Douglas Jackson: The Scottish way of life? There’s no such thing

Alasdair Gray's controversial remarks provoked a flurry of online discussions
Alasdair Gray's controversial remarks provoked a flurry of online discussions
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THE debate over Alasdair Gray’s essay on Settlers and Colonists has raised many interesting issues – use of language, cultural identity and social engineering to name but three.

However, the suggestion that exercised me most in all the many and varied posts I read on the internet was that Mr Gray’s “colonists”, the members of the English arts establishment who had set up temporary camp in north Britain, had “failed to immerse themselves in the Scottish way of life”.

The phrase raised an immediate question in my mind. Is there really such a thing as a separate and unique Scottish way of life – something beyond culture, kilts and the ability to recite The Immortal Memory?

I think it is an unarguable fact that Scotland as we know it now, probably like every other nation, is an accident of history, perhaps several such accidents. If the Emperor Domitian hadn’t ordered the withdrawal of the legions that had smashed the Caledonian army of Calgacus at Mons Graupius in 84AD, it is perfectly possible the island of Britannia would have spent the next 300 years or so under a single administration. With the fortress at Inchtuthil on the Tay providing a powerful military base, the tribal alliances that provided opposition to the Romans would have been permanently broken and there would have been no need for the walls Hadrian and Antoninus Pius built. Like those in the south, the people of the north would gradually have assumed a Roman identity, the warrior elite would have evolved into a political elite, the unrest of later centuries would have been avoided, leaving the whole island better able to resist the Scottish, Irish, Angle and Saxon incursions that came to shape it.

Instead, the Caledonian tribes were left to recover, to create federations and alliances, and, under their various guises, remain a threat to Roman-ruled Britain. Hadrian built his wall and created a barrier that would have a psychological as well as physical and social effect on those living either side of it. To all intents and purposes, a border between two separate worlds. By an accident of birth, I was born north of that border, and those that followed it, including the most recent, the line between the Tweed (give or take Berwick) and the Solway Firth. My family were shepherds in the Cheviot valleys where national identity becomes blurred, because, for many hundreds of years before the formation of England and Scotland, the people there all lived in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, which took in the lands from the Forth to the River Tees. It wasn’t until Malcolm II defeated the Angles at the battle of Carham in 1018 that the Lothians and Borders were united with the rest of Scotland, an event that started decades of infighting over the Scottish crown and 600 years of shifting frontiers and enmity with our southern neighbour.

During the Wars of Independence, the Border towns spent years at a time, in some cases decades, under English rule. Berwick-on-Tweed began life as a Scottish town but changed nationality at least a dozen times in just over 400 years, handed back and forth by Scottish and English kings in a sort of cultural pass the parcel. Its citizens support English sporting teams, but their football club plays in a Scottish league. They’re as proud of the Scottish period of their history as any other.

Which brings me back to my question: Is there a Scottish way of life? My own experience is that the Scottish Borders has a distinct way of life, centred on small towns with unique identities, agricultural roots, and bonded by collective interests in the local common ridings and rugby rivalries. As I grew older, I realised the Borders was entirely different from other parts of Scotland. In the early 1960s, we holidayed in the Highlands in a bell tent that had seen service in the Boer War, visiting small towns that seemed to have had the confidence knocked out of them. If there was a distinctive way of life, it was in the shared endurance of their remoteness. The Gaelic roots of the Isles make them a unique case, but each is as different from the others as it is from the mainland, or as Orkney is from Shetland. Scotland’s ports and harbour towns are ruled by the rhythm of the seas, but I suspect the way of life they’ve had for centuries has all but disappeared because of changes to the fishing industry. When I worked in Glasgow, I was shocked to discover that supporting certain football clubs was a way of life, and that people were suddenly interested in what school I went to. Like Edinburgh, the city shares a lightning-paced, shop-crazed, office-driven, urban culture that has more in common with London and Manchester than with the rural Scotland I was brought up in. The way of life in Aberdeen is distinct again, driven by the offshore oil boom and altered entirely from its pre-1970s incarnation.

So I think Alasdair Gray’s nameless cyber-supporter was asking too much of our visiting neighbours when he suggested they embrace the “Scottish way of life”, because there isn’t one. What there is, is a varied mosaic of different ways of life that are vibrant, enduring, constantly evolving and occasionally under threat. Each of them is special and together they form Scotland, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves that they’re that much different from those in the lands occupied by our ancient cousins in Northumbria and Bernicia on the far side of the Tweed, or that artificial man-made barrier created by Hadrian.

Maybe it’s naive, but I like to think what makes Scots special and different is our inclusivity; our willingness to embrace and welcome people of every race, every culture and every creed. That faith has been shaken recently by some of the sentiments and language I’ve heard and read during the independence debate so far, and with two years still to go, I fear it threatens to become even more toxic. Perhaps it would help if both sides were to agree not to use words like Settler and Colonist?

• Douglas Jackson is the author of Caligula, Claudius, Hero of Rome, Defender of Rome and Avenger of Rome.