by Alan King
British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper seems to have had a lifelong fascination with fakes and fraudsters. The first book of his to reach beyond an academic readership was his 1976 exposé of Sir Edmund Backhouse, the turn-of-the-century sinologist who was regarded as an expert on the Chinese Empress Dowager and her court. Trevor-Roper revealed that the court diary Backhouse relied on was actually a forged document. A well-written, fascinating chronicle. Unfortunately, hardly a word of it was true.
The posthumous publication of Trevor-Roper’s correspondence with Bernard Berenson shone a light on his relationship with the famous scholar/entrepreneur who made a fortune authenticating, then selling Renaissance paintings to rich Americans. A number of those paintings were later found to be wrongly attributed but coincidentally boosted the commissions for Berenson who worked with the dealer, Joseph Duveen. Trevor-Roper could hardly have been unaware of Berenson’s unsavory record.
Then, of course, there were the Hitler diaries. In 1983, as a director of the London Times, he authenticated the hand-written notebooks when they appeared out of nowhere and was forced to make a hasty reversal when they were proven, conclusively, to be fakes. For the Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, aka Baron Dacre of Glanton, it must have been a humiliating climb-down.
Now his interest in deception seems to have followed him to the grave. An enterprising editor, Jeremy Cater, has fine-tuned a manuscript about the history of Scotland that Trevor-Roper had left not quite finished a few years before his death. Though incomplete, there was still enough material to challenge many of the country’s most cherished beliefs. He felt that much of what the Scots thought they knew about their history was untrue or wildly embellished – a fraud, in other words.
He made no secret of his reasons. A vociferous opponent of Scottish independence, he began writing the book during the resurgence of the independence movement during the 1970’s. He felt that Scotland owed much of its success to its commercial and intellectual ties to England. His opinion of pre-unification Scotland was that it had been a backwater and feared it would slip back if it severed its ties to Westminster. An icy dip in the turbulent waters of Scottish history might be just the thing to bring the Scots to their senses.
His first splash of reality is a reminder that the first people to use the name ‘Scots’ were actually Irish. Sometime after the Romans abandoned Britain in 410 AD, a group of Irish raiders set up a ‘petty kingdom’ in the north west of Scotland called Dariada. Over the next five centuries they fought intermittently with the long-established Picts whom they eventually came to dominate. “The result” says Trevor-Roper, “was that the Irish Scots, from a small original colony in a corner of Argyll, succeeded in imposing their name, customs, and their language upon the more ancient and numerous people inhabiting the rest of the country.”
Like the Germans, the Scots harkened back to early fables of warrior kings to reinforce their sense of identity and as psychological compensation for defeat on the battlefield. The consequences of this imaginative rationalization were obviously much more benign for the Scots. In the 18th century one of those myths was given life in the romantic poetry of Ossian, who, according to his discoverer, James Macpherson, was a wandering bard who recorded the noble exploits of the great highland chieftains back in the mist-shrouded centuries before Christ. The original fragments of Celtic poetry from which the poems were translated never seemed to be at hand when Macpherson was asked for proof, but that didn’t stop the brilliant minds of the Edinburgh Enlightenment from being swept along by its Scot-affirming message.
No less than David Hume was caught up in the fever. And he was far from alone; incredibly, much of France was in its thrall as well. Massive murals depicting scenes from the poems decorated Napoleon’s Malmaison chateau.
Trevor-Roper tracks down all the extant sources – diaries, letters, Highland Society records – and concludes it was about as authentic as Japanese Glenfidditch. James Macpherson did own a few fragments of early Celtic poetry but the Ossian epics could really only have been written by one person – James Macpherson himself.
As the Scots’ fascination with Ossian faded it was quickly replaced with another history-burnishing fiction. This time, a sartorial myth. The story of the kilt is an oft-told tale but Trevor-Roper treats it with a sympathetic understanding of the psychological currents that swirl beneath national character. The tartaned kilt was essentially invented, woven and marketed by Thomas Rawlinson, an English Quaker from Lancashire. Far from being the ancient Caledonian dress, it didn’t make an appearance in Scotland until the 1730’s.
But the myth was a useful one. It served to unify highland and lowland Scotland. It was “a process whereby the customs and costumes of the Scottish Highlanders, previously despised as barbarous, and at one time formally extinguished, were resumed, elaborated and extended.” It was a fraud, yes, but one that Trevor-Roper was, and the rest of us, are quite happy to live with.