‘Bright banners on the battlements of our island fortress’: the Scottish and Irish ‘stories’ of Britain in Pictures

‘Bright banners on the battlements of our island fortress’: the Scottish and Irish ‘stories’ of Britain in Pictures

This week, Stephen O’Neill (Trinity College Dublin) examines the Britain in Pictures series and the government created narrative of British national unity during and after the Second World War.

Appearing, as Viola Garvin wrote, ‘Not three months after that bad night when Hitler’s bombers lit the second fire of London and destroyed the centre of the English book world’, the largely forgotten Britain in Pictures series was the flagship Second World War enterprise of British publishing house Collins.[i] The United States Library of Congress described it as ‘perhaps the most extensive and most varied of wartime publishing ventures in England’, with the bright and highly-produced editions spanning one hundred and thirty-two numbers on topics ranging from British Dogs to English Printed Books. [ii] For Collins’ chief editor F. T. Smith, commenting after seeing some numbers of the series in a shop window of a war-scarred English town, they had become ‘bright banners on the battlements of our island fortress or, more modestly perhaps, the defiant cockades that a nation of shop-keepers might flaunt in the faces of their book-burning foes’.[iii]

This was more than just self-aggrandisement. The series ‘originated in and was supported by’ the British Ministry of Information in a period of intense domestic propaganda across a number of media forms.[iv] For Tom Walker, Britain in Pictures was the epitome of ‘a war-shadowed trend for producing works of somewhat nostalgic cultural self-definition that attempt to characterize England’s landscape, history, and people, often in regional terms’.[v] As this description suggests, the readership for this nostalgia was overwhelmingly English, intrinsically connected to a contemporaneously flourishing pastoral propaganda. While sixty-seven numbers in the series focused on Britain, England was the subject of over thirty-eight publications, which compared starkly with the four ‘regional’ contributions, namely the national ‘stories’ triptych of F. Fraser Darling’s The Story of Scotland (1942), Rhys Davies’s The Story of Wales (1943), and Seán O’Faoláin’s The Story of Ireland (1943), as well as Life Among the Scots (1946).[vi]

Michael Carney’s history of the series suggests that this geographical imbalance often ‘seems to have been part of that Anglocentric convention that for ‘England’ one should, of course, read also Wales, Scotland and Ireland’.[vii] Here, then, was not so much a ‘Four Nations’ history as an Anglocentric one, with London portrayed as the centripetal political and economic force in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. With each writer carefully chosen, these national stories embarked on a picturesque journey narrative, beginning at the outset of the modern British state in the seventeenth century. Each, however, delicately avoided any of the various complications in their historical relationship with England, and the emphasis in the Scottish and Irish versions in particular was on the ‘realities’ of an often industrially described present rather than the ruptures of the rural past.

The conservative Darling’s Story of Scotland, for example, adopted a standard pastoral aesthetic in mostly describing the landscape of Scotland, with a short divergence on the benefits of the 1707 Union standing in for any detailed history: ‘as the industrial era advanced, Scotland became welded even firmer to the fabric of Great Britain, a state which her more responsible sons have no desire to see broken’.[viii] Given its appearance in Britain in Pictures – whose standard tone was explicitly sentimental – it may appear curious that Darling should have specifically railed against the ‘[r]omantic nostalgia’ which ‘must give way to the reality and urgency of present and future’, demanding that ‘Scotland must wake to the new world which she can make within her shores’.[ix] But this was precisely the point. In labouring upon Adam Smith’s possession of ‘essential Scottish qualities of realism and hard reasoning’, Darling reinforced those national qualities which were also essential to the war effort.[x]

Likewise, in stressing Scotland’s commitment to the Union, the author highlighted those figures and episodes in Scottish history which documented the nation’s loyalty and utility for his predominantly English reader. This readership may have been always in the background for the writing of this history, but this characterisation of utilitarian Scotland was also complemented by a caricature of Irishness, with Darling claiming that ‘those [Irish] who take up an urban life tend to degenerate rapidly and produce an environment of squalor’.[xi] Given the longstanding history of anti-Irishness in Scotland, these racialized descriptions were not novel, but they aligned with popular attitudes towards Éire in a Britain at war.[xii] These attitudes towards Éire’s neutrality also clearly influenced O’Faoláin’s The Story of Ireland, which diplomatically adopted a British tourist perspective in writing of the ‘ambiguity in [Ireland’s] relationship to the rest of the world’.[xiii]

