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Scotland and ethnosymbolism

Charles Chevalier explains how ethnosymbolism helps us understand how cultural elements can foster a powerful sense of shared identity and national belonging.

Monday, April 29, 2024
22 mins

Scotland: nation and nationalism explained through an Ethno-symbolist perspective

by Charles Chevalier


Scotland’s nation is rooted in historiography and, as Findlay (2022) suggests, Scottish nationalism asserts this in a binary of political nationalisms via conceptions of unionism and separatism.

In the former, Scotland is a nation within the four nations of the United Kingdom (UK); in the latter, the understanding and assertion is that Scotland should exercise her right to self-determination.

The dichotomy of unionism and separatism are opposing and competing political conceptions, and nationalisms, with the unionist view recognising Scotland as a nation, although separate political representation within the union of the United Kingdom is unnecessary for the expression of Scottish nationhood while the separatist view is that political Independence would better serve Scotland’s interests. Scottish nationalism has, in the contemporary era, become a powerful force in British politics, presenting the opportunity to explore how the enduring power of myth and symbol have shaped national identity.

This essay will explore Scottish nationalism via the lens of the ethno-symbolism theoretical perspective, which emphasises shared cultural heritage, historiographical narrative, symbolic artifacts, and myth builders in the construction of the essence of nationhood and national identity. Initially, theories of nationalism and nations will be discussed. Within the main body, The Stone of Destiny as a symbol of the Scottish nation will be employed as an exemplar, with additional culturally symbolic historical iconography to demonstrate a unilinear aspect of the selected theory with cursory notice to myth and culture.

Scottish nationalism is linked by a clear line drawn from premodernity to the contemporary period.

Theoretical vantage points on nationalism and nations.

Within the study of nations and nationalism, there are a variety of theoretical perspectives, for the purposes here, three perspectives will be discussed to shed light on how they depart and converge, namely primordialism, modernist, and ethno-symbolist approaches that explain the development of nations and nationalism. The logic for this discussion is to show where the theories depart and converge and why the approach selected is the most comprehensive and holistic in the explanation and understanding of the Scottish nation and nationalism.


The primordialism perspective emphasises the pre-modern, natural, and inherent character of nations and nationalism. Core aspects of primordialism suggest nations are not recent inventions, but rather, are derived from ancient natural groupings based on shared descent, ethnicity, language, and culture. These primordial attachments can be viewed as genetic and socio-biological, as Van den Berghe (1995) suggests, was the dominant view until around the 1920s. Latterly, primordialism proponents such as Edward Shils (1957) and Clifford Geertz (1973) revised this view and preferred a more cultural basis for attachment, arguing that ethnic and racial identities were not primordial but could be manipulated and changeable for political motives.

Primordialism highlights the emotional bond that individuals feel towards their nation. These shared characteristics are viewed as existing prior to and independent of political structures in the modern sense. In the former, kith and kin are inexplicably tethered to ethnic bonds and channeled through reproductive drives and birth in a territory. The bond is taken as innate and primordial. In the latter, established cultural realities of kin, common language, religion, race, and territory are the vehicles for emotional bonds that individuals feel towards their nation. The primordialist view is that emotional attachment transcends individual self-interest and creates a willingness to sacrifice for the collective good.

Modernist perspective

Many scholars view nationalism as a relatively recent political ideology, and nations as a byproduct of social modernisation, including Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Tom Nairn, and Ellie Kedourie. The modernist perspective holds that all nations are relatively new constructs and is situated in the period post-reformation and after the French Revolution, as articulated by Ernest Gellner.

Conversi (2012) explains that nation is a slippery term and difficult to define in an objective frame; however, there is wide agreement that nationalism is an ideological term that speaks in the name of a defined nation with its direction aimed at controlling the political institutions within a territory. A core feature of the modernist perspective is that the nation unit and the political are congruous. In the explanation of the modernist perspective of nations and nationalism, Gellner (2008) organized an analytical history around three eras, hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and industrial. In the first two historical eras Gellner's framework indicates there is not enough centralised power and homogenisation of culture in the larger population and therefore no nation. However, industrial societies, Gellner suggests, are imbued with a pervasive high culture with widely distributed norms and centralised power - drawing from this, nations and nationalism are needed. The modernist perspective emphasises the constructed nature of nations and nationalism as a response to the needs of modern industrial societies. The Modernist perspective can be criticized for overlooking the pre-modern roots of Scottish national identity and the ongoing influence of regional identities alongside a national one. Modernists, like Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm, argue nations are entirely modern phenomena, constructed through industrialization, mass media, and the spread of a common language.


