Scotland’s Soul

Scottish Flag Scottish Crest


Ever since my youth I have been fascinated by Scotland. We read William Shakespeare’s Scottish play Macbeth for no less two years in my high school English class in the late 1950s, and I visited Scotland in 1982. I could never forget Macduff’s anguished cry, “O Scotland, Scotland!” in Act IV, Scene iii of the play, nor Fife, Dunsinane, Scone or any other other place names in the play.

Scotland’s relationship to England has always been complex and ambivalent. By Scottish tradition, in 843, after centuries of internecine wars among the Scottish clans and among the “petty kingdoms” of the Picts, the Scots of Dál Riata, the Britons of Strathclyde and the Angles of Northumbria, Scotland was united under Cínaed mac Ailpín, the king of the Picts, whose name was later anglicized to Kenneth MacAlpin. In the thirteenth century King Edward of England conquered Scotland; after the first Scottish war of independence against England, led by William Wallace (Mel Gibson’s Braveheart), there followed several more wars between Scotland and England, until 1603, when the Union of the Crowns joined the two nations under one king, James, and the Act of Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. Even as Scots served in the British armed forces and mingled with Englishmen, however, they still had their unique Scottish identity; their accent often betrayed their ethnic difference. The Scottish people adopted the English language, but it was not their native Gaelic tongue.

The Scottish referendum of 2014 on separating from the United Kingdom, which the nationalist separatists lost by a small margin, seems to have been the most important event in Scottish history since the Union of the Crowns. In 2016, after the “Brexit” faction defeated the pro-Europeans by a small margin in the British referendum on leaving the European Union, some Scottish leaders called for staying in the E.U.

Nations often have the same unconscious meaning for their members as the early mother has for its child. The very word nation comes from the Latin word for birth. Could there be a psychological connection between the wish of the Scottish nationalists to separate and individuate from England and their collective internal mother image, between their wish to secede from Great Britain and their unresolved self and identity issues?

The Scottish story is fascinating. The Cypriot-Turkish-born American psychoanalyst Vamık Volkan has shown that large-group psychology is very different from individual psychology; but the need of the large group for clear boundaries may unconsciously echo the individual’s need for a self separate from that of the mother. There is also a psychological fit between the leader’s narcissistic needs and those of his followers. The Scottish affair deserves a major psychohistorical study (see


4 thoughts on “Scotland’s Soul

  1. Scotland has voted 55% to 45% to stay in the U.K. which seems to show a degree of political maturity. In such a complex phenomenon as secession and separation from the “mother country” there are both conscious and unconscious motives, real and rational reasons, fantastic and irrational drives, individual and group needs, leader’s and followers’ psychology. The conscious and “rational” motives such as economics, ethnicity , ideology or religion are of course important, but each of them has its unconscious and irrational aspects as well. Identity, both individual and group, is a very complex phenomenon about which entire books have been written.

  2. Hi, Avner.

    Question: do you see all such nation separations – not only Scotland- as subconsciously deriving from the same reason?
    The US also separated from Britain. Uruguay ( where i am from) separated from Argentina. Etc. In most cases it seems that either economics, ethnicity , ideology or religion, in short, identity, are the compelling reasons. Is all desire for individuation an indication of a subconscious desire to separate form a mother entity?
    Shana Tova

  3. There are many conscious and realistic reasons for wanting to separate from England, the economic ones being only part of them. However, some economists say Scotland will be worse off if it goes its own way. I am naturally referring to the unconscious motives, both on the individual and on the large-group level. Consciously, Great Britain may not be the same as the Great Mother for many Scots; unconsciously, it may be.

    The question of why now is very important, of course, but there have been many movements for Scottish independence before (see And let us not forget that Alex Salmond began his campaign for Scottish independence from Great Britain many years ago. Now is the peak of his decades-long effort, the high point of his entire political life. He fully identifies himself with Scotland.

  4. Am not clear about this, Avner: “Could there be a psychological connection between the wish of the Scottish nationalists to separate and individuate from England and their internal mother image and the wish to separate from Great Britain and create a separate identity?” Isn’t the separation from the one also the separation from the other? And anyway, why now? Why not earlier in the past 300 years. There is a speculation that abundant oil off Scotland could make the country prosperous.

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