2007 - 2021

Cringe Worthy

CaJOWNNWAAAeHJkPoor Alex Massie embarks on some predictable snarky cultural commentary in his wee corner of the Times today. But what has upset him so much? Before anyone has even appointed the new Makar he is getting anxious: “So farewell then, Liz Lochhead, whose term as Scotland’s national poet, or “makar” has come to an end. I doubt I am alone in failing to recall any of the poems your wrote” he writes, dripping in disdain. The standfirst to the article: “those individuals who refuse to acknowledge the prevalence of the English language are only fooling themselves” makes the agenda very clear. This is Borg-like anglicisation. Cultural resistance is futile. In a comic twist he continues: “Let me make a very modest (sic) prediction; whosoever successes Ms Lochhead will not be a publicly declared Unionist…The new “makar” will have to pass a mysterious and unacknowledged “Scottishness” test. And why not? This is a country that loves lying to itself.”

Clearly Mr Massie is upset. But why? What is the need for this fervent cultural orthodoxy? What existential threat does having some small modicum of culture expression hold?

The use of inverted commas around makar are thudded-out onto to Massie’s keyboard with a terrible force. Why so vulnerable? What’s the problem? After all we are told that the panel of former First Minister’s who will choose the National Poet includes those terrible nationalists Jack McConnell and Henry McLeish, and the entire process is presided over by the New Zealand-born Robyn Marsack, Director of the Scottish Poetry Library. The process to come up with a shortlist includes representatives from the Association for Scottish Literary StudiesCreative ScotlandLiterature Alliance ScotlandNational Library of Scotland, the Saltire SocietyScottish PEN and StAnza (Scotland’s poetry festival), it’s hardly a hotbed of blood and soil nationalism is it?

If anything the emergent live poetry scene in Scotland is characterised by its openness, its vibrancy, its focus on the contemporary and every day. It’s not interested in national identity. Where do Swedish-born Agnes Török, or British-American Sophia Walker, or Jim Monaghan fit into Massie’s paranoia? Similarly, the Scottish Poetry Library is marked by its internationalism and its lack of ideology. Massie is clearly confused.

Continuing rambling across his cultural unconscious he goes on: “Very few people actually write, or read, Scots today” without pausing to think why that might be. In fact, as we launched our Scots and Gaelic pages, one of the very first comments we received was a reader writing: “I never realised I could write the way I speak.”  It’s a plaintive cry and one that would seem ridiculous in any other modern European country today.

Scots, as all language, is a living moving fluid beast. It is not, as Massie suggests, to be confined to Dunbar and Henryson but is a reflection of all of our day-to-day lived experience. But this culture reflection is an anathema to those people who want us to understand “we speak English here” – and any deviation from that is simply unacceptable. In a country were few of the key cultural institutions are led by Scots, or even people with an in-depth understanding of Scottish culture, the very idea that you might ask that of your national poet is considered treasonous. It is a ‘lie’.

What threat do Jackie Kay, Don Patterson or Douglas Dunn pose to Massie? What terrible impact would Patterson, author of “40 Sonnets” (2015) and “Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (2012) have on Massie’s monoculture? What exactly does Kay represent that’s so threatening, and how exactly does she represent some narrow Scottish archetype? It’s a very vulnerable British culture that can’t accommodate the merest of representation within this “family of nations”. It tells us a lot about how fragile the political project is that it can’t withstand the slightest diversity. The clue is of course in George Robertson’s famous quote from the referendum. This is to be a cultural desert. To recognise culture difference would recognise difference, and history, and that is intolerable.

I’m all for the makar role being changed, expanded, revitalised. It should be taken out of the (Scottish) states hands. It should be a role that is open to public and popular appointment. It should operate as a gateway to expression and creativity and encourage writing and speaking in every tongue. In doing so we would prove a genuine cultural confidence.





Comments (76)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Rab Dickson says:

    Massie, who I have a soft spot for at times, is in great danger of disappearing up his middle stump these days.

