On Scottish self esteem

    • Arnold Kemp
    • The Observer, Sunday 8 July 2001
    • The Scottish identity has long been a rich source of material for writers and academics. They are attracted to it because it is such a ragbag of disparate elements and influences.

      It has survived, undoubtedly, because Scotland has wanted to be different from England, just as the Tartan Army conducts itself with sozzled amiability as it marches around the world in order to show up the English supporters.

    • As a figure of speech the phrase the Scottish identity is not so much an oxymoron as a zeugma, since it unites widely disparate elements in a concept which, no matter how irrational, has persisted.

      The iconology of the oppressed and dispersed Highlander has been adopted by Lowland Scotland, itself largely of teutonic origin although its place names, mostly Celtic, testify to an older order.

      My mother, who was brought up in an Aberdeenshire fishing village, recalled that in the broad Scots she spoke were German words, like fremd , meaning a stranger.

      Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, in that marvellous book Memoirs of a Highland Lady, recalled that when George IV wore a kilt of the Royal Stuart tartan during his visit to Edinburgh in 1822 the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, the local bigwigs, were much offended.

      No writer perhaps dealt more incisively with the contradictions of the Scottish personality than Edwin Muir, and his famous journey has inspired many to make a pilgrimage in his footsteps. The writer Carl MacDougall is the latest and the title of his new book Painting the Forth Bridge, together with its subtitle, A Search for Scottish Identity, implies an eternally inconclusive pursuit.

      MacDougall roughly follows the Muir route but this is a journey of the mind rather than of topography, and a rumination rather than a clear set of conclusions.

      Indeed, it quotes from books, poems, and journalism; it examines the visual arts, music and poetry; it reviews the sometimes crazed ambitions of the town planners; it does not spare us the darker side of a Scotland hooked on drink, drugs and domestic violence.

      MacDougall finds the best answers to the question he has set himself in the poetry of Iain Crichton Smith, Sorley Maclean, Edwin Morgan and others. He cites Maclean’s opinion of those, like Mrs Kennedy-Fraser, who polished up Gaelic culture and made it acceptable to the Victorians.

      He had no dispute with it, Maclean wrote sardonically, ‘as long as ignorance and crassness are considered failings in criticism of poetry’. Kennedy-Fraser’s ‘travesties’ had had their hour in the drawing rooms of Edinburgh and soothed the ears of the ‘old ladies of the Anglo-Saxon bourgeoisie’.

      Sorley’s disdain, argues MacDougall, can be extended to ‘those for whom a cosmeticised Scotland is better than the real thing, especially when the real thing is frustratingly difficult and the romanticised Scotland is far more palpable, far more easily digested, remembered and understood than the cruel and often vindictive reality and the guilt that caused the birth of our romance with ourselves and the ways in which we have emulsified our past’.

      This judgment is a little harsh. In the music halls of my youth arcadian visions of Highland scenes offered real escape to people locked in desperate slums. Our myths soothe and console as well as mislead.

      MacDougall’s harsher judgment echoes, if less extravagantly, the revulsion against tartan kitsch, so memorably trounced by Murray and Barbara Grigor, which became fashionable in the Seventies.

      Yet, as Sam Goldwyn is supposed to have said, no one went broke under-esti mating public taste. MacDougall quotes the producer Arthur Freed, who came looking for locations for the film Brigadoon and reported: ‘I went to Scotland and found nothing there that looks like Scotland.’

      The tourist industry needs its amiable inventions if it is to survive. The Scotland of drug abuse and domestic violence would not sit well in the promotional literature, and a few harmless liberties are perfectly excusable.

      I recall the New Yorker film reviewer’s sense of shock when he encountered the Edinburgh of Trainspotting, so brutally different from the city of the international festival and noble Georgian vistas with which he was familiar.

      Perhaps the real answer to the question is that we should stop worrying about it, and instead embrace the contradictions and complexities of our history as a rich distillation of which we can feel reasonably proud.

      MacDougall ends his journey with a more hopeful conclusion than his narrative often seems to justify, taking his text from the poem by Iain Crichton Smith read at the opening of the Scottish Parliament which exhorts this ‘three voiced country’ to sing in a new world with friendliness to all, without dogma and with respect for its own origins, ‘inventive, original, philosophical’.

      The poem ends: ‘Then without shame we can esteem ourselves.’