Skip to main content

On politics and egotism

The struggle for freedom should never be reduced to the personality of one man, says CAILEAN GALLAGHER

SHOULD the Scottish fight for freedom be personified as an odious man?

Many have imagined it to be so. In 1789 Robert Burns gave us Holy Willie, the church elder who believed that he was free to carry out endless horrible deeds, since he was accountable not to his community but to his God, whose “grace is great and ample.” 

In 1926, Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle revealed the mind of the patriot, wallowing in bitterness, who wants to claim the nation for himself as “a symbol o’ that force in me,” proud, disparaging and “abune contempt.” 

A generation later, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark of 1981 narrated the jealousies and insecurities that lead a socially and sexually stilted west-of-Scotland male to imagine and perhaps commit a woman’s murder.

But the archetype of the fallen Scottish man is James Hogg’s 1824 novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 

It tells how radical ideas of Scottish Covenanters are twisted to justify a self-worshipping creed by a lonely, cruel, contorted loser. 

Brimming with sordid masculinity, resentment of being rejected, and perversions of power, Robert Wringham murders his brother, father, mother, and a girl he had exploited and abused. 

He is unperturbed by his actions: “I fear no accusations of man, as long as I can justify my cause in the sight of Heaven.” 

Off he strides through the woods of his estate, “with independence in my eye, and freedom swinging in my right hand.” 

With the cause to justify his every deed, the sinner swings his freedom, unbound by any common empathy.

Communities that seek independence must force a way beyond the laws and mores of the dominant culture, claiming the collective freedom that they wish for everyone to share in the days of a better nation. 

The spirit and self-belief of such a movement can be inspiring and infectious. 

Depressingly, the communal pursuit of freedom attracts some who see in it the possibility to do whatever the hell they personally feel like. 

Desire for freedom is never attractive when it is perverted into egoistic forms. 

All political movements attract, and are sadly sometimes led, by squalid men like these. 

Seen for what they are, then we can name them and dismiss them without allowing them to represent the nation. 

Critics of a movement will present the toxicity of its leaders as the great indictment of the cause. 

The struggle for freedom in Scotland has often been boiled down to a story of passions warring in one man. 

But the nation also has a different character, represented by the millions who work to make it a home of freedom for everybody in it, and to force a path out of a culture whose loudest characters make oppression look pre-ordained. 

Beyond the blight, there are beautiful stories to be told.


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 8,448
We need:£ 9,553
9 Days remaining
Donate today