Auld Scotia

When asked to speak about the country you live in, it’s important to state your starting point.

And this is mine.

There are things about Scotland I don’t like.

The weather is dreich.

Summer falls on the third Tuesday in July, and I tend to miss it.

I don’t like the meanness and parochialism inherent in that most damning of put-downs: “I kent his faither”.

I don’t like the “whatabootery” in either our political and footballing discourse.

I don’t like that “which school did you go to” isn’t always a question about education, and that “who do you support” isn’t necessarily a innocent question about football.

I don’t like our tendency to wax lyrical about the glorious parts of our nation’s story whilst ignoring the less edifying ones, and have long believed that as Scotland continues its journey back to normality, our taking ownership of our past, good bad and indifferent, is crucial to its success.

But for a’ that, and a’ that, I love Scotland and I love being Scottish.

I’ve a book at home called “Being Scottish” in which two hundred Scots talk about what Scotland means to them.

The subtitle of the book reads “Pride & Prejudice”.

Yer no’ joking.

Like Churchill’s Russia, Scotland is a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma.

We are a paradox.

A country where the republican radicalism of Burns sits alongside the twee traditions of the kailyard.

A country of Glasgow and Edinburgh, Highland and Lowland, Billy and Tim, Aye and Naw.

A country whose lingering strain of cringing ambivalence about its own culture and language means that it wasn’t all that long ago that you could win a certificate for speaking Scots or Gaelic on Friday but get the belt for saying “forbye” or “glaiket” on Monday.

A country which aspires towards fairness and equality but rejects the democratic means necessary to make those worthy ideals a living reality.

A country where the people are on one hand thrawn, frugal, introspective and parochial; yet on the other generous, visionary, compassionate and self-improving.

It is, people, surely no coincidence that The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde was written by a Scot. RLS was describing our very complicated and tapselteerie DNA.

We have a rich Presbyterian heritage that perhaps informs our dour pragmatism.

The old joke is that Scottish people don’t make love standing up in case people walk past the window and think they’re dancing.

Mind you, the fact that we tell the joke agin’ ourselves speaks to a healthy disdain for for folk that get above themselves and a tendency to not take ourselves too seriously. To see ourselves as ithers see us.

Below the surface, we’re at heart a people of warmth, colour and bonhomie, which may be something to do with the national dress. I mean, come on. How dour can you be when wearing a kilt?

We love a rammy. The French even had a phrase for us in the Great War. “Fierre comme un ecossais” – fight like a Scotsman. To borrow another French expression, the trick for us all is to be “Bien sans sa peau” – comfortable in our own skins.

The French were describing soldiers, but they could have been talking about Billy Bremner, or Ken Buchanan. And has there ever been a sportsman as committed and thrawn and brave as Andy Murray?

The success of the dry and talented Stevie Clarke also reminds us of our propensity for producing great managers.

An English manager has never won the premier league, but a former shop steward from Govan won it thirteen times, and the European Cup to boot. And that’s another National trait – we tend to travel well.

We don’t always get it right, of course. Having told everyone we were going to win the World Cup in Argentina, we were instead back home before the postcards.

But I genuinely believe we’re losing the fear.

Like a lot of people during lockdown, I passed the time watching The Last Dance, the acclaimed documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

Failure didn’t scare him. At one point he says: “why would I worry about missing a shot I haven’t taken yet?”. And I get the strong impression that this is very much the mindset of the Andy Robertsons, the Kieran Tierneys, the Nathan Patersons, the Finn Russells, the Bob McIntyres, the Bobby Lammies, the Eve Muirheads. I even sense it in my own children. They appear completely oblivious and unscarred by a past they can’t change and think only of a future full of possibility. Imagine what Scotland could be if we all had a bit of that. We’d conquer the world. And you couldn’t pick nicer people to be conquered by.

And that’s not to dismiss our past achievements. Far from it.

Leaders in science, exploration, medicine, the arts.

Pioneers, innovators, original thinkers.

Creators of modern political and economic philosophy who were committed to liberal education and whose recognition of the the innate dignity of human freedom reverberates through the ages and across the world.

But those days have passed now, and in the past they must remain.

There’s a line famously asked by MacDuff in Shakespeare’s MacBeth.

“Stands Scotland where it did?”, he enquired.

“Alas poor country”, comes the reply. “Almost afraid to know itself”.

Like Pierre Trudeau’s description of Canada, Scotland remains to this day in bed with an elephant, and perhaps we still aren’t yet confident to define ourselves without reference to our neighbours down south, even though the elephant is having nightmares.

But what I do know that making a better nation is more than just your pension and your water rates, your fears about currency and whether or not you’ll be able to get watch Strictly.

A country isn’t just for life, it’s for all the lives to come, and the final lesson from history is not actually from Scotland, but from a place just a short trip from Cairnryan away.

Historically, Ireland had a far more fraught and aggressive struggle for nationhood. They did not have oil and they don’t even have a fishing fleet, and their whiskey isn’t very good. Their currency was shackled to the pound. There was civil war. There was a depression.

The new republic had no goodwill from London and little from Europe.

This year, it celebrates its hundredth birthday, and I truly believe if at any point in that century London had said: “Look lads, you’ve had a century of this, wouldn’t you rather come back?” there would not have been a single vote to return.

Because, whatever happens, it is always better to be yourself.

Let’s be a country which not only tolerates diversity but actively celebrates it.

Let’s be a living, breathing example of what the Great William McIlvanney called a proudly mongrel nation.

Let’s own all aspects of our history, strive to be the best possibly versions of ourselves and have fun while doing so.

And let’s remember the truth of the words written by John Steinbeck in riposte to Jackie Kennedy’s assertion that Scotland was a lost cause. Scotland is not a lost cause, he said.

Scotland’s cause is, simply, as yet, unwon.

Let’s win it. Because it will be brilliant. And because it’s later than you think.

In short, let Scotland be Scotland.

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9 replies »

  1. Excellent as always Alex. now all that is needed is to do away with the dissemblers and the dishonest folk at the core of government. Then let Scotland Flourish.

  2. Excellent article, Alec, but I missed references to women (just two) in Scotland’s past and present – we’re on the road too, with or without the kilt… Keep spilling out your thought provoking pieces – I’m always glad to see them land in my mailbox. Thanks.

  3. You obviously have no inkling of self awareness or you would realise how ridiculous you sound.
    This is like listening to an evangelical preacher from the Southern States who as we know, are not celebrated for their grasp of reality.

  4. You were possibly counting down to someone saying this – and it’s going to be me.

    “Their whiskey isn’t very good.”

    OK – take a sip from a glass of Jameson’s. Now take a sip from a glass of Bell’s.

    Which glass are you going to be drinking from?

    I agree with much of what you’re saying, but I can’t let the remark about Irish Whiskey go by me.

    And Rosie is right – take a look at the tenner in your pocket……

    To quote The Pogues – “Lend me £10 and I’ll buy you a drink…” Sláinte!

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