Moira Jeffrey: Come home to real Scotland
IN Cape Breton writer Alistair MacLeod's masterpiece of a novel about the Gaelic Diaspora, No Great Mischief, a young Scots Canadian – a MacDonald – finds himself in Glasgow in the 1980s, some 200 years after his ancestor, Calum Ruadh, left Moidart on an emigrant ship.
This young man is waiting for the train at Queen Street when a red-haired stranger approaches him. "Hello MacDonald … I'm waiting for the train to the Highlands. I suppose you are too."
Belonging, instant recognition, kinship. Surely it is these emotional fantasies that will drive many of the visitors to Scotland during the forthcoming year of Homecoming as much as the promise of a whisky tour of Speyside?
Homecoming, a multi-million-pound initiative focused around the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, was cooked up to promote a boost in tourism from so-called "affinity Scots" overseas and is inevitably finding itself a source of controversy.
A Labour initiative, it has been embraced by Alex Salmond's administration. Some critics have suggested it is being talked up as a kind of nationalist swell, with the desire that it will crest in a great wave of independence. The Scottish historian Michael Fry has suggested that previous events based around the idea of clan gatherings have been occasions of antagonism between Scots and the Scottish Diaspora rather than harmony.
Some fun has been had with the fetching video of Scottish celebrities singing Dougie MacLean's 'Caledonia' against the Scottish landscape. Both Lulu and Amy Macdonald are reported to have recorded their contributions in a London studio.
Far more serious is the allegation that Homecoming is selling a mythological white Scotland to rich white Americans and that our Asian and other ethnic minority communities have been largely absent from the hype. This is a serious problem that must be remedied immediately.
This month, it was revealed that a solitary Asian figure – a young man reading Burns – had been inserted into the patchwork of white faces in the Homecoming marketing material. But I've yet to see evidence that Homecoming is marketing hard in Poland or the Punjab where many people have direct familial connections with Scotland.
If Homecoming is to commemorate Burns then it is a very good time to look with clearer sight at his era. Famously, he almost set sail for the Caribbean where he would have been actively involved in overseeing slave labour. Many a Scottish fortune, including the city of Glasgow's prosperity, was built on sugar and tobacco and, as James Robertson's brilliant modern novel Joseph Knight explored, the impact reached both ways. We would do well to remember there are plenty of folk of Scots descent in Virginia and Jamaica and they do not all have white faces.
The great strength of Scottish culture these days is its ability to scrape under the skin of the historical and social inheritance, to unpick the tartan tapestry. It's incumbent on ourselves as much as the nation's ad men to provide Homecomers with as diverse a picture of a modern and complex nation as we can. Even if that means showing a Scotland that has never made it into a glossy brochure.
A few years ago, I took part in a radio discussion about whether Scotland was a confident nation. I remember being lambasted by a fellow guest for supporting art works that explored the grimmer side of modern Scotland. Afterwards, out in the corridor, she was still angry with me. "It's all the fault of people just like you in the media," she hissed. "You always paint a negative picture of everything."
Perhaps during Homecoming 2009 I should learn my lesson about that. I'm not so daft as to fail to understand its economic impact. But should we suggest this country is just one big golf course from coast to coast? Come play, drink a whisky toast to our new patron saint Donald Trump, exchange pleasantries with the locals and please fill our credit-crunched coffers as you do so? Of course not. Migration plays too important a part in this country's past – and its present – to be treated so lightly. And while we're asking the Diaspora to work harder at understanding us, perhaps we need to work harder to understand them.
When jobs ran out in Alloa in 1925, my grandparents worked in a diamond mine in South Africa. In fact, they came home three years later to care for a sick parent. But for years, my mum kept the pair of shoes that Granny had worn on the passage out, unable to dispose easily of the mix of trepidation and willed optimism of the emigrant. If that is how it feels to leave, how does it feel to return?
Alistair MacLeod is far too tough and clever a writer for his story of Queen Street Station to be a mere indulgent fantasy. It should be understood that it is told as a tale of consolation back in Canada. His novel is as much about the corrosive power of loss and exile as it is about the apparent strengths of linguistic or historical identity.
When Calum Ruadh first touches down in Canada with his family, he stands and weeps for two days. These are not tears of joy; he left Moidart a husband and has arrived a widower. "He was like the goose who points the V, and he temporarily wavered and lost courage."
A nation that believes an image of itself created by the expediencies of marketers and ad men would be a nation that had really sold its soul.
If those geese do fly home in 2009, let's try not to judge them for their fantasies. But before it is too late, we must make it both a personal and public undertaking to provide them with a far fuller and richer picture.
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