Scottish History: British or European?

Scottish History: British or European?

This week, PhD student Scott Reid (Edinburgh & St Andrews) asks whether Scottish history is British or European.


‘Scottish soldiers in the service of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden during the Thirty Years war’, 1618-48

In light of the UK’s vote in June 2016 to leave the European Union against Scotland’s wish to remain, the character, if not future, of Scotland’s relationship with Europe has been thrust center stage. Amid the unfolding political fall-out of the so-called ‘Brexit’ vote in Scotland, the MSP and former SNP cabinet member, Michael Russell, made a largely overlooked argument for Scotland’s historical relationship with Europe. He commented that:

It is not half a century of EU membership that has made us European; it is centuries of engagement. We were European before we were British – sending students to the continent, sharing citizenship with France and appealing our very nationhood to Rome. Wine was being shipped to Loch Fyne – Loch Fìne – in the 15th century. In war and in peace – an cogadh, an sìth – we looked to Europe and it looked to us, in Voltaire’s words, for our very idea of civilization…. [O]ur existential choice is made not just because of this referendum but because of our history.[i]

A Sunday Herald editorial less than a week later echoed Michael Russell’s pro-European sentiments, making the case for a Scottish historical identity dependent on its external relations, a national character both influential of and influenced by its European neighbors through a shared history of commercial, intellectual and cultural exchange since the 16th century. ‘It is no accident’, the piece points out, that many European words have mingled with the Scots language, ‘such as the Swedish “braw” [good], Dutch “kirk” [church], German “ken” [know], and French “dour” [severe], for example.’[ii]

But as both Russell and the Sunday Herald suggest, is Scottish history really more European than British? Can it be merely one or the other? And indeed, what lessons may the Scottish past have for the Scottish future?

The historical similarities between Scotland and Europe have been especially significant vis à vis Scotland’s neighbors in the rest of Britain, often providing the source of difference or ‘Othering’ upon which national identities have been formed in Scotland. For example, where the English and Welsh legal system is based on common law, Scots law uses a civil code, with Roman origins and particularly French legal influences; where the Reformation resulted in an Erastian establishment south of the border, Scotland opted for Calvinism, more akin to Geneva than Canterbury; and where more recent political narratives in Scotland have stressed a socio-democratic communitarian bent with frequent allusions to Scandinavia, those in England have often been closely compared with America.

Certainly a dominant theme in recent Scottish historiography has been the repositioning of the wider world by historians in crafting Scottish national narratives, which – although focusing on both Scotland’s European and British imperial connections in the first instance – has more often than not, served to obscure an older view of Scottish history as necessarily Anglo-centric as its primary aim.[iii]In the Whig histories of old, viewing Scotland in the framework of a ‘British’ history was to a great extent about identifying how Scots fit into a grander narrative of the development of English parliamentary democracy in the British Isles – a trope which a Four Nations approach has worked to subvert. However, the current trend of viewing Scotland’s history as more ‘European’ than England’s may perhaps have pitfalls of its own in endorsing certain Scottish exceptionalist narratives as a result.

On the other hand, the current uses (and abuses) of Scotland’s history with Europe are perhaps more indicative of a subtle, if important impulse within modern Scottish political identity – in both its unionist and nationalist inflexions – that has sought to augment Scotland’s national status by casting itself within larger geopolitical structures; ‘Europe’ merely one of Scotland’s historical allegiances, now currently resurgent. Where Scottish national identity in the mid-16th century may have looked to France under the auspices of the Auld Alliance, so was this replaced in turn by allusions to England, Protestantism and the unions of 1603-1801, Scottish fortunes within the British Empire from the mid-18th century and latterly Europe during the late-20th century. Although their focus may differ, the Scottish campaigns for ‘Imperial Home Rule‘ during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the modern SNP’s 1980’s campaign for ‘Independence in Europe’ follow a similar trend in this light.[iv]

Consequently – and perhaps unsurprisingly – a binary choice between viewing Scottish history as either British or European is to a great extent, a misnomer, and is more instructive of the ways in which various Scottish identities and political narratives over time have manipulated Scotland’s historical connections. Indeed, contentions that Scotland is inherently more European than England have been as much about the construction of Scottish identity as the basis of historical truth. In the wake of Brexit, it remains to be seen whether Scots shall yet opt for four nations or twenty-eight, but Scotland’s history wisely reminds us that her British and European connections have been both disparaged or vindicated depending on contemporary political concerns, and historians would do well to take heed.


Scott Reid, writing on behalf of the Scottish History Network of which he is also a co-founder, is a first-year PhD student in Scottish History between the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews. His work examines Scottish constitutional thought during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is funded by the SGSAH.

The Scottish History Network is student-led initiative a forum to bring together professionals working in various sectors of Scottish history. This post provides some background thinking to an upcoming panel debate, ‘Scottish History: British or European?’, hosted the Scottish History Network at the University of Edinburgh on Monday 22nd August. See here for more information and free registration.

[i] Michael Russell MSP, SP OR 28 June 2016, col. 42.

[ii] ‘The weight of history demands that Scotland retain its European identity’, Sunday Herald, 3rd July 2016. Accessible at:

[iii] See for example, Alan I. MacInnes, Union and Empire: The Making of the United Kingdom in 1707 (Cambridge, 2007); John M. MacKenzie and T. M. Devine (eds), Scotland and the British Empire (Oxford, 2011); and Steve Murdoch, Network North: Scottish Kin, Commercial and Covert Associations in Northern Europe, 1603-1746 (Leiden, 2005).

[iv] R. J. Finlay, ‘For or against?’: Scottish Nationalists and the British Empire, 1919-39’, The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. LXXI, 1,2: Nos 191/2 (Apr – Oct 1992), pp. 184-206; see Election Manifesto (SNP, April 1999).

Image source:,_1631.jpeg

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