    1. Alistair says:

      I have a soft spot for Massie masel’. although in ma case it’s a bog in the Western Highlands!

      I agree with much of this article, particularly the need for independence and freedom of constraint for the Makar, whoever that may be.

      My wife is half-Swiss and they have a similar situation with Schweitzer-Deutsche where it is the proud and loved vernacular of the people but commerce and academia use high German, which is also taught as part of the national curriculum, there being little if anything else written.

  2. Clive Scott says:

    Massie is a craven Westminster toady to be denigrated at every opportunity. Well done!

    1. James Coleman says:

      Hear! Hear!

  3. Sara Mac says:

    Born in England, lived in Scotland for 50 years, would like to see an Independent Scotland. Along with a lot of others, I have a great love of Liz Lochhead’s poetry and her plays I was delighted when she was chosen as Makar and reject the nastiness which is part of the reported article by journalist Alex Massie.

    1. Hugh McMillan says:

      To be honest Mike Small misquotes Massie and so makes the nastiness seem worse . What Massie actually says is “am I alone in failing to recall any of the poems you wrote while occupying this post”? Must say I think Liz is great but I can’t either.

      1. I’m not sure how I misquoted him but it’s hardly the main point of the article?

        1. Colin Waters says:

          Liz has indeed written a beautiful and memorable poem during her time as Makar, ‘Favourite Place’, which is about the death of her husband; it is no exaggeration to say it has touched everyone who has read it. She’s a poet, not a publicist, so I hardly think it’s Liz’s fault that some people haven’t (yet) taken the time to seek out this heartbreaking verse:

          But tonight you are three months dead
          and I must pull down the bed and lie in it alone.
          Tomorrow, and every day in this place
          these words of Sorley MacLean’s will echo
          through me:
          The world is still beautiful, though you are not in it.
          And this will not be a consolation
          but a further desolation.

          You can read the entire poem here: http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/favourite-place

  4. Andy Borland says:

    All hail the Times’ paywall!

    Eternally grateful for the small mercy of not being able to read another BritNat give voice to their Scottish cultural cringe.

    Not only do guys like Massie embarrass themselves, I almost feel embarrassed on their behalf.


    Imagine feeling threatened by your own distinctive culture?

    Truly bonkers.

  5. john young says:

    They lack confidence in themselves,looking to others in this case England/English to give them a bit of spine,problem being there are so many of them in our country,almost impossible hurdle to overcome.Our school curriculum leaves a lot to be desired as far as educating our kids to our nations worth,they are fed a diet of British Empire tripe,no wonder they have no pride in their country.

  6. Leslie Forsyth says:

    Doesn’t this article also “(thud) drip with disdain” (thud)?

      1. James Coleman says:

        I DO like that reply. (And put down)

  7. Patricia McTavish says:

    I nearly passed out when “Lord” Robertson made that speech, I couldn’t believe a Scot could say such a thing, but what it did was make me really determined that people like him should not be allowed to have sway over how we speak here and whether we want to retain our culture or not. I love trawling through the Scots dictionary and marvel at the wonderful words in it. It always gives me a boost.

    1. MBC says:

      Then you might appreciate what somebody once taunted the narrow lipped Mr Robertson with:

      ‘George, ye’ve a mooth oan ye like a soo’s erse’.

      1. Patricia McTavish says:

        I do really appreciate that ha ha

  8. James Coleman says:

    “The new “makar” will have to pass a mysterious and unacknowledged “Scottishness” test. And why not? This is a country that loves lying to itself.”

    Indeed why not. It’s about time the cultural bodies in Scotland reflected the fact that they are SCOTTISH, IN SCOTLAND. Nearly every major cultural body is headed, and many almost exclusively filled by incomers. That, would not be tolerated in any other country, even in England.

    1. Jim Monaghan says:

      James Coleman, did you read Mike’s piece? He suggets poets who are not “Scottish” but are an important part of Scotland’s poetry scene. The national poet does not need to be Scottish, why should they be?

