Crucial seeds of the Scottish independence movement were sown by a flamboyant American living in St Andrews in the 1930s, according to a Scottish literary expert.
Professor Robert Crawford, of the University of St Andrews, has suggested that wealthy New Yorker James Huntington Whyte developed the most compelling theory of modern Scottish nationalism.
In a new book on Scottish independence, Professor Crawford argues that the Yes Scotland campaign owes its provenance to a literary eccentric whose behaviour in pre-war Fife was so avant-garde, local people believed him to be a spy.
Described as being ‘way ahead of his time’, Whyte was among the first to argue that Scotland should be a ‘free country’ but to avoid the ‘frantic insularity of the Fascists’.
Professor Crawford says that Whyte wrote sophisticated editorials on the subject in his literary magazine ‘The Modern Scot’, which published the work of many Scottish nationalist writers.
The well-known St Andrews poet, teacher and critic makes the claim in his new book, Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination.
Professor Crawford explained, “Maybe in part because Whyte was a Jewish American, he was very aware of what was happening in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. His Scottish nationalism championed what he called ‘political pluralism’.
“He argued that Scotland was a distinct nation and should be ‘a free country like Norway’. But he was sure that even the most eager Scot Nats ‘should not like to see our fellow-countrymen imitating the frantic insularity of the Fascists or the Hitlerites.’”
Originally known as James Dreicer, the wealthy New Yorker came from a family which owned property on Fifth Avenue. Dreicer moved to St Andrews in the thirties with his male partner, art critic and St Andrews graduate John Tonge.
As James H. Whyte, he went on to edit the most brilliant literary magazine in mid-twentieth-century Scotland.
Professor Crawford continued, “Although his widowed mother had married a Scotsman who went on to become a Unionist Tory MP, James was no Tory Unionist. Publishing Hugh MacDiarmid and other Scottish nationalist writers, he made St Andrews a centre for avant-garde writing and radical politics.
“His behaviour and ideas scandalised local people. They suspected that this flamboyant and brilliant bisexual American who drove round Fife in a swanky foreign car – some say a Mercedes, others a Bugatti – might be a spy.”
Whyte’s magazine, The Modern Scot, published many of the twentieth century’s great writers – from Franz Kafka to W. H. Auden and Hugh MacDiarmid. And in the magazine’s sophisticated editorials Whyte set out his theory of a modern Scottish nationalism.
Professor Crawford continued, “Whyte, a gay or bisexual man from a Jewish family, knew the dangers of persecution. He knew, too, that modern Scottish nationalism had to be open and pluralist. However derided by 1930s St Andreans in the town and the University, in many ways he was ahead of his time.”
In his new book, Professor Crawford also reveals that a 1969 guide book’s description of St Andrews as a ‘Headquarters of Militant Nationalism’, isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.
In a lecture in St Andrews this Friday (31 January),Professor Crawford will argue that Whyte’s legacy remained alive in St Andrews right up to the days when Alex Salmond, now Scotland’s First Minister, was a student in the 1970s.
Crawford, Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews, will suggest ways in which Whyte’s legacies shaped local and national politics in Scotland.
The lecture will also discuss other St Andrews figures, such as Alex Salmond’s university tutor Geoffrey Barrow, biographer of Robert the Bruce and the great modern historian of Bannockburn. The lecture will show the influence these writers have had on today’s ideas about Scottish independence.
Robert Crawford’s new book Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination, 1314-2014 is published in paperback by Edinburgh University Press this month.
His public lecture, ‘“Headquarters of Militant Nationalism”: St Andrews, Literature, and Scottish Independence from The Modern Scot to Alex Salmond’, will be given in Lecture Theatre B of St Andrews University’s School of Physics and Astronomy at 8pm on Friday 31 January.
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