The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
May 29, 2009

Stands Scotland Where It Did?

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison visits Scotland - and wonders how he would feel if Scotland went its own way.

A fine spring morning in East Lancashire. Pointed the car the other way - northwards. Off into limitless hills, distant horizons, empty roads, acres of blazing yellow gorse - an alternative Britain. Beyond Glasgow, through the genteel Highland world of Loch Lomond and into the menacing vastness of Glencoe. Climbed Ben Nevis, the last hour in calf-numbing snow. Had that definitive Scottish moment when a world consisting entirely of mist changes to a world of a dozen glimmering waters and a score of mountains and then back again to mist. Crossed the Skye Bridge for the first time and the flat-calm Minch. Stood alone among the ancient stones of Callanish under the merciless Hebridean sun. Explored a Broch (an iron-age castle). Bought a tweed cap. Went fishing and caught thirty trout and two salmon (well, my wife caught the salmon). Continued west, to the very edge of Europe at Gallan Head and walked by the crashing waves under the scudding Atlantic clouds.

Oh, the joys of the weak currency and the journey away from Calais. And - yes - we were very lucky with the weather. Saw ptarmigan and snow buntings, sea eagles and golden eagles and a snowy owl, all without trying. Ate venison and haggis and more kinds of fish than you could shake a fork at. Drank some whisky. Had conversations with people who had time for conversations and who seemed to enjoy conversing. Confined my reading to Scottish authors and most enjoyed Finlay J. MacDonald, Crowdy and Cream: Memoirs of a Hebridean Childhood.

So take my tip if you can and set off north right away and catch Scotland with long days, but without tourists or midgies. And don't knock Scotland while I'm around, pal! F***ing magnificent!

Dr David Starkey, with whom I have crossed swords myself, chose to knock Scotland while we were there. He said on Any Questions that the Scots were now a "feeble" nation and The Scotsman published a whole page of reactions including leader articles and letters. They all said, in different ways, that they were not feeble and that they jolly well didn't care about what Dr David Starkey or any other arrogant, patronising nobody of an Englishman said about Scotland.

And they all said it without noticing what logicians call the "pragmatic contradiction", the incompatibility between the content of a statement and its existence. Of course they cared: why, otherwise, would you bother to write? It's like the adolescent who screams, "I just don't care what you think about me!" (Iíve seen it on soap operas.) And the concern is not reciprocated: the Scots, Americans, Europeans or whoever can say what they like about the English without exciting much more than murmurs of agreement or "They would think that, wouldn't they?"

When I used to write pieces about places an editor once warned me, "You can say what you like about London, but if you're rude about Dundee you'll have some nutter knocking you door down". And when he said "nutter" he meant I would, likely as not, get nutted.

So: Scotland the Experience. In this case, rather special, because I/we decided that next time we went to Scotland maybe we'd be too old to do all the things we'd ever meant to do in Scotland like hiring a ghillie and climbing Ben Nevis.

But how does Scotland the Experience relate to Scotland the Politics, because I have to say that I do not think that David Starkey's view is entirely misplaced and, much as I love being in Scotland, there are aspects of Scottish nationalism and even Scottish identity which do put me well in touch with my patronising and arrogant side. In particular, I find much that is worthy of disrespect in the general aspirations and worldview shared by members of the Scottish political and intellectual elite.

Many years ago Malcolm Muggeridge used to chair a Sunday night discussion on BBC television called The Question Why. When they covered nationalism the debate was, if I recall it correctly, confined to Scotland. On one end of Muggeridge's panel sat some old colonel in a kilt who said that Scotland must separate from England because England was decadent and permissive while on the other sat some bejeaned hairy student (who is probably a knight of the realm by now) who said that independence must be declared because England was essentially capitalist, imperialist and crypto-fascist.

There is a "Beam me up, Scotty" dimension to nationalism which makes it the politics of unreality. A key text here is Oh What a Lovely War: you may recall the Christmas truce when the guns start up again the German soldier says something like, "Your guns are firing, Tommy". To which the Scottish soldier replies, "That isnae us, that's the bloody English".

That isnae us: redefining your national identity at crucial points can be very convenient. One can be British or non-British, even ant-British as suits. It is demonstrable that somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of Scots support any opposition to any English national team in a number of sports, but especially in football. If you ask Scots whether this is serious they divide quite sharply on whether it is a kind of friendly joke rivalry or a genuine enmity. But I have never reciprocated it, though I do notice that my sons and their friends do take special pleasure in Scottish sporting humiliations.

Once there was a Scotland which was British-patriotic and conservative. When you thought of Scotland you conjured up images of its righteous church and the dour engineers and tough soldiers who had formed the empire. Orwell suggested that we, the English, thought of the Scots as more like ourselves than we were. In the 1955 General Election the Scottish Conservative vote was proportionately greater than the English. This is still the Scotland of People's Friend and The Sunday Post, but it is certainly not the official Scotland.

