Ten reasons Scotland can be proud of itself – Ian Johnston

Brazilian fans meet the Tartan Army ahead of the opening game of the 1998 World Cup in Paris (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
Brazilian fans meet the Tartan Army ahead of the opening game of the 1998 World Cup in Paris (Picture: Ian Rutherford)
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It’s sometimes easy to forget and, for some of its citizens, hard to believe, but Scotland is one of the best places in the world to live.

Part of one of the richest nations on Earth, it is largely peaceful and has a National Health Service accessible to all who need it, regardless of income.

In other words, if you live in Scotland, you are more likely to have health, wealth and at least a chance at happiness than people in the vast majority of other countries.

I wouldn’t say it’s the best place in the world and it definitely has serious problems that must never be played down.

But, relatively speaking, Scotland does pretty well and sometimes we should take a step back and think about that.

And there are other reasons why we can be a bit proud - not too much, but a bit - of the place we call home. Below, I offer a few suggestions, including the idea that we should be proud of the idea of “Scotland’s shame”:

1, The Scottish Enlightenment

“We look to Scotland for all our ideas and civilisation.”

Sometimes countries tell themselves myths about their supposed greatness, so the opinions of an outsider can carry more weight. And, with praise like this from the great French philosopher Voltaire, it is clear something of genuinely global importance happened in Scotland in the late 18th century.

Adam Smith, David Hume, James Hutton, Alison Rutherford, Joseph Black, Robert Adam, James Craig and others helped established the primacy of reason in the modern world. Perceived wisdom was there to be challenged, questioned and overthrown if possible.

At a time when right-wing populist politicians are increasingly firing up irrational passions based on identity, the philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment offers a way to escape the trap of thinking about human beings as if we are all defined by ethnicity, nationality, religion or any other large group.

2, The poetry of Robert Burns

When I was younger, Robert Burns’ poetry seemed old-fashioned, quaint and twee. His image plastered over tins of shortbread confirmed this to my childish mind. I cringed.

Later, I heard Dr Maya Angelou, the American poet, author and civil rights activist, talking about Burns in a way I never thought possible.

I can’t remember exactly what she said but it was along the lines of this remark to a 1996 BBC Scotland programme: “He was the first white man I read who seemed to understand that a human being was a human being and we are more alike than unalike.”

She discovered Burns at the age of eight, during a six-year spell of muteness brought on by being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of seven.

“When I was a little girl in Arkansas, I began to read Burns and I couldn’t figure out the language he was using,” she told The Scotsman in 2008. “I’ve always loved puzzles, though, and I got a dictionary. I did my best, and eventually I did work out what he was saying and I loved it.

“His spirit was a humanitarian spirit, he was able to love human beings, and his imagination was vast.”

She recovered her speech after a teacher convinced her that poetry was better when it was read out loud. A long-dead man from a faraway place helped a traumatised girl to regain her voice. And what a voice it was!

It’s wrong to hero-worship anyone and Burns had fairly obvious flaws, as former Makar Liz Lochhead rightly pointed out last year, but we should be proud to celebrate poetry that have such a profound effect.

3, Jock Tamson’s bairns

The first three on my list all have a bit of the same theme, but I think they are worth separate entries.

“We’re aw Jock Tamson’s bairns” is a wonderful and simple way of saying we are all equal and that we are all individuals but should treat one another if we were family. It’s almost the definition of liberalism for me.

And the “we” in that sentence does not mean just Scots, but everyone. Whatever Theresa May says about “citizens of nowhere”, we are all citizens of the world – whether we like it or not. Hide behind national borders if you wish, build walls and turn back boats of migrants fleeing war, but if you do so you are deluding yourself and turning your back on your brothers and sisters.

4, Inventions

“Wha’s like us? Damn few and they’re a’ deid!” We had the famous tea towel when I was a kid, so doing the dishes helped educate me about all the things that Scots had invented.

I learned about rival claimants for some of the inventions later, but Scotland has long been associated with technology and engineering and a simple tea towel helped get that across.

Scotland has important industries like biotech and video gaming, but we probably could do more to promote the STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and maths. Sometimes pride in the past can help build a brighter future - we just need to be a bit careful about the risk of too much mythologising ...

5, The natural world

Looks really aren’t everything, as I tell myself often, but Scotland is a breathtakingly beautiful country.

