Alexander McCall Smith: Here are my answers to readers’ top 10 questions (plus a few more)

Which is better, Glasgow or Edinburgh? Alexander McCall Smith tackles this and other big issues raised by ‘anonymous readers’.

Dogs are capable of climbing trees, but choose not to because of vertigo, says Alexander McCall Smith (Picture: Susan Burrell)

Ever since I began to write this column I have been pressed to devote at least some space to answering readers’ questions. There are many subjects, it seems, on which readers of this newspaper would appreciate guidance, if not a clear answer. Set out below are some of the questions we have received. As you will see, the matters raised are wide-ranging, and reveal the extent to which people are perplexed.

Why are there so few police officers on the streets? Mrs J.G., Edinburgh.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

This is something that clearly worries many people. Not only are there few police officers on the streets, there are, in fact, no police officers on the streets. The explanation behind this curious state of affairs is quite simple: health and safety. The presence of police creates risk.

Why do police cars have Gaelic livery in areas where nobody speaks Gaelic? Mr G.H., Hawick.

Gaelic is not the problem – English is. Eventually English will be phased out altogether, possibly by 2035. Many people speak Scots and feel that it, too, should be featured on signs. Police cars would then be Polis Cars, which is what people call them anyway. Poileas Alba would become Polis Scotland, which would be understood by everybody, including visitors.

Should we all be buying fully electric cars? Ms P.L., Greenock.

Yes, we should.

Even if there aren’t enough charging points?

Yes. A lack of charging points will restrict the use of cars, and this will lead to the decongesting of our roads. An electric car that cannot be used has a smaller footprint than an electric car that is fully charged and ready to go.

Why is one child in four in Scotland at risk of being overweight or obese? Mrs K.H., Aberdeen.

One of the major reasons for childhood obesity is that some children eat too much and take too little exercise because they are playing computer games or dealing with social media.

Are you sure about that?

Yes. All doctors, without exception, agree.

Will you apologise and withdraw your statement?


Why does President Trump keep saying “Not many people know that” in his speeches? Mr T.R., Stornoway.

President Trump does indeed say this, and he says it when he himself didn’t know something until just before the speech. Not many people know that.

Is it possible for people to burst with self-importance? Mr W.F., Ayr.

There have been a number of well-documented cases in Edinburgh of people bursting with self-importance. These people often collapse without notice and on being taken to the Royal Infirmary are found to have a narrow gash in their sides. This is a result of their having burst with self-importance. People also burst with pride, but the clinical signs are different. They tend to explode. When people split their sides laughing, they usually have small tears on either side of the abdomen that heal quite naturally once they stop laughing.

Which is better – Edinburgh or Glasgow? Ms E.McG, Doune.

Hah! You won’t get me to walk into that one! The answer to your question is this: it depends on your perspective. Glasgow people tend to the view that Glasgow is better (hence the bumper sticker: Glasgow’s Miles Better.)

A different view is often taken in Edinburgh (hence the Edinburgh riposte, Edinburgh’s Slightly Superior.) Most experts tend to the view that Edinburgh has the edge, but that is not a view I would myself espouse. I merely mention it.

What is the correct pronunciation of Gullane? Mr P.L., Gullane.

You know the answer to that question, Mr P.L. and are only asking it here to wind people up. Be that as it may, there is a very long-running controversy about this matter. Some people say Gillin, and others say Gullun. Successive Lords Lyon have failed to rule on the question, in spite of it being their responsibility to do so. The correct pronunciation is Gillin, but there are many who quite perversely insist of calling it Gullun. This is sometimes because they are virtue-signalling. They are wrong for a whole raft of etymological reasons – but we do not have the time to go into those here. Suffice it to say, those reasons are compelling, and this issue should now be put to bed.

Why is Edinburgh Airport so crowded these days? Mr S.D., Ratho.

There are two reasons for this. One is that more people are flying. The other is that Edinburgh Airport lets out much of its space to shops and restaurants, leaving less room for passengers.

Is it true that when some country changed from driving on the right to driving on the left (or the other way round) the Government announced that the change would take place “gradually”? Mr T.H., Perth.


What was the result?

The change was successful. And why shouldn’t it have been?

I think you’re missing something there.

This correspondence is now closed.

What is the Turner Prize that one hears so much about? Am I missing something? Ms P.H., Dundee.

The Turner Prize is an annual art prize. You do not have to be able to draw, paint, or sculpt to win it. That is one of its great merits – it is open to all. It is a great institution.

Can dogs climb trees? Mrs D.S., Broughty Ferry.

Many people think that dogs can’t climb trees. This is a myth. Dogs are perfectly capable of climbing trees, and indeed can climb right to the top of very tall trees, but do not do so because almost all dogs suffer from vertigo and have a fear of heights as a result.

Do you believe in all this stuff above? Mr R.T., Prestwick.

Not all of it. Some it, maybe. By the way, Mr R.T., did you know that Prestwick Airport is the only place in the UK where Elvis Presley set foot on British soil? I just thought I might mention that.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.