Thursday, 10 November 2011

Kosovo the Flodden of the Balkans and Scotland’s Vidovdan

The legends represent the imagination of the country; they are the kind of history which a nation desires to possess. They betray the ambitions and ideals of the people, and in this respect, have a value far beyond the tale of actual events and duly recorded deeds which are no more history than a skeleton is a man."
Standish O'Grady

Serbia v Scotland tonight, offers a paper thin excuse to look at the cultural similarities between our two nations. One could be forgiven for being understandably jittery about discussing such a topic considering Serbia’s lurch towards ultra-nationalism and recent shameful history. However, a positive predisposition and interest toward the culture, history, and people of Serbia does not necessarily have to be an endorsement of Serbian ultra-nationalism or far right politics.
So let me first say that while I detest racism and petty nationalism and hold no strong feelings of patriotism, I am (paradoxically) at heart, both a Romantic Nationalist and also a Cultural Nationalist. That is to say, I believe that Scottish communities and wider Scottish society should concern itself with its ethnic identity and our rich cultural heritage rather than just political matters. Or in other words, I feel that our music, dialects and folklore, mythology and the spiritual value of local customs and traditions are just as important as our political autonomy. Without these things, without tradition, we are nothing and have nothing apart from a grey mono-culture based on nothing else but capitalist materialism and consumerism.

 Therefore, I was a little disappointed to read that any so-called Braveheart style sentiment has been banned from the 'Yes' campaign. While I understand this move, I actually think it’s a bit rash to ban all references to romantic historicisms not matter how flimsy or cheesy. A celebration of our history need not be small minded, xenophobic or jingoistic. Similarly, I would prefer to hear more Scottish Nationalists admit that we might not be financially or economically better off after independence, but more importantly, we are making a claim our ancient land's most sacred rights. I don’t think this is anything to be ashamed of? This is what is known as the so-called “Scottish cringe”, we are supposed to feel embarrassed about our entire mythology and ancient history. Yet the Czechs are not ashamed of Smenta’s national epic Vltava. Finnish people are not ashamed of Sibelius or the Kalevala and Germans are not embarrassed by the work of the Brothers Grimm. With regards to the Brothers Grimm and Serbia itself, Jacob Grimm once said…”The ballads of Serbia occupy a high position, perhaps the highest position, in the ballad literature of Europe. They would, if well known, astonish Europe... In them breathes a clear and inborn poetry such as can scarcely be found among any other modern people.”

So, just as every nation has its mythical Golden Age so does it also have its mythical decline (ideally suited to sad laments) Scotland’s Golden Age is thought to have taken place at the time of Alexander III and it’s great disaster is considered to be the Battle of Flodden Field. The most famous lament with regards to Flodden is the song known as “Flowers of the forest”. This is a lament to honour the death of King James IV of Scotland and also many of his nobles, and over 10,000 men who died at Flodden in Northern England in 1513. This event truly was a disaster for Scotland. But I actually think the most sentimental and Tolkienesque lament which makes reference to a Scottish defeat can be found in a verse from the much maligned Flower of Scotland (despite the fact that this song is about a Scottish victory)…

The hills are bare now
And autumn leaves lie thick and still
O'er land that is lost now

I really do like these overly sentimental lines. They could have been taken directly from The Lord of the Rings. They could almost be a reference to the ruins of Osgiliath and the fallen and overgrown statues around Amon Hen. Similarly, the Serbs also lost an entire class of nobility and a Prince against the Turks at The Battle of Kosovo in 1389, just as the Scots did at Flodden. In his book “The War and Democracy” R.W. Seton-Watson describes Kosovo as the Flodden of the Balkans and if we look at the similarities then we have to agree that “The Flodden of the Balkans” is an accurate description for Kosovo. Especially since Prince Lazar of Serbia died at the battle alongside most of the Serbian nobility just like King James and the Scottish Nobles at Flodden.
Yet, in Scotland notions such as this are often dismissed and patronized as backwards, kitsch or just another excuse for corny tartanry. As a nation we are almost embarrassed by such potent imagery and emotion simply because it’s part mythical. Not so in Serbia where the events surrounding Tsar Lazar and the battle of Kosovo, are highly regarded in the stories, songs, folklore and culture of the Serbs; Lazar is venerated as a martyr and saint as Saint Lazar and he is also a hero in Serb poetry. Perhaps it’s time we developed the confidence to create our own memorial day to Scotland’s great Kings, Saints and Christian Warriors just as the Serbs celebrate Vidovdan. The Feast of Vidovdan is the day when Serbs honour Saint Prince Lazar and the Serbian holy martyrs who gave their lives to defend their faith at Kosovo against the Ottoman Turks. This feast day is sacred to them and through the centuries, Serbian historical events such as the Battle of Kosovo became sources for spiritual strength just as Flodden should be for Scots.

On a final note, would it be politically incorrect to add that if the rallying cry of the Serbs is “Kosovo je Srbija” (Kosovo is Serbia) then Shetland is Scotland! And so is Berwick J  Just kidding!  


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.