Time for our national day to come of age

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IN THE Victorian era, when the days of patron saints were first being made into national events, Scotland was not a country which thought it had much to shout about.

Then, it was unclear whether a distinct Scottish identity would survive the union with England. The country was often called "North Britain" - even by its own citizens.

And so it came to pass that, while St Patrick’s Day was made into a world-wide event for the Irish diaspora, St Andrew’s Day has passed largely unnoticed.

The same is true today. Next March, hundreds of Scots will queue at the doors of Irish theme pubs to buy a pint of Guinness in honour of St Patrick’s Day.

At the end of this month, St Andrew’s Day is likely to pass with yet another whimper. The more observant may hold a ceilidh; expatriate Scots will drink whisky with nostalgia, but the world outside is unlikely to care.

This raises a question which the devolved government should now address. Should St Andrews’ Day be made a national holiday - allowing Scotland to project its identity with the success and vigour managed in Ireland?

The question cuts to the heart of a delicate issue for the Scottish establishment. For years, it has balked at celebrating indigenous culture. It was seen as regressive.

It has long defined "promoting Scottish culture" as the act of importing other countries’ culture into Scotland. Even now, the lion’s share of Scottish Arts Council money for music is used to copy London’s opera and ballet institutions.

Scotland’s culture has since moved on. Waves of immigration have brought new strands to Scotland’s tartan; the culture has come here.

There is no longer a need to pay millions for German and Italian songs to be sung in Edinburgh; a live version of Asian and European culture has made its own way to Scotland. It is on the doorstep, waiting to be given a platform.

The Brigadoon image of kilts and whisky has proved valuable in luring tourists. Humouring them is a profitable pastime. But a new platform is needed to present Scotland as it really is; St Andrew is waiting to be freed from the ecclesiastical pigeon-hole to which he remains largely confined. He is already commemorated in Scotland's ancient order of chivalry, commonly known as the Order of the Thistle, whose 16 knights are drawn from among the most distinguished Scots and which holds its annual ceremony at St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh on St Andrew’s Day.

The first Apostle emerges from scripture as a practical character. On the occasion of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, it was Andrew who found the boy in the crowd who had the small basket of provisions whose multiplication fed the multitude.

He was not exactly Bacchus, but neither was St Patrick. The latter was helped, along with much of Ireland’s culture, by the formidable marketing power of Guinness - which invented a ream of traditions and exported them world-wide.

But now Scotland does not have to rely on marketing. It has something which should, in theory, be more powerful than a brewer - devolution.

The MSPs have the power to change things. Firstly, they can redress the cultural imbalance - and start using the millions to nurture culture alive in Scotland, rather than import cultures that is not. The Irish have shown the financial rewards awaiting administrations who have faith in their people.

Now the Scottish Executive needs to grasp the nettle and make St Andrew’s Day a national holiday.

An excellent experiment has been running with Tartan Day in New York. This relatively-recent invention has made strong progress, much of it helped by the Executive.

But Scots who don’t happen to be in New York that weekend miss out on the action. St Andrews Day is a chance to bring this show, Scotland’s show, to its home audience.

St Andrews’ Day also enjoys a strategic position in the calendar. Burns Night is such a success because it comes at a time when nothing is happening - a month after Christmas, when the days are at their shortest and there is nothing to compete with it.

St Andrew’s Day, a feast of today’s Scottish culture, could easily be the starting-gun to the Christmas party season. Poised between Bonfire Night and the festive period, it has a gap in the market which so often decides the success of feast days.

There is also an economic case. Scots would have more leisure time so would spend more money, boosting the income of shops and businesses which stayed open. It would probably boost tourism.

It could be adjusted so that it falls on a weekday (this time, it’s a Saturday) - perhaps a Monday, giving Scots a long weekend.

The Scottish Parliament has moved in the direction of supporting the idea of a public holiday, starting the precedent of not sitting on St Andrew’s Day, giving it a sort of semi-legitimacy.

Public holidays are reserved to Westminster, but Jack McConnell could find himself pushing at an open door. John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, has admitted Britain needs more public holidays. By agreeing to give Scotland St Andrews’ Day, he would certainly face pressure to do the same to St George’s Day (April 23) and St David’s Day (March 1) or even Trafalgar Day on October 21.

There are precedents. Michael Foot gave us the 1 May bank holiday to celebrate national labour day. This year brought an extra bank holiday for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.

A surge in Scottish National Party support has prompted a worried Westminster to make several Scottish-orientated concessions - from returning the Stone of Destiny to devolution itself. It would be foolish to wait for John Swinney’s party to surge in the polls to create Scotland’s national holiday. Surprisingly for a nationalist party, the SNP has not laid claim to Scottish culture. It is a present waiting for Labour to open.

There is far, far more to Scotland than the shenanigans at The Mound. So far, the Scottish Parliament has been seen as unequal to the majesty of the country which created it.

St Andrews Day can show why Scotland has set its demands so high. A national holiday would be a new institution, unsullied by politics and drawn directly from the complex beauties which have long given Scotland its power.

After Tartan Day, Burns Night and Hogmanay, the Executive must take St Andrews Day and show Scotland as it really is.

Celebrations to rival the Irish

IT SEEMS strange that you can go to any country in the world and find expat Scots who will gather together on St Andrew’s Day to arrange a really good party and yet the same is not true of Scots at home.

It should be possible to build up our national day into a day of celebration.

St Patrick’s Day is celebrated all over the world - most notably in New York - with parties which have become a tourist attraction in their own right. But that has been a relatively recent phenomenon because the Irish have been clever in marketing their patron saint.

Here, there has been a mood swing and more people have been showing an interest in St Andrew’s Day as a proper national day of celebration.

But that will come about only if we give St Andrew’s Day the status it deserves by making it a public holiday so that people from all walks of life can recognise the enormous contribution that Scots have made to the world.

Part of the problem with the promotion of St Andrew’s Day is that there is no "big idea" on which to base the celebrations.

At Hogmanay, there are the usual traditions such as first footing and the celebrations at midnight.

On Burns Night we have the supper with haggis, and people gather to hear the work of the bard.

My suggestion is that we use St Andrew’s Day to mark the start of the Christmas shopping season. It would mean that towns could mark 30 November with ceremonies such as switching on Christmas lights. There could also be street parades in places such as Edinburgh’s Princes Street to allow everyone to become involved.