I had never heard of the game called “welly wanging”, but there it was on the News at Ten this week – in a report by the BBC’s home editor, Mark Easton, on the traditions that give the English regions their splendid variety. The report showed some people, probably children, throwing gumboots in a field – the competitor who threw a boot furthest was the winner. It was things like this, Easton said, that made Yorkshire different from other places, which had their own traditions that were just as special to them. Some morris dancers appeared, and a man in a Tyneside pub talked about how collective hardship had forged the Geordie identity, these days manifested in a love of Newcastle United Football Club and an equal hatred of its rival in Sunderland. It all felt flimsy and sad – that “regional identity” should amount to this rickle of bones.
FacebookTwitterPinterest A welly-wanging contest in an English village. ‘So far as I can tell it dates all the way back to AD2010.’ Photograph: Alamy.
The last colliery in the north-east closed in 2005, while the last shipyard on the Tyne launched its last ship in 2006, though those masculine industries had ceased to employ significant numbers long before. The north-east is poor, but then so are many other de-industrialised parts of the United Kingdom; hardship and heavy industry alone can’t explain its particular difference. As for “welly wanging”, so far as I can tell it dates all the way back to AD2010.
Thinking of Newcastle, I thought of my late mother-in-law, who lived and died there: a sweet and clever woman blessed with good humour (“This is my last territorial demand in Europe,” she might say, requesting a cup of tea at bedtime), who in her forgetful days asked me the same set of questions more than once. “What’s your tartan? Isn’t there a Jack tartan? Have you never worn a kilt?”
My answers puzzled her – “I don’t know”, “I hope not”, “Not ever” – more by their brevity than anything else. I feel sorry for my irritation now. My explanation, that I came from a Lowland family, and had no entitlement to tartans, clearly didn’t wash. Having glanced through the window of more than one kilt emporium, she knew that the enterprise of the Scottish tourist industry had allotted a tartan to almost every surname in an old British telephone directory, often by deciding that a common Lowland name such as Taylor was really a “sept”, or subdivision, of a Highland clan such as Cameron. The clans ruled the roost.
Oddly, given that Jacks lie thick in the graveyards of the Black Isle, my surname didn’t then feature on these lists. (It does now; the Clan Jack Society registered a new design with the Scottish Register of Tartans in 2012.) But I didn’t at all regret the omission. What I found impossible to tell my mother-in-law, without making a priggish meal of it, was that the whole rigmarole of clans and tartans, sometimes known as Highlandism, was largely confected in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that any reality it might be connected to was far removed from the one most Scottish people knew; and also that this feudal, claymore-wielding “identity” obscured a true history of achievement that had once made a trousered Scotland important to the world: Adam Smith, James Watt, Keir Hardie, the Forth Bridge and so on.
It could have been a long speech, and tedious to the listener. I grew up hearing versions of it. Tartanry had many enemies in Scotland, particularly inside a socialist movement that was keen to establish a more class-based and less fanciful view of history. It fought what amounted to an underground campaign against figures such as Bonnie Prince Charlie and the music hall singer and comic Harry Lauder, who with his kilt and curly stick presented a caricature of Scotland at home and abroad.
Kilts in the 1950s were still worn mainly by Scottish regiments and public schoolboys, and often regarded by the rest of us as a middle-class affectation. Mocking evidence came from new scholarship that the kilt’s modern form – the “small kilt” – had been invented in the 1720s by a Lancashire Quaker and ironmaster, Thomas Rawlinson, to dress the workers at his Highland smelter. In the first half of the next century, the Anglo-Welsh Allen brothers printed the first colour illustrations of tartans – inspired, they said, by an ancient but never produced manuscript – that showed how different clans and families had adopted their distinctive patterns at least as early as the 16th century.
Hugh Trevor-Roper gave an entertaining account of these developments in his contribution to The Invention of Tradition, a collection of essays edited by his fellow historians Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger and published in 1983. “The creation of an independent Highland tradition, and the imposition of that new tradition, with its outward badges, on the whole Scottish nation, was the work of the later 18th and early 19th centuries,” he wrote combatively and, as it turned out, to no sartorial consequence. (Thirty-odd years later, nine out of 10 Scottish bridegrooms get married in the dress devised by the ironmaster Rawlinson.)
But his words were part of a general revaluation of Scottish history that did have a political effect. Scottish nationalism became less backward-looking, less romantic, less in thrall to fancy dress and myth. What too few people recognised – I include myself – was that no similar process was happening south of the border. England clings to history. Its view of its glorious past – as, for example, the begetter of parliamentary democracy and the lonely bulwark against Hitler – remains unmodified and may even have recently intensified. No myths have been shed.
The results are apparent in opinion polls about national identitycommissioned by the BBC, which led this week to Easton’s nightly appearance on the evening news. Welly wanging turned out to be a catchpenny sideshow, a misleading overture to more serious surveys of the states of mind of England, Scotland and Wales. All kinds of differences showed up, some unsurprising: fewer people in Scotland said that they felt “strongly British” than in England or Wales; the percentage of people in Scotland who strongly identified as Scottish was larger than the percentage in England who strongly identified as English, or as Welsh in Wales.
But the most marked contrast between England and Scotland was optimism. In England many more in the 20,081 sample said the country was better in the past (49%) than it would be in the future (17%). In Scotland, more people believed it would be better in the future (36%) than it was in the past (29%). The pollster John Curtice attributed this difference to two kinds of nationalism – defining English nationalists as those who said they were English and not British (one sixth of the sample in England), and Scottish nationalists as people who supported the SNP. More than two-thirds (70%) of English nationalists said the past was better; only 16% of Scottish nationalists felt the same. Only 8% of English nationalists felt “strongly European”; among Scottish nationalists the figure was 44%.
And so the quickening current sweeps our raft towards the waterfall, and the bones of Sir Francis Drake at its bottom.