On a tour of the Edinburgh parliament a couple of years ago we were told how proud Scots were of their advanced electoral system and progressive social policies. (Cynics might say they need some social progress. While we were there just now Dundee University was changing its mind about an honorary degree for a certain playwright because it transpired that when a student there he had half-killed a fellow student just for looking at him. His excuse was that he came from Dunfermline and that's the way they did things there.)

The change of identity is stated even at the border. Just beyond Carlisle you are bid Failte. One imagines Adam Smith and David Hume and a hundred other great North British minds tittering at bewilderment at this use of the Gaelic language at a spot when you still have hundreds of miles to go before you get to anywhere where it was ever spoken. This seems to be part of a national determination to establish some sort of linguistic separation from England. There are websites devoted to the "Scots language" and there have been academic suggestions that "Lallans" - the Lowland dialect - should be worked up into a written language, much as nationalists turned Cape Dutch into Afrikaans.

Pretty well all Scots throw more distinctive words into their discourse than they used to. The commonest I remarked were "outwith" meaning "from without" (really exciting - we've got much more interesting dialect words in Lancashire) and "dreich" meaning "wearisome", but usually applied to the weather. I think English people should take to using these words regularly, as we took to "glamour", the Gaelic word for magic.

Though I admit to a certain scorn about the fall-back pretence that Gaelic is in some way the language of Scotland I would want to counterbalance this by hoping for the survival of the language and the culture and style which goes with it.

Of course, I don't understand it, but visiting the Western Isles, where it does belong, you cannot help noticing that the accent and conversational style of people rooted in that culture is a great deal richer and more attractive than most Southern English speech.

Finlay MacDonald remarks how Gaelic-speaking boys, for whom the learning of English was the educational priority, derived a great deal of humour from the sloppiness of our mongrel language. Male poultry has the same name as a penis! And a penis is an "organ", which is something the more liberal religious sects play with in church!

But the use of Gaelic just beyond Carlisle is surely part of Native Victim Identification Syndrome, well familiar to visitors to New Zealand, Australia or Canada. In the Glencoe Visitor Centre they play a DVD in which a lady from Sterling University explains that the massacre was not really about the Campbells and the MacDonalds, but about the genocidal policies of the British Government.

Am I being paranoid when I assume that many people will identify this as the English? Whereas it would be much less misleading to say that what went on was part of a European conflict and concerned two contenders for the authority of the "British Government" - and that these contenders had their roots in Scotland, Holland and France more than in England. And if it were me I'd mention that the winning side ushered in the greatest period of liberty and prosperity known to mankind at that time. And, of course, the Clan Donald were not exactly wiped out since I'm married to one (Irish branch).

In Macbeth (Act 4, Scene 3) Macduff asks:

Stand Scotland where it did?
And Ross replies:
Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be called our country, but our grave . . .
Actually, since I've seen more productions of "The Scottish Play" than all but a tiny handful of the population I must point out that almost nothing is made by most directors of the Scottish dimension of the play and these lines are given little significance, but they are an irresistible rhetorical gambit for anyone writing an article about Scotland at the moment, because Scotland defined by its self-image does seem to be standing somewhere rather different from fifty years ago.

And there is a "feebleness", defined by being heavily subsidised by another country. Though one should put this in comparative perspective: the Soviet Union subsidised the Baltic and Trans-Caucasian states in similar ways and for similar reasons. I get the feeling that if young Scots have aspirations they are towards the multi-layered Scottish government and the intellectual and political elite rather than towards enterprise. Most successful businesses in the Highlands seem to be run by people from Northern England.

Yet Scotland is still in the same place - up there, beyond Berwick and Carlisle. I mean this non-trivially; it isn't going to go away and we could never rid ourselves of Scotchmen on the make running our institutions because relations between England and Scotland would be bound to be governed by something along the lines of the Government of Ireland Act of 1949 which said that 26 counties of Ireland constituted a foreign country whose citizens were not foreigners. It would not be like Russia and Georgia: I have listened to Russian academics with Georgian connections crying into their vodka about the reality that I could travel freely to Tbilisi and they could not.

This is not just a different place from there, but a different time from the 1970s when Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond's Scotch on the Rocks (1971) described a tense and menacing Anglo- Scottish breakup fraught with the possibilities of civil war. Now, given globalisation and the European Union Scottish independence is something you wouldn't have to take much notice of if you didn't want to.

