Notes

The revolution that takes place in your head, nobody will ever see that.

Tag Archives: North East Scotland

Songbird

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Lewes

Listening to a robin sing this morning, I kept looking amongst the branches until I spotted a red breast fluttering near the crown. Spring sunshine was pouring over Lewes’s suburban lawns and ruinous Abbey grounds. I hadn’t heard something so beautiful and unforced in a very long time. ‘A bird sings because it has a song’ or so the saying goes.

East Sussex is geographically far removed from my home in Aberdeenshire. Its the southern end of the green isle, but it felt familiar today only warmer, prettier and less remote.

Standing on Lewes Castle grounds, I remember being an eight-year-old boy, accompanying my mother to Aberdeen’s zoology building. I would bring along my binoculars and pack lunch box to RSPB meetings: a meal composed of ham sandwiches, crisps and two bourbon chocolate biscuits wrapped in tin foil.

We drove there in a poky blue Volvo and the conveners always had southern English accents. I always remember this because they were markedly different from the kids and teachers at my local school. Bird watching shaped my early childhood until the age of ten. But it stayed there for some reason, like many sweet things that drift away in the pursuit of conformity.

Gone are the speckled breasts of thrushes, goldfinches and robins. Living in a big city estate with no garden, birds have become crows roosting over defecated cars. Unlike my RSPB years, I don’t hear any songbirds when I leave the house in the morning. I only hear the caw-caw-cawing of scavengers and a 24/7 motorised world.

Isn’t it funny how far south you have to travel just to remember how things used to be.

A Stateless Nation

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On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

Aye Right

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As part of this year’s census people in Scotland will be asked if they understand, speak, read or write in Scots. The census counts everyone in Scotland once every ten years and I was initially surprised that the Aye Can website referred to ‘Scots’ as a language. Gaelic in my opinion is Scotland’s only independent tongue whereas Scots is a broad term for a loose confederation of dialects. Scots is a Germanic language and has evolved from Old English and Norse to be spoken throughout the land although not exclusively, as speaking in a Scottish accent is not the same as speaking in Scots.

Having spent the majority of my life in the North East of Scotland, I am already familiar with one of the richest Scottish dialects in Doric. The 18th century poet Allan Ramsey (1686-1758) was the first to apply the name Doric as an alternative name for Scots. In the 18th century, Scots was compared with the rustic peasant tongue of Ancient Greece, spoken in Doria, while English, the official language of the new British state of 1707, became associated with Attic, the standard language of the city states.

In post-industrial Scotland, the Doric label crept northwards and is now commonly associated with the Grampian region. Despite living in rural Aberdeenshire for over twenty years, I can’t speak in Doric or even read it properly as this wonderfully impenetrable article by Robbie Shepherd will duly illustrate. With my Anglo-Irish parents holding sway, I grew up from my Mother’s knee speaking English and often felt estranged from my peers and elders who did spik in the mither tongue.

As a product of North Sea oil, I found myself being brought up as a British migrant child in the part of Scotland no one really cares about. Geographically isolated and deeply unfashionable, I remember going to primary school and watching oil rigs pump billions into the nation’s economy from my class window. With oil barely receiving a mention in Thatcher’s memoirs, I can recall studying History at two of the country’s oldest universities, one of them being Aberdeen, and hoping to learn about how my region shaped our nation’s fortunes.

But Aberdeen rarely ever featured in my lectures and text books. All the great battles, figures and political incidents took place in the social and economic heartbeat of Scotland’s Central Belt. While the misty romances of Gaeldom provided the poets and tourists with a chocolate box vision of the Highlands. Even when the North East should have become more relevant in the latter end of the 20th century, it appears going offshore every two weeks in Thatcher’s Britain is nowhere near as romantic as ‘goin down pit’.

On being asked whether I speak or read in Scots, I can recollect the social differences in dialect from my childhood years in a commuter village south of Aberdeen. Even my Scottish peers spoke in a far softer tone than the raw Aberdeen dialect we regularly encountered at football matches and school activity weeks. Children from my school would dismiss kids fae Aberdeen as ‘toonsers’ and their accents were frequently mocked for being uncouth and poorly spoken.

Obviously I was too young to understand the social class dimension behind these childish views.  The oil boom of the late 1970s had transformed a previously isolated region, and resulted in a steady influx of non-Scots speakers into the area. Although miles away from the coastal strip of oil rich villages, the Doric tongue continues to baffle outsiders in the traditional braes and communities of the North East. As a student I remember labouring in the summer around the time of last census in the market town of Stonehaven. While obviously out of place, I struggled to keep up with the broad dialect of the labourers in the yard. The old men manning the vans would comically refer to me as a lanky ‘guffy’, and curiously enough this is a derogatory term for an Englishman.

Despite being born and raised in Aberdeenshire, I persistently felt like an outsider during my three month stint in the yard. And while any attempt to speak in Doric would have made me an imposter, I am relieved globalisation has not completely extinguished the ancient tongue of the North East. For while I cannot speak in Scots, I long for it continue regardless of whether it is a language or not.

Your mind is the scene of the crime

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After moving to South Hackney two years ago, I have enjoyed a peaceful inner city existence and never felt in any danger. Occasionally teenagers can be seen loitering around the canal bridge and feral kids play improvised football against the recycling bins. But this if anything provides a sense of gritty character to an otherwise dull residential neighbourhood.

While the grim Stalinist appearance of the estate and being surrounded by human storage containers is depressing at times, I have never had any reason to be fearful. Well at least until the coalition government’s new crime website was launched this week. The location based website provides an interactive map of reported violent crime, burglary and anti-social behaviour on every street in England and Wales.

