A month and a half is not a long time, but it was enough for me to get at a sense of Scotland’s unique character and way of life. Over the course of my sabbatical trip abroad, I learned a great deal about the ways that the physical and cultural landscapes of Scotland’s cities and rural areas are reflected imperfectly in the popular media, but perhaps even more importantly I learned how Scottish heritage is engraved in my own being, hidden but still recognizable among all of the other – mostly American – influences that have shaped me into who I am today.
I shall attempt here to sum up six of the most important things that I take away from my time in Scotland. These are the impressions that I’ve found myself turning over in my mind again and again since returning home to the US. They are the observations of an outsider; but of an outsider who has continuing blood ties to the country, a feeling of deep fondness for its culture and authentic care for its destiny. Consider these remarks as my own initial, tentative attempts to understand the spirit of Scotland and my relationship to it.
1. Scotland is a place both ancient and modern. From the standing stones on the Isle of Arran, to the Medieval buildings of Glasgow University, the traces of human activity unmistakably mark the landscape of Scotland as a place that has a long, long history. This is a history so long that much of it has become shrouded in mystery or forgotten altogether. The stones on Arran, for instance, clearly were erected by human beings, but for what purpose and with what meaning we can only speculate. And yet, these ancient monuments still attract modern tourists who find pleasure in regarding them and in wondering about the civilization that left them behind. The castle-like buildings of Glasgow University, originally erected in 1451, still attract students and scholars from around the world. The Medieval exteriors contrast with the modern technology and architecture of the interiors, which have been updated in order to keep up with the wants and needs of a contemporary population. The city of Glasgow itself has gone through recurrent periods of growth, decline, urban renewal and renovation, and although it is not as exotic or distinctive in appearance as Edinburgh, it still retains a mixture of the old and the new that reminds us this is a place that has witnessed history, and which is still changing with the times. In both the cities and the countryside, the ancient and the modern co-mingle in Scotland producing a very particular sort of atmosphere.
2. Scotland feels profound. The fact that its past history has not been completely obliterated gives the landscape of Scotland an aura of permanence and stability absent from US cities. It is not just that the land itself has been here for a long time; it is that humans have been living here and altering this landscape for so long, making it a place harboring a multitude of stories and events that will forever remain untold. These constitute the deep roots of Scottish culture. They nourish the contemporary culture, linking those still alive to a past that goes back farther than anyone can remember. As this past informs the present, it acts as a source of hidden, yet palpable, meaning. Scotland is profound because its roots go deep, tapping into a history that cannot be fully articulated, but which everyone knows is there.
3. It means something to be Scottish. The Scots are proud of their heritage, even if theirs is a history that includes failure, defeat and domination by outsiders. There is a sort of tragic nature to the Scottish identity, a kind of fatalism that seeps into their humor, their scholarship and their artwork. To be Scottish is to be an underdog who fights against overwhelming odds in order to retain a sense of dignity and respect. This is, no doubt, connected to the long history of Scotland. A young nation, like a young person, is more apt to regard itself as invincible than is an ancient nation that has developed an awareness of the rhythms of ascent and decline that come along with longevity. Scotland has experienced many highs and lows over its life span, sensitizing it to both its strengths and its weaknesses. The people of Scotland are tuned into this, and they seem to embrace their collective successes as well as their collective failures. The failed rebellion of 1745 is as much a part of Scottish identity as is the defeat of the English at Bannockburn. The success of Clydeside ship building before WWII is understood against the backdrop of the decline of industry after the War. Glasgow’s current renaissance of arts and culture incorporates an awareness of its long-lived image as a gang-ridden “mean city.” The Scots that I met and talked with during my sabbatical all seemed, in their own ways, to embody these contrasts. They were proud to be Scottish, they were proud of their struggles, and they exhibited a kind of down-to-earth awareness of their own fallibilities. I experienced very little arrogance among the Scots, which was a refreshing change of pace from being among Americans!
