MORE BOREALI (Latin: in a northern way)
This is an old editorial from the Edinburgh Review republished with kind permission by Robert Alan Jamieson
I’d like the Scottish Nationalists more if they didn’t have word Nationalist in their title, I said. Or Scottish. That’s only there to give them an excuse to slag off the English. I thought for a second. I reckon they should call it the Land and Water and Trees and Rain and Buildings Party. That way nobody gets left out.
– Pat Hunter, in Duncan McLean’s Blackden
We are often told this is a small country, out on the Euro-periphery, looking habitually south and slightly eastward to the golden triangle connecting London, Paris and Bonn/Berlin, with Brussels at its midst – once the high road to England was the finest sight to be seen; now maybe it’s the Channel Tunnel.
And it’s said that this is not only a small country, but that it’s mostly a wild, uninhabited one. Since the industrial revolution, the people have cooried ever closer to the great rivers, abandoned or been cleared from the higher ground. Between the Border hills and the Grampians, more and more of the good arable land is being built on, more sprawling roads spread, more branches of McDonalds and multi-national clone-factories open, while the bread and butter industries have died and one-work communities, hit by closure, shut up shop. In the far north and west, whole villages have disappeared, whole islands have been deserted and the wilderness has reclaimed them.
And we are told that ours is a sick, repressed society, fatally flawed, split off or hanging on by the fingernails to a tilting sanity; either a Bible-ridden bunch of forelock tuggers, a dislocated population housed on their own reservations, boozed-up and furniture screwed down in case a junkie tries to nick it, or suburbanite dog-professionals attending Gaelic wailing and spinning classes, undergoing nervous breakdowns to recover some mythic race-memory. A sick country: high cholesterol, bad liver and a withered hand. The only happy ones, it would seem, are those content to be Tories, because at least they’re rich even if they are fucked up by their parents, and can afford to blast some innocent creature, or fly off to OZ when SAD strikes.
Yes, the story goes that this is a country of seasonal swings, of tribally divided selves, Tcheuchter an Sassenach, Tim and Billy, splits an schisms – where one hand does what it likes and the other is too timid to do anything about it – Dr Jekyll, antisyzygies an a’ that. Too variegated, too set against ourselves, for any simple nation-state identity to fit neatly.
The young Aberdeenshire loon Pat Hunter’s idea of reducing the SNP to a ‘Land and Water and Trees and Rain and Buildings Party’ in Duncan McLean’s novel has an appeal as a way of ducking out of traditional tribalism, of avoiding exclusivity. And a ‘Land and…party’, one that puts the interests of the natural world at least uppiesides with the human, does perhaps exist in some nebulous form, a number of single issue groups, yet to accrete around Greenpeace, the Green Party or Friends of the Earth. In the new Scottish Parliament, Green representation via PR is a distinct possibility.
Right now, we suspect that a ‘Land Party’, as ownership stands, would most likely tend towards the days before the 1832 reforms, and that absentee landlords would take their seats once or twice a year to pick up their expenses. But in one thing the loon Hunter got it dead richt – calling a party a name like Scottish Nationalist limits; it recalls the party’s origins in the spurious pre-World War II debates (involving writers such as Buchan, Gunn, MacDiarmid and Linklater) as to whether the Norse or Celtic element in the Scottish race was dominant, recounted in the recent Scottish Skalds and Sagamen by Julian D’Arcy.
Out of these debates, the need for a unifying political banner became apparent to some, and Scottishness provided it – not to keep other people out, so much as to keep the people of Scotland in. To hold the hail clamjamfrie, there was manufactured some kind of one-size-fits-all seamless garment of communal Synthetic Scots identity. In this disguise, the gallus Glesca Bear and the green-Hibernia Leither are taken to be the same man deep down, and if you peel him further, underneath you’ll also find Donald o the Isle of Skye seeking his troosers, and Johnnie Gibb o’ Gushetneuk coontin his penga. All bound together by something about the light, the prevailing winds, songs learned at mammy’s knee, a lilt in the lineage even if the Gaelic’s lost; an almost instinctive wariness of the more sophisticated an powerful neighbour to the south; and the knowledge of the safe place of retreat to the north: iconic but’n’ben i’ the glen, or mouldering castle in silence-inspiring emptiness. Just as there is a myth of the evacuated north, so the mythology of the north has been evacuated – where it rises in recent memory, rapine in the Third Reich’s iconography, it appears distorted and ugly beyond countenance. The wee folk of the north still resent that misappropriation.