  9. gavin says:

    Massie certainly would have had to pass a much stricter “Blood and Soil” test to be able to write for the London Times—or any of the other Anglo/British press, with their Eton-fashioned colonial minded condescension.

  10. Josef O Luain says:

    I think that we should all get on with the promotion of Scottish culture and pay a lot less attention to the likes of wee Mr Massie, a wee patter-merchant with one eye to a diminishing market, who has been paying his bar-bills for years by selling this kind of tripe to the people that he went to school with.

    1. Graeme Purves says:

      Spot on, Josef. Alex Massie knows very little about Scottish culture and any views he cares to express on the subject should be given little weight.

  11. John Mooney says:

    Massie epitomises the infamous “Scottish”cringe in all its pathetic manifestations,what a truly LITTLE man Massie shows himself to be,a sad benighted husk of a man!

    1. Valerie says:

      Massie is a sad, pathetic whinging cry baby.

      I seriously don’t know how him and his ilk, can take something positive like this, and turn it into such a downer.

      No wait, I do know.

  12. Steve Bowers says:

    I love the idea of the Maker being taken out of “The State” hands, let’s take it to schools, primaries and up to Uni’s, print poems from the “contenders” in the papers for online voting etc etc

    Open it up to the people and increase engagement with it.

    I have to confess I have little knowledge of Scottish poetry other than Burns once per year, I blame my education, it was Romans in Britain for my generation, Scots history didn’t exist so this is the perfect opportunity to inspire young minds.

  13. Iain says:

    I wonder what his take on the Eisteffod is? Or about the cultural identity of Argentina and Uruguay, official language Spanish.
    But joking aside, I always believed that having a separate and distinct church, legal system and education system meant that this argument about culture was done and dusted 300 years ago. Language is just one card in the identity deck – I don’t think that Americans feel less American because they speak English, nor Australians or Canadians.

  14. Susan Macdiarmid says:

    Mebbe he’s feart it’ll be Tom Leonard.

    1. Hugh McMillan says:

      No in fact he quotes Tom Leonard as part of his argument

  15. Alistair findlay says:

    So,s Tom

  16. Peter Shaw says:

    Overwritten, overworked and overflowery/overfloury, Mike.

    (And yet the distracting typos, suggesting haste. ~ Overwrought?)

    You have kneaded Massie’s article into a very odd loaf indeed.

    And seem to be fighting a different battle. With furious but different buns.

    1. My buns aren’t furious. I think he’s a cultural bully

  17. Graeme Purves says:

    It appears that Massie would prefer the use of the Scots language and the term Makar to be left in the safely distant 15th Century with William Dunbar and Robert Henryson. He eschews reference to the period between their time and Hugh Macdiarmid’s efforts to create a synthetic Scots (he mischievously misrepresents the meaning and significance of the term ‘synthetic’ in a linguistic context) as that might necessitate some acknowledgement of the continuity of a vigorous tradition of poetry in Scots through figures such as Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns to poets of the 20th Century Scottish Renaissance as varied as William Soutar, Violet Jacob, Marion Angus, Helen Cruikshank, Robert Garioch and Sydney Goodsir Smith (another New Zealander).

  18. Mike says:

    There is one decent point made by Alex Massie in the 50 or so words before the paywall fades in, and that’s on how many of The Makar’s poems are known by the wider public.

    Not to give him more/any credit than is needed, the appointment of a new Makar is a great opportunity to promote poetry out to the broader population and allow an art form illuminated by linguistic variety to have a figurehead who can champion and reflect all those languages we now hear and that make up Scotland’s linguistic landscape in 2016 and beyond – not just its heritage languages.

    Oh, and yeah, he does have a tendency towards being a fud, and doesn’t really engage with random tweeters-by questioning his assumptions, but there you go.

  19. Thomc says:

    It may be understandable if it were the scribblings of someone, from outside of Scotland with little knowledge of the countries heritage, traditions, culture etc., but then again, this might just be Mr Massie displaying his ignorance and like so many others of his ilk, manifests itself in the Unionist Scottish cringe.