Almost immediately I punched in my postcode and against my better judgement, I found myself living in a crime hotspot. Everyday I walk over the canal bridge on Shepherdess Walk and feel perfectly safe. But the government website reveals a different story.

There are incidents of burglary, vehicle crime and drug dealing on what I had previously assumed to be an idyllic thoroughfare. Clearly the teenage hoods on the bridge have been up to no good. Further inspection of the website reveals there were 2134 reported incidents of crime in my postcode area in December alone.

Should I be too scared to leave the house now? The chances of me being a victim of crime appears to have increased since I discovered what goes on outside when I’m indoors. Even though I should be terrified of my crime ridden estate, I have yet to even spot a litter bug during my two-year stint in Hackney.

Such horrifying statistics are in stark contrast to what I experienced in rural Aberdeenshire as a child. After pouring over the dark side of inner city life, I initially began to reflect back upon how kids from my village would play football after school instead of drug dealing or car theft.

While times have changed since the 1980s and the rise of the internet and games consoles has probably contributed towards more kids staying indoors, I remember how my peers indulged in criminal activity of their own. Every year local school kids would construct massive hay bases in nearby fields and cause thousands of pounds worth of damage.

Most eight years old’s are unaware of the economic value of a hay bail and are unlikely to have a crisis of conscience when they turn one into a straw heap. As a result, local farmers would angrily come charging after us in their tractors once they realised their cherished field had descended into a William Golding novel. The thrill of the chase begins when you are young and I fondly remember scrambling over stone dyke walls escaping from irate Doric farmers as a school boy.

Crime like love is in the eye of the beholder and while stealing strawberries and pea-pods from an allotment patch might have seem like harmless fun to a country village boy. Is it really any different from local youths in Hackney stealing Mars Bars and Coke cans from a 24 convenience store? Enid Blyton would have loved my village escapades and my childhood experiences of crime seem incredibly idyllic in hindsight.

While urban youths are frequently demonised in the media, I can empathise with bored teenage youths loitering around shops in sub-zero temperatures. Dimly lit streets and high rise buildings judge their offspring cruelly in the absence of wide green spaces. In light of the newly publicised figures, I should perhaps tread more carefully along the streets of Hackney but likewise so is the fear of me becoming another government statistic.

Nationalism is a Created Product

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After attending the Pioneering Painters exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, I began to question why I never learned about the Glasgow Boys at school. Radical, bold and fervently European in their outlook, the Glasgow Boys represent a new progressive Scotland. However, the art collective remained off my cultural radar until I attended Glasgow University and stumbled upon their works at the nearby Kelvingrove Museum. On re-examining their most radical and exciting works at the Royal Academy of Arts, I drew an immediate contrast with Burns Night.

Reflecting back on my primary school days in Aberdeenshire, I vividly remember my P6 teacher’s poetry recital classes with ‘A Man’s a Man for all That’ being the proverbial jewel in the crown. With my Anglo-Irish vowels, I always dreaded Burns week and felt extremely self-conscious that I couldn’t recite verses in guttural Doric like my Aberdonian peers.

While I eventually grew to admire some of Burns vernacular gifts, I have remained curiously ambivalent about Burns Night. It always felt somewhat contrived to me. Almost like a post-modern image of Scottishness that bears no relevance to day-to-day life.

Burns Night is arguably the biggest literary event in the world with an estimated nine million people participating last year. A typical Burns night has poetry recitals, bagpipes and three courses of traditional Scottish fair, which usually involves cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties and a complimentary dram.

With the greatest respect this dour cuisine is certainly not the most alluring of European dishes. If there is a Scottish restaurant in Rome or Barcelona then I certainly haven’t seen one. All the while the Haggis represents a comic sentimental image of Scotland and I find it deeply regrettable that a foul peasant condom is our national dish, when the nation’s glens, forests and lochs are home to some of the finest game and fish in Northern Europe.

Whereas other countries define themselves around wars, revolutions and kings, Scotland remains a stateless nation and embraces cultural nationalism to exert her identity. Burns Night remains consistent with the twee sentimental image of Scotland constructed by Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth century.

After nearly two hundred years of progress, Scotland is still renowned for its kilts, whisky and majestic Highland landscapes. Anyone walking past a triumphant Visit Scotland billboard will be in no doubt of the country’s national identity. What is fascinating is that the Glasgow Boys emerged towards the end of the 1870s and radically vowed to challenge the sentimental Victorian obsession with the Highlands.

By challenging this twee conservative vision of Scotland, I found inspiration from the Glasgow Boys exhibition that there is an alternative to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. The Glasgow Boys were bold, radical and experimental painters, whose stunning collection of works represent a genuinely progressive movement. A collection of artists that dared to look towards the Mediterranean and Japan for inspiration instead of turning inwards towards the Highlands.

What I find surprising is that the Glasgow Boys remain a quirky afterthought in Scottish culture. If I hadn’t stumbled upon their paintings in the Kelvingrove Museum, then I could easily have remained ignorant of their existence.

A truly confident country should look outwards for inspiration and I see no reason why the Glasgow Boys shouldn’t be universally affiliated with Scotland like Dali, Gaudi and Picasso are with Spain. It is regrettable that this radical confederation of painters have been unable to impose a greater cultural influence in their own country.

Robert Burns remains Scotland’s most iconic and influential poet but anyone tucking into their Haggis tonight should be under no illusions that nationalism is anything other than a created product.

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