We are awash with conversations about our national identity right now in Scotland. What does it mean, after all, to be Scottish at this seminal time in our history? A few friends who are voting No in the upcoming referendum talk about their sense of being British as a reason for their vote. I find this confusing. As a Yes voter, I identify with being British too – and not only because of my passport. Our history is where we’ve come from, the cultural material from which we’re made, so it’s no wonder. As eminent historian Tom Devine said last week, “It is the Scots who have succeeded most in preserving the British idea of fairness and compassion …. Ironically, it is England … which has embarked on a separate journey” It is this sense of Britishness with which I identify (and about which I write in my series of murder mysteries) but there is no doubt that I’m Scottish too. ‘Don’t you find that duality confusing?’ someone asked recently as if I was wearing a summer dress with a winter jacket – two things that shouldn’t go together – as if I ought to jettison one of them. ‘No. I wish that I had only two identities,’ I replied. ‘It’s far more complicated than that.’
When I think about it, I’ve always found my cultural roots confusing. I was born in Edinburgh of a Scottish/Russian/Jewish mother and an English/Irish/Catholic father – there is no form of guilt to which I was not subjected in my childhood. Members of my immediate family live all over the world in a diaspora of cousins, aunts, uncles and more in a dizzying mix. My family spans many world religions, ethnicities and nationalities.
The truth is that I don’t have one identity or even two, or for that matter three. And none of my identities dictate directly how I ought to vote. I’m Scottish, British, European, Humanist, Atheist and in part at least, culturally Jewish. To add more confusion to this mixture last year I took a DNA test as part of the Scotland’s DNA project. After a long wait, it turned out that the mitochondrial DNA of which I’m made is ‘vanishingly rare’. So rare, in fact, that so far they’ve only found 3 other people who share it in the whole country. I spring from a female line that developed 17000 years ago in the area around Japan’s most northerly island and on the mainland just opposite. The stuff I’m made of at base is Japanese, Siberian and Mongolian with all the rest of it added on top.
With my DNA results arriving like a love letter from a long lost many-times great grandmother, you can imagine how much it bemuses me when I hear people are concerned about distance from their families down south, in the event of a Yes vote. It’s only a few miles (the number of miles won’t change) and when it comes down to it, the ties that bind run through generations and cross all borders. None of us are only one thing. Not in today’s world. There’s nothing that will hinder us loving across boundaries or make the journey to visit our loved ones impossible. At the base of it, family ties endure always – you carry them with you across time. That’s epic! With a yes vote we’ll be dissolving a political union – a decision about our government microscopically less long-lived than our genes or for that matter, many of our other ties.
My discovery about my DNA has taught me a whole load more than that, though. It made me realize how much I project my identity – how tempting it is to add ‘glamour’ to ourselves (in the old sense of the word, which is ‘magic’) by telling stories about where we came from. The truth is that I had envisaged Jewish ancestors who had survived slavery in Egypt, not on the Steppes and that vision created many self-stories about, for example, why I take a tan well and am not fond of pork belly. Side by side with that, I identify just as much with the part of me that is Scottish. My near obsession with vintage cashmere and seafood, all add to the sum of where I’ve come from. Perhaps, because I’m a novelist, it’s not surprising that I told myself stories but those stories were important to me and when the DNA test came through it took months to shift my perspective on them. The reality is that the way I did so is by telling myself a different set of stories from the ones I started out with. The experience has made me realize that not only do I write fiction but I am fiction too. We all are.
It’s impossible to say exactly what ‘Scottish’ or ‘British’ is in this context. Identity is so random. After all, my DNA arrived in Europe due to an ancient slave route that runs along what is now the southern border of Russia. If my particular ancestor (all I know about her is that she was a woman) had succumbed to injury or illness, if she had, for whatever reason, not had sex (or been forced to have sex) on a particular day (or night) I wouldn’t be here. There are generations of happy and unhappy accidents that lead up to each of us. My husband (a tall, broad, white bloke from Greenock) recently had his DNA tested too and discovered that way back the stuff he is made of came from what is present day Pakistan. Neither of us would be where we are, here in Edinburgh, if these random ancestors of ours hadn’t taken decisions that would be impossible to second guess. Each one of them chose a path that made sense to them at the time and here we are, at a not dissimilar crossroads that will affect our kids and grandkids – the generations that continue.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the experience of having my personal identity shaken up, it’s that you can’t rely on what went before. You are made of history but you have to go forwards. And when you do so, you bring everything that’s gone before with you. I hope we are about to claim that – to make a little history of our own. To bequeath our children a better Scotland and thereby a better world. In the face of that, discussions about being Scottish or British or ancient Japanese (in my case) aren’t important – we have to focus on our destination, not where we’ve come from because the stuff of life is where you’re going and the only thing that’s inevitable is that movement. No empire or indeed, union, endures without change. In the scale of things the decision we are making is small – our Referendum is only about political administration – but for us, living through it, it will have a huge (and I hope) positive impact.
At this moment of great history, what I always come back to is that I’m a woman born and living in Scotland and sometime some hundreds or even thousands of years ago my many times great grandmother travelled west from a Japanese/Siberian/Mongolian village, carving a path for her many times great granddaughter towards Edinburgh. And I feel free – a lot freer than she did because it is most likely she was enslaved.
To have responsibility for yourself, in the end, is a huge privilege and we each have that – we are free to make our own decision. I am very aware that where my identity goes from 18th September is up to me, and I’m proud to be voting Yes. And when I do so I’ll be bringing my entire identity with me – British, Scottish, Japanese and all – into a new and I hope better Scotland.