Watching Scots administer a beating to one of their greats is an unedifying but, sadly, not an unusual spectacle. All the more so when it happens in the run up to Christmas and involves Alasdair Gray, a ‘creative polymath’ according to Will Self and a ‘fat, bespectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian’ according to himself.

Gray’s sin was to pen an essay in a new collection ‘Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence’ and call it ‘Settlers and Colonists’. Apparently, a settler is someone who comes to Scotland to make a life here; a colonist someone who passes through in pursuit of some other agenda. The Scottish arts scene, according to Gray, has far too many senior administrators in the latter category and far too few in the first.

Scotland’s self-described ‘national’ newspaper became aware of the essay and suggested the terms of engagement with the headline ‘Alasdair Gray attacks English for colonising arts’. On cue the modern bovver boot got to work. Twitter had Gray as anti-English, even racist, before the book was widely available or the essay posted on the publishers website, as it is now.

In fact, the essay is a bit of a ramble with some suspect colonial history and as much focus on the Glasgow arts scene as on the national one. Gray unwisely chose the talented Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland which brought us ‘Black Watch’, as an example of a colonist. He seemed to select her reluctantly, his hand forced by his own argument: she ‘may be leaving in 2013 for work nearer London. That is my only reason for thinking her a colonist’.

To her credit, Featherstone responded with a nuanced interview which, in part agreed with him. ‘In terms of the Scottish scene in general’, she said, ‘I think boards are often not very confident about appointing people whose main experience is in Scotland’. This echoed a line in Gray’s essay inviting us to remember that ‘these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people’. The headline on the interview (‘Exiting theatre boss Vicky Featherstone suffered at the hands of anti-English bullies’) ensured that that area of agreement was lost.

Using Featherstone as an example suggests that Gray got his language and definitions wrong which is something that even-handed commentators like historian Tom Devine and journalist Ian Bell subsequently said. However, it is worth asking what would have happened if he had phrased things differently. If, for instance, he had put it like this:

Another, highly conspicuous niche is the new cultural bureaucracy: in Scotland, the direction and management of theatres, galleries, orchestras, festivals, museums, the Scottish Arts Council and the whole plethora of scientific and conservationist quangos are dominated to a phenomenal extent by non-Scots. This has alienated many Scottish intellectuals, a vocal and unforgiving group.

This is Neal Ascherson writing in 1993 in his customary measured way, to little or no reaction and with arts hiring in Scotland continuing on as before. The last line, however, looks like prophecy though it is remarkable that it has taken the best part of twenty years for the ‘vocal and unforgiving group’ to speak up, at least in a way that persuaded anyone to listen to it.

It is not just that Ascherson and Gray said the same thing in a different way, but that time and context have changed. The Gray furore comes on the back of a 400 artist petition questioning the working culture of Scottish Arts Council successor-body Creative Scotland and the subsequent resignation of its head Andrew Dixon (Gray’s second and possibly more convincing example of a ‘colonist’).

There’s a wider setting too, beyond the arts: Andy Wightman’s work, for example, on the scandal of land ownership in Scotland or the observations of journalist Iain Macwhirter who recently wrote of how ‘giddily altruistic the Scots were in the 1970s and 1980s – giving their oil away in exchange for the Barnett handout and a couple of savage industrial recessions’. Scots, it seems, are finally noticing the fine line between altruism and being mugs.

These, like Gray’s Scottish arts argument, are the areas in which resentment is supposed to breed and where those who hope to find it search most assiduously. However, Scottish civic nationalism is sticking to its ‘inclusive’ narrative and even those who oppose it are starting to suspect that it might actually be true.

As the search for the stubbornly elusive dark heart of Scottish nationalism gets ever more desperate, the supposed sources of it become ever more unlikely. Pace Gray with his shambolic genius, sandals and holed socks in the middle of winter and his Manchester-born biographer and secretary who he may have had in mind when he said ‘some of my best friends are English’ and, of course, made matters worse.

While Gray’s – let’s call it – immoderate language will sell a lot more copies of ‘Unstated’ than would otherwise be expected (no publicity stunt says the publisher), the obvious downside is that it allowed the debate to be dragged into the blind alley of anti-Englishness. As a result, the real issue is now occluded. It lies where Gray and Featherstone meet: that Scots think themselves unworthy of top arts administration positions and Scottish hiring committees agree with them.

In other places a little healthy self-promotion is allowed, even encouraged. In Scotland there are still powerful voices against it, and they are not English but Scottish. The most succinct expression of the ‘hopeless’ Scot was provided last September by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont when she described her own country as a ‘something for nothing society’ and her counterpart in the Scottish Tories provided some dubious statistics in support of that notion.

Nobody would deny outsiders the right to take up influential positions in Scotland when they are offered them. Scots have done that for centuries furth of here. Instead, we need to decide if we are prepared to step up to the plate or accept the stereotypes that other Scots want to assign us. Bet on the first.

And while on the subject of betting, the odds on a Scot replacing Andrew Dixon at Creative Scotland must be narrowing by the day. If that happens, expect a mass denial that the hiring was anything to do with an essay by Alasdair Gray.