The beginnings of Scotland: two cultures
Scotland is a small place — even today her population is no more than that of Greater London — and she has been part of the United Kingdom for longer than North America has been a nation. But Scotland is a distinctively different country, with a culture, a church, a tradition in education and a legal system of her own. Few visitors can have left the place without being told this and having met a prickly sense of difference in the Scottish people. The national plant is a thistle, after all, whose motto, Nemo me impune lacessit, is translated as ‘No one touches me with impunity’, or, more vigorously, ‘Wha daur meddle wi me?’ The self-conscious assertion in these words reminds us that, as a small and often embattled country, Scotland has been much exercised over the centuries to protect a sense of identity, and this sense has regularly been stimulated or reflected or redefined and argued about in her literature. The thistle is a harsh talisman, and if it sometimes symbolises the libertarian Scottish ideal (as it does for the modern poet Hugh MacDiarmid), it can also look like a skeleton in an endless history of internal dispute and failure. MacDiarmid is not the first Scottish writer to have felt himself impaled on the national plant.
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