The ethno-symbolist perspective can be described as a bridge between the theoretical perspectives previously mentioned, offering a more nuanced perspective on the formation of nations.

Smith, (1995) is one of the foremost scholars of ethnicity and nationalism and the ethno-symbolism approach to nations and nationalism. While Smith accepts the modernist insistence that the nation and nationalist ecosystem are favoured by the conditions of modernity, Smith departs from this school of thought in the appreciation of the crucial role played by ethnicity in the Middle Ages and with the power that ethnic survival bore by import to later nationalisms. Therefore, providing a rich contextual ethno-historiographical and cultural landscape creates a salient cultural and historical resource for the study of nations and nationalism.

Hence the acknowledgment that specific nations are rooted in premodernity with unique ethnic ties and ethno-histories, for example, Scotland and Israel. Authenticity is a key feature of nationalisms that work, in that they transfer across populations, and without the remembering and or redrawing of ethnic histories that resonate with co-nationalists will fail the authenticity test. The argument recognises modern nationalism must be rooted in historiography, culture, and the symbols that are drawn from the past and or re-conditioned in the present. This presents problems for the thesis of the modernists, for example, Hobsbawm and Gellner, although the subtleties are not agreed upon, they are a feature of the controversy immersed in the difficulty of presenting a single paradigmatic theory for nationalisms and nations. Smith's approach emphasises the important role of memories, values, myths, and symbols. While the ethno-symbolist approach provides valuable insights and an extensive historiographical lens for understanding nationalism, it can be limited in terms of economic and political explanations and how they impact perceptions of national identity.

Myths, Symbols, Culture and National Identity

The significance of myths and symbols in Scottish nationalism is writ large when considering how they shape national identity in Scotland.

National symbols and myths and the historical narratives they are accompanied with have in some part led to the immense constitutional, institutional, and social transformation that has taken place over the last three decades, including the establishment of a devolved parliament in Scotland on the 14th of April 1999, followed by the 2014 referendum for an independent Scotland.

Changes at the institutional level (creation of a parliament) are intended to placate nationalist sentiment, however, they are often viewed as a precursor to secession or Independence. In terms of constitutional arrangements, after the election in 1979 of the Thatcher government, devolution, and the sovereignty of the people of Scotland were initiated by the campaign for a Scottish assembly and thereafter in 1989 by the Scottish Constitutional Convention.

In 1988, A Claim of Right for Scotland was put forward asserting Scotland's cultural and historical legacy as argument for a Scottish assembly. Followed in 1995 by the blueprint for a Scottish Constitutional Convention, the foundation for devolution enacted in 1998. Apart from the institutional resources devolution created, for example, material and infrastructure; devolution, additionally provided a discursive resource for Scottish nationalism. Holyrood is now a contemporary historical symbol of Scottishness and is employed in the discursive battle for rhetorical and ideational supremacy between the Westminster government and Holyrood. In this process is the fortifying of national identity by contention. Therefore, drawing from this, the assumption is no matter the outcome of the 2014 referendum, Scottish identity is being bolstered. Perhaps the best evidence of this is in Scottish voting patterns, which in the past 15 years have witnessed the Scottish National Party (SNP) dominating with consecutive electoral victories. Additionally, in those victories placed the ideational formation of statehood for Scotland as prominent in the discursive language of Scottish nationalism and the push for Independence.

The Stone of Destiny

Keating (2001) suggests that Scotland’s nationalism is the least romantic, which in the contemporary era may ring true; however, Scottish nationalism's historical late 19th and early 20th century progenitor has a far more romantic appeal and particularly so with the nostalgia of history firing the imagination of Scots and penetrating the consciousness of the nation. In 1928 John M. MacCormick (1904-1961), a Glasgow lawyer, founded the National Party of Scotland the precursor to the modern-day Scottish National Party, founded in 1934.

