We’re delighted to publish a series of blog posts written by MLitt students at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands as part of their coursework for the module ‘British Identities’. First up, we have Irene Innes reflecting on her own sense of identity and how this has changed in intriguing ways over time.

Linda Colley’s analogy of identities and hats is so persuasive I decided to focus on my personal ‘history’ to see if her claim could apply to my life and identity. My intention was to consider the ‘hats’ I wore as a child and those I wear now in later life, my ‘academic’ hat, hopefully, assisting with the analysis of ‘me’.

Born and bred in Glasgow, with a Scottish accent, having a Scottish surname, belonging to a clan, occasionally wearing a kilt, and being allowed to stay up for ‘the bells’ at New Year, I certainly felt Scottish.

However other factors were at play such as schooling and education. A Glaswegian accent was discouraged, lessons were from a ‘British’ perspective and the schoolroom was adorned by a large map of the British Empire, later the British Commonwealth of Nations. It was satisfyingly pink. My affinity with the ‘pink’ nations never faltered in spite of the niggling question ‘What happened to the original people who lived in those lands?’ My Britishness experienced a slight wobble.

Map of the British Empire
Available at http://www.britishempire.co.uk/images4/britishempiremap1915.jpg

The monarchy was a powerful symbol of ‘Britishness’, exemplified by the post-war wedding of Princess Elizabeth in 1947, the death and funeral of her father in 1952 and her subsequent coronation. The wedding dress, displayed at Glasgow Museum and Art Galleries, was embroidered with the rose, thistle, shamrock and daffodil, the symbolism evident and, to a child, effective.

Another factor in my ‘Britishness’ was the war, illustrated by Hobsbawm’s notion that ‘there is no more effective way of bonding together the disparate sections of restless peoples than to unite them against outsiders’[1] My restlessness occurred when bombs whistled down on Glasgow and Clydebank, and when the Nine O’Clock News, opening with the sonorous peals of Big Ben, announced they were also dropping on London, Cardiff and Belfast. We were all in it together!

The National Health Service, introduced in 1948, was another unifying force, this time, a beneficial one.

Another factor complicated matters. My mother was Irish, and pro-Unionist. Was I doubly British, half-Scottish, half-Irish? I decided on a ‘pick and mix’ approach, having the power to choose.

This power to choose identity came into question during the war as the father of an Italian friend was threatened with internment, despite having fought for Britain during the First World War. If being resident in a country, and having fought for it, did not bestow citizenship did that mean ‘identity’ was associated with blood-line? Alternatively, was it within the remit of politicians and dependent upon the expediency of the time?

These doubts, articulated in a more childish manner, strengthen Colley’s suggestion that ‘children are rarely as naïve and impressionable as adults would like to believe’[2]

My concept of identity changed in adulthood as the nuances of class, religion, politics and gender added to the mix.

I lived in Yorkshire, my Scottish husband being attached, ironically, to the Inniskilling Fusiliers based in York. Assimilation with Yorkshire people came easily and I felt I was accepted into their society.

Church of Scotland attendance became that of the Methodist Church and Christmas was celebrated more generally than New Year. Pubs abounded and not predominantly for a male clientele. Alas, cricket was the main sport. Assimilation however did not change my identity, which remained Scottish/Irish/British. Englishness was a step too far!

Back in Scotland factors that had reinforced my British identity altered over time.  Britain, loosening ties with the Commonwealth, joined the European Economic Community, later the European Union, and Germany, once the enemy, was now a fellow-member state. The Scottish National Party grew in strength and Devolution gave greater powers to Scotland, including those of Health. New universities came into being which, combined with the internet, increased access to knowledge, and the rigidity of class structures began to break down.

I felt I was open to change as my childhood identity became less pronounced. However, a seminal event revealed just how confused, and conflicted, my identity is, and that was the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. As the teams entered I identified with Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, Canada, (my Irish relatives emigrated), and the countries from my ‘pink’ map of long ago.

Freedom Come All Ye
© Norman Wilson

When ‘Freedom, Come All Ye’, from an anti-Imperialist song, was emblazoned on the vast screen and Alex Salmond gave the opening speech I was stirred by the former and gave due respect to the latter.[3] When the Queen arrived I sang the National Anthem with enthusiasm. My ‘hats’ were many and varied, some harking back to the little girl in Glasgow and some adjusting to the new reality of twenty-first-century Scotland.

A final irony. Colin Kidd, describing the British Constitution, used the analogy of  dark matter in the universe – ‘present but unseen’.[4] I recently researched the means to obtain an Irish passport, fearing the potential outcome of Brexit, and found, to my great surprise, that I have been an Irish citizen all my life! I must dust down that Irish hat!

[1] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 376.

[2] Colley, Britons, p. 231.

[3] Hamish Henderson, ‘Freedom Come All Ye’, in Raymond Ross (ed.), Collected Poems and Songs (Curly Snake Publishing, 2000) available at http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/freedom-come-all-ye

[4] Colin Kidd, ‘The Union in British Constitutional Theory’, Scottish Constitutional Futures Forum lecture,  25 June 2013, available at https://www.scottishconstitutionalfutures.org/OpinionandAnalysis/ViewBlogPost/tabid/1767/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/1897/Colin-Kidd-The-Union-in-British-Constitutional-Theory.aspx