The plucking and pulling of strings

29 Oct 2012

The German composer Mendelssohn is blamed for misnaming Uamh-Binn (The Cave of Melody) Fingal's Cave. But his 'Hebridean Overture', inspired by the basalt lava pillars, increased the cave's popularity enormously. Scots-Germanic relations have a long history of such trade-offs and today Germany is Scotland's top export market.

Geography and theology

Links between Scotland and Germany go back many centuries. Way before the royal house of Hanover ascended the British throne and way before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's love of Scotland helped promote its romantic image, there had been a profound trade not only in chattels but also in ideas.

Geography, as always, played a big part. But in the days when sea travel was supreme, to be joined by water rather than land was a huge plus. Scotland had easier access to Scandinavia and Northern Europe than anywhere else and was an active member of the Hanseatic League, which originated in the 13th Century by German Merchants and came to monopolise Baltic trade right up to the mid 17th Century. The first record of trade between Scotland and Germany is a letter from William Wallace to the merchants of Hamburg and Lubeck after his victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297, declaring that Scotland was free and that trade could resume.

Throughout history, more often than not, ideas have travelled on the back of trade, and Martin Luther's 'protest' in 1517 was to profoundly affect Scotland. Luther's railings against all deviations from the word of the Bible was the start of the Reformation and the Protestant religion which has, of course, fundamentally helped shape the Scottish mind-set.

A little over two centuries later the new ideas of the 'Enlightenment' were in the air and both nations were equal contributors to the trade in ideas as both had spawned philosophical giants like Hume and Kant. Soon German composers and playwrights began to look to Scotland for artistic inspiration.

It was not just its treatises on human nature and the creation of wealth. It was not just its landscape, as with Mendelssohn who visited the Isle of Staffa in August 1829, but also its folk songs which inspired both Haydn and Beethoven; not to mention its dramatic history whose pivotal chapter of ideological conflict provided the vehicle for Friedrich Schiller's play on power, freedom and justice 'Maria Stuart', written in 1800.

From Scottish fantasy to European reality

Then something extraordinary happened. When, on her first visit to Deeside in the 1850s, Queen Victoria commissioned the artist Edward Landseer to paint 'Royal Sports on Hill and Loch' she arguably helped ingrain the image of the 'Highland Myth' on the popular consciousness. Her instructions were explicit: "I stepping out of the boat at Loch Muick, Albert in his Highland Dress, assisting me out, and I am looking at a Stag which he is supposed to have just killed. Bertie is on the deer pony with McDonald standing behind, with rifles and plaids on shoulders. In the water, holding the boat, are several of the men in their kilts salmon are also lying on the ground."

Not only the Germans, the whole world lapped up this fantasy. What amused so powerful a queen, by default amused many millions. But it's interesting that it was another German composer, Max Bruch, who swallowed the romanticism hook, line and sinker and wrote, in 1880, his Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra and Harp freely using Scottish Folk Melodies, in E-flat Major.

Add to the 'tartan and bagpipes', thriftiness, warm hospitality and strong liquor and you have the stereotypical Scot. Many Germans still believe this image. Just ask them down the Scotsman Pub in Berlin. Still, if it boosts tourism and Scotland remains a major tourist destination for Germans. The other side of the coin, of course, is stereotypes of the Germans as oompah-playing pils-drinkers or steely manufacturers of super white goods and powerful cars. Hopefully, the example of German romantics above should help put paid to that; as should a trip to Glasgow's Goethe Institute.

The 18,000-strong German community in Scotland and the German Consul, which has been in Scotland for 50 years, won't, of course, share such perceptions. And neither, hopefully, will the participants in the twinning programmes linking 36 Scottish and German towns and cities. To celebrate 50 years of twinning with Edinburgh, Munich is naming a new square 'Edinburghplatz' hopefully you'll hear strains from the cafes there of The Peat Bog Fairies as well as Jimmy Shand.

If history repeats itself as it has a tendency to do, and ideas really do travel on the back of trade, then the current drive to develop Scots-Germanic relations should help bring both nations up to speed with each other's 21st century identity.


We started with Mendelssohn's overture as finale, an unbelievable, but true, export story. When horn-player Bob Ross returned recently from Germany to home town Kirkcaldy to play in the Victoria Hotel, an estimated 150 people gathered to hear him. However, an estimated six million people across Germany tuned in to the televised concert! Bob and his band Blechschaden, a 12-man ensemble drawn from the brass section of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra have celebrity status in Germany. A long way from the coal mine bands of Fife where he started out. And a good story to defy perceptions.

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