However, in this era, within the party, there were diverse forms of Scottish nationalism expressed variously as home rule, devolution and full Independence. In the early 20th century, nationalism was fueled by the wish to have more representation in the British parliament. To understand contemporary Scottish nationalism, one must first look at the longue durée gradient that has led to the contemporary historical period and a Scottish parliament. The SNP was split during this era 1930s-1940s with MacCormick vying for a gradual process of home rule and others like Robert Mcintyre and Douglas Young aiming for Independence. It must be noted that the SNP was a fringe political force during this period and continued so until a small breakthrough in the 1960s and then the rise of the party in the early 2000s. MacCormick was later to play a role in one of Scotland's most audacious and romantic nationalist events, in the retrieval of the Stone of Destiny.

The Stone of Destiny or the Stone of Scone, is an ancient artifact of Scotland. The legend attached to the stone is saturated in Scots historiography, with possible but dubious origins said to be with the Israelites. During the War of Scottish Independence in 1296 King Edward I, stole the Stone of Destiny from Scone in Perthshire. The stone is said to have been there for 500 years before the theft by Edward I, all the Scottish Kings had been coronated upon the Stone.

MacCormick left the SNP in 1942 and established the Scottish Covenant Association in 1949, with their subscribers, known as covenanters, and were resolved in their campaign to create a Scottish National Assembly. Ian Hamilton a young student of Law at the University of Glasgow, a covenanter, and likely influenced by an earlier plot by MacCormick to retrieve the Stone of Destiny, constructed an intrepid plan to repatriate the stone as a public relations coup against the British government and as a nationalist rallying call to his fellow Scots. Hamilton and three fellow Glasgow University students, Kay Matheson, Gavin Vernon, and Alan Stewart retrieved the stone from Westminster Abbey and brought it back to Scotland on 25th December 1950. In newspaper reports of the time, Hamilton and his fellow patriots were described as thieves by some and liberators by others. An account in the Guardian states, “It is taken for granted the Stone was taken by Scottish nationalists,” describing the event as a nationalist coup.

When Hamilton and his colleagues returned the Stone of Destiny, it was placed on the altar within Arbroath Abbey in March 1951. Arbroath Abbey is associated with Scotland's struggle for Independence, where the Declaration of Arbroath was made by Robert the Bruce, asserting that in antiquity the Independence of The Kingdom of Scotland was legal and denouncing England’s attempt to subjugate her. Another section of the declaration states, “For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions, be brought under English rule”. “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”. The spirit of the unicorn speaks throughout the full text in the Declaration of Arbroath. Additionally, that spirit with a wider awareness and significance can be said, not to be un-connected with the formation of the SNP. In 1904 the mythologisation of the document was complete with many authors referring to the contents, for example, J, Brodie in his work, About Arbroath: The Birthplace of the Declaration of Scottish Independence.

The Declaration of Arbroath is viewed as a symbol of Scottish independence and unity and connects to the ethno-symbolist focus on shared history and with the mythologisation of the document indicating it has attained legendary status with the power to inspire Scottish nationalism. The connection then is not only symbolic in a mythological and cultural sense but also in religion to Christianity and Scottish Protestant Presbyterianism, Catholicism and Judaism. The association between the Declaration of Arbroath, the Stone of Destiny, and the Unicorn have in their trifecta an ambiguous religiosity, relevant and connected to Scotland's Christian/Judaic religious historiography. The connections in the long duree ethno-symbolist perspective show a link between Scotland's historiography and its present nationalism, however tenuous in modernity due to secularism.

Alex Salmond has suggested that what Ian Hamilton and his fellow students achieved was to create a line from this event to the achievements of the SNP in 2007 and waking up the Scots to their history and their potential. Through the ethno-symbolist approach, The Stone of Destiny serves as a tangible link to Scotland's past, legitimizing the nation's claim to sovereignty and self-determination. It represents an unbroken line of Scottish kingship and tradition. The Stone of Destiny then becomes a cultural and symbolic focal point for collective identity. In the return of the Stone to Scotland in 1996 the Conservative government announced, it wanted to make sure the Scottish public ‘felt’ government closer to home. While this would be comforting to the British nationalists, the Scottish nationalist view would be that the British state was attempting to tarnish the symbolic victory of the return and diminish the assertion of national identity and distinctiveness from England. This can be further interpreted as diminishing Scots historical symbology and her adjacent cultural and religious traditions to modernist political conceptions and their association with a new British state, essentially only three hundred years old, as superseding and admonishing Scottish premodern influence on her contemporary imagined reality, one of a distinct nation with almost millennial historiography and limited state, by default only.

