Alexander McCall Smith: Forget Brexit, we should argue about this instead

In these fractious times, Alexander McCall Smith takes solace in memories of happier days when arguments were about how to pronounce Gullane and such like.

How you say this word is a matter of some debate. Is it Gullin or Gillin? Could it even be Gillane or Gullane? (Picture: Bill Henry)

Disagreement can be disagreeable. Our national conversation has demonstrated that in recent months, when differences of opinion on political issues have raised the public temperature to an uncomfortably high level. We are riven; we are confused; we are angry with one another; we are unhappy. Gone are the days, it seems, when people could hold differing views and yet agree about the common good.

In such circumstances, we might remember the things that we used to argue about in Scotland – the old differences of opinion that now seem to be bathed in a warm glow of nostalgia. Perhaps we can divert ourselves from our current toxic exchanges by thinking about those comfortable old arguments and debates. How pleasant they were by comparison; how gorgeously irrelevant; how innocent.

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Such as: how does one pronounce Gullane? There are those who consider that question otiose in our troubled times, but no, that controversy is never going to go away, and if anything is going to distract us from present woes, it is that one. In future, when somebody asks you your view of the European Union issue, smile politely and say, “Ah, but how does one pronounce Gullane?” That question has saved many Scottish dinner parties from becoming mired in heated debate about Article 50. It is, in a sense, a lightning conductor, keeping tempers down and saving friendships. It is, after all, possible to disagree with somebody about the pronunciation of Gullane without consigning them to Dantean regions below.

For the benefit of those south of the Border, the pronunciation of Gullane is a sort of Scottish Schleswig-Holstein question (Schleswig-Holstein is not in West Lothian, which also has a question). It has been around for a long time and in the minds of many it has yet to be resolved. You would think that people would have better things to think about, but they do not. The pronunciation of Gullane is a defining issue; for some it goes to the very core of their social identity.

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The issue is this. There are two principal ways of pronouncing Gullane. One is Gillin, the other is Gullin. There are other possibilities, of course, including Gillane and Gullane. It will be noticed that the latter is also the way it is spelled, which of course has no relevance. The name Garioch, for instance, is pronounced Gairy, at least by some, including many who are called Garioch. Then there is Milngavie, which is pronounced in the way in which Milngavie is pronounced, which is Mul Guy. Hawick is, of course, Hoyick, and those pronouncing it as it is spelled will not get far in the Borders. These are all well-known oddities that have so far survived European Union harmonisation. Beware, though: the functionaries who are intent on abolishing summer time are planning an orthography/pronunciation directive that will require names to be pronounced in the way in which they are spelled. That may not be true – it probably isn’t – but stranger things have happened.

Back to Gullane. The interesting thing about the pronunciation issue there is that it reflects a social divide. Broadly speaking, the Uppies say Gillin and the Doonies say Gullin. Those boundaries are not absolute, but it is generally the case. So at one level it is akin to the difference between table-napkin and serviette – a distinction that seems to fascinate the English but that is of scant interest here in Scotland. We have the Gillin/Gullin controversy, which is far more interesting – and important.

What do the people of Gullane themselves say? Well, the first point to be made there is that this should not be decisive. It is perfectly possible for people to get the name of their own place wrong, and to continue to do so against all the advice of professional etymologists. Sometimes, in fact, people get their own surnames wrong: I have met Macleans abroad who actually call themselves Mackleen. That raises delicate etiquette issues. How do you tell people that they are getting their own name wrong? It is very difficult. The only way of doing it tactfully is to simply look pained, or even wince, when they introduce themselves. That will usually cause them to realise that something is amiss and seek expert advice on how to pronounce their name correctly.

Gullane is, alas, seriously divided. As you drive through the village on your way towards North Berwick (pronounced Nurth Berrick), people who live on the right side of the road say Gullin, while those on the left say Gillin. That divide is regrettable, but it is very difficult to see how it can be overcome. Gillin is a shibboleth. At Muirfield, which is just outside the village, there is no question but that it is Gillin. Cadit quaestio. Choosing, then, to say Gullin, if one has been brought up to say Gillin, becomes an act of self-definition, a gesture of rejection of the constraints of tribalism. Gullin is, for such people, a protestation of independence, an identification with the authentic political and social culture of Scotland, which leans towards Gullin. Of course nobody may notice the gesture, but at least it is made, and those who make it report that they do indeed feel more authentic for saying Gullin rather than Gillin.

Many outsiders do not realise how important this issue is and how it exercises people in Scotland. That is because they are inauthentic. And as for the answer to the question of what is the correct pronunciation, that, as is well-known, is self-evident. It is ... (word limit reached).