Yet still and all, a London prince with a Scottish grannie and a Fascist grand-uncle may develop a noble friendship with a humble Lewis crofter despite their differences, and some deep awareness of the land binds all, somehow in the blood. Or so the story goes, as if southern urban Scotland/Britain had been made out of the raw material of the north, had absorbed it and all it had to offer, as if the north had been left behind, yet somehow remained a constant in the soul, impressed like the remembered image of a favourite mountain ridge. The myth of the empty north, synthesised in the southern soul, is now widespread.
Yet there are plenty of folk living in the north of Scotland who know well enough that simple things like mountains make a difference to quality of material life, and are not only there for the benefit of the soul. Travelling around them, many miles there and many miles back, to buy a pair of shoes or replace a broken tool is not the normal experience of a central-belt dweller. On the north and western peripheries, the usual nearby amenities are not so usual or nearby. For many, life is lived at a distance – very often away from other people altogether. Children are collected up at a ripe age and taken to be educated at the nearest large town, some for a term at a time. Folk travel long distances to school and work in the course of a week – in fact, the way of life begins to sound like that of a Norfolk-to-London commuter, whose children are off to boarding school. But these peripheral commuters aren’t earning 100K pa. – unless they own Norfrost. Recent research into poverty in Scotland has shown that there are folk in the Highlands and Islands living below the poverty line in sub-standard housing, as poor as any conditions in the lamented ‘reservations’ around the central-belt cities, struggling against the highest cost of living in the country, with a barely-existent public transport system. Indeed, the similarities between the geographically northern ‘rural peasant’ experience described and that of ‘urban peasants’ living ‘peripheral’ lives around the southern cities are not to be overlooked. Despite obvious differences, they have ‘Common Cause’ across the tribal divide.
Something really does happen to people who go into the north. They become at the very least aware of the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents and come to measure their own work and life against that rather staggering creative possibility.
It seems, at this point in its history, as if Scottish culture must ‘go into the north’, to fulfil the creative potential of its future as a northern European country in post-imperial Britain. For when the centre of government shifts, its relationship with the ‘peripheries’ changes – an Edinburgh parliament will obviously alter the political map by shifting power northwards.
In the extreme case of ‘Independence in Europe’, Scotland stands to Europe, equivalently, as Lewis does to Britain a small, sublime place out on the north-west, speaking strange linguistic forms, possessing a fascinating ancient history, having provided a good many inventive and skilled for the long gone Empire – as well as proportionately high numbers of dead in the great 20th century wars. A good place to site a military base, a nuclear dump or an oil terminal, maybe the least-damage option for an environmental disaster?
In such a changed Euro-situation, the ‘peripheral’ northern experience of boom/bust capitalist exploitation at the hands of external economic forces is more relevant to southern Scotland than during the years of the Ravenscraig syndrome. Alliance with ‘peripheral’ neighbours around the rim of Europe can provide a safeguard against the sublime isolation of a ‘euro-Lewis’. In so doing Scotland realises its position as a European country, rather than a British region, rejoining the lines of orbit around the golden triangle at a valency akin to that of the Scandinavian countries, of Eire, of Portugal, Catalonia, southern Italy, Greece, Poland, Russia and so on – creating the rim of the Euro-wheel, where Europe touches the rest of the world.
Edinburgh Review 98 ‘goes into the north’: fixes its focus on the geographically northern frontier and, by placing Scotland in that context, a shared existence lived across national and tribal borders – an ancient internationalism, dating from a time when modern political centres were small or non-existent. We wish to engage the reader with the Canadian composer Glenn Gould’s idea of the north and to extend that as a metaphor suited to describing our view of the post-devolutionary mind-set required to make the new Scotland. We wish to emphasise that ‘staggering creative possibility’, to free ‘north’ from literality, so that as a pure symbol it might means those areas in which creativity is most challenged by possibility, therefore to include urban deprivation, not merely virgin territory. We wish it to stand for those areas of northern wilderness and the wasteland of post-industrial poisoning scarring large areas of the country and its seas. In both instances, land ownership is the key to use or abuse. We agree with Patrick Geddes that ‘each must cultivate their own garden’. But this presumes the possession of a garden.