Long, long ago, people chose some amazing locations to establish our cities and our rural areas have benefited from being less densely populated than many other parts of Europe.

Our landscape isn’t entirely natural, human hands have worked the fields and felled the forests, fundamentally changing the environment, for centuries, but for most of history we maintained a pretty good compromise.

We now seem to be waking up to the problems that the modern world has been causing the natural one.

Climate change and the scourges of plastic, chemical and air pollution must all be tackled. We need to find better ways for humans and wildlife to live alongside one another.

But, all these things are perfectly possible and, if we do them, we will be able to retain our pride in Scotland’s good looks.

6, Renewable energy

There are some who complain wind turbines are an unsightly scar on the landscape. And there are definitely places where we should not build them but thankfully also plenty of places where they can be built.

One of the benefits of the North Sea oil industry is that Scotland has abundant expertise in offshore engineering – and offshore wind is increasingly seen as the future.

Anyone who lives on or who has visited Scotland’s Atlantic coast knows how strong and how consistently the wind blows off the ocean. It’s the perfect place to make lots of clean, green electricity and, in the process, create lots of jobs and make lots of money.

As that great, if fictional, Enlightenment thinker, Scotty from Star Trek, was fond of saying “ye cannae change the laws of physics”. Climate change is a ‘theory’ on a par with the ‘theories’ of gravity and evolution.

Scotland continues to play a big part in producing the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet, but we are in a good position to play a significant role in putting that right.

7, Financial sector

Up until the 2008 economic crash, Scotland’s financial sector was definitely a source of considerable pride. We were punching far above our weight and mixing it with the giants of global high finance.

RBS briefly became the largest bank in the world with a balance sheet about the same size as the entire German economy.

Then disaster struck. The UK Government bailed out the banks and ten years of austerity ensued.

For some people, it’s too early to start being proud of Scotland’s financial sector again given its part in our woes. But I’m putting it here as a nomination because restoring pride is important to ensure this industry’s future success.

‘Greedy bankers’ was always a caricature, even if born out of justifiable anger. This is an industry that performs vital tasks such as looking after people’s pensions, after all.

8, Scottish music

The Delgados, Belle and Sebastian, Idlewild, Camera Obscura and Teenage Fanclub, dubbed “the best band in the world” by none other than Kurt Cobain.

For people of a certain age (including me), Scotland went through a spell of producing one utterly amazing band after another.

Also, bagpipes may exist in other parts of the world but they provide Scotland with our own musical brand.

Music is the most moving of all the arts and we should do our best to nurture it.

9, The Tartan Army

Scotland fans on tour make a colourful sight and the tradition of marching to the stadium behind a piper creates a real spectacle.

On one such march in Riga in Latvia in the 1990s, the Scottish parade was suddenly met by another coming in the other direction.

Initially taken aback, the Tartan Army quickly parted when they saw it was made up of numerous brides and grooms. Moving on, a couple of stragglers found themselves surrounded and serenaded by a piper and impromptu choir. They loved it.

The Tartan Army is an inspiration to the world and they regularly do this nation proud.

10, Scotland’s shame

Every country should recognise its faults and democracy can be quite good at doing this. A problem emerges, headlines are written, protesters take to the streets, voters email their MP, and politicians eventually make the necessary changes.

But some problems – life-shortening poverty, sectarianism and sexism, for example – seem to fester for far too long.

The term “Scotland’s shame” seems to me to be a way to highlight these entrenched issues and spur the nation into action. Perhaps MSPs could hold a free vote every year to designate ‘Scotland’s shame’ and the relevant Holyrood committee, think tanks and charities could then be asked to suggest solutions.

Perhaps that’s a daft idea. Can you imagine “America’s shame” or “Russia’s shame” ever catching on? I can’t.

But Scotland doesn’t have to buy into the off-the-shelf form of nationalism/patriotism, one largely based on ideas rooted in our feudal past, when unelected kings with no legitimate source of power had to constantly watch for ‘traitors’ in their midst.

We could instead build a new kind of humble, liberal, democratic and, perhaps even, ‘internationalist’ nationalism.

Now that sounds like a Scotland to be proud of.

READ MORE: Ten reasons Scotland should be ashamed of itself – Ian Johnston