North Dakota Quarterly issue 87.1/2 is almost ready to go to typesetting. One of the finishing touches on any issue s the editor’s note. For this issue, we’re lucky enough to have an editor’s note from Sheila Liming, our non-fiction editor. That this coincides with the re-opening of non-fiction submissions is just a happy coincidence. A less happy one involves bagpipes and Brexit, as this editor’s note shows.
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Of Bagpipes and Brexit, Cabbages and Kings
Just as this issue of NDQ was coming together and beginning to take its final shape, January and February dished up a steaming array of unsavory news. Amidst impeachment proceedings in the US Senate, bungled political caucuses in Iowa, and an emergent flu pandemic, audiences worldwide also had to suffer through the long-awaited conclusion of Brexit. Britain’s arduously extended departure from the European Union became official on Wednesday, January 29, 2020, with members of the European Parliament—many of them begrudgingly—casting votes in favor of a withdrawal plan. Immediately after doing so, the whole lot of them broke into song, holding hands and belting out the lyrics to the Scottish classic “Auld Lang Syne.”
It was a seasonally inspired choice. Burns Night, which is celebrated in Scotland each year on the evening of the poet Robert Burns’ birthday, had just taken place the previous Saturday. And Burns, in case you didn’t know, is the guy who wrote “Auld Lang Syne.” The song plays an integral role in the annual Burns Night festivities, which typically start with haggis and bagpipes and end with everyone weepily clutching hands and howling in unison about days of yore.
“Auld Lang Syne” is supposed to be about wishing someone (or something) an amicable farewell, but it’s really about redundancy. This much is made clear by the chorus, even, which centers on three words from the Scots English vocabulary that all mean effectively the same thing: “old,” “long” and “since.” What the song enacts, even more than warmhearted wishes and bonhomie, is the conceptual crisis that comes with even the sincerest efforts to reckon with the past. It’s easier to drink and remember, however unfaithfully, than it is to say goodbye.
Two days after the “Auld Lang Syne” stunt rippled its way through the mediasphere, Scotland and Scottish culture were back in the news again. This time, though, things were even more confusing. An all-English team of MEPs representing the Brexit Party, which is led by the anti-immigration hothead Nigel Farage, staged their final departure from the European Parliament in Brussels with the help of Scottish bagpipes. The whole, inexplicably tartan-clad lot of them paraded smugly past television cameras to the tune of what one Scottish news outlet described as a “shambolic” and “out-of-tune” rendition of the classic pipe tune “Cock o’ the North.” (The tune itself was fitting, even if it did tax the poor Belgian bagpiper’s skills, as it has been repeatedly linked to historical instances of UK colonial aggression.)
Meanwhile, later that same day, anti-Brexit, pro-Europe bagpipers in Edinburgh gathered outside the Scottish Parliament to play the “Ode to Joy” theme from Beethoven’s ninth symphony, regarded by some as the EU’s unofficial anthem. Their impromptu performance took place in the final hours before the sealing of the deal over in Brussels, and in the wake of the Scottish Parliament’s vote to revisit the issue of Scottish independence in light of Brexit. The referendum that failed back in the winter of 2015 might now have another chance, and all because the Scots would rather see themselves allied with EU than with a kingdom that colonized them, quashed their culture and then, to top it all off, coopted their national instrument for the sake of a frightfully disingenuous and thoroughly “shambolic” PR stunt.
Indeed, the only thing more off-base than the Belgian piper’s tuning might well be the prospect of a tribe of well-heeled British elites proclaiming their freedom from tyranny while donning a style of traditional dress that, 274 years previously, had been outlawed by elites just like them, in the interest of forced cultural assimilation. (The so-called Proscription Act of 1746 in Scotland made the wearing of both kilts and tartan—and the playing of bagpipes, as well—illegal; a first offense carried the sentence of “imprisonment, without bail,” while a repeat offense could result in forced emigration or “transport.”)
So, to recap, we have Brexit, and we have bagpipes: lots of bagpipes. The question is, why? What is the substance of the connection between the two? And whose use of them—the guerilla Beethoven faction’s in Edinburgh, or the tawdry tartan parade’s in Brussels—may be deemed politically legitimate?
I ask because I play the bagpipes, which makes the question something of a personal one for me. But I also ask because, as with “Auld Lange Syne,” the history behind the whole thing can appear a bit confusing. Bagpipes, as even the most casual of AC/DC fans can tell you, are supposed to stand for rebellion. But whose rebellion? And from what, exactly?
Most bagpipers, I think, would be hard-pressed to view the EU’s alleged “tyranny” of its British parliamentarians as being comparable to the English gentry’s historical tyranny against minority ethnic populations from across the Celtic isles. As Ali Hutton, an accomplished Scottish piper and member of the alt-folk ensemble Treacherous Orchestra, put it in an interview, “Most musicians and pipers I know are against Brexit.” If the Brexit Party MEPs had asked him to play in Brussels, “I certainly would have – not very politely – told them to ‘fuck off’.” Which just goes to show: if Brexit has taught us anything, it’s the depth of our contemporary cultural entanglements, and how they make the very act of remembering difficult. The point, it would seem, is about making sure that an exclamation point comes at the end of the sentence, regardless of what’s actually been said.
Sheila Liming is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Dakota, and serves as nonfiction editor of NDQ. Her writing has appeared in venues like The Atlantic, McSweeney’s, Lapham’s Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She is the author of What a Library Means to a Woman (Minnesota UP, 2020) and the Office (forthcoming from Bloomsbury).