The Unicorn

Noting the symbolism in the Heraldic symbol of the UK, ‘The Royal Coat of Arms’, it is interesting to point out that the unicorn representing Scotland is depicted in chains. One interpretation of this is that the unicorn is a fiercely independent mythical creature and untamable, therefore must be chained lest it claim freedom. Another interpretation is that the creatures are associated with power, dominance, and purity with a character immersed in chivalry. To some extent, both the above interpretations hold force in Scottish nationalism, in that it is fiercely independent and untamable, and being immersed in chivalry, takes on some of the attributes of the character made famous by Miguel de Cervantes, ‘Don Quixote’. Characteristics that in Scottish nationalism, embody the knight errant and are quixotic in nature, with the caveat that it does not view its idealism as impractical, but pure, while simultaneously nuanced, leaning into the romance of Scottish culture, myths, and symbols. The Unicorn and its mythical status speak to Scotland’s unique character and independent spirit, aligning with the ethno-symbolist idea of nations being defined by cultural characteristics.

Triggers of nationalism

Nationalist movements can be triggered by a variety of factors including economic hardship, decline in the well-being of a society, cultural revivalism, political leadership, and historic grievances.

For Scotland all the former have at one time or another given fuel to nationalism. The discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s re-energized Scottish nationalism in that it was then armed with an economically legitimate material possibility of asserting power and developing a collective mechanism in aid of the Scottish national project. Nationalists argued Scotland's resources should fund the Scottish nation's development, not the UK's. This argument re-ignited the idea of Scotland managing its own economy, potentially as an independent nation. The above argument then taps into the ethno-symbolist concept of historic grievances. Calling on feelings that Scotland isn't benefiting from its own resources can create a sense of resentment towards the UK, with the potential to add kindling that will fuel the desire for independence.

Ethno-symbolism is not purely about cultural identity; it also denotes a nation's ability to provide for itself. Having its own economic resources strengthens the idea that Scotland could be an independent nation. While ethno-symbolism typically emphasizes cultural identity and shared history, nationalism in Scotland can be driven by a combination of factors, in the case of North Sea oil the economic factors are emphasised. However, this view has deviated from the contemporary discourse of the SNP, articulated in an environmentalist position, allying with the Scottish Green Party (Foley, 2023).

The Inflection point of Scottish nationalism's rise to prominence in the contemporary era

1979-1997 witnessed a surge in Scottish nationalism, coinciding with eighteen years of Conservative rule, marked by economic hardship, attacks on trade unions, welfare cuts, and a sense of democratic disconnect from a UK government Scotland rarely elected (75% of the time, 1945-2019).

Furthermore, if culture is the spectrum through which we can interpret politics, although ethereal yet tangible, then interestingly during the 20 years of Conservative rule, the cultural revival during these years, which transcended the revival of the 1920s-1930s, bears evidence in the shift in voting pattern and national identity by poll, continuing to this day, expressed through demands for a devolved parliament and or an independent state. This period of economic hardship and democratic disconnect from the UK government was accompanied by a cultural revival coinciding with a rise in political action and Scottish nationalism, with an emphasis on shared culture as a driver of national identity.