4. Scotland is undergoing an existential crisis. At the same time that the Scots are proud of who they are, there is also a sense that they are currently struggling to figure out who they will be in the future. The referendum for independence is coming up in September, and while most of the Scots I rubbed shoulders with were in favor of independence, they also expressed uncertainty about where this would lead and what it would mean in terms of concrete consequences. There tended to be two related arguments that I heard repeatedly for independence. First was the cultural argument. Scotland is culturally different from England, and so it should be a separate country. The second argument – usually voiced as supplementary to the first – was an economic argument. Scotland contributes more to the UK in terms of money, resources and goods than it gets in return, thus it would be best for the economy if Scotland was independent. But even those in favor of independence seemed to lack confidence that the referendum will actually pass, and I was told that many supporters are counting on something called the “fuck-it factor,” which is the expectation that large numbers of undecided Scots will enter the polling booth and say to themselves “fuck-it,” voting for an independent Scotland on the spur of the moment and out of a feeling of sheer defiance.
The political controversy over independence is part of a more general cultural atmosphere of Scottish soul-searching and self-reflection, it seems to me. This concern with meditating on Scotland’s future is apparent in the work of the Glasgow Urban Lab, which studies issues related to Glaswegian society, and in the efforts of various Scottish cultural institutions, like Creative Scotland, that have recently been established to promote Scottish self-expression. All of these efforts indicate that the Scots are currently in the midst of a period of national contemplation, trying to understand where they have come from, where they are going, and how they fit into the global community. In good existential fashion, they are thinking ahead of themselves, reflecting on the past and attempting to incorporate their history into a vision of what they hope to be in the future.
5. Scotland’s cinema is vital and exciting. Because it is going through a period of reflective reorientation, contemporary Scottish culture is dynamic and full of life. In my own research focused on film, I have encountered a lot of scholarly complaints about the supposed “miserablist” trend in Scottish cinema; that there are just too many films being made about the dark and sordid side of the country’s urban culture. However, I see this as just one more piece of evidence that Scottish artists are enthusiastically engaging with themes and ideas that are difficult, deep and important. Nihilism is an opportunity, not a curse, and the miserablist trend in Scottish cinema takes a hold of the chance to look inward and to confront some of the greatest fears and concerns that the Scots have about themselves. By lingering in contemplation on the lowest aspects of culture, Scots open up the opportunity to move upward and forward. “There’s nowhere to go but up when you’re down,” as the song says. It is in the clearing opened up between the highest ideals and the lowest realities that vital, creative and exciting activity may take place; and that is what seems to be happening in Scottish cinema today.
6. Scotland is a part of me. I was taken by surprise when one of the Scottish scholars I correspond with referred to me as a part of the “Scottish Diaspora.” The term “diaspora” is one that I associate with groups like the Jews or Africans who have a strong and solidified identity that unifies them, even when they are dispersed around the globe. Before undertaking my current research project, I never thought of myself as a part of such a group. Yes, my mother was from Scotland, but I was an American. The “old country” was a place to which I felt only very loose ties. My own personality and identity, I believed, were unaffected by my Scottish roots. After spending a more extended period of time in Scotland and thinking about the nature of Scottishness, I have come to realize that I have been shaped to a much greater degree by Scottish culture than I ever realized. This largely comes through the influences of my mother and how she went about raising me. From her I absorbed an uneasy mixture of pessimism and willfulness that she herself inherited from growing up in Scotland. This unstable mix keeps me from thinking of life in terms of achieving grand successes. Rather, I think of life as a struggle that involves the endless overcoming of obstacles standing in the way of goals that I have set for myself. I am responsible for desiring these goals, and though they can never be fully realized or completed, I take a kind of egoistic pride in knowing that they are mine. I am pessimistically resigned to the fact that I will fail again and again over the course of life, but I am also willfully stubborn in pursuing my own projects no matter what the consequences.
I remember my mother once telling me that she didn’t care if I became a bum; she just wanted me to be an educated bum. In her mind, education was the key to liberation, since it gives you the tools and the confidence to be self-regulating and self-directed. The particular goal that you apply your efforts to, in other words, is not as important as taking hold of your life and doing something – anything – with it. This is something that I still believe, and it is a distinctively Scottish attitude. I have always felt like an underdog, battling against forces in the world that are trying to keep me down, and that are trying to make me feel like my own goals and desires are unworthy. And yet this same feeling has made me stubborn rather than making me want to conform. I have a tendency to dig in my heels, take my licks and then carry on doing what it is that I have set my mind to do. My mother taught me this, and Scotland taught it to her.
To be Scottish is to be an underdog and to rebel even if rebellion is doomed to failure. It is to feel rooted to a mythic past that can’t be remembered. It is to accept the inevitability of history’s endless cycles of ascent and decline, while never using them as an excuse for despair. To be Scottish is to be a nihilist of the best sort.