    1. Douglas Scott says:

      tut tut..what’s all the fuss about Bella?
      Massie is a mere intellectual Pygmy and not worth the publicity.

  20. Allan Thomson says:

    In the words of Woody Guthrie “it takes a worried man to sing a worried song”.

    1. MBC says:

      Gle mhath!

  21. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Scots like Massie are a blight on the people who identify as Scots. The cultural cringe is so normalised and insidious that you could weep with despair. The fact that Liz Lochhead’s poetry is not familiar to the people she represents is no indictment on her but on a history of exploitation and oppression that’s centuries old. Who has time to read or write poetry when so many of us are barely able to get through the day with enough to eat and a roof over our heads. I love the polyphony that is Scottish and wish I heard it more. In Australia the same cultural cringe exists with every mouthpiece rep. coming from elsewhere and little knowledge or understanding of the culture. The great thing is that even with downtroddeness that’s been Scotland’s history there’s that much talent and barely been tapped as yet.

    1. Mitchie says:

      Surely the cultural cringe is endlessly having to define culture on a ‘national’ basis. Confident cultures rarely do this but instead are able to explore their local/ nation/ region experience incidentally etc without all the pomposity and hand wringing. And when they do their art tends to transcend cultural boundaries and tap into the universal.

      Bob Dylan may have chronicled America, and the Beatles England, but they are adored everywhere.

      Joyce may have written exclusively about Ireland, Borges Argentina and Marquez Colombia or Murakami Japan, but they all rejected the notion that their literature was a ‘national’ literature. In fact they were so scathing of it they exiled themselves for lengthy periods in order to distance themselves from all the closed shop, naval gazing(not Marquez).

    2. Tracy murrat says:

      Oh get over yourself. People are not reading her poetry because they simply are not interested. They are too busy watching strictly, X factor, big brother, corrie, going to the bingo, the pub, the pictures, the footie and so on and so on. Scotland is not an oppressed country.

      1. Frank says:

        Well said!

      2. Mitchie says:

        Right enough. The oppressed poet seemed quite happy to receive the big shinny gold medal from the evil British establishment. Cretins.

    3. Alf Baird says:

      Boarding at Glenalmond (an ‘English’ education) will have kept Scottish culture from him, and given him his superior British (Empire) mindset. He also plays cricket!
      “In 2007 the school was at the centre of a national media row after pupils reportedly created an offensive spoof video that featured them “hunting” “chavs” (a derogatory term in use in the UK for working-class people) on horseback and with rifles.”

      1. kbhresq says:

        “He also plays cricket!”
        Widely played in the Borders: http://www.cricketscotland.com/news/article/summer-cricket-borders/

        1. Alf Baird says:

          Sorry, what was that? Cricket? I’m busy watching paint dry.

        2. Alf Baird says:


          Well, what can one say about the board of yer typical ‘Scottish’ public quango:

          – Unionist
          – Anglicised
          – Upper social classes

          Representative of most Scots or of Scotland? Naw, a dinnae think sae

          1. kbhresq says:

            On Wednesday afternoon Scotland’s female cricketers had the honour of meeting First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood…
            First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Cricket is increasing in popularity in Scotland and the men’s national team qualifying for the 2015 World Cup was not only a fantastic achievement for the side, but also an opportunity to inspire the women’s team and to encourage more people to get into the sport.”

          2. Alf Baird says:

            The FM is just being polite. We all know the England cricket team is historically the team that represented Britain/England, though now represents ‘just’ England and Wales (until 1992 also Scotland) in international cricket. This is because cricket is essentially an English game. It was exported to several colonies but the Scots were less welcoming. If played in Scotland it tended to be at (1) elite fee paying schools, at (2) elite universities, by (3) the corporate/financial elite who by and large came from the same elite schools and universities, and by (4) English people coming to live in Scotland. Any analysis of cricket playing in Scotland will tend to reflect one or more of these 4 elements. That’s why ‘Cricket Scotland’ is run by an elite minority more or less for the benefit of an elite minority. The vast majority of Scots are simply not interested, never have been, and probably never will be.

