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Searching for Scottishness.

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 05 February 2014
Over breakfast, my mother and stepfather and I speak of Scottish independence. Although it is whipped up into the stormiest of storms in the newspapers and on the radio, it is not something that people round here talk of much, in regular conversation. If it does come up, people tend to state their position and then change the subject. The auld wifies are not discussing it in the village; the farmers do not seem to be pondering it as they check their livestock for foot rot. Yet it hums away in the background, like a discordant orchestra tuning up. Those who are for independence hold steady at around a third of the population. Of that third, I should say there is a small minority willing to die in a ditch, whilst the rest wish for the thing in a gentler, more philosophical way. (I have absolutely no data for this; it is merely an impression.)

Morven, my favourite hill, three miles to the north.Morven, my favourite hill, three miles to the north.

What interests me in all of this is the very nature of Scottishness. The morning discussion got me thinking about what Scotland is, and how it differs from England. There is no doubt that Scotland is another country. When I first came to live here, after almost twenty years in London, I felt it was very foreign indeed. I did not know Scotland well; my part of the Celtic fringe was Ireland, where my father grew up. I knew the winding west coast of Connemara; I had heard the songs of the hunger; I could recite much of Yeats by heart; I knew every play O’Casey had written. It was not just the place but the culture that was stitched into me. Scotland was other. We had never gone there on childhood holidays; we had only one set of distant relatives way out in the Hebrides, whom we never quite got to see.

Glen Muick, twelve miles to the west.Glen Muick, twelve miles to the west.

So Scotland was all new to me, and different and surprising in ways I find hard to put into words. And that is the thing: hardly anyone seems able to put it into words. My stepfather says he watched a programme last night about what it is to be Scottish, and despite vox-popping until their ears fell off, the poor producers could not find a single Scot who could tell them.

I wonder if it is because, for such a tiny country, it has an amazingly various character and culture. Here, in the north-east, there is a flintiness which is easy to mistake for rudeness. People here think that saying please and thank you is absurdly gushy. They actually have very proper manners, but there is a restraint, especially with words, which can feel excessively brusque until you get used to it. The cliché-merchants would call it dourness, but it is much more nuanced and subtle than that. The people here are like the land from which they and their ancestors spring: they have a streak of metaphorical granite in them. They also have a very particular and vivid dialect called the Doric, which is liltingly beautiful, completely incomprehensible to an untuned ear, and so alive that the local schoolchildren put on entire plays in it.

The island of Colonsay, where I go on my summer holidays, looking across to Jura.The island of Colonsay, where I go on my summer holidays, looking across to Jura.

This strong and delineated character is completely different from something you would find on the west coast. When you drive from east to west, you can almost feel yourself crossing some kind of international date line, where the entire complexion of the country changes. That’s before one has even started on the islands. The people of North Uist are not like the people of the central belt. And once you get to the far northern reaches, you are in another country again: Orkney and Shetland are like little realms of their own, absolutely other and of themselves.

In a way, because of this variousness, Scottishness cannot mean any easily identifiable thing. Scotland herself is a very different lady from England. She is wilder, emptier, lonelier, more savage, more ragingly beautiful. (That last is a subjective opinion, and I do occasionally miss the boskiness of an English hedgerow, or the glorious Norman church spires, which do not exist up here. But for sheer aesthetics, the untouched glacial valleys and deep lochs are hard to beat.) There are very few places in England where no engineer could build a road. There are great swathes of land on my doorstep which cannot be navigated by humans. If you look on the map, they are merely blank spaces. To get to my friends in Glen Clova, so close that I can almost see its peaks, I have to drive an hour and a half, the long way round, because there’s a socking great mountain range in the way.

I feel, in some strange way, closer to the elements here, and more conscious of being surrounded by sea. I feel the sense of history which emanates from the very landscape itself. But can I tell you what it is to be a Scot? No. I cannot even come close.

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