The Myth of the Scottish Cringe
Tuesday 26 January 2016
I get out of bed – on working days at least – at 5.20. By most estimates, it’s early to rise. I put on the coffee pot, call my sleep dazed canine to order, and walk for 30 minutes. It’s dark. I aim as far as possible to avoid the hazard of street dogs, but cannot, even if I wanted to, do much about the sound of chanting monks emerging from the nearby Buddhist monastery. What time do they get out of bed, I wonder?
On my return, I pour up my coffee, prepare a bowl of muesli (could sawdust taste worse?) flip up the lid of my laptop, and catch up on the news. It’s my time. 15 minutes to myself before I wake my kids (who, like all children, take great delight in being woken for school).
Today, however, my morning ritual was tainted by a BBC journalist. Her name is Karen Gardener. Her article of offence is ‘Is it the end of the Scottish cringe?’. I am uncertain what Gardener’s ‘it’ in her headline refers to, but the notion of the Scottish cringe, claims Gardener, is a sense of inferiority felt by Scots for being Scottish.
The Scots – from my decidedly emic perspective (what is yours Ms Gardener?) – share an overinflated sense of self worth on some occasions, and at other times can seem diffidently self-effacing. This oscillation is not entirely correlated to the amount of the national spirit they have consumed, nor has it to do with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), precipitated (sorry!) by more than modest winter rainfall. In other words, Scots are a lot like other people I know; national identity does not determine their outlook or sense of self.
The biggest mistake Gardener makes is to suggest that Scots, until recently, have readily diminished themselves. She claims that ‘in the late 1980s, the Fife duo The Proclaimers were roundly mocked throughout the UK for daring to sing in their unpolished accents’. Not in Scotland. And few, if anyone, would have described their accents as ‘unpolished’. Gardener goes on to argue that ‘the use of Scottish language in literature received international controversy when James Kelman won the Booker Prize for his novel How Late It Was, How Late in 1994'. Again, the controversy did not occur in Scotland.
If Scotland is currently enjoying greater success in artistic endeavour, as Gardener suggests, it is surely due to many factors, including external recognition and acceptance. It can hardly be explained by the rediscovery of self-belief if it was never really absent in the first place.
Maybe Gardener is right insofar as she claims that Scottish artistic talent, of all kinds, is enjoying a minor renaissance. I’d like to think so. And, I wonder if it might eventually extend to the IB’s Prescribed List of Author’s (PLA). Maybe one day writers like Alasdair Gray, A.L. Kennedy, Jackie Kay, Muriel Spark, Ali Smith, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and the recently departed William McIlvanney will come to influence the lives of an even wider audience. And, if I doubt entry to the PLA is imminent, it’s because I’m a glass half empty kind of guy; a Scottish childhood doesn’t explain it.
On the day after Robert Burns’ birthday, let me finish with one of his better known works, ‘Scots Wha Hae’. Burns wrote in Scots, not English, and his legacy has certainly endured. And, whilst I hate the jingoism of ‘Scots Wha Hae’, it hardly suggests a crisis of national identity.
Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led
Welcome to your gory bed
Or to victorie!
Now's the day, and now's the hour
See the front o battle lour
See approach proud Edward's power -
Chains and slaverie!
Wha wad be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee!
Wha for Scotland's King and Law
Freedom's sword wad strongly draw
Freeman stand or freeman fa',
Let him follow me!
By Oppression's woes and pains
By your sons in servile chains
We will drain our dearest veins
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow!
Let us do, or dee!