          3. kbhresq says:

            Alf, you have demonstrated that you are just as proficient as Massie at “snarky cultural commentary”. You don’t seem to understand that for someone brought up in the Borders, cricket, like rugby, does not carry the heavy associations of class, nationality and history that you seem unable to escape from. The First Minister provides a much better example of an inclusive civic approach. As Mitchie says above “Surely the cultural cringe is endlessly having to define culture on a ‘national’ basis.”

          4. Alf Baird says:

            Its not so very long ago, in an era of limited viewing options, that the Scots masses were force-fed endless hours of tv cricket by the EBC. That is rather more akin to cultural oppression than cringe, yet like so many other examples of colonial power where ruling assumptions are crude, ignorant and disrespectful.

    4. Peter Clive says:

      Some thoughts on the cultural cringe, including some specific cricket related musings …


      1. Alf Baird says:

        Interesting article Peter, thanks. This definition of the Scottish cringe (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_cringe) also suggests the ‘condition’ manifests itself mostly in the mentality/culture of the unionist-Scot, with the exception of the third element (i.e. a belief by many Scots that they are victims of English colonialism and cultural imperialism within British institutions etc etc).

  22. Mitchie says:

    The usual overwrought, spittle flecked, tabloid style writing from Small who seems to have read a completely different article to the one I did. Massie (who can be a little precious at times) is not in any way culturally bullying anyone, but pointing out the way culture and the public space is narrowed by politicisation (nationalism being one of the worst kinds). Many decent writers, artists etc who are neither overtly pro indy or anti indy have bemoaned the increasing exclusivity and naval gazing of the cultural space in Scotland by a select few who think they ‘own’ it and by virtue of their political preferences are somehow more authentic (that goes for history too Mike). They don’t. Scottish culture ought to belong to everyone and is organic and pluralistic and to do this it is best left alone to it’s own devices.

      1. Mitchie says:

        Yep, hard to be objective about your own writing but it comes across as dogmatic and very judgmental, not productive and progressive. Bit like the Daily Mail but with different prejudices.

  23. yesindyref2 says:

    Massie has a good brain in his head but chooses to use someone else’s.

  24. MBC says:

    Can Massie recall anything written by the current Poet Laureate?

    Thought not.

    1. Marcia Blaine says:

      Isn’t she a Scot too?

  25. Moleskin Joe says:

    Irredeemable pish from Massie.
    The respected academic, Duncan Glen, in his fine book, Hugh Macdiarmid and the Scottish Renaissance, eloquently demolished the imperial drivel of this unionist clown in one succinct paragraph:

    ” There are considerably more regional dialects of English than of Scots but, due to the governmental power of London and, arising from that, the cultural power of London and of Oxford and Cambridge, the dialect of South-East England has become the superior dialect of all England. It is a CLASS as opposed to a REGIONAL dialect and as
    the dialect of the ruling and educated classes it is (for them) a social asset. ”

    It is political and economic power that has elevated South East English to the position it has, with no intrinsic value or merit above any other dialect. The brightest of unionist lickspittles, no doubt, are well aware of this but the truth clashes with the better thegither agenda of their paymasters. So it’s ignored. Whit a surprise! Plus que ça change…

  26. Angus Skye says:

    So, since we all speak English, Mr Massie, we have no national identity of our own, ie are “English/British”?

    Tell that to the Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.

  27. Alan J says:

    Labelled Xenophobia
    These British Isles have suffered long
    From places and language being pronounced wrong
    By those who visit but do not belong
    But us pedants will not play along
    With few people presented as everyone’s peer
    Culture and art will finally pay dear
    Keep language local. Change to refute.
    And pay homage to established lingual root.

  28. Jim Monaghan says:

    LIz Lochheads tenure in the post was a massive boost to Scottish poetry and spoken word, she made herself available to people at all levels to support and promote poetry. She spent her time with rappers, in community centres, taking part ain gigs who couldnt normally afford her. If the next “Scots Makar” (I am hoping it is Rab Wilson) does the job as well we will see a growing scene get evebn stronger.

