The Mock Hess Monster

Or: Was Rudolf Hess detained at Inverlair Lodge?

You can’t move for Rudolf Hess conspiracy theories and generally duff interpretations of the history surrounding him. And for once, I don’t blame them. A senior Nazi flying deep into enemy territory at the height of the Second World War to seek peace with the aristocracy is such a whacky idea in itself, there just has to be something deeper going on. Or so the instinctive reaction goes. For decades the speculation ran wild – did rogue elements of authority in Britain want to negotiate peace? Did they seek to lure and then trap Hess? Was there a hit? A body double? And so on. Just try a few Google searches and feel your IQ points ebb away. And, with all the evidence classified, until recently virtually anything might have seemed plausible. Except that by now, the surviving papers are available, and they categorically refute the conspiracy theories. More so than this negative evidence, as it were, there was never any positive evidence to support any of them. But, like the press, conspiracy theorists never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Not least among these theories are claims made by various places in Scotland, including Inverlair, to have played host to Hess for a time following his bail out from a Bf110 fighter. This despite Hess’ stay in Scotland being both well-documented and short-lived (10th to the 15th of May 41). Hess’ movements after landfall went like this;

10th May – From Eaglesham to Maryhill Barracks near Glasgow for initial interview.

12th May – to Buchanan Castle hospital in Drymen for formal identification and medical treatment.

16th May – to the Tower of London for some serious debriefing. 

Hess never returned to Scotland. That’s it. Yes, they moved him from Glasgow, but only 20 miles away. Inverlair is at least 2 1/2 hours drive (in a modern car) and would only have complicated his inevitable removal to London (as would the lack of a telephone there at the time!). There simply wasn’t the time or motive to be ferrying the guy around the Scottish countryside. Inverlair was itself a most unlikely venue to stash Hess, given its actual classified remit (see below). Why draw attention to this when any secure military or government facility would have sufficed? It’s pretty obvious that the Hess story was created to explain the secrecy at Inverlair, and is redundant since the release of the official documents. So why, if no evidence exists to support the idea, and if it’s barely even plausible, is the Scotsman newspaper still claiming that Hess was held at Inverlair?

There are several reasons. The first is the persistence of local (Tulloch and area) claims to this effect, dating back to at least the late ’60s (and no doubt back into wartime itself). Wherever secrecy is maintained and counter intuitive things occur, you will get rumour and speculation. If the resulting meme takes hold and survives into the age of mass media, you might even get a full-blown conspiracy theory. It wasn’t just to stop actual secrets leaking out that the UK government put out those “Careless Talk Costs Lives” posters – it was to keep a lid on idle gossip that could damage public and military morale and even waste the time of the security forces. In this case, with Inverlair, you have a holding facility for those who had washed out of Special Operations Executive training. Obliged to live in (fairly luxurious) open prison style, they had picked up too much privileged information to be allowed back into circulation until war’s end. For obvious reasons this facility’s purpose had to remain secret, leaving local people to speculate at the time, and after the fact, at the reasons for this. The much-celebrated capture of Hess in Scotland was an obvious candidate for fireside gossip about the place, and so we have this and other claims (another here) of having witnessed or heard about Hess’ local detention. To say the least, it would have been an impossible effort to get Hess to these different locations. And to what end? His presence (and that of his aircraft wreckage and contents) was needed in London ASAP.

Well-intentioned local pride or misplaced weight lent to anecdote are one thing. Even myth-mongering in the local economy I can understand – tourism certainly can’t suffer from this kind of bogus association. Most topically, the lodge itself is up for sale, and sure enough, it’s being touted by the selling agents as Hess’ B&B.

No, it’s the press involvement in perpetuating this kind of nonsense that I reserve most contempt for. It’s irresponsible of The Scotsman (on multiple occasions), and even The Times, for goodness sake, to uncritically swallow the notion, just to fill column inches and sex things up for the readership. I’m not saying they need to totally ignore these myths, just be intellectually honest and sceptical about them. The insertion of Hess into an article ostensibly about recently declassified National Archives material is completely specious. The mention of inverlair is brief, and in relation to might even be forgivable if the material were actually new! In fact only the release of the National Archives book is new – the section of the book quoted (including the bloke too ugly to be a spy) refers not to newly declassified material, but to another book. In other words the press jumped on something easily “sexed up” (the print version ran with a full page picture of Austin Powers!) that they had already covered, rather than something genuinely new to the book that the article is supposed to be about. Recycled news. Easy news. Lazy news. And damn the facts.

