The posthumous publication of a book never completed by an author to his satisfaction may usually be dismissed as an act of family piety, or, less generously, as the scraping of the barrel. But not this one. The Invention of Scotland is uncommonly interesting. It is written with Hugh Trevor-Roper’s characteristic grace and pungency, and it is agreeably provocative.
Its theme is the part played by myth in creating the Idea of Scotland. The origins of any myth may be lost in the mists of antiquity. But national myths may also be the product of self-conscious invention, and therefore, in Trevor-Roper’s view, to a great extent fraudulent, requiring “a continuous capacity for invention, and its formalisation may be seen as a ritual adjustment, a formal accommodation of barbarism to civility”. He declares: “The whole history of Scotland has been coloured by myth, and that myth, in Scotland, is never driven out by reality, or by reason, but lingers on until another myth has been discovered, or elaborated, to replace it.”
This is an argument to which only a fool can take exception. Nations need their myths, just as individuals do, for it is the myth that provides us with the sense of our own identity. Some myths may be damaging: “In Germany, the ancient barbarians of the race were revived in all their savagery, during the later 19th century and the first half of the 20th, as models for modern politics.” The Scotch myths were altogether more benign — and more useful.
Trevor-Roper identifies three of them: the Political Myth, the Literary Myth and the Sartorial Myth.