The World Is Not Scottish

BE72DEDE218CED39B0F14A32C57AEED547094046.jpg[ProductMain]One of the souvenirs to be reliably found in the gift emporia on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, alongside the See You Jimmy hats and the Princess Diana memorial tartan, is a nasty little tea towel bearing that old Scots toast.

‘Here’s tae us, wha’s like us?’ it boasts, ‘damn few, and they’re a’ deid’.

The dish rag catalogues the inventiveness of Scots as a kind of index of superiority over their southern neighbours.

The average Englishman in the home he calls his castle slips into his national costume, a shabby raincoat, patented by chemist Charles MacIntosh from Glasgow, Scotland. En-route to his office he strides along the English lane, surfaced by John Macadam of Ayr, Scotland.

And so the linen litany continues, via car tyres, adhesive stamps, the telephone, the television, penicillin and the breach-loading rifle. ‘Nowhere’ it says ‘can an Englishman turn to escape the ingenuity of the Scots.’ Behold the small nation complex at its most creepy.

Okay, I know it’s supposed to be a comedy tea towel but such jokes, as Freud taught us, are always a serious business. And all the more so this year, when attempts to amplify Scotland’s sense of self have become mixed up with the campaign for a Yes vote in September’s indyref.

For the most part, the independence campaign has managed to rise above this kind of petty nationalism; the vote in September is, as Elliot Bulmer argued last year, more obviously about popular sovereignty rather than identity or nationhood.

Of course there has always been a seam of banal nationalism in Scotland’s public life. But I was taken aback to see it promoted in the National Library of Scotland, which has opened a new exhibition to celebrate ‘what Scotland has given the world’ called, unbelievably, Wha’s like us?

This framing of Scotland’s history as a gift to the world is insidious and myopic and remains widespread across the political spectrum. It has become a national myth of origin, fed by boosterist accounts like that of the conservative historian Arthur Herman, whose book is titled – with nary a trace of sarcasm – How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It. It was, alas, a bestseller.

A not dissimilar sentiment is also subtly manifest in the recent Declaration of Radical Independence that was lately delivered to the growing ranks of an umbrella coalition of socialists, greens and republicans. “For centuries Scotland’s ingenuity has been a gift to the world” proclaimed the actor David Hayman to the Radical Independence Convention, “Now let it be a gift also to ourselves.” I’m broadly sympathetic with the Declaration but this ‘gift’ historiography risks founding a newly independent Scotland on the same egocentric exceptionalism that characterized the British Empire.


Wha’s like us?: A nation of dreams and ideas

The Scottish Enlightenment and our advances in science and engineering need to be situated within a more troubling imperial geography, in which our intellectual and industrial development was part and parcel of an expansionist British project. This aspect of Scotland’s past is ambivalently figured in the pro-indy debate. On the one hand, the political legacies of empire are precisely what are being renounced; on the other hand, attempts to big up Scotland’s place in the world tend to repress the knowledge of its own darker history.

Recently I was reading a children’s book of Scottish history to my kids. On the last page was a map of the world overprinted with the placenames of Scotland, carried by its global diaspora to every continent. ‘It’s a Scottish world!’ declares the caption, as if the projection of these names was something to celebrate. It isn’t.

This kind of Wha’s like us? cartography looks rather different from the perspective of Dunkeld, Australia where I spent New Year. Nestling in the Western Districts of Victoria, Dunkeld sits at the southern end of the Grampian Mountains, just down the Glenelg Highway from the Trossachs. You get the picture.

It was the Scots surveyor Major Thomas Mitchell who, travelling through the region in 1836, overlaid this Gaelic toponymy onto the lands that the Jardwadjali people called Gariwerd. There is a strong historical consciousness in Dunkeld (pictured below), which to this day maintains active links with its namesake in Perthshire. But a wider sense of Aboriginal history before the arrival of the Scottish squatocracy is eerily curtailed. I searched the local museum in vain for any mention of the massacres and displacements that went into turning Gariwerd into a satellite simulacrum of Scotland.


