Tales From Northern Britain

Alec RossBy Alec Ross

I was watching that Grand Designs programme tonight – great viewing, and not least because it came from my home village of Portpatrick. For those who didn’t see it, you’ll find it on Channel 4 and it concerns a bunker style cliff top house that rather divides opinion. I love it, personally – probably because it reminds me a lot of Skara Brae in Orkney and therefore brings back a lot of great memories.

They mentioned that it has really thick windows, which given that a) it’s about 20 yards left of the 11th green at Dunskey and b) I’m fighting (and losing to) a vicious hook at the moment, is probably for the best.

This might sound petty, but throughout the programme the presenter talked about this house being built “in Scotland”, or on “the rugged Scottish coast”. Or the guy building it “making the commute from Yorkshire to Scotland”.

A couple of things. Firstly, the Scottish coastline isn’t uniformly “rugged”. Secondly, it’s really, really long and it would have been useful to know which part of  the coastline it was referring to.

Thirdly, I found myself thinking that if the guy was relocating to, say, Wiltshire, the presenter would have have said he was building a house in Wiltshire. But he’s building a house in Wigtownshire – so as far as Channel 4 is concerned he’s building a house in Scotland. And that is as specific as it gets. The inference is that that’s as location specific as the English viewer needs it to be. And that got me thinking.

I travel south a lot. I’m always deliberately specific about where I’m going. I’m never “going to England”. I’m going to Worcestershire, or Herefordshire, or Somerset. Or Leicestershire. I love the cultural, linguistic, geographical differences. I once mistakenly referred to a woman farming in Herefordshire when she actually farmed near Malvern. Let’s just say that wasn’t a mistake I ever repeated.

That folk don’t return the gesture more than hints at an unconscious bias.

I heard it all day today – I hear it all the time – on the radio. You hear it when Caroline Noakes says she wouldn’t grant a seasonal pass for migrant fruit pickers in Scotland and more than she would grant one to fruit pickers in North Lincolnshire – suggesting that she believed Scotland to be a region of Britain. A county, not a sovereign nation.

Politicians and media talk about “the country”, when actually they mean “the four countries of the United Kingdom”. As in “the country voted to leave the EU”. When, actually, two countries voted not to leave. For most people not from Scotland, and a minority within it, “England” and “Britain” are the same place. That is a crucial element, I think, of the current constitutional conversation. So when Boris Johnson talks today about “breaking up the country”, I always want to ask: which one? There is no such place as the country of Britain. You can’t break up something that doesn’t exist. You can’t “separate” from something you were never a part of.

It comes down to how you see Scotland – are we a country? Or a regional backwater of Greater England? Do we still see ourselves as the “North Britain” of the Enlightenment and Victorian eras?

Nicola Sturgeon was accused during an interview this week of not respecting the result of the 2016 EU referendum. Quite rightly, she pointed out that she was the FM of a Scotland that had voted 62% to remain. And therefore that her instructions from the people who voted for her were to keep her country – Scotland – in. If you see Scotland as a country – and it is – that’s totally logical and inarguable. If you see it as anything else then it isn’t. That’s the faultline, I think.

Given everything that has happened, support for independence ought to be 80:20. I genuinely think that the reason why it isn’t there yet is that we’ve been brainwashed into thinking that we aren’t really a country, but a northern county of The Albion. That ignores that Scotland has been independent for longer than it has been in Union.

They genuinely think we’re breaking up a country. That we’re doing something extraordinary when in fact we’re following a well-trodden path walked by dozens of countries who have left the British empire, none of whom have ever come back. Because, come what may, it’s always better to be yourself.

As soon as the majority of us see ourselves as a country we are nearly there.

And the moment we believe we are a newly independent country and act as though we already are is the moment when we become one.


Alec Ross

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14 replies »

  1. I’ve just this minute finished watching my recording. At the very beginning Kevin says he’s in Galloway. Is that any better? I didn’t see it all as I was getting the day going and left the recording running so didn’t pick up the “Scotland’ emphasis.

    • I did watch the programme, but missed the beginning. I spent the entire rest of the programme wondering where it was in Scotland they were buiding! Alec Ross is quite right, Kevin kept talking about it being ‘on the Scottish coast’, but I just couldn’t pick up where it was, which was very frustrating. I come from Aberdeen, which is on the east coast, and have also lived in Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Each area is completely different, with widely varying dialect (even language), different economies, and distinct characteristics. And yet, when we go south to visit our son and his family in Cambridgeshire, people only ever comment on us coming from ‘Scotland’. The perceptions described by Mr Ross are very accurate, and I think it is impacting on our ability to develop a national identity. The Irish have done this very successfully, as have the Norwegians – why can’t we?