NB on sources: Two reliable books on the subject are “Motive For A Mission” by James Douglas Hamilton (harder to find), and “Flight From Reality” ed. by David Stafford. See also the National Archives’ holdings from which these and other sources have been compiled. On the specifics of Hess vis Scotland, I recommend a trawl of these two forum threads (thanks to the forumites there for speeding up my research!);

Secret Scotland forums
Hidden Glasgow forums

The Invention of the Invention of Tradition

This is something a little different – not pseudo or “BS” history, not mythology, and certainly not paranormality. I’m writing this time about debunking – debunking that I, for once, feel goes too far and may be too deep a delve into the politics of nationhood. After 30-something years, historian Hugh Trevor-Roper has (posthumously) released a book entitled “The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History. The section on the kilt is published as an extract by The Times here.

Highland dress in the 1630s. Look like a kilt to you?

Sizable chunks of this book have been in the public domain for some time, however, and the piece on the Times website is little different to a chapter entitled The Highland Tradition of Scotland in the 1992 book “The Invention of Tradition”. As I have read only this article, and the extracts and reviews of the “new” book online, I will comment here only on Trevor-Roper’s assault on the kilt. That older book chapter is already referenced (and rightly so) in various spots online, and in that myth-strewn internet environment is a much-needed reality check, as no doubt will be the full tome. You only have to walk down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile to experience the wider world of tartan tat and outright pseudohistory that’s sold in modern Scotland, beholden as it (and the rest of the UK) is to the tourist industry.

But, I’m afraid when I see Scots referred to as “the Scotch”, or “Scotchmen” out of quotation marks, I assume an agenda. The epithet appears not only in the original chapter, but in the online article trailing the new book. The author must have been aware that is in a cultural sense, at best archaic, and at worst xenophobic.

Let me state that I have no problem with Trevor-Roper’s facts. They can indeed be used to support an argument of cultural invention. But I would argue that they just as easily back a more moderate interpretation. In light of the below, I hope, “re-invention” would seem a more accurate word to use.

The accusation levelled at the early Scots of obliterating their cultural antecedents and rivals and bigging up their own achievement, could be made of virtually any people, especially the English. Historical accuracy was not highly prized at that time, and the history of a nation was usually a traditional (i.e. invented) one, with snippets of reality amongst grand poetry, art, chronicles, and so on. Look at King Arthur. Robin Hood. It didn’t matter what was true, what had evidence. Now, of course, it does, and it’s great to explore the myth and reality of history. But to imply that this is a Scottish phenomenon seems unfair, as does the direct comparison with England – by far the bigger country in terms of population, military strength, and political power. History is written by the winners, remember?

Perhaps it’s out of context without reference to modern claims, but much of the argument appears as a strawman for Trevor-Roper to set up and then knock down. Why does he even search for medieval origins of the highland dress as it appears in its current form? It would be remarkable if a piece of clothing had remained unchanged in design over a millennium. What English, Welsh, Irish or any other nationally identifying garments have histories anywhere near that long? None. Because fashions change – sometimes gradually, sometimes in bounds. I would suggest the latter is what occurred with the kilt.

Trevor-Roper describes two distinct pieces of clothing to make his point that the kilt was “invented by an Englishman”. He states that there was no evolution, just invention, implying that the kilt lacks historical basis, continuity, and even validity as a national dress for highlanders, let alone Scotsmen at large.

For me, this argument falls apart as soon as he points out that the “quelt” described by an English officer as “the common habit of the ordinary highlands” was actually one way of wearing what was a much older garment – the belted plaid. The plaid, if not the “quelt” mode of wear, he places well back into the 16th century on hard evidence. Available evidence suggests a belted form of plaid by around 1600.

Then, in his article and presumably his new book, he describes the modern “kilt” as having been invented from scratch in the early 18th century. Gleefully invoking the hugely apt “True Scotsman” fallacy, he informs us that it was an Englishman that did so! As if that makes the garment itself any less culturally Scottish. And yet, in his own quote from the inventor, he shows that this was done to the existing belted plaid, in order to “abridge the dress and make it handy and convenient for his workmen”. If this was a wholesale invention, there wouldn’t be a dress to abridge!

Another argument used is that the plaid was the dress of the “common soldier, or peasant”. So what, you might well ask? This assumes that the only valid tradition is that of the upper classes, which is totally counter to the (post)modern historical approach, and ignores the majority of the population. The phenomenon of the rehabilitation of the highland dress and its adoption by the upper classes is a fascinating addition to Scottish history, not an indictment of it.

