“Through a Glass Darkly” or “Reflections of Ourselves”?

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Robert Burns ("To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church")

As we start the New Year (and new decade) we should remember that January takes its name from the god who looks both forward and backwards. We take that as an idea for the starting point about some musings about some things both universal and Scottish.



There is always a question about how a people see themselves and refer to themselves. Most people are aware of changes in the names of countries and states. Zaire was once known as The (Belgian) Congo and Siam (as in "Anna and the King of” has become Thailand. There is even a song called Istanbbul, which contains the changes in names of Constantinople and New Amsterdam to Istanbul and New York.

Changes in names of people also change. Coloreds, Negroes, Blacks, African Americans all were applied (at least in the United States) to the same people. Not too many years ago Russell Means, head of the American Indian Movement (not the Native American Movement), reported that a group of liberals had decided that American Indians should be referred to as “Native Americans”. The well-known actor, Wes Studi, was asked in an interview if he preferred to be called Native American or American Indian to which he responded “American Indian is fine”.

Typically, when Indians ask each other what they are, the response is a “tribal” name like Pomo or Hupa since the indigenous peoples suspect that most non-Indians don’t know the terms the natives use for their own groups.

Similar problems have been observed with debates (and corrections) of people who refer to the people of Scotland as being Scotch or Scots. Currently there are arguments in which “Scotch” is to be used for the drink and “Scots” for the people. Of course, most countries refer to themselves by the term often used as an adjective for the country as occurs with French (French wine and people); German (beer and people) and so on.

We can look at historical records to see how people refer to themselves although we know that over time, things may change. No less a Scottish author than Sir Walter Scott uses the term Scotch for the people. Here are some quotes from Rob Roy:

“An Englishman may smile, but a Scotchman will sigh at the postscript…”
“…the piece remains a favourite with Scotch audiences.”
“…our landlord informed us, with a sort of apologetic tone, that there was a Scotch gentleman to dine with us.”

Of course, one can argue that Sir Walter Scott lived in a different time (15 August 1771 – 21 September 1832) and worse is an exponent of that now often despised tradition known as “tartanry”, that literary form which many perceive as “kitch” (or as some say “twee”). It is a form of literature (and film), which is perhaps best exemplified by Hollywood’s Brigadoon.

In opposition to tartanry, is the kailyard tradition, in which rural life is depicted in an overly sentimental way and is exemplified by the writing of James Barrie in such works as Auld Licht Idylls (1888) and A Window in Thrums (1889).

The basic criticism of the works is that they are distortions of reality in specific directions, one glorifying the “wild noble savage of the highlands” and the other, small garden plot (kailyard) of the rural areas.

The criticism implies that writings about a people – by the people - should be realistic and that modern Scottish literature is realistic although there are many who would not accept some of the more modern depictions of Scotland in literature and film any more realistic that the tartanry or kailyard traditions of Scott and Barrie.

In fact, each of the traditions may reflect something about the times in which these traditions arose and in a sense denying their reality it means turning ones back on ones ancestors and believing that the ”truth” is known only to modern artists and their perception of the world. (Check out this month’s cryptogram)!

Literature is not simply a reflection of reality, but a perception of the writers of some aspects of social life and social structure of its times. As novelist L.P. Hartley wrote in The Go Between “The past is foreign country. They do things differently there”.

The noted anthropologist Francis Hsu in his article on “Prejudice in Anthropology” pointed out the problems of people examining other cultures since their visions are distorted by their own cultures and as a result, they see “the other” only “Through a glass darkly”.

Perhaps we should not be too crucial of the earlier literary approaches since, as “another culture” we may see them “through a glass darkly” as well. The way we see the past may be clearly a function of the “dark glass” between us and our own past.