Updated: Mar 22
Contrary to popular opinion, the silly old Scottish stereotypes have not always persisted down the years. Many have been resurrected; and by the Scots themselves. Why do we seem to like this idea of ourselves? And could there be a more dignified source of national identity?
From scenes like these, old Scotia's grandeur springs That makes her lov'd at home, rever'd abroad[…] - Burns
I was delighted recently to read that the William Wallace monument in the City of London – a memorial of unaffected grace erected near the spot where that eternal patriot’s blood ran in pretty pools and rivulets – had been desecrated by some disgruntled Englishman. The desecration hadn’t been too heinous (certainly a long way short of that reserved for all and any memorials to figures posthumously charged with ‘racism’) but it bode well for a sharpening of English resentment towards Scotland, and thus for Scottish independence.
As The National – and not a single other paper – were quick to report, the saltire draped over the railings beneath the monument had been unceremoniously torn off. There’s an outside chance that some wretch merely fancied a free flag for his flat (I was once chased through the streets of Edinburgh after trying to swipe a saltire from some football bunting outside a pub) but, in all likelihood, we can assume that the inexorable slouch towards the break-up of the United Kingdom is finally beginning to attract a distinctly incoherent ire in certain English quarters.
This is a cause for optimism precisely because that ire has previously been sharp, self-assured, condescending, lethally amusing, and often turned on the miserable Scots and their cringeworthy “freedom!”-mongering. British comedy (which really means English comedy) is for me vying only with that of American Jews in staking its claim to be the best in the world. This is of course a facile speculation because we can’t normally appraise non-Anglophone comedy but what we can say is that both combine a haughty, weary intelligence with a pronounced self-depreciation and an emphasis on failure (or the failure), self-depreciation being, incidentally, one of the few modern virtues worth anything. This means that it has none of that cloying resentment that typifies, say, all forms of ‘woke’ comedy (and, often, Scottish comedy) and affords it that distantly ironic sneer at the more brazenly earnest. Living, as we do, in an eternally ironic age, comedy is flourishing.
While I’m quite happy to see that the English can prove themselves miserable and petty too (another cracker was a drunk I met in Bury near Manchester – “tanks on the border mate!”) where I’m much less optimistic is in my hope that we can match this in Scotland with any appropriate tone in our national discourse (for comedy, falsely transmuted into wit, is a prerequisite of nearly all polemical political writing). There is little chance we could turn the tables as it were, and meet with a sly smirk the caterwauling of the newly insecure English.
For one thing, modern Scottish nationalism is such a limp, bleached-out disgrace to its centuries of rich and proud history that there isn’t really much Scottish about it (you can read me on that here). But more pertinently, it was essentially the Scottish alone who made such fools of themselves; if not the originators of the modern Scottish stereotype (a jovial drunken lout of pure heart, a certain pecuniary meanness, and a blinkered view of his nation’s virtues), they brought it back in a space of about fifty years. It is no coincidence that this is also the age of the anti-national and blankly ‘progressive’ nationalism championed by the SNP.
Consider the Scottish stereotype about a century ago. This was perhaps the time when it stood at its most respectable, which is some feat considering the Scotsman in those days had ever to contend with a mawkish literary twin, in the scantiest of romantic dressing, for some purchase on the public consciousness. Indeed, a whole literary movement oriented against the so-called Kailyard school of Scottish literature (that which, for example, exalted a debased reading of Burns in sundry London clubs with undue focus on ‘John Barleycorn’ and ‘To a Haggis’, and made of him a jolly parochial ‘plooman poet’) found form in the now rightly celebrated Scottish Renaissance, which (in a flurry of dazzling modernist poetics) renewed our interest in Dunbar and Henryson, revived (and massively expanded) the Scots tongue and ended for good the Victorian habit of prominent Scots of referring to themselves as Englishmen.
Nevertheless, even before this movement, the reality of the Victorian Scot had won out over the Kailyard caricature, and we had a popular image of the Scot as a man (the Scottish stereotype was, then as today, stubbornly masculine) of learning, shrewdness, dourness – yes – but with that a tendency for intense spiritual reflection; meanness – perhaps – but with that a reputation for economic brilliance; enterprise, hardiness and a certain irascible-cum-contrarian-cum-quixotic tendency in artistic expression. A hollering tea-cake chomping tartanite, he was not.
This didn’t come out of nowhere: there was Adam Smith (who needs no introduction but perhaps a reminder that modern Anglosphere conservatism could not exist without him), there was Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson (both the biggest literary celebrities of their respective days), there was David Livingstone (as tough as they come, a man, fuelled by evangelical zeal and a sincere hatred of slavery, who could charge across the some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth - rather quixotically, it is true - and report it all with literary flair to a readership of millions), there was Thomas Carlyle (now little read but in his day the biggest philosophical celebrity, a man whom Charles Dickens said “seems to have read everything”) and there were all the medical geniuses coming out of those ancient universities that Scotland has more of (the list is simply too long, but you might read Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things for a sense of the sheer heft of Scottish achievement here and its purchase on the Victorian imagination and sense of the Scot). Oh, and of course there were all those inventions.
What, above all, unites these eminent figures is that everybody knew who they were, and thus did the Scot force himself on the popular consciousness of the world (easier to do, admittedly, when Britain ruled it). The Scottish Renaissance of the 1920s served to take this mighty reputation, divest it of a British imperial cosmopolitanism, thrust it forward into modernity and reconnect it with a centuries-neglected pre-reformation past. It made it more Scottish. But where did we decide to go from there?