      • The Title is Alec Ross’s. This is his article and his views which we publish in The Orkney News, we don’t change anything

      • As the editor says, the title is mine. I suppose I was using it ironically by referring to Scotland through the mindset of the many folk who see us as just that – North Britons. It’s also a nod to a favourite album of mine from the Scottish band Teenage Fanclub (Songs of Northern Britain). I hope the content of the article makes my position clear. Cheers.

    • To be fair, the television reception (like the radio reception) in SW Scotland is really poor, and a number of folk did mention to be that is was referred to as being “on the Galloway coast” early on. But to be honest the thing that grated more was the many references to the “long journey from Yorkshire to Scotland” as if a) Scotland is a county (like Yorkshire) and, b) it’s somehow less far doing the return journey, as Scotland is obviously remote.

      It’s a bit like the unconscious bias you get in the sports pages. “Celtic make the long trek to Dingwall to play Ross County”. You never read about County making the long trek to Glasgow. Because Glasgow is obviously more important.

      It’s all about your perspective, your starting point. Is Orkney remote? Historically, not at all. I love those tee shirts Shetlanders wear with a massive depiction of the islands – and the British Isles in a wee box in the corner, subverting the convention with subtle humour.

      The article seems to have created a lot of debate – most of it healthy, I’m glad to say – about how we see ourselves. I deliberately don’t talk about “The Scottish Parliament”, for example. It’s the Parliament. Why is it the Rugby Football Union but here it’s the Scottish Rugby Union? Must we always define ourselves by our archaic relationship with our neighbour? And what kind of equality is it when we have to ask permission to even consider taking a different path?

      And I’ll be honest – there’s still a lot of folk who, despite everything, hear the clipped accent of Boris Johnson and his Homeric references and equate that with an ability to govern effectively, when it’s quite obvious he couldn’t run a bath. I genuinely think that comes from being told we aren’t a real country and that our culture and language are things that are ok to bring out at Burns Suppers and Hogmanay but should then be put into a drawer until the next time.

      If I had a gnawing worry about our approach to regaining independence, it’s that we seem to keen to talk about commonality. Which is fine, but not to the expense of being proud of the things that are specific to us. The big things – how we get married, some of what we find funny, how we bury our dead – all have a very Scottish dimension. And a guy like Boris Johnson is one of those guys that the English establishment throws up from time to remind us that Scotland really is a different country.

      I’ve had mild pelters from folk calling the article narrowly party political. I really hope it isn’t, and for this reason. It’s my belief that it’s difficult – maybe impossible – for a country to succeed if it doesn’t really believe it’s a country. So the moment we talk, with confidence, like a modern self-determining, culturally proud, inclusive people is the moment we are to all intents and purposes independent. Fake it to make it, as the Americans would say.

      One final point.

      I’ve just got back from Hampden Park. We had a decent side on the park. We looked a bag of nerves and were lucky to lose by only 2-1 to a good but not great Russian team. Luckily we don’t have to play the best team in the world on Monday night.

      No, wait….

      Stevie Clarke will no doubt need time. But he took over from a guy who vociferously opposed Scottish independence. And I find myself wondering. If I was a player and my manager didn’t believe in Scotland – then I’d be asking why I should.

      Ever connect.

      What we need to do is see ourselves through the prism of ourselves and not through the prism of another, subtly but significantly, different place.

      That way, I’d suggest, lies a future where we define ourselves by what we are – rather than what we are not.

      That was a longer comment than I intended – but that is maybe testament to the wonderful, supportive, critical, helpful and occasionally whimsical comments that the article has elicited. Thanks folks.

  2. It may be a small thing, but it does annoy me….
    When filling in forms, questionnaires, etc., I’m given a list of countries that I can choose, as being where I live. Very rarely, is Scotland listed. Almost invariably ‘United Kingdom’ is my only relevant choice, which annoys me, greatly, as I refuse to us the term ‘United Kingdom’, as……. it just…… isn’t.
    If the form is on paper, I add a little box, and write in ‘Scotland’. On t’internet, however, I have no choice. It’s a small thing but, every time, it annoys me. I’m not Scots, but I do live in Scotland, not the feckin’ ……….UK.
    And that’s why I’m careful to use the word ‘Britain’ when referring to that particular group of countries. As I might refer to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, as The Low Countries. They are still three separate countries.
    I will now try to calm down.

  3. I came across this recently. Hire a car, or rent a property in Scotland and that is it. One option online, Scotland. Thee are some 50+ destinations to choose from in England. Scotland is 1 entry, like a town, rather than a country

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