The Koori writer and historian Tony Birch, a former colleague at the University of Melbourne, has shown how attempts to restore indigenous placenames have met entrenched resistance among diasporic Scots. ‘To name spaces,’ he says, ‘is to name histories’. We need to acknowledge that such placenames and their allied political violence are as much part of Scotland’s gift to the world as tyres or Tarmac. As Nicola Sturgeon noted discussing future negotiations of UK debt and the retention of Sterling, ‘assets and liabilities are two sides of the same coin – you can’t have one without having the other’. Quite.

The world does not need another puggish little state with an inflated sense of its own beneficence. But a new sovereignty, founded on a de-colonized sense of self and alert to its own discrepant histories, might, in time, prove a worthy member of the international community. That, at least, should be our aspiration, even if it doesn’t quite fit on a tea towel.

Comments (33)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. betty lindsay says:

    Very clever. And I really enjoyedthesentiments. Thanks

  2. Robert Szymanski says:

    I can’t believe I have been so blind.

    We Scots, established or recent imports, are all crap. Imagine trying to hold onto any sliver of pride over centuries of being told how mean, feeble & treacherous we are.

    We should just accept our place is to be colonised by wankers, emphasis on colon no doubt.

    I’ll vote ‘NO’ and slink like the cur I am meant to be

    1. Rebecca Green says:

      And the Scottish wankers that went to the West Indies to colonise the people there?

      You missed that bit. You might want to do some more reading since you seem to be trapped in your history books anyway.

      We all get colonised. Every human. Stop whining and move on.

      Yours sincerely

      A black English (fourth generation) wanker.

      1. Stephanie Hall says:

        Dear Wanker,
        That line about colonisation is from the movie “Trainspotting” and not actually meant to be taken as a dismissal of Scotlands past. It’s merely a joke referring to misery of the Scots being a pitiful subserviant race of peoples.

        Your welcome.

  3. Don says:

    I agree with the sentiment here to a degree, but I think the argument is further realised in something I read yesterday here

  4. Scots travelled (and settled) far and wide long before the union with England, empire and colonialism. Even after, some who travelled were forced to. Focus on your perceived negativity if you like, but when I look around I don’t see a nation that is overly confident in itself.

  5. Eliz. Broadly says:

    Agreed. We must accept our past good and bad. Work for justice for all, respect all. Be sensitive and make amends.

  6. Davy says:

    Good post. I’d just add another angle – much of the MacHismo noted is particularly masculine

  7. I have cringed when sovereigntist Scottish government leaders have talked about Scotland being a beacon to the world. If we can be a beacon to ourselves we’ll be doing well. We are so oppressed by the Union that we have been unable to be a beacon to ourselves, and seem prepared to accept being designated by Westminster as non-existent, having been absorbed by England, and too congenitally dependent for actually exercising our Sovereignty, the Sovereignty we have according to Scot’s law, and thus is part of the basis of the Constitution of the UK.

  8. Abulhaq says:

    Unionism has used Scotch myths gu leòr. The most ardent Unionists, will swig uisge beatha, sport tartan, wear the kilt( invented by a Yorkshireman), drink to the immortal memory, sing the praises of Fleming, Baird, Bell, Scott, Hume et al but balk at Scotland being anything more than the butt-end of England. We do not need their tea-towel, shortbread tin Scotland. The road to independence should be lit with the bonfires of such adolescent vanities.

