EDINBURGH – Wherever you are in Scotland, you're never very far from a memorial of some kind. In fact, with a population of some 5.2 million, I suspect that if you added them up, you might find that Scotland had one of the highest number of memorials per capita in the world. And now, as Scotland thinks about its future and a likely 2014 referendum on independence, thinking about the past seems more relevant than ever.
Take the date of the referendum. There is much debate about symbolism and political potency here. Unionists want the referendum to happen soon, believing that perhaps, off the back of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60 years on the throne, and the London Olympics this summer, there will be a lot of British feel-good factor which will help sway doubting Scots.
The counter argument comes from the Scottish National Party (SNP), the ruling party in Scotland, which wants to hold the referendum after the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow -- a competition in which Scotland, like every part of the United Kingdom, competes in its own right. And the SNP is also doubtless hoping that Scottish hearts will beat for independence in the wake of celebrations that June to mark the 700th anniversary of Robert the Bruce's defeat of the English at Bannockburn.
The battlefield at Bannockburn is dominated by a glowering statue of "King Robert." Not far off is the town of Stirling, which is itself dominated by a castle, described as "a great symbol of Scottish independence and a source of national pride." But it is also, says Stirling Castle's informative website, "the spiritual home" of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a regiment formed in 1881, at the height of British imperial glory. Wander through the regimental museum and you can see how its men, or those from the antecedents of the regiment, fought in the Crimea, the Boer War, the two world wars, and so on.
When it comes to Scotland's martial history, there is no one better to talk to than Tom Devine, one of the country's most distinguished historians. Walking to his office at Edinburgh University one passes dozens of monuments and plaques to great Scots, and quite a few to other Britons, too. In the city center there is the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon. There's North Bridge over Edinburgh's main Waverly train station , which is named after the romantic historical novel by Sir Walter Scott, who in turn is himself commemorated in a black pile of a monument that looks like a giant Victorian rocket. And on North Bridge itself, there's a memorial to Scottish soldiers who fell between 1878 and 1902 in foreign battles that include Afghanistan.
When I finally get to Devine, he tells me that, "Scottish martial history is a key part of Scottish identity." There is a "long term notion of Scottish military excellence going back to the medieval period. From the 14th to the 17th century, Scotland's biggest export were men of violence."
Indeed, the British Empire, in which Scots played leading roles, helped produce, via the military, a fusion of Scottish and British identity. But Devine says that as the empire disintegrated, that idea of a Scottish martial sense of itself, disintegrated too. Today, as the debate turns to the pros and cons of independence Devine notes, using an old-fashioned word for Scotland: "I've not heard many voices say 'we fought two world wars together' -- not in Scotia. You would hear that up to the 1970s but it does not seem to matter anymore."