It is appropriate to bring things up to date now. Plummeting from the high crest of about a century ago; the image of the Scot seems curiously to have ended up as a modern reiteration of the old pre-union caricature, well exemplified in those late 18th century coffee house caricatures depicting dissolute drunks and red faced belligerent kilted highlanders. Indeed, the Scots are once again coarse-tongued louts – shoulders chipped into oblivion – and ripe for mockery. As was the case everywhere, the twentieth century saw the working-class attain a greater visibility than ever before but this, it seems to me, isn’t even close to the whole story. In the rear-view mirror, Red Clydeside seems to have inaugurated – and Thatcher seems to have cemented - the notion of the Scot as more socialist than the English and while this might not be in any essential sense true (Scottish participation in the Empire was staggering and well out of proportion with the English; pre-Thatcher, the Tories regularly fared very well north of the border) it is a distortion of history that has fooled the Scots themselves. Scots do think of themselves in this way and, a certain squeamishness at independence aside, it accounts for, say, the handsome Scottish support for Remain in the Brexit referendum.
But we must go beyond politics to see how the sense of the Scot in the Scottish imagination has developed. Working-class pride being a particularly British obsession, it is at once more threadbare and more virulent north of the border. Up here, it is not the values of, say, hard work and sober common sense which typify the phenomenon, but much more the excitement of the urban wasteland and the dissolute yet unaccountably warm folk who scratch around it. How did this come about?
In the 1990s, the heyday of “new lad”, when “Cool Britannia” seemed to demand of her darlings that they be hard-drinking fun-loving lads-made-good in the exact mould of the loutish and belligerent Gallagher brothers, pop culture found itself at last truly annexed by politics. Sensing the zeitgeist with impeccable astuteness, Tony Blair invited every British star of the day for a chummy champagne photo-op at 10 Downing Street, where Noel Gallagher claims he disappeared off to the toilets to stick some white powder up his snout. It is little wonder then that the most successful cinematic expression of that zeitgeist was a film about criminal junkies and their exploits in and around the Scottish capital – there were criminal junkies in Downing Street after all!
Now, Trainspotting is undoubtedly a very good adaptation of a very good book, a book which capped a brief period of Scottish literary excellence. Scottish literature was, in the 80s and 90s, better than English literature (the literature of England having not been supreme within the Anglosphere for well over a century now) but it held to a very specific image of the working-class Scot. There had also been the perennially snarling James Kelman (another fine writer of revolutionary socialist politics) and of course Alasdair Gray (who has come closer than anyone to converting me to socialism, so eye-wateringly brilliant and deeply humane are his novels). The trend was of course even more pronounced in Scottish comedy (which thrives on poking fun at the working-class, regardless of the fact the comedians were usually themselves of a working-class background) with Billy Connolly, Rab C. Nesbitt, Rikky Fulton, Still Game, Chewin’ the Fat and, today, the greatest living comedian, Limmy. This is all great stuff too, but it is madcap comedy and not a model upon which to form an identity – indeed, taken as seriously as it actually is taken, all it fosters is a thoroughly self-colonising mentality. Illustrating precisely how this degenerates today into a caricature of the caricature is the absurd obsession with dismal Scottish “twitter patter”, which supposes that there’s something funny about teenagers on twitter typing “Zip it ya muppet” and “Shut it ya weapon” and all the rest. That phenomenon got its own “immersive visitor centre” in Edinburgh – Scottish cultural authorities are firmly onboard.
Now this would all be fine, and I would be nothing but a spoil sport, if it hadn’t entirely erased that older sense of Scottish eminence and left the whole country as the butt of a bad joke, howled at by the Scots as much as anyone else. England has moved on from the 90s – Scotland less so, and her largest city will provide a fine case study to illustrate the debased end point of all of this. And call me a damned stick in the mud if you will!
Consider the traffic cone that sits upon the head of the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington (the man who saved us from Napoleon) in Royal Exchange Square, and consider the complete commodification of that image by the Glaswegian tourist and municipal authorities. This is the ultimate symbol of modern Scot-whackery. While it may have arisen spontaneously some twenty or thirty years ago, it is by now fully integrated into a PR campaign that relies on an idea of Glaswegians as mischievous drunks. Such is why you’ll see it on murals and posters across the city.
What I think happened is this: Some city council mandarin sat in a board room sometime in the 1980s, when Glasgow's violent crime, organized crime and public health statistics were, or should have been, a cause for utter despair and decided that the popular image of the violent sectarian incomprehensible drunk, that had become the (then deserved) Glaswegian reputation, should simply be recast as a quaint, friendly and amusing drunk. In other words, it should be shorn of its rough edges, and brought into line with the programme of self-colonisation that has been de facto for decades now.
Even today you'll meet well-meaning English folk who still think Glasgow is like some absurd intrusion of Chicago gangland on Britain. Now, this is a long-antiquated reputation that sticks to Glasgow on account of precisely this type of thing. London fits that description better now (in fact, the place is now more violent than Chicago), but you can be sure Sadiq Khan (in no small way responsible for wrecking his city) is bursting a blood vessel countering it with a hasty barrage of opposite PR. It's only the eternally quaint Glaswegians that seem to like this idea of themselves.
So to hell with that. And to hell, for that matter, with the cult of the “friendly Glaswegian” as well, for it is the concentrated essence of the problem. The Scots are an eminent people of proud history, amazing achievement and we should rebuild our reputation for the principled and austere spiritual reflection, for the learnedness and shrewdness, from which that achievement sprang. That reputation was in no doubt – in anybody’s mind – a century ago. Reviving it must become an integral aspect of Scottish traditionalism.
Until that happens, we will be mocked abroad – and deserve it.