The writer is quite right that lowland Scots and other Britons were prejudiced against the strange highlanders, attributing crime and laziness to them due to their very different cultural perspective and economic set-up. This shows that neither the plaid nor the true kilt were, prior to the 19th century, garments worn outside the highlands, but again, it does not detract from the fact that highlanders themselves had been wearing a version of this dress for at least 200 years by the time it was banned by the British government. Far from being “ironical” that the kilt as we know it came about due to a late banning of its predecessor, this is actually more evidence that the “kilt” of 1745 was seen then as being just a permutation of the belted plaid, and most certainly part of the “highland dress”. Trevor-Roper seems to go to extraordinary lengths to separate the two things.

The thrust of Trevor-Roper’s argument seems to me to be a sort of reverse argument from antiquity, wherein a piece of culture is only worthy if it’s subjectively ancient. Now, to be fair, this is a reaction to frequent usage of this fallacy – that aspects of Scottish heritage are ancient, and are therefore valid. But two wrongs don’t make a right. The fair thing to do would be to debunk, and then to reassure the reader that there’s really no need to make exaggerated claims for one’s nation. Instead the effect of reading Trevor-Roper is that of deflation – the older highland culture was an inferior copy of Irish culture, and the latter version was wholesale and worthless invention. And again I suggest the poltical agenda behind this shows itself. This is rallying call to unionists who feel that the only worthwhile Scottish culture is that developed under Union and Empire, the flirtation with “highland” culture just a silly diversion.

Perhaps’ I’ve missed the point. In case I haven’t though, I’d stress that It’s important to be realistic in setting out to debunk the myths of history. Education as to the true origins of a thing is fantastic, but we must recognise that the cat, as it were, is out of the bag. Academics increasingly do not own culture, high or low. Kilts in whatever form are a long-established part of modern and future Scottish identity, for better or worse – they’re at least 200 years old even in their present form. Older than just about any “national dress” you care to think of. And if people think they’re more ancient, that’s at least in part because they don’t see or care for the difference between one strip of tartan fabric worn like a skirt, and another. If they think they’re really old, they might have read Scott, but more likely, they’ve probably just seen Braveheart once too often. That can be remedied without ridiculing and belittling their culture, and their ignorance certainly doesn’t make their clothing any less of an identifier for being Scottish. Is a London executive who doesn’t know the history of the three-piece suit any less a businessman?

The Soviet invasion of Scotland!

Just a quickie, regarding this piece of news about Soviet maps of Scotland;

This isn’t BS. It’s just not really “news”. Not only has the very guy mentioned been making maps like these available for at least three years, but the nature and extent of Soviet mapping is well known via other sources. Most notably, the National Library of Scotland acquired a significant proportion of the maps in February 2006;

“It was decided to collect a complete set (158 sheets) of 1:100,000 maps of Scotland as this scale is not published by the Ordnance Survey. All the available town plans at 1:10,000 (Aberdeen is displayed) have been purchased, together with specimens of maps at 1:200,000 (Edinburgh area is displayed), 1:500,000 and 1:1,000,000 scales.”

Full credit to the guy for acquiring his collection, but the way this has been reported makes it seem as though this is a unique discovery, and that it’s somehow a surprise that Scotland didn’t escape the same treatment as the rest of Europe. In other words, “well, duuuuh!”.

Most importantly, the headline is sensationalised to the point of meaninglessness. These are not “Maps to Occupy Scotland”, these are standard (for the era) military intelligence maps. The fact that Scotland was mapped as thoroughly as the remainder of the UK adds nothing to our knowledge of Soviet intentions to invade. They don’t in themselves suggest a Scottish entry point, and they don’t make the threat of UK invasion any more tangible than it already was. Sure, if the balloon went up, and the Soviet Union prevailed, the very end result would be invasion of every country in Western Europe (at least). How detailed the maps were has no bearing on the reality of Soviet invasion. But given Scotland’s military industrial significance, if there was such an occupation, it would be of a nuclear wasteland. Those of us who lived through the Cold War (which is of course, most of us) were only too aware of the real threat, and that threat was nuclear, not occupation. When you find yourself living in a nuclear wasteland with most of those you care about either atomised or dying of radiation sickness, a few (or even several thousand) Soviet troops coming over the horizon in NBC gear is pretty much the last thing you’re going to be worrying about.

Have a watch of this excellent 1965 film “The War Game“. It’s not news either, but it’s more of an insight into the Cold War than the subject of this post.