The cultural revival likely rekindled a sense of Scottishness and distinctiveness from Britain, which accentuated calls for greater autonomy or independence. A shift in voting patterns and national identity during the cultural revival aligns with ethno-symbolism's focus on symbols shaping national identity. A resurgence of cultural identity can lead people to identify more strongly as Scottish and less as British, reflected in their voting choices. In the political sense, Alex Salmond, taking the ship wheel of the party in 1990 was a clear turning point for the SNP. Alex employed the ancient art of ethos, pathos, logos: 'ethos' demonstrated his ability, fortified with oratory skill, and with sound argument diminished the Westminster establishment to submission. Alex Salmond embodied what political science criteria of an effective political party leader looks like, unique, with abilities and skills not seen for many years in Scottish politics (only equaled as some may suggest by the abilities of Labour's John Smith) bolstering his role as a credible leader of Scotland’s national party, while showing Westminster’s lack of legitimacy. In terms of 'pathos', he reminded the Scots of their national myth builders, for example, egalitarianism that was reduced by the Conservatives to something only the poor or disadvantaged engage, and in radicalism opposing a neoliberal political-economic order that confines society to a business model and beholden to financial markets, an ideological puritanical form of economic society, absolving societal responsibility for the rich and ignoring and demonising the vulnerable individuals and groups in society as wasters, and in this environment Alex Salmond defined his rhetoric, reprimanding the insular attitude of the plutocrats and the upper and middle classes, reminding them of their responsibility to wider society. In 'logos', he managed to instill confidence in a nation subjugated by a dominating power, manifesting in recalcitrance and a will for independence and autonomy. An exemplar of how cultural revival, a sense of grievance towards the UK government, and strong leadership promoting Scottish identity all contributed to a rise in Scottish nationalism, aligning with the core tenets of the ethno-symbolist approach. Reminding Scots of their national myths, symbols, and values (egalitarianism and radicalism) reinforces a sense of shared history and identity. Instilling confidence in a nation "subjugated by a dominating power" further ignited the desire for autonomy.


In conclusion, the above-mentioned symbols, myths, cultural artifacts and their conceptions flowing from Scotland's history contributed to her nation's form, occurring over many centuries, activated through migrations of peoples originally from the collapsing civilizations in the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia. In those early peoples, the Gaels, Britons, Vikings and most notably the Picts, this agglomeration eventually made up the whole of the Scot’s nation. In the Declaration of Arbroath, there is mention of these migrant groups, although, in a somewhat inaccurate way not true to earlier Scots ancestry, describing their journey from Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and Pillars of Hercules, detailing their unicorn-type character as having dwelt in Iberia for a long period, among the most savage tribes and yet could not be subdued by any race no matter how barbarous. Although romantic, it must be acknowledged as an antiquated revision of Scotland’s premodern history that was made to serve elitist conceptions of Scots nationalism.

Considering the multiplicity of early Scottish tribal nations, the primordialist view of natural origins, shared descent, ethnicity, language, and culture of a nation and nationalism is not useful, in that the Scots are not formed by one nation but a collective of nations or tribes, with distinct cultures and languages, and herein lies the slippery definition of a nation. However, the agglomeration of these earlier peoples can be said to embody a quasi-cultural origin, aligning with the notion that cultures are evo-centric and respond and adapt to changes in the landscape of history and the external and internal pressures that develop in differential eras. The ethno-symbolist perspective acknowledges the plurality of ethnic pasts, cultures, and myths and how these complexities can manifest rival nationalisms, for example, modern British and Scottish nationalism. As much as the modernist view has robust theoretical grounds for acknowledging nation-states as byproducts of modernisation and confined to the temporal era, (post-Reformation and French revolutions) is limited in the case of Scotland. In the declaration of Arbroath, Scots elites perceived Scotland as a nation and a state with political representation, although, not in the modern sense, but in an antiquated form.

Scottish nationalism is apparent in the premodern writings of the Declaration of Arbroath 1320. Historical symbols like the Stone of Destiny and mythological creatures and conceptions of egalitarianism, accentuated in cultural expressions serving as powerful historical tools for Scottish nationalism. The Stone, believed to have crowned Scottish kings for centuries, embodied a distinct Scottish past separate from England. The 1996 return to Scotland became a national celebration, solidifying a sense of historical ownership and independence. Public displays or discussions about the Stone of Destiny call on feelings of national pride and unity and in addition, are played out in many other ways with Scottish symbols of national identity, for example, national dress in tartanry, music and song, the bagpipes and poetry, Rabbie Burns and Auld Lang Syne, The Corries and Flower of Scotland, also in landscape and mythical creatures in our national iconography- the Unicorn, Loch Ness and her monster, and the Kelpies, Wulvers, and Selkies.

The Thatcher and Major Premierships, 1979-1997 created a metaphorical Hadrian's wall between Scotland and Westminster accentuated by ideological disparities that misaligned with Scottish historical myth builders of egalitarianism and radicalism, made evident by Alex Salmond not only reminding the Scots of their values contained in those myths, symbols, her culture, and the conceptions that follow them but emphasising our distinctiveness as a nation while presenting a clear determination for full statehood.


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