Scottish Romanticism in the Transatlantic World: Writing History and Memory – Dr. Kenneth McNeil

Sir Walter Scott as painted by Sir William Allan


“Edinburgh was at this time a cultural center, a real competitor for London. It was a powerhouse cultural metropolis cranking out innovative work,” said Dr. Kenneth McNeil, professor of English at ECSU. Between the 1790s and 1830s Scotland was at the forefront of European Romanticism. This literary movement sent shockwaves across the Atlantic, making an indelible impression on the still nascent literary scenes in United States and Canada. Dr. McNeil is nearing completion of a book on the subject, tentatively titled “Scottish Romanticism in the Transatlantic World: Writing History and Memory.”

Romanticism was in part a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. With it came a growing interest in the natural, the primitive, and the sublime. People began to look to the past as a source of inspiration, including folklore and legend. To some, the superstitious Middle Ages suddenly didn’t seem so bad when compared to factories and slums.

For Scots, the past held an elevated significance. In 1709 the Union of the Crowns folded Scotland into the much larger, and more influential, England. “Writers were struggling with how to express themselves as Scottish within the limits of the union and Great Britain,” said Dr. McNeil. To preserve their Scottish identity, writers began to explore Scottish history and traditions.

The most well known work of Scottish Romanticism is Ivanhoe, published by Edinburgh native Sir Walter Scott in 1819. The medieval tale follows one of the few remaining Saxon noble families in England after the Norman invasion. With Ivanhoe and his best-selling collection of writing known as the Waverley Novels, Scott invented the historical novel.

Sir_William_Allan_-_Sir_Walter_Scott,_1771_-_1832._Novelist_and_poet_-_Google_Art_Project (1)

Sir Walter Scott as painted by Sir William Allan

The Waverley Novels were immensely popular in the United States, and soon American authors started looking to the past for inspiration. Washington Irving, one of the first American greats, fell into this category. “Irving writes pseudo-legends of America and calls them ‘sketches’,” said Dr. McNeil. Irving is the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle“. Interestingly, Sir Walter Scott was an early champion of Washington Irving. “He was an early promoter. He brought Irving’s A History of New York, which was a satirical history of New York City, to his publisher and tried to get him to put it out,” said Dr. McNeil. Irving also received good reviews in the influential Scottish publication The Edinburgh Review.

The influence of Scottish Romanticism stretched far beyond the literary world. Its influence was felt in the pulpits and the voting box. “Much of the [American] clergy were Scottish immigrants or were trained in Scotland during the 18th century,” said Dr. McNeil. The Founding Fathers were greatly influenced by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers David Hume and Adam Smith when laying out their vision for the United States.

In Canada, Scottish influence was felt even more strongly. 14.35% of the Canadian population claims Scottish heritage. Scottish novelist John Galt ended up as a colonial administrator in Canada. He designed the city of Guelph, Ontario. Dr. McNeil has spent time in Canada studying Galt and Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl Selkirk. Lord Selkirk was a Scottish nobleman whose writings included a harebrained scheme to relieve the suffering of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders dispossessed by wealthy landowners. His plan was to bring these Highlanders to what is now Manitoba. Lord Selkirk saw this as a genius way to put them where land was plentiful and up for grabs. However, the land was already quite occupied. “He put them near what is now Winnipeg. So they are recognized in the history of Winnipeg. But at the time it was a disaster. Lots of Métis, a people of mixed First Nations and European ancestry, were living there and making a good living in the fur trade and they did not want to move out. There was violence,” said Dr. McNeil.

French-Canadians also identified with the Scottish quest to retain language and identity after union with England. Unlike Scotland, Quebec was absorbed into the British Empire by military conquest. Since Quebec was ceded to the Britain in 1763, French-Canadians have struggled to retain their language and culture in a majority Anglophone country. “The questions asked by Scots in their struggle to retain their identity would be the same questions asked by French-Canadians,” said Dr. McNeil.

One of the most famous French-Canadian novels is Les Anciens Canadiens (1863) by Phillipe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé. Heavily indebted to Scott’s example, the book recounts the tale of a young Scottish orphan, forced into exile in Canada during the French and Indian War. “Scotland became a model for many national cultures in the transatlantic world. In the 19th century Scottish nationalism was at a low point. It was more about being Scottish within a British framework. Sir Walter Scott thought the union was good. It was the future,” explained Dr. McNeil.

The Scottish Romantics looked to the past and found the future. Their quest to fashion a strong national identity struck the heart of fledgling nations across the sea. In a world of rapid technological advancement and ever shifting global empires, Romantics struggled to find solid ground, and in many ways succeeded. Many of their works from Ivanhoe to “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” have become cornerstones of their countries’ literary canons.




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