It is curious that members of dominated cultures or groups never presume to explain the hegemonic culture to members of the dominant class. Women never explain maleness or masculinity to men. People from minority ethnic or racial minorities never school white people on whiteness or class and racial privilege. Scots never explain what it means to be English to the English. Instructing another in the other’s life conditions or culture presupposes a power relationship, a hierarchy of superiority in which the dominant class – by virtue of its place in the hierarchy – assumes the role of defining its subalterns. The master knows best.
We in Scotland are continually informed that our country is not the colony of our dominant English neighbour, yet England and Englishness assumes precisely this role of patronising explicator over and against Scotland. Edward Said, writing of the essence of British colonialism in Egypt, describes this knowledge-power of the coloniser:
To overcome such redoubtable constants the Orient needed first to be known, then invaded and possessed, then re-created by scholars, soldiers, and judges who disinterred forgotten languages, histories, races, and cultures in order to posit them – beyond the modern Oriental’s ken – as the true classical Orient that could be used to judge and rule the modern Orient.
So when we hear Scotland being described as though the British observer is the natural expert and judge, we are experiencing a central dynamic of colonialisation and control. It is true that Scotland was never invaded and possessed, and this truth is often cited as proof that Scotland is not colonised. Historians will insist on the invasion and possession definition of colonialism. They will pay no attention to the post-colonial voices who invariably speak of the knowledge-power and the shaping of the colonised mind by the coloniser. Scotland was not, by this definition, colonised. It willingly signed an Act of Union in 1707 with and English army on its border.
Since then our history has been taken from our syllabuses, and the coloniser – who has made a point of knowing Scotland – has assumed the role of master; teaching Scots all about Scotland.
In 2014 we voted against independence. Our master told us that we were too wee, too poor, and too stupid to be a sovereign nation. We trusted our knowing master, knowing only that we don’t know. As a reward we were promised more powers, and this “Vow” was put to review in the Smith Commission, the result being that Scotland was granted absolute autonomy over fishing permits and road signage. But even still we cannot be trusted to use this pathetic concession without English supervision.
We are given full control over our signs, but when we include Gàidhlig on those signs we are reminded that we are doing it wrong. Of course! This is because the master knows better; not only that inferior languages do not belong on good road and rail signs, but also that our language isn’t really the language of Scotland. English – the language of the coloniser – is the real language. It is superior. The master knows best.
Eliot Wilson writes in the Scotsman:
Clearly, as there are no Gaelic monoglots, nor have there been for decades, the signs are not there for information, nor to nourish the local culture. So you have to sneak yourself towards the suspicion that there is another agenda at work here. I’ll tell you what it is.
Eliot should know. He is from Sunderland, now living in London, and studies at St. Andrews. Of course he knows better. He speaks for the master.
St. Andrews, like Trinity College in Dublin, is one of the ancient universities of Britain, and as such attracts the cream of the imperial hub. It is fascinating that instead of going to Manchester or Nottingham the boys and girls of England’s better class who fail to make the grade for Oxford and Cambridge are posted off to St. Andrews and Dublin. These are better institutions because they are the British schools of renown.
Mr Wilson’s élite British education in Scotland means that he knows Scotland, and that he – and he alone – is uniquely qualified to instruct Scots on the proper use of English-only road signs. How primitive of us to think that Gàidhlig is part of our heritage, our history, and our culture. We should know by now that only the master really knows our country. Perhaps we should write an apology: Tha sinn duilich gu dearbh, ach tha e àm a ghabh sinn ar dùthcha air ais.