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Tuesday, 25 October 2011

On the right side of history – neutrinos, the speed of light and Bannockburn


I always watch television documentaries on particle physics and quantum mechanics in the hope that one day I will get a glimmering of real understanding of the universe and everything. My understanding is constrained by my lack of any real mathematical understanding, limited as it is to arithmetic and very basic algebra and geometry. As a child and young man I was fascinated by astronomy – and science fiction – and my window to the universe is therefore somewhat occluded by garish images of rocket ships and brass-bra’d blondes being carried off by bug-eyed monsters.

But from very early days spent staring at Fulton’s Orrery on the upper floor of the People’s Palace on the Glasgow Green, I gained the concept of the vastness of space, so watching last night’s documentary on the recent mind-blowing discovery that the speed of light may have been exceeded by neutrinos rushing under a mountain, out of our brane into the bulk and back to the brane struck home to me. The neutrino, the tiniest and most mysterious of the particles was compared in relative size to a golf ball in the entire solar system. Now that’s wee – really wee! Yet these wee things are essential to everything, and effortlessly penetrate everything – nothing is a barrier to them, not even time, apparently.

The scientist’s joke, delivered with an understandable lack of comic timing, was -

Barman:We don’t serve neutrinos in here …”

A neutrino goes into a bar …

In other words, in the new neutrino world we may have glimpsed, you get the answer to your text message before you have sent it.

And so it has been throughout recorded history with the concept of freedom – a tiny idea in its emergence, apparently insignificant in the context of the power struggles all around it, almost invisible among the titanic struggles of powerful men and institutions, yet ultimately vital to humanity, permeating everything and essential to everything. And freedom is inseparable from the idea of independence within a framework of inter-dependence. Freedom and independence always take the powerful by surprise – initially ignored, then suppressed, but eventually triumphant. Because ultimately, we can never be content without it.


I bought a book in Waterstones last week. It had no price on it, so I took it to the counter and the assistant scanned the barcode. “That will be £30, sir …” I flinched, but since I’d rather go bankrupt than look like a cheapskate, I bought it. And given the book’s title, I couldn’t have given it back without loss of face as a Scot – there might have been a unionist watching!

The book was Bannockburn – The Triumph of Robert the Bruce by David Cornell. I read it in a few days, and it is the best thirty quid I’ve spent in a long time.

The book wasn’t written by a starry-eyed Scottish nationalist, but by a sober English academic from Durham University, a man born in Leicester, and his concern is to present as faithful an account as he can of a 700-year old event that was pivotal in British history, and the event that shaped Scotland as a nation. Despite all the inadequacies and the blatant bias of history as taught in Scottish schools in my schooldays, there wasn’t a Scottish child who had not heard of Robert the Bruce and Bannockburn.

I chose this version because it was new (2009) and precisely because it was written by an English historian and published by Yale University Press. I wanted as objective an account as I could find, to avoid the charge by unionist critics that Scottish nationalists are lost in a kind of Brigadoon and Braveheart land, sentimentalists with a romantic and unrealistic view of their history.

It was a fascinating read, presenting an unvarnished account of the brutal realities of politics and power in the early 14th century, and Bruce emerges as the complex figure that he was, expedient, power-hungry, driven by personal ambition, willing to change sides, forming shifting alliances, often treacherous and occasionally murderous in his actions. He could have been little else, given the world he lived in, which was hardly a place for starry-eyed idealists. But along the way, a vision emerged of a united Scotland – Scotland as a nation, and Bruce became larger than his personal ambitions.

A few quotes from the book serve for me to illustrate its relevance to Scotland today, at another pivotal point in its history.

On Bruce on the eve of battle

In life, few men find themselves empowered with a decision that has the potential to dictate the fate of a nation. To possess such an awesome responsibility is both a privilege and a curse. A correct decision promises unsurpassed success, but a wrong one invites catastrophic failure. Such a man holds in his hands the lives of those who follow him.”

On the significance of Bannockburn

Bannockburn, therefore, is certainly deserving of our fresh attention. It was both a great victory for Scotland – arguably the greatest in its history – and one of the most humiliating defeats that England has ever suffered. As such, it remains inscribed in the pantheon of each nation’s history, albeit with directly contrasting emotions.  Bannockburn was a pivotal event in the shaping of British history: both the battle and its enduring legacy have proved of crucial importance  in the forming of national identity in both countries.”

On the behaviour of the English Establishment and power structure

The magnates  were not men who attached themselves to causes for altruistic reasons. Their decisions were ruled by their own best interests. The political world they inhabited was shot through with bitter, frequently venomous personal rivalries featuring rapidly shifting alliances and amoral self-aggrandisement. This was a ruthlessly self-interested , intensely emotive environment, prone to antagonisms and feuds, in which the currency was wealth and status.”

On Bruce’s political situation at the time of Bannockburn

… the underlying strength  of Bruce’s political position was, that due to his military success in the Scottish civil war, his Scottish enemies had been forced to either join him or fight alongside the English. By 1314, his Scottish enemies relied on the English to continue their war against Bruce.”

The parallels are blindingly obvious, especially with that last quotation – it describes almost exactly the position of the Scottish Unionist parties vis a vis Alex Salmond in the crucial period we are now in, following the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections and in the lead-up to the forthcoming referendum on Scotland’s independence. 


There is a tide in the affairs of men, etc. There is such a thing as the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. The spirit of the age is freedom, of independence, of throwing off the suffocating embrace of the old power structures, challenging the dominance of giant corporations, the military/industrial complex, global financial structures inimical to human happiness – big is no longer beautiful – small is beautiful, independence in a context of inter-dependence, a world of free nations cooperating dynamically for humanity and the wider interest.

