Glorious diversity of our mongrel nation

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HE WAS born 11 minutes into the New Year weighing 8lb 7oz, after a seven-hour labour at St John's Hospital in Livingston. Muhammad Akram was the first baby to be born in Scotland in 2008, to the delight of mum Sumraina, 28, and dad Anwar, 32.

The fact that their son was the first new Scot of the year filled the parents with pride. "It is a great honour," said Sumraina.

Elsewhere in Scotland the first baby born in Edinburgh was to a Chinese couple. Wei Ping Wang, 36, and her husband Zhiyu, 39, named their first child Christina. Aberdeen's first arrival was a 6lb 5oz girl for Mahintha and Vettivelu Srimayooran. The baby has yet to be named – the couple want to follow Sri Lankan tradition and first consult her astrological chart.

I found it immensely heartening last week when these new arrivals were highlighted in the Daily Record, not with a tut or a scowl or a sigh, but with the headline: "They're all Jock Tamson's bairns." A leader column noted: "We should be honoured that these people have chosen to call Scotland their home."

My sons' friends illustrate how racially diverse Scotland has become in recent years. Elder son's best pal is half-Nigerian; younger son's best buddies are half-Romanian and half-Turkish. Their other friends have roots in Thailand, Ghana, France and Egypt. It's a pattern repeated across the country: half-this, half-that – and wholly Scots.

For me, there are two primary definitions of what makes a Scot, each carrying equal weight. The first, obviously, is someone born in Scotland, regardless of parentage. The second is someone who has chosen to make a life here. These, I stress, have equal weight and worth. Each, equally, is a citizen of Scotland. If you can trace your lineage back to King Kenneth MacAlpin in the ninth century, with absolutely no paddling outside the gene pool since, it makes you no more a Scot than little Muhammad Akram.

Some people don't see it this way. When my fellow columnist Hardeep Singh Kohli, a Glasgow-born Sikh, wrote recently of his pride in his Scottishness, some contributors to our website posted comments along the lines that "if a dog is born in a stable it doesn't make it a horse". The idea of Hardeep being Scottish is offensive to some people. How dare he love the place of his birth, the place where he grew up, the place where he bought his first garish fuchsia-coloured corduroy suit?

If this narrow view was only held by a small minority it might be less of a worry. But last month the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey revealed our growing intolerance as a nation. Half of those interviewed said Scotland would "lose its identity" if more Muslims came to live here, up from 38% in 2003. Almost 30% said it was sometimes all right to discriminate against incomers.

This shouldn't have come as a complete surprise. When Jack McConnell was First Minister and introduced his Fresh Talent scheme to encourage new immigrants to Scotland – a move essential to the country's future economic prosperity – he was astonished at the reaction. The First Ministerial postbag and e-mail in-box instantly filled up with bile, and Labour canvassers reported widespread opposition on the doorsteps. To his great credit, McConnell pressed ahead regardless.

The view of Scots as a race, often propagated by people of Scots ancestry abroad, must be resisted. I once went to a St Andrew's Day ball in Portland, Oregon, where I spoke to young SNP supporters who had embraced their Scottish lineage with passion. But they saw it as a means of asserting a distinctiveness that was racial, not cultural. For them, being Scottish was a retreat from America's racial melting pot. Thankfully the SNP here at home is far more enlightened.

Those who warn of Scottish identity being "diluted" by immigration are simply showing their ignorance. There is no single strand of Scottish DNA. The country's strength lies in the diversity of its component parts, and this has always been the case. Even from earliest times the Scottish nation has been a combination of ethnicities and cultures – Pictish, Norse, Gaelic and Anglo, each contributing to the whole. The more recent grafts of Irish, Asian, English and Polish incomers are simply the latest manifestation.

It is neither possible nor desirable to resist these changes. The trick is to ensure two things: first, that New Scots have confidence to celebrate their cultural antecedents as they see fit; second, that they feel similarly confident that they belong in the mainstream of Scottish life, fully part of the nation they now call home.

Similarly, anyone complaining of a Scottish culture "under threat" betrays both their misunderstanding of that culture and a misplaced lack of confidence in its vitality and strength. Our culture is strewn with immigrants and their offspring, from sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (the son of Italian immigrants) to poet Jackie Kay (daughter of a Scots mother and Nigerian father) to pop stars Franz Ferdinand (three of whose four members were born in England, including singer Alex Kapranos, who was last week pictured in newspapers wearing a rather nice vintage Scotland international football jersey).

I can't think of a better national new year resolution than zero tolerance of racial intolerance. In William McIlvanney's magnificent phrase, we're "a mongrel nation", and all the better for it.