This ambiguity at once acknowledged and downplayed controversies around ‘The Emergency’, as well as overlooking the trauma of partition, with the prefacing chronology removing references to any of the various anti-English insurrections since the Flight of the Earls. Like The Story of Scotland, O’Faoláin’s history of Ireland was shorn of any radical potential which would interfere with nostalgia for a settled past, and various rebellions against British colonial rule were glossed over in favour of describing the particularities of the Irish landscape.[xiv] Heavily influenced by English writer Cyril Connolly, who in 1942 had written a remarkably similar account of Ireland in the literary magazine Horizon, The Story of Ireland was more useful for the tourist than the historian, and O’Faoláin’s only comment on ‘the Six Counties’ was that it was a place where ‘the present is inescapable… you may, without a jar, cross back from clanging Belfast to clanging Glasgow’.[xv] Again, while the city was the location of a modern consciousness, the ‘rural’ Irish landscape, like the Irish émigré in Scotland, was out of step with the present:

Dublin or Belfast are of 1943: but an hour out of Belfast are the Antrim Glens, and an hour out of Dublin… according as the traveller goes farther and farther west, he puts back his watch — but here one puts it back not by hours but by centuries.[xvi]

This composite of nostalgia and realism which the Irish landscape was figured with in O’Faoláin’s narrative mirrored Darling’s temporalist descriptions of the Scottish countryside, with each writer participating in what the Irish writer termed a ‘tug-of-war between modernity and tradition’.[xvii] For both The Story of Ireland and The Story of Scotland the heave was greater on the side of the former than the latter. But the absence of any dissent in each should not be taken as a full account of the state of play in either. The regional numbers of Britain in Pictures correspond to the hastily-arranged, government-mandated narrative construction of British ‘national’ unity in the face of a devastating blitz, and these particular numbers offer little political or aesthetic challenge to popular English perceptions of Scotland or Ireland. Nor do they reflect upon, or acknowledge, the re-emergence of separatist nationalist movements in each nation.[xviii] But that, as they say, is another story.


[i] Quoted in David Keir, The House of Collins: The Story of a Scottish Family of Publishers from 1789 to the Present Day (London: Collins, 1952), 267.

[ii] United States Library of Congress General Reference and Bibliography Division, Works in the Humanities Published in Great Britain, 1939-1946: A Selective List (Washington D.C., 1950), 27.

[iii] Quoted in Keir, The House of Collins, 267. ‘Nation of Shopkeepers’, generally referring to England or Britain, is a description attributed variously to Napoleon, Samuel Adams, and Adam Smith, who used it in The Wealth of Nations (1776).

[iv] Valerie Holman, ‘Carefully Concealed Connections: The Ministry of Information and British Publishing, 1939-1946’, Book History, 8/1 (2005), 197–226: 214.

[v] Tom Walker, Louis MacNeice and the Irish Poetry of His Time (Oxford, 2015), 82.

[vi] By end of 1951, the sales figures were as follows according to Carney: The Story of Scotland: 51,105 copies; The Story of Wales: 36, 196 copies; The Story of Ireland: 25,986 copies.

[vii] Carney, Michael, Britain in Pictures: A History and Bibliography (London: Werner Shaw, 1995), 57-8.

[viii] F. Fraser Darling, The Story of Scotland (London: Collins, 1942), 33.

[ix] Ibid, 35.

[x] Ibid, 39.

[xi] Ibid, 21.

[xii] This has enjoyed something of a twenty-first century inflection, with supporters of the erstwhile association football club Glasgow Rangers singing ‘The Famine Song’ in 2008 towards Scotland-born Irish international Aiden McGeady: a practise described by Joseph M. Bradley as ‘exposing the long history of the embedded nature of the country’s anti-Irish dispositions’. Curiously, the song again relates these attitudes to mythical claims about Ireland’s complicity with Nazi Germany: ‘You turned on the lights | Fuelled U boats by night | That’s how you repay us | It’s time to go home’. See Joseph M. Bradley, ‘When the Past Meets the Present: The Great Irish Famine and Scottish Football’, Éire-Ireland, 48/1 (2013), 230–45: 231.

[xiii] Seán O’Faoláin, The Story of Ireland (London, Collins: 1943), 7.

[xiv] It did, however, disturb John Hewitt fairly significantly, with the writer complaining to W.R. Rodgers about the lack of a full treatment of ‘Ulster’ [sic] in the narrative. See John Hewitt papers, PRONI, D3838/6.

[xv] O’Faoláin, The Story of Ireland, 12.

[xvi] O’Faoláin, The Story of Ireland, 9-10.

[xvii] O’Faoláin, The Story of Ireland, 10.

[xviii] A more advanced affair in a partitioned Ireland than in Scotland.

Stephen O’Neill is a final-year PhD student and teaching assistant at the School of English at Trinity College Dublin. His research investigates the country and the city in the Irish novel from 1922 to 1965, and is generously funded by the Irish Research Council. He was one of the organisers of the Institutions and Ireland series in 2016, and in autumn 2017 he will be a visiting fellow in the University of São Paulo under the auspices of the SPeCTReSS project. He has also written on the representational aftermath of the Easter Rising for Century Ireland.


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