Book review: Scottish By Inclination, by Barbara Henderson

Barbara Henderson charts her own experience – and the experiences of others from across Europe – of making Scotland home. Review by Joyce McMillan
The EU flag and Saltire flutter side by side. All of the "New Scots" interviewed by Barbara Henderson originally came from the EU PIC: Getty ImagesThe EU flag and Saltire flutter side by side. All of the "New Scots" interviewed by Barbara Henderson originally came from the EU PIC: Getty Images
The EU flag and Saltire flutter side by side. All of the "New Scots" interviewed by Barbara Henderson originally came from the EU PIC: Getty Images

The idea of Scotland as a welcoming place for “new Scots”, those from elsewhere who have chosen to make their lives here, is one the central myths of modern Scottish nationalism; a myth not in the sense that it contains no truth, but in the sense that it carries huge importance for those who want to assert Scotland’s potential as an independent nation, without appearing inward-looking or xenophobic.

Barbara Henderson’s new book - her first non-fiction work, and her first book for adults after a series of successful novels for young people - is a thoughtful and profoundly decent contribution to the making and nuancing of that myth. In structure, the book is simple, interweaving the story of Barbara Henderson’s own life as a German incomer to Scotland with 30 short interviews with other people who share her experience of settling here. It’s one of the limitations of the book that all her interviewees are from European Union countries, and are white; and Henderson’s interviews are often so short, at just a few hundred words, that it’s difficult to gain any deep sense of the interviewees’ experience.

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Henderson’s narrative of her own life, though - from her arrival in Edinburgh to study English and Scottish literature, in the early 1990’s - is a much more detailed affair, one in which she cheerfully portrays herself as a naive young woman from a small town near Cologne who simply fell in love with Scotland and its culture, and who still remains a little starry-eyed about the place, three eventful decades on. In that time, Barbara Henderson married her university boyfriend Rob, raised three children, taught in many Scottish schools, lived in Edinburgh, Stonehaven and Inverness, and eventually - after many rejections - succeeded in her long-held ambition to become a published author; and she writes about all of this with a love, joy and gratitude that is clearly informed by her quiet religious faith, as well as a gentle sense of wide-eyed self-mockery.

Scottish By Inclination by Barbara HendersonScottish By Inclination by Barbara Henderson
Scottish By Inclination by Barbara Henderson

What’s striking about the book, though, is how often that sense of exhilaration and gratitude is also reflected in the interviews with other new Scots. Almost by definition, they are a dynamic group, who have made a success of their lives in a new country. Among them are Glasgow University principal Anton Muscatelli, rugby player Tim Visser, and businessman Gio Benedetti, father of the even more famous Nicola; and every one expresses huge appreciation for Scotland’s landscape and people, and for the welcome they have found here. On the matter of independence they are not unanimous, although there is a “yes” majority; many express frustration at Scotland’s lack of confidence in its own potential, urging their new country to “go for it”.

They are united, though, in their sense that their dual identity is something to be prized, no matter how many years ago they left their native land. Without apparent effort, Barbara Henderson lets us see just how much they, like her, have contributed to Scotland over the years; with a little more effort, she tries to explore her own coming to terms with that sense of double belonging, and to chronicle both how undermined she and others felt by the shock of the Brexit decision, and how much they appreciate the Scottish government’s efforts to reassure them that they were still welcome here.

Scottish By Inclination is not a brilliant book, nor a hugely ambitious one. Yet it provides a snapshot of a moment in our history when an age of relatively carefree internationalism within a once-divided Europe is coming to an end, to be replaced by something sadder and less hopeful; and as a chronicle of that turning-point, and of the personal emotional journeys that underlie the official history, Barbara Henderson’s book more than deserves its place among current studies of contemporary Scottish society, and of the political forces that are now shaping our future, for better or worse.

Scottish By Inclination, by Barbara Henderson, Luath Press, 200pp, £12.99

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