Great Scots

Wherever you are in Scotland, you're never very far from a memorial of some kind. In fact, with a population of some 5.2 million, I suspect that if you added them up, you might find that Scotland had one of the highest number of memorials per capita in the world. And now, as Scotland thinks about its future and a likely 2014 referendum on independence, thinking about the past seems more relevant than ever.

Take the date of the referendum. There is much debate about symbolism and political potency here. Unionists want the referendum to happen soon, believing that perhaps, off the back of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60 years on the throne, and the London Olympics this summer, there will be a lot of British feel-good factor which will help sway doubting Scots.

The counter argument comes from the Scottish National Party (SNP), the ruling party in Scotland, which wants to hold the referendum after the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow -- a competition in which Scotland, like every part of the United Kingdom, competes in its own right. And the SNP is also doubtless hoping that Scottish hearts will beat for independence in the wake of celebrations that June to mark the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce's defeat of the English at Bannockburn.

The battlefield at Bannockburn is dominated by a glowering statue of "King Robert." Not far off is the town of Stirling, which is itself dominated by a castle, described as "a great symbol of Scottish independence and a source of national pride." But it is also, says Stirling Castle's informative website, "the spiritual home" of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment formed in 1881, at the height of British imperial glory. Wander through the regimental museum and you can see how its men, or those from the antecedents of the regiment, fought in the Crimea, the Boer War, the two world wars, and so on.

When it comes to Scotland's martial history, there is no one better to talk to than Tom Devine, one of the country's most distinguished historians. Walking to his office at Edinburgh University one passes dozens of monuments and plaques to great Scots, and quite a few to other Britons, too. In the city center there is the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon. There's North Bridge over Edinburgh's main Waverly train station , which is named after the romantic historical novel by Sir Walter Scott, who in turn is himself commemorated in a black pile of a monument that looks like a giant Victorian rocket. And on North Bridge itself, there's a memorial to Scottish soldiers who fell between 1878 and 1902 in foreign battles that include Afghanistan.

When I finally get to Devine, he tells me that, "Scottish martial history is a key part of Scottish identity." There is a "long term notion of Scottish military excellence going back to the medieval period. From the 14th to the 17th century, Scotland's biggest export were men of violence."

Indeed, the British Empire, in which Scots played leading roles, helped produce, via the military, a fusion of Scottish and British identity. But Devine says that as the empire disintegrated, that idea of a Scottish martial sense of itself, disintegrated too. Today, as the debate turns to the pros and cons of independence Devine notes, using an old-fashioned word for Scotland: "I've not heard many voices say 'we fought two world wars together' -- not in Scotia. You would hear that up to the 1970s but it does not seem to matter anymore."

So, how do Scots see themselves now? If Edinburgh's museums are anything to go by, the answer is proud. The newly refurbished National Museum of Scotland, which reopened last year and whose antecedents go back to 1780, is full of Scotland's ancient and modern. Take Dolly the (Scottish) sheep, "the first cloned mammal ever to be created from an adult cell," and now, stuffed, she takes pride of place in a glittering, rotating glass case. One suspects she will still be there long after Damien Hirst's potted shark is all but forgotten.

Nearby there is a steam engine built by Scottish-born James Watt and exhibits recalling John Logie Baird (the inventor of television) and Sir Alexander Fleming (who discovered penicillin). I am exaggerating a little bit, but the point is clear: Without the Scots there would have been no industrial revolution, TV, modern medicine, or seminal developments in modern science.

Not far away is the the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It was the first national portrait gallery in the world, opened in 1889. A friend tells me that before it seemed a little embarrassed, ashamed to proclaim: Scottish and proud of it. Not anymore.

The original hall is magnificent, High Victorian Gothic, crowned with a crowded frieze of famous Scots from the Stone Age to 1889 -- including Mary Queen of Scots, David Livingstone, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Now, the museum, which reopened in December last year seems, according to my friend, to represent the zeitgeist -- how Scotland feels about itself.

Julie Lawson, the chief curator, laughs nervously at this suggestion and says that, if my friend feels this way, then it is just a happy coincidence. She shows me Mary Queen of Scots, a section devoted to telling the story of Tartan, contemporary pictures of Scotland and more or less everything in between. This includes, of course, Robert Burns (the national poet), Sir Walter Scott (who was, Lawson says "key in creating a fantastical, theatrical Scotland") and even Queen Victoria -- British no doubt, but who did much to popularise a "romantic view" of Scotland which still "has a great hold on the imagination."

We move on to Peter Higgs of Higgs boson and Large Hadron Collider fame, naval pictures from World War I, and key figures of the Scottish Renaissance movement -- such as the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. There is also a picture of young Zulus from a South African Baptist community who have apparently adopted the wearing of kilts, which were brought to the region by Scottish soldiers in the 19th century.

Moving to the contemporary section of the gallery, the museum catalogue gets rather serious: "We cannot see our own age with the hindsight of history. But we can attempt to make judgements about the significance of current events and mark those issues we think will define our time." Here are pictures of ordinary Scots partying, a few of today's more famous Scots, and Pakistani-Scots. Scotland's modern nationalism, say supporters of independence, is of the civic, all-embracing, and non-ethnic variety. We'll see. But for now, Tom Devine is doubtless right when he says: "The Scottish brand is very powerful." Today though, it remains entwined with that of Britain. But no one says that is inextricable.

Editor’s note: This post has been changed to reflect the correct name of the present ruling party in Scotland. It is the Scottish National Party, not the Scottish Nationalist Party.