And at the moment it looks less likely than it did; Alex Salmond, SNP leader and First Minister, has expressed his aspirations to independence in terms of the strength of Scotlandís energy and financial sectors, so it is looking a great deal less viable than it was even on his own terms. All those Scottish wannabe ambassadors will have to wait a while. So will those among the English looking forward to the schadenfreude of watching Scotland try to pay for its own free-to-user pretend universities.

But I am still intrigued by the sentimental question - introspective, but with aggregate implications - concerning what I would feel about the Hebrides being in a foreign country. Having seen the consequences of Indian sentimentality about Kashmir, having listened to Argentinians talking about a sense of personal loss because their country has no sovereignty over a bunch of damp islands they've never even seen, having heard Serbians swearing grim revenge over Kosovo and witnessed Greeks trembling with rage about the use of the word Macedonia . . . . I have to consider what I would feel like if certain places were no longer part of "my" country!

I don't think it would be a disaster like the De Valera's Irish Free State which experienced the largest emigration in human history (unless you count the specifically Jewish sectors of the Russian Empire). And, given that, I can't say I would care all that much. Being English, I already feel at home in different ways in France, California, Australia and Ireland. The world is my lobster - and Scotland will always be just the other side of Carlisle.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

An excellent article summing up everything I have ever thought about the left-liberal-nationalists and their fantasy agenda .
There are those of us in Scotland who do still hold to our older values , although we are diminished in numbers .
You express so well the ludicrous fabrication of Gaelic as the national language, although I feel you are a tad too dismissive of the Scots language - just read John Barbour or Gavin Douglas to see how real it is ( whether it survives in the televisual age is another matter).
Also , does "pretend universities" not sound a bit harsh . Mine was excellent 20 years ago .

Posted by: Alan Healy at May 31, 2009 05:13 PM

As an ex-pat Scot I'm pained when I go back at the chippy, aggrieved tone that predominates north of the border now.

Sadly I think the "feebleness" you identify is real, and is most pronounced in the (notionally) Gaelic-speaking areas - everything that's any good there seems to be run by incomers.

A couple of moans of my own though: What's "pretend" about Scottish universities? They still seem popular with the English smart set (perhaps they don't have to worry about the fees), so they can't be all bad. Not even "Sterling University"!

I'm also pretty sure you're wrong about the Baltic States being supported by the rest of the Soviet Union. The Baltics were much the most industrialised and best-educated of the Soviet Republics - their resentment had more in common with the Flemings than the Scots.

Posted by: Yaffle at June 2, 2009 12:34 PM

This is also wrong:
Just beyond Carlisle you are bid Failte. One imagines Adam Smith and David Hume and a hundred other great North British minds tittering at bewilderment at this use of the Gaelic language at a spot when you still have hundreds of miles to go before you get to anywhere where it was ever spoken.

"Galwegian Gaelic" once predominated just over the border in Galloway, and indeed there are Gaelic place-names on both sides of the border.

Posted by: Yaffle at June 2, 2009 04:37 PM

Gaelic was NEVER spoken in the south of Scotland nor in Doric Aberdeen.
Galloway was Welsh speaking in the time of the Romans and the names nesr the border are Cymric
The Gaelic speakers were Irish invaders of N W Scotland .Their English is a kind of Irish.They did not go to Glasgow until the slums were built in th the early 19th centuy. They all joined the Free Kirk and Rangers FC
In the 45 they had to be bribed not to burn Glasgow and after battles they robbed corpses
They thoroughly deserved the Highland clearances

Posted by: Gamaliel Guto at June 8, 2009 05:20 PM

Yaffle .

You are , of course , correct that Galloway spoke Gaelic , in some parts until the 18th Century .
The border at Gretna is , however , in Dumfriesshire , not Galloway .
In the early medieval period it was part of the British speaking kingdom of Strathclyde which stretched down to the Lancashire border .
I think you will find , then , that Celtic place-names in these areas are British/Welsh in origin .
I frequently have this argument with Scottish Nationalists who try to tell me that Gaelic was the former language in Lanarkshire which was , similarly , in Strathclyde .
Here , at the confluence of the Clyde and the Avon , the population seems to have gone from speaking British/Welsh to Scots/English round about the millenium - un-invaded by anyone .

Posted by: Alan Healy at June 8, 2009 07:30 PM

Lowlanders have always seen the Gaelic speakers as Hieland diels, bare arsed savages and rustlers. They feared them until 1745 after which they destroyed them. Their attitude to them was much like that of Americans towards the Red Indians. They took their land away and allowed them to decline into constant drunkenness - look at the Highland immigrants in Glasgow - and then sentimentalised them . Kilts and sporrans and dirks are the Scottish version of feather headdresses and mocassins and tomahawks. Why don't they give the Highlanders alcohol-free reservations one fore each clan and put the chiefs in charge?

Posted by: galamaliel guto at June 22, 2009 01:28 AM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement