I’m not a historian, but for whatever reason I probably know more about my father’s family and its complicated historical karma than any other member of the immediate clan. (Not a minor achievement, in that I grew up mostly separated from the family by a combination of divorce and the religious/cultural boundary presented by the Mason-Dixon line, and a paternal aunt is actually a professional historian teaching at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis). But being a true son of my father I was a devoted Anglophile and lover of all things British as a child, tuning into BBC rebroadcasts on public television and radio. At one point in elementary school, teachers even corrected my papers of randomly-internalized UK conventions in spelling and style. As a young adult, I converted to Anglicanism and learned that my family surname is Scottish, and became interested in the historical traditions to which this might connect me. I was sufficiently interested in all this to dig deeply enough to discover that the surname originates in the Scottish Borders, and connects me with a rather unsavory group of semi-nomadic horse thieves, blackmailers, and murderers with highly divided loyalties, the Border Reivers. According to a historical clan map which has adorned my wall since for some 20 years, the Borderers were “a people that will be Scottish when they will, and English at their pleasure,” showing no allegiance to any authority except their own and giving loyalty only to friends and kindred. The ethnic and devotional particularities of Anglican Christianity provided my younger self with many ways to connect with this Border Scot background, such as romantically favoring the doomed Jacobite cause for restoration of the Catholic House of Stuart and joining and supporting the Society of King Charles the Martyr, an Anglo-Catholic devotional society with generally Jacobite political leanings which treats the last Stuart king to reign over Scotland and England as a martyr for the Anglican religious faith. If you might say that my family background harmonized rather well with the imagination and aspirations of a young Anglo-Catholic, you might also say that this culture was a major influence on the Anglo-Catholic movement itself, with John Henry Newman famously praising Sir Walter Scott and his Border Ballads and as among the worldly muses contributing to his romantic Anglo-Catholic vision.
It wasn’t until I began to study Asian religions professionally that I began to connect my American forebearers to their Scottish ancestry and a worldwide Scottish diaspora almost mind-boggling in its immensity and complexity. In some parts, my discoveries were sheer horror to me: essentially, the social/religious culture of Appalachia and the Southern United States including its plantation system of racial apartheid, class stratification, and economic indenture, which I unabashedly hate, can be considered a transplantation and continuation of a form of British imperialism first perfected in Northern Ireland. (See: James Webb’s Born Fighting or its video form) Everything I am conflicted about involving the Southern branch of my family, including its lingering Confederate sympathies, is for the most part simply an expression of the family’s Scottish Britishness. Worse, these Border Scots entered North America via migration through Northern Ireland as willing participants in the Ulster Plantation, meaning that the Troubles in Northern Ireland (unionism and republicanism, religious conflicts rooted in the 16th/17th century, etc.) are essentially family troubles in which my ancestors are implicated. It’s no wonder karmically-speaking that sometimes, the unresolved cultural and religious conflicts of the British Isles come forth unbidden to the surface of consciousness, as in this old Cranberries video from the height of the Troubles:
It’s the same story everywhere in the former British Empire, meaning (on a more positive note, I suppose) that I have inherited through a variegated crew of ancient ancestors and long-lost cousins an entire world history of mongrelizations and cultural fusions conceived and executed by the middlemen of Empire, the Scots. Within my own field of Asian religions, I am often asked if I am related to the former Boden Professor of Sanskrit and Buddhologist E. H. Johnston, the Northern Irish Jesuit Zen master William Johnston, or the “Scottish mandarin” Reginald Johnston. And the answer is yes – if you take into account the 17th C. Scottish diaspora, the Ulster Plantation, the convulsive remaking of Scotland in the 18th/19th C. into an integral part of the United Kingdom, and the role of displaced Borderers and former Jacobites as orientalists and colonial middle management in the 19th/20th C., it is certain that we are all ancient cousins hailing from the same region of Dumfriesshire on the Scottish Borders sharing at one point the same traumatic history, thrown into different far-off corners of a global empire which got its start by colonizing us, then deploying us as agents for the colonization of others.