Now, more than ever, Scotland’s people must ‘measure their own life and work against that rather staggering creative possibility’ – to paraphrase Alasdair Gray, work as if in the first days of a better situation and make it so, not because of place of origin, but a common commitment to fulfilling the creative potential of their locality. As the Liverpool Daily Echo said in 1938 of trapper-turned-conservationist-and-Indian spokesman Grey Owl when he was unmasked, as not a ‘Scotch-Apache halfbreed’ as he claimed, but none other than plain Archie Belaney from Hastings, Sussex, ‘What after all does ancestry matter?’
…When a man has devoted his best years to such a cause it is surely unfair that he should be dubbed an imposter because he may…have been an Englishman and not a Red Indian…the record of his work speaks for itself.
Scottishness, that variegated, synthetic thing is desirable – tourists carry away enough tartanrie in suitcases. Moves towards clearer definition of Scotland as a political entity can only increase that interest. And for those cultural refugees, Scots-born or not, who want a total covering – to be part of Scotland – it should be acquired slowly, like a long plaid of egalitarian ideas swung around a shoulder, containing threads of all the colours, fitting regardless of shape or hue. Belaney’s story is a lesson to those who would wear that plaid of many colours – only sincere concern for the future of his chosen home saved the exposed ‘Grey Owl’ from the midden of great historical pretenders.
In post-devolutionary Scotland, the differences which exist between conditions and cultures in areas of the country must be recognised, by further devolution of power if desired. An Edinburgh government prepared to ask the people of a place what help they require to continue to survive, and hopefully to thrive, rather than doling out subsistence from central office or encouraging evacuation, is one which recognises that these ‘northern’ lands are not empty at all, but full of creative potential when examined closely. In any territory, small or large, it is by developing a sense of ‘integrity’, of being ‘a centre’, by ridding itself of that term ‘periphery’ – often merely a euphemism for ‘overlooked’/’unimportant’/’impoverished’ – that the devolutionary process unfolds.
Let the ‘north’ of Scotland remain a place where tradition and history are valued, not swept away by developers – but not as a heritage park for tourists, where the name McDonald immediately conjures up a Happy Meal. It isnae Disneyland – real people live here too. And let those real people – whether they speak Gaelic, Scots or English, or are among the 95,000 who have none of these as their first language – let them live in real housing suited to the environment, connected to the world beyond without penalising taxes, tolls or unsuitable laws enforced from outwith, free from the laird’s whim-dictation, in a north where children can be educated close to home, sure in their local wisdom as well as trained to live in the newly unifying global continent of Technowondaland. For as the Dogrib elders of the Canadian North West Territories say, in Allice Legat’s essay published here, such ‘strategy’ makes the young ‘strong like two people’.
As Scotland further separates itself from ‘the Yookay’, the irony that the spread of so patently non-English writing laid out in this issue of Edinburgh Review should be largely in forms of the English language is not lost on us. As with the language of earlier great empires, even peoples who have never fallen under its dominion seek a mastery of the imperial tongue, and desire to hear their local discourse translated into that mainstream because, as with Latin, the availability of such a lingua franca enables an increased exchange of learning. Ironic, perhaps, but an important attunement and a continual reminder of the historical conditions which have created our current situation. For the Dogrib Dene, to use the imperial tongue to win back their land is surely justified as an act of cultural vengeance; while to do so by utilising the wisdom of a separate tradition is indeed to be ‘strong like two people’.
Let Scotland’s future be a ‘north’ in which ‘strong like two people’ links with its boreal neighbours are positively encouraged, so that we may learn from each other. Our links with the south are strong already – too much so, judging by the referendum, as if the handclasp has become a stranglehold. By looking north, that habitual south-eastern crick in the Scottish neck clicks back into place. These are not idle poet’s dreams – not even ideals. They are the policies and practices of a northern European country entering the new millennium, governed more boreali.