I have this to say to leading figures in Scottish public life, those with high visibility and influence, whether in the field of politics, of business, of finance, in the arts, in entertainment, in literature, who are not yet committed to Scotland’s independence as a free nation -

Make the quantum leap to endorsing Scotland’s independence publicly, and campaigning for a YES vote to independence. In so doing, you are not saying that the new Scotland will be run in perpetuity by the Scottish National Party, you are saying that it will be run by Scots elected by the new political process in that new Scotland to a Parliament that has full autonomy over Scottish affairs.

You stand, like all Scots, at a pivotal moment in your country’s history. Align yourself with the spirit of the age and with the rebirth of a nation – your nation, Scotland.

Do so now, and you will be respected for a principled decision.

Do so after independence, and you will be regarded as simply expedient.

The time is now - come out for Scotland


  1. Stevie,

    I can't edit your long post as you ask - I have no facilities to do that. Fascinating though it is, it is far too long for a blog comment - it would be better submitted to either Newsnet Scotland or Bella Caledonia as an article under your own name. I don't carry guest articles on what is essentially an individual, personal blog. I think I may have suggested to you before that perhaps you need to set up your own blog to permit you to expand on your always pertinent and interesting ideas.

    But I will reproduce part of your comment on Bruce, edited for length, not content.

    "I do take issue with historians who slate Bruce as being treacherous and changing sides. They even try to say he fpought with Edward at Falkirk when historians now generally ridicule this idea since he was busily burning all the crops on his land,to stop the English army's advance, not long after Falkirk.

    It's true the Bruce family colours were probably on Edward's side at Falkirk but those were his father's troops (probably from his English estates) and that sort of thing happened not irregularly in those times.

    Bruce never surrendered the Scottish cause, though at one point with everybody else surrendering and his rivals for the Scottish crown (the Comyn family) desiring Bruce's death, he did reenter king Edward II's peace.

    Comyn betrayed Bruce to Edward II, Bruce escaped with his family and in a fit of temper (something he cursed himself for till the day he died) slew Comyn in a church - the church being the sin in his mind. Comyn had it coming and that was that.

    The Brit nat historians try and say all kinds of nonsense about Bruce, Wallace and the Wars of Independence but the cause came from the people and Bruce (because of his grandfather) always knew what side he was on."


    I don't think history is entirely on your side here, Stevie, and although there are undoubtedly a few historians with a British imperialist bias, I don't think it is either accurate or heplful to the nationalist cause to present Bruce as some kind of 21st century liberal - he was a man of his time, the early 14th centruy, and acted as such.

    History rarely approaches its ideal of being totally objective, but to suggest that any historian who presents a less than idealised image of Bruce is engaged in propaganda is neither accurate, nor true to the memory of Bruce.

    Thanks for posting!


  2. Peter, there's one big difference with the Scotland of that day and the Scotland of now - democratic pressure.

    It sure must have been very lonely being a leader in those times, where you would have only a council to guide you, and that body of worthies no doubt would have been riven with his opposition's interests!

    Assuredly, any modern Scottish analysis could equally share the author's description of English magnates, with our Wastemonster toadies as - "..not men (and, or stairheid rammy types) who attached themselves to causes for altruistic reasons. Their decisions were ruled by their own best interests. The political world they inhabited was shot through with bitter, frequently venomous personal rivalries featuring rapidly shifting alliances and amoral self-aggrandisement." Gold plated pensions anyone, plus the potential for ermine, if it strikes yer fancy!

    In fact, as is written - "... By 1314, his Scottish enemies relied on the English to continue their war against (him) Bruce.” My, oh, my!

    So what's new, one has to ask?

    Well, for starters, Joe MacPublic will have a very big say about these torags, their MSM propagandists and their like, and it's clear times up- that clock's been ticking since May 2011.

    Roll on the big steam hammer!

  3. I've read everything there is to read about the life of Robert Bruce (except the book you bought and I'll get that) and curiously Nigel Tranter stuck pretty much to his life and captured the man as he was.

    I do prefer female historians as they give a greater analysis of the character of historical personages. Bruce was a decent man, who caught in the worst times of Scotland's past eventually rose to the occasion. I don't have to romanticize Bruce, his story, the facts of his story are romantic and heroic as they are.

    I appreciate the suggestion but I have too many writing commitments for the cause as it is to start a blog and moreover, a blog I wrote would never be to the standards you produce or others for that matter. There are enough bloggers already. I'll stick to what I do best. But I do get around.

  4. Stevie - forgive me for using your personal name as we do not know each other (though I have enjoyed/do enjoy your posts)

    How about following Moridura's advice and creating your own blog? You need not become enslaved to it; but, a reasonably regular posting (see Craig Murray or rueclementmarot blogspots) might further envigor and enlighten the agora of ideas and debating thereof - a perpetuation of the Celtic enlightenment which, over generations hard won scholastically - predicated the full flourish of the Scottish Enlightenment (open and encompassing as it was to all ideas - whatever the source - to human progress).

    Worth a ponder?

    Regardless, enjoy your comments on the M's site - invaluable touchstone that it is and, I believe, of the same, shared, academic, lad o' pairts' heritage evi ced in the Irish "hedge schools" and their Scots equivalents under unremitting English pressure backed up by internal "comprador" (vide Gramsci) collusionalist strong-armism.

    Do as you think fit; but keep commenting nevertheless.