This history was not uniformly dark, as historian and Scot William Dalrymple chronicles in White Mughals. Generations of British administration in India prior to the hardening and racialization of communal boundaries after the Mutiny were openly assimilationist, attempting European-Indian cultural fusion, financially and culturally enriching both British and Indian elites. Love relationships between British men and Indian women flourished and roughly a third of British men stationed in India bequeathed legacies to their Indian wives and mistresses. Madras plaid imitated Scottish tartan and Indians commissioned their own regimental bagpipe bands clad in kilt, while a fad for all things oriental swept the British Isles, before anyone had conceived the fear of “going native.” Similar cultural accommodations can be found elsewhere in the British Far East, as for example in the “Scottish mandarin” career of Buddhist convert, Qing court tutor, and SOAS luminary Reginald Johnston. It would all come to an end, but for a time at least, curiosity and collaboration cohabited with the desire for gain and exploitation.
The Scots who inhabit these stories, light and dark, were mostly products of a violent and uncertain border constantly contested, flying no permanent flag. Anglo-Saxon Bernicia and Northumbria contended with Celtic Dalriada, Strathclyde, Galloway, and Alba, and successive kings of Scotland and England seeking to enlarge their territories turned the Borders into a bleeding battlefield from the 13th-17th centuries, creating a Border Reiver culture as the only plausible lifestyle in a region that had been without stability, agricultural potential, or government for centuries. When James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne and established a personal union of the crowns of Scotland and England at the turn of the 17th C., he suppressed the Reivers, executing and exiling scores of individuals from the most powerful Border clans, including many Johnstons. Between the subjugation of the Borders between roughly 1600-1640, the Seven Ill Years of the 1690s and mass emigration from the Scottish lowlands, econnomic depression through French protectionism and the failure of the Darien scheme (a kind of “Scottish East India Company”), the establishment of a Bank of Scotland, a permanent Union of the Crowns vesting royal authority in London rather than Edinburgh, the Jacobite uprisings and Highland clearances, a new and modern Scotland was formed that was integrated into the United Kingdom and run largely in the economic interests of England. Opportunities for Scots lay in emigration, service in the British East India Company, military service and engineering, orientalist scholarship, finance and investment, and colonial middle management.
For a Border Scot, figuring out what it means to be British in terms of political and religious commitments amounts to squaring circles, imagining the impossible. If there are Ulster Scot Orangemen such as William Johnston of Ballykilbeg for whom Scottishness is Unionism and Protestantism, there are Republican Catholics with the same surnames and ethnic origins who think of themselves as Irish, such as the family of William Johnston the Jesuit, once involved with IRA terrorism. They might oppose or ally with prominent Anglo-Irish families such as the Wildes, who might themselves be Unionist or Republican in sympathies. Despite James Webbs’ simplifications, the descendants of the Scots-Irish in America find the situation no easier, and often cannot conceptualize or identify themselves as an ethnic group. The Borders themselves are neither Saxon nor Celtic, Scottish or English, and Borderers did not align with any crown. Contemporary Borderers split between Scottish Nationalism, British Unionism, and romantic Jacobitism that pines for a United Kingdom under the Scottish House of Stuart rather than the Hanoverian House of Windsor. Dispersed throughout the former British Empire, these colonized people who colonized others might pursue radical assimilation and fusion (as in the case of the mostly Scottish “White Mughals” who were “as much Hindoo as Christian” or Reginald Johnston in China) or separatism and apartheid as “white” Protestant Britons who set themselves over and against their “colored” pagan/Catholic subjects. All of the contradictions of colonialism, good and bad, subsist in this unlikely group of Britons, the Borderers.
If it were as easy for me to imagine an “Irish” Anglo-Catholicism for myself, such as that of Oscar Wilde, as it is to imagine an Anglo-Catholic religious identity oriented towards Jacobitism, the Church of England, Oxford and Cambridge, Greater Britannia, and the BBC, life would no doubt be easier than it is. There is a place for the former in ethnic American Catholicism; the natural home of the latter is Anglicanism. (The one identity that I will never seriously consider is that of a patriotic American with evangelical Protestant religious beliefs and roots in the Old Confederacy, the most common political/cultural self-identification of Scots-Irish in America).