  29. Monty says:

    From the Scottish cringe to the Scottish whinge. It’s progress of a sort

  30. Wul says:

    I think the most interesting thing about this is the very issue that Mr Small originally raised; why is Massie so angry?

    Why do people who hold so much power and sway, get so very angry when ordinary people enjoy their-selves?

    What is it about seeing a gathering of people (arguably less fortunate and well off than yourself) celebrating their own, dear culture that makes a powerful, wealthy observer so incandescent

    Their is something in this well worth thinking about. I suspect it may be a source of power.

    1. Wul says:

      Curse the lack of an ‘edit” function on here. I’m happy to contribute to a crowdfunder for an “edit” button.

  31. Pete Searle says:

    What an odious, unintelligent man he is.

  32. Mitchie says:

    I used to be a Yes man. But i’m sick of the passive aggression culturally speaking. Take the stupid twitter storm, with Mr (Bellacaledonia) Williamson avbout JK Rowling, giving her a hard time for something? I’m not sure what TBH? He condemns her for her ‘obscene’ wealth (despite the fact it is all self made and she pays tax and has set up and donates millions to charities and has enriched millions of lives and makes Scotland known around the world). Compare this with another millionaire writer, Mr Williamson’s pal, Irvine Welsh, who doesn’t live in Scotland, but in America, and doesn’t pay tax here, and who has done more to denigrate the Scottish working classes as scumbag heroin addicts or psychopaths etc, for his own enrichment than any Englishman. But they still think they are ‘better’ and more ‘authentic’. Tragic nation this is.

    1. Wul says:

      “Tragic nation this is.”

      How could we change it Mitchie?

      1. Mitchie says:

        Plenty of power now, here’s a thought…raise taxes and redistribute wealth?? Ah but no, every excuse under the sun to not do so even though a small increase in low earners tax means a much much greater ta on the very wealthy that can be put into things like transport subs for people in the peripheral schemes or educational grants etc etc. But then I was fool enough to think indy was about redistribution.

    2. Pilrig says:

      And, shockeroonie, the characters in Welsh’s novels don’t speak properly !

  33. Peter Clive says:

    Although, of course, there is always Gaelic / Ged nach eil fhios gan e a’ Ghaidhlig a’ th’ ann riamh

    The Gaelic Medium Workplace

    Cha chreid mi nach e

    Some Gaelic haiku

    Do you speak Mitchell?

  34. Paul says:

    Compare the unionist media’s open disdain for Scots and indeed Gaelic with Canada’s mature treatment of and respect for First Nations languages:


    “Everything that we are is in our language. It is the base of who we are.”


    “A young man’s determined efforts to revive his ancestral language — which started with grassroots language nights in his father’s home five years ago — reached a new milestone this week with the announcement that he’ll be leading a full-time adult immersion program for the Skwomesh language at Simon Fraser University in September.”

    Oh to love in a country that looks after its culture. Canada also enforces a specific % of Canadian “content” eg music or TV that must be featured in broadcasts. Imagine if Scotland tried that.

  35. Justin Kenrick says:

    Massie can’t remember a single Liz poem?! . . . : http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/newsandmediacentre/31671.aspx

    “Poets have never been ower fond of politicians.
    Are rightly gey wary of flags and slogans”

    following on from Makar Morgan’s ‘Open the doors’:

    so why not make the next Makar a ‘say it how it is’ (and never write it down) one? . . .

    Jim Monaghan (the bard of Cumnock, the needed needler, 2012 Poet in Residence at Govanhill Baths) for Makar despite himself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exxF_tr5y5E

    Or Tom Leonard scoring with his:
    “if you dribble past five defenders, it isn’t called sheer prose
    poets are the unacknowledged thingwaybobs”

  36. John Rutherford says:

    Let’s no worry about the likes o Massey. He’s an irrelevance.

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.