It makes me laugh in recognition when The Ideal Scotsman opens with presenter Rachel McCormack saying, ‘Scottish men. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re everywhere,” as she gestures to a panoramic view of Stirling, with customarily deadpan humour.
Because I know what she means, even before she goes on to elaborate. “For all the changes we’ve made in the last few decades, I still think Scottish culture is still hugely dominated by men. But I also think we don’t really discuss what it’s like to be a man in Scotland today. What I want to know is how Scottish men see themselves.”
In the new BBC Scotland documentary, McCormack gets to grips with modern masculinity by talking to football fans, ballet dancers, historians, doctors, baristas, tour guides, ex-miners, fishmongers, and more. She identifies male archetypes rooted in Scottish history passed down as social models, from the drunken street philosopher, captured in the string-vested Rab C Nesbett, to the stoic working man returning at the end of each long day keeping his feelings close to his chest. Even the kilted dreamboat of shortbread tins persists in Outlander. “Braveheart has got a lot to answer for,” puffs MacCormack, running across a field wielding a sword and painted in woad.
James Robertson appears to trace Scottish archetypes in books, from the characters of Robert Burns to Irvine Welsh, and how (with a few exceptions) the “great Scottish novel” through centuries has often been written by and about men. “The tradition is quite male,” Robertson adds, including critics. Indeed, research by Christina Neuwirth at the University of Stirling’s ROAR project revealed in 2017’s mainstream Scottish literary coverage, “65 per cent of authors reviewed were men, and 35 per cent were women” and “86 per cent of reviews were written by men, and 14 per cent by women”. These figures, while shocking, are in keeping with literary reviews elsewhere. But does it do anyone any good to reflect Scotland and the thoughts of its people so narrowly? Meanwhile, the idea of “Scottishness” has in latter decades struggled to shake off the all-pervasive hard man trope like those in the No Mean City mould – hard, aggressive, and cynical. You can see this in WH Smith’s “Scottish Books” section in Glasgow Airport, a sad display of tired gangland pulp.
One of the most illuminating guests is Govan-born actor Iain Robertson, who says the problem with the Scottish canon is that it’s riddled with “hard men”, and that while his role as a young man in celebrated film Small Faces was about love, family and betrayal, many viewers only take away the machismo of 60s Glasgow. He’s critical of continually celebrating characters who use machismo and violence to get what they want. “I don’t buy into this idea the poor hard done by Scottish working-class man has a monopoly on pain and hardship, gie’s peace,” says Robertson. “Show it for what it is, show the repercussions of it, what the families of these people endure.” It strikes a chord. As a publisher and contributing editor to Scottish literary magazine Gutter, I see many submissions which consider misogyny, hard drinking, and aggression as fresh and edgy for their shock factor, despite it being done for decades and pushing the stories of working-class women and the inner lives of men who don’t conform further to the margins.
Bottling up feelings is damaging to the health of men. McCormack speaks to a doctor who reminds us Scottish men have one of the lowest life expectancies in Europe, and that middle-aged Scottish men in particular can be resistent to seeking treatment for outcomes of hard-drinking and hard-working lifestiles. In a worrying trend, suicides are increasing. Conversing with an ex-miner, McCormack muses on just how hard working-class Scottish men found the dismantling of their communities when mines were closed. On their knees, wielding pick-axes, starting at six in the morning. Although the job was unbelievably tough on the bodies of the men, they had a close fraternity and social circle. While it’s understood de-industrialisation led to harrowing working class unemployment, depression and loneliness also faced by men in fractured societies, trying to make sense of who they were without a job to go to each day, was less discussed. The brilliant Men’s Sheds programme aims to improve health and wellbeing by getting men together on practical activities.
At a Queen of the South game, McCormack sees how football can be as much about community as the game itself, giving fans a place to get together, relax a bit, and express emotions. She’s a food writer by trade, and also notes her pie and Bovril is not too bad. Through the mouth of Dougie the mascot, she hears mumbled words about younger generations being more understanding and accepting of others. Indeed, the doctor also says younger men are more likely to open up and also to acknowledge different sexualities. Maybe that’s why some older commentators are so uncomfortable with what they see as “wokeness” – the modern equivalent of “PC gone mad” – and instinctually stick the boot in. While public displays of earnestness can be irritating, there is generally a healthy trend towards accepting the differences of others. Even as a millenial, I can see the difference between my generation and those coming afterwards in how they express their personalities and rub along together with a degree more empathy. It gives me faith that they might not only have more understanding for each other, but for themselves.
The Ideal Scotsman is a brilliant bit of TV and the best thing the new BBC Scotland channel has broadcast. McCormack is a natural on screen – as sardonic as she is genuinely curious. We seldom look at our society through the prism of gender despite the persistent inequality and codes of behaviour that run right through it. There’s a certain world-weariness that directs her to ask straight questions and get right in about it, which is exactly what we need, if we’re to join up the dots of our social history and really see one another.