    1. Don says:

      Sorry, but the kilt being invented by an Englishman is a myth. Invented by late racist HughTrevor Roper when he was trying to rubbish Scotland. See here

      1. Abulhaq says:

        An entrepreneur called Rawlinson, from Lancashire not as I thought Yorkshire, is historically credited with the invention of the modern skirt-like kilt. A variant of the feileadh mòr it was considered more convenient, used less material too, than the traditional form which like a toga or saree required skill, or help, in putting on. Lord Dacre was no friend of Scots, though he chose to live here, but he did not fabricate this story as it was around well before his time. Kilt isn’t a native Scots word either but an introduction from Lancashire-Yorkshire dialect. Traditional highland dress, as worn by the Young Pretender in Edinburgh, was politically too hot so along with Gaelic the Unionists suppressed it. They are rather good at that… have we a history, or have we a history!

        1. Nathaniel Hamilton says:

          Had I not been born in the US, adopted, taught nothing of my cultural heritage, and not been imprisoned in the time of this Yes scheme, I certainly would still not be wasting precious time arguing who thought it quaint to dress us up in skirts while any and all Scottish History is vanishing during this so called “age of information.” I don’t understand this, or if its even a social injustice. But its a common belief alot of scotch americans didn’t come here willingly, left behind the courageous message of the founding fathers, and we scotts in america aren’t taught anything about it. Every day I get to listen to some black communities complaints of racism for being related to other white people some how. I’m 100% desensitized to sympathy, watching my culture drown in a sea of the angry mob who doesn’t know where the undeniable scotch culture they’ve adapted came from in a time it was illegal to learn the language, and jest me for liking derrivitives of my own culture. No scotch will ever become un-scotch by any invention. I have two sisters, and a brother, of which I’ve only seen once in my early twenties. Talking to them was rather pointless in all honesty, because we told the same story. Speaking to my brother was like having a conversation with my voice mail. All of us, Hamiltons we, were raised to believe we were french and german. Despite living in the desert city Phoenix Arizona, being born blonde hair blue eyed I never questioned what I was told. Yet somehow, I am my fathers son, whether anyone cares is irrelevant. I’ve always had a sense of confused identity, so earlier in life I believe it cause for my hair to turn black, my eventual beard to turn red, and the unexplained reason when I feel the fiery passion to Stand to Action my eyes turn green. It’s not Britains or Americas place to defraud us for better or worse. I wouldn’t be a Scott if I didn’t end with gaf, so….. Britain is afraid once Scotland becomes independent, the world will no longer call it “Great Britain.”

      2. Don says:

        There is pictorial and other evidence to support there being short kilts (the modern skirt-like kilt) that predate the story of the English entrepreneur. The story may have been around longer than Hugh Trevor Roper but he developed it into his all round dismissal of scots and particularly Highlanders as having had anything to contribute to his vision of the world. The fact that his criticism is itself a myth is what makes it so ironic. He dismissed the entire continent of Africa before the white man got there in the same way.

    2. Don says:

      I agree with the rest of the post though!

  9. chicmac says:

    Lack of self-criticism is not an accusation usually levelled at the Scots. On the contrary, many commentators would claim we do rather too much of that.

    Personally, my belief is that compared to standards in other national/cultural benchmark sets, this doubting characteristic of Scots is, if not unique, rare, and for that reason alone, valuable.

    However, if it is taken too far, then it becomes very difficult to dispel the lovingly crafted ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ of the unionists.

  10. MacDonald……’.Nuff said

  11. G. P. Walrus says:

    We do need to recognise our genuine strengths though. Recognition of the undoubtedly significant and continued intellectual contribution of Scotland to the world should not be dismissed as “puggish” just because of an over-boastful tea towel.

  12. Davy says:

    Not so much eithor/or BUT both/and . The Caledonian Antisyzygy ?
    Maybe exemplified in this song by Davy Steele , about Scots cleared from the Highlands,
    some of who went on to clear Native Americans from their lands.

    On a brand new shore on a brand new day
    You kissed the ground where you had landed
    Took one last look o’er a thousand waves
    To the high high lands from where you were hounded
    You could still smell the smoke from the black house roof
    You could still hear the laugh of the carrion that fired them
    You looked to the sky and you gave God’s curse
    To the hard hearted laird who’d hired them

    So how could you forget the anger and the hate
    You felt inside when they robbed you of your pride
    And caused you to wander

    So you closed your mind to the pain of the past
    Forged a new life , found a new future
    And you swore in your heart that here at last
    You’d would be no mans master
    And you let the world know in the eyes of your laws
    All would be free and created equal
    THEN you swept through the land like a fire on the wind
    Where you touched the earth the touch was final

    Then on sacred land owned by ancient man
    You found rich soil and precious metal
    So you swept them aside with your guns and lies
    With only the thought of your own survival
    For all the fine words that were said to inspire
    All the poor of the world , all the crushed and the homeless
    Were drowned in the flood of your sole desire
    To command so much power , it would make you shameless
    For you forgot how it felt to be bought and be sold
    To be sent far away to be owned by another
    You forgot the one thought in the minds of the oppressed
    Is to one day rise and make things better

  13. Dennis Smith says:

    “We do need to recognise our genuine strengths though” (G.P. Walrus)

    Agreed. But we also need to recognise our weaknesses: we need to be clear-eyed about every aspect of our past, good and bad. If we want to reject imperialism (which is a good way of looking at the independence movement) then we must also reject Scotland’s imperial past. Where necessary we must acknowledge that some Scottish colonists did things that are unacceptable by contemporary standards, and where possible we should try to make amends. Anti-imperialism is a seamless whole.

    Slightly O/T, I think Elliot Bulmer is wrong to suggest an opposition between popular sovereignty and identity or nationhood. I’m solidly in favour of popular sovereignty, but in order to have popular sovereignty you have to know who the people are and that inevitably raises issues about identity. These are two sides of the same coin.

    1. Abulhaq says:

      Scotland’s collaboration with imperialism must be acknowledged but we ought not to excoriate ourselves in the process. Making apologies for things we did not personally do is tokenism even when concerned with things as vile as forcing the introduction of opium into China or the trafficking in millions of African slaves. On the latter Arabs might also have some deep regrets. We cannot undo history we can only make sure that elements of it are not repeated. The union with England was good for a few but a disaster for Scotland. We have learnt a bitter lesson. A popular democratic Scotland would, hopefully, not make such errors again.

      1. Dennis Smith says:

        Agreed again. I’m not suggesting we get into the vacuous business of apologising for bad things that our ancestors did. But Fraser’s example of continuing hostility to the use of Aboriginal place-names in Australia shows that there are still live issues here. There are parallels with negative attitudes towards Gaelic in Scotland, popular as well as official. We’ve made progress in recent years but there is still a lot to be done. (It’s not that long since I read a proposal that all Scottish hills should be given new English names for the benefit of Anglophone tourists.)

  14. Looby Dopp says:

    What a relief to read this sensible article. So many countries, like the USA, France, UK, Hungary. believe in their exceptionalism, destiny and role in the world. Maybe all countries do, but it is creepy, and in the case of a country like Scotland which doesn’t even run its own affairs, even sadder and on a par with the exceptionalism of Yorkshire. We should wait until we are adult enough to decide our own future and make our own decisions and mistakes before boasting too loudly like a drunk after closing time on a Friday night.

  15. What an awful little article. Offended by a tea-towel. Fair enough, there’s an underlining of little nationalism comparing Scottish ingenuity to the supposed malaise of the rest of the world. But it’s a bloody joke; it’s meant to be taken with a fair amount of humour! Have a Coke and smile, FFS!

    And why can’t Scots (and the rest of the world for that matter) celebrate what it has brought to the world?! Why does penicillin and television (etc) have to be thrown in the same bag with the more brutal aspects of imperial expansion?

    It’s this kind of PC moralizing that I just can’t. And if it’s going to be a central aspect of a new, sovereign sense of Scottishness – then count me the hell out.

    1. Abulhaq says:

      Embracing modernity is what this about. We have enough old Scotch myths to fill a library. We do not need more and we do not need to keep reminding ourselves that we invented this or that. It would smack of terrible insecurity if we did. Unionism makes a patriotic display of this stuff using it as a justification for perpetuating the status quo. Look Jock, see how well you done out of it!

    2. Yesnaby says:

      With respect nordicscotland I disagree entirely that it’s pc moralising.

      The dishcloot is in many ways a trivial example, but all the better for that, as regards the wider point: and the reference to the dreadful touristy Edinburgh Royal Mile is also useful in this context. If the writing on the tea towel included, as well as everything else, a statement about what the Scots had done *for Scotland* then there would be far less cause for complaint. However the presentation in this typical way of the Scots as a people always going *out* of the country – whether, as the article describes, to help take over other places and give them names, or to provide inventions for a needful world, or simply as economic migrants – reinforces the sense that the country itself is in its very nature some kind of enabler for other places, rather than a place with a strong and *bounded* sense of itself.

      Not that there’s any point to keeping tarmac in Ayrshire or whatever – let’s export it, of course. But the idea that a country should constantly supply its people and ideas (and resources) ad lib to a grateful world and derive its sense of purpose as a nation from the presumed gratitude of those others, leaves us just constantly *emptying ourselves* for their benefit – and supposedly feeling good about it. It’s for this reason that both the Royal Mile tat shops and the stuff that they sell doesn’t strike us plainly as something we should be very keen to see the back of.

      1. Abulhaq says:

        The British Empire was, in effect, a bolt-hole for ambitious Scots who could not make it at home because on the basis of the deathly “kent his faither” mentality you were an ambitious upstart who needed a good sorting. We gave Russia Lermontov, to Norway Greig, to Chile its navy, to France the Banque de France, to England the Bank of England and so on for every an ay. That we are clever is undeniable. The mystery with regard to Scots is why we knuckled under to Anglicisation with such enthusiasm. Hume was contemptuous of his background, Buchan thought of himself as English. We allowed England’s capital to get away with the spoils of empire leaving only the crumbs to the benighted “partner”. Of course the Indians fell for it too. Jewel in the Crown indeed, but India/Pakistan paid every ānā for their subjection. The English do know how to schmooze( ie bullshit ) and are past-masters of divide-and-rule, by now we ought to be immune and have moved well beyond the need to trumpet our identity via the dish-clout on the sadly naff Edinburgh heichgait.

      2. Thanks Yesnaby. But I’m having a hard time seeing how these inventions and such are ’emptied’ from Scotland? I’m pretty sure Scotland benefitted from tarmac, penicillin, television, whiskey, pneumatic tyres, bicycles, the telephone etc etc etc as well?!

        I just feel it’s something to be proud of – within and without Scotland. I don’t like the idea of erasing or disowning or silencing something. These different facets of Scotland – it’s myths, history, inventions, kitsch, modern and postmodern elements – should be seen and used in terms of a dialogue, not in terms of power. I don’t want to see the back of anything – good or bad, innovative or disturbing, new or old.

    3. Robert Graham says:

      Fully agree with your post I don’t see the point of this confusing piece do we now forget our yes at times bloody history and travel the world apologising for all hurt caused to everyone indeed anyone who will listen and never again utter and disown any link to any invention discovery and forever more keep our gobs shut ha ha I realy don’t get this piece

    4. Stephanie Hall says:

      I agree it’s wrong for us but somehow ok for English people to still be yelling “two world wars and one world cup!” whenever they play Germany. We’re not to celebrate our culture and history because not all of it was pretty? If this article is in fact written by a Scot I would suggest therapy as it’s clear it’s actually themselves they hate.

  16. Davis Mullen says:


  17. Stephanie Hall says:

    What a sad little diatribe that was. Therapy is reccommended, maybe one day you’ll love yourself and where you come from.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.