What on earth is up with British unionism? Although not especially reflective at the best of times, this ideology has recently been thrust into explicitness in disturbing ways. It’s often said that Brexit is in part driven by an upsurge of English nationalism, but I don’t buy that – if only because there’s no such extant thing (yet) as English nationalism. It is, rather, the laying bare of the nationalism that England has instead of its own, which is the nationalism of the UK – aka unionism. And while it isn’t necessarily worked out in any compellingly abstracted form, it is still not properly understood.
This nationalism is profoundly Anglocentric, to be sure, but its commitment to the United Kingdom is just as profound – when Theresa May insists that she won’t countenance dividing the kingdom in order to ensure an open border in Ireland she’s not just parroting the DUP’s lines. But the UK it has in its heart is one in which English dominance is taken as read, and which is hostile to any serious checks on the sovereign power located at Westminster and Whitehall. Devolution is fine as long as it can be overruled when necessary, and as long as it’s the centre that gets to decide when it is necessary. But everything touching on the constitution that has happened with the approach to Brexit makes clear that the Westminster government’s freedom to propose and dispose must be untrammelled and unchecked.
‘He was not of an age, but for all time!’ That’s what Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson wrote in memory of him, a mere seven years after he died, and long before some kind of posterity had had a chance to show its hand. Such claims were not that uncommonly made for poets of the period; but in Shakespeare’s case, almost uniquely, they’ve so far proved true.
What kind of stature is this? For Jonson it’s the capacity to transcend the narrow interests of an era, of a particular time and place – to have the more universal appeal of the great classical authors. We take all this as read, of course, now, in Shakespeare’s case. Yet we’re often reminded, too, that Shakespeare also has a more local habitation.
Over the last year we’ve been putting together a series of five short films about Ben Jonson’s walk from London to Edinburgh in the summer of 1618 (about which you can read more here). Rather than tackle the story of the whole adventure, we decided to focus just on one stretch of the journey – the perambulation taken by Jonson and his companion through the English midlands. So what made us choose that section?
In 1603, shortly after King James VI inherited his late cousin’s throne, a London publisher printed a pamphlet offering his English readership Certayne Matters Concerning the Realme of Scotland. It was part of a upsurge of interest in all matters Scottish, as the northern realm suddenly became of pressing domestic importance to England’s inhabitants.
The pamphlet was a reprint of a tract originally published in Edinburgh nine years previously, and it takes it upon itself to list a range of different facets of Scottish land and life, very much in the manner of the early modern genre of chorography. By far the most enjoyable part of the pamphlet is its final section, ‘A Memorial of the Most Rare and Wonderful Things in Scotland’ – so, for St Andrew’s Day, here’s that section, lightly modernised and with a few editorial glosses. It focuses on natural wonders, on dogs and eagles, lochs and islands, rocks and springs. It’s both a contribution to the folklore of the country, and an attempt to list local marvels for the curious visitor from elsewhere. And it’s great fun – I especially love the idea that mountain hares were once a common sight – allegedly – around Holyrood park!
Loch Lomond, from Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland