to William Faulkner’s characters?); his dissertation became a book and was published by Yale University Press;  he was sought out and is still sought out for his political perspectives (he favored the failed referendum for Scotland to secede); he has hopped across the pond separating his beautiful highland country and our land many times; and he and his wife have a beautiful daughter.

This guy will continue to be a force in the field of academic history.  I hope he writes a few books that are more narrative in style and more appealing to a wider audience.  I hope he can rival his fellow Scotsman and historian Niall Ferguson.  I hope we can cross paths again and he can autograph my copy of his book.  I know that it is a shameful thing for a fellow my age to be star struck by a historian.  But that is what I want to be when I grow up–a real historian, and a novelist, and a theologian, and a wrestler.

A wee bit on the book:  Scots were not natural and overly fierce fighters.  The Scots invested their lives and ideals not in Scotland, but in the British Empire.  Scots, while oppressed by the English, harbored no inborn sympathy toward native cultures found in the Empire.  Most important, not all Scots favored the Americans in the War for Independence.  America’s War for Independence was not a Scottish rebellion, for Scots fought on both sides.

The careers, training, settlement, post-military actions, and culture are all examined in this book.  This is a study.  It puts some beloved myths to rest.  It calls for strong caffeinated coffee and a clear mind, but it is a rewarding book.

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