A Question of Confidence

The actor Brian Cox created a plume of ‘outrage’ from Unionist quarters for comments he made during a live discussion with the First Minister at the Edinburgh Book Festival. The actor was discussing his conversion from being a Labour party supporter to a supporter of independence. He said:

“I did the voice of Labour for 1997, and I was very passionate about socialism – I am a socialist, essentially, I’m a socialist. So I was really, really pleased to be part of that and we got the biggest majority ever. And then systematically we blew it. Big time. Then, finally, Iraq was the thing that really did me in, and Tony Blair’s hubris over Iraq I just thought was awful. And I felt that the country, the million-man march, it was kind of ignored, and I just thought ‘there’s something amiss’.

“And then when the referendum was looming up in 2014, I realised that there was no… social democracy was missing. And the only place that social democracy seemed to be present was back in my home country. My country has to be free. We have to be free. We have to be our own person. Anybody who comes here sees the difference between the north and the south. It’s so evident now, and Scotland has never been more ripe for it.”

“The only thing is, I just wish the people of Scotland would have a bit more confidence. And that’s the thing that really gets me.”

Cox said it was “through conditioning that we haven’t got that confidence”. He continued: “Once we’ve got [confidence] we will all agree … you just look at this bunch of, I won’t say, but what we’ve been through and you go, you know, this is where we should be and we should have our own country and it should happen now.”

An independent Scotland “shouldn’t be about personalities”, he went on. “It should be about country first, not politics. Country first, and democracy.”

It was this last line of argument that caused a fanfare. Sam Taylor of These Islands (‘uniting not dividing’) called it ‘blood and soil nationalism’ and Cat Headley wrote: “I’m astounded and, frankly, disappointed that Sturgeon sat there and didn’t challenge Cox on any of that stuff, which is pretty insulting to at least half of the people in Scotland. Not only did she not challenge, she appeared to endorse.”

But what exactly is so controversial about stating that some people lack the confidence to vote for independence? For many people exploring the dynamics of culture was a route to exploring notions of self-determination and building cultural confidence. Perhaps what Cat Headley was objecting to was the notion of ‘conditioning’? But it’s entirely fair to say that of course some people object to independence – or want to remain part of Britain for what they perceive to be rational reasons: economic, social or other. But isn’t it also entirely fair to argue that some people lack cultural confidence about their own country?

That seems not just fair, it seems blatant and obvious.

Examples of cultural self-loathing are everywhere. This is not necessarily deliberately cultivated, it is very often just assumed. At times it is not that a hatred of Scottish culture is the problem, but rather the assumption that no such thing exists. George Robertson famously stated in a public meeting in 2014 that Scotland doesn’t really have language or culture at all …


The issue of ‘conditioning’ is an interesting one.

I think it’s more of a surround-sound than a directive. The abuse casually and routinely handed-out to Lennie Pennie, Iona Fyfe, Emma Grae (author of The Tongue She Speaks) and many others for the temerity to speak in Scots, points not to lack of cultural self-confidence, it points to cultural self-loathing.

Here was a comment the Herald newspaper published under Lennie Pennie’s recent article ‘Thanks to the Scots language, we are raising a post-cringe generation’.

The examples are so common and ubiquitous its difficult to keep up.

Here’s Labour lawyer Ian Smart calling author Emma Grae a ‘white nationalist’ because she speaks and writes in Scots:


Here’s the cringingly repetitive argument about Scots published in a  national newspaper:


Here’s Jenny Colgan writing drivel about Gaelic in the Guardian: “After years of trying to master the language of my Scottish forefathers, the unpronounceable vocabulary may have finally defeated me…”

Does any of this speak of cultural confidence? Does this resonate of a country at ease with itself?

When we started publishing in Scots and Gaelic a few years back we noticed that every single time we published we would have to moderate a ton of hostile abusive messages. ‘Scots is not a language’ – ‘This is slang’ – ‘Nobody speaks this any more’ (to people clearly speaking and writing in their own tongue). It was endless. Something about people simply writing in Scots or Gaelic makes other people deeply uneasy. Why is this? It was explicitly not particularly political (Tom Harris famously nearly had a nervous breakdown at the fact The Tiger Who Came to Tea was being translated into Scots).

Scots language suffers from a quixotic double-attack. From one perspective it is derided as being ‘common’ / not really a language / slovenly / slang. There is a strong class element to this aversion which is closely allied to both social aspiration (shedding yourself of such crudity so as to assimilate more easily further up the social ladder), and to cleaving as closely as possible to the dominant cultural force (Anglo-British). Confusingly there is also a critique of Scots as being “middle class”. It’s an affectation and a concern of either a peripheral rural Scotland (ie not proper urban Scotland) or a marginal cultural obsession.

The hostility to gaelic has a different dimension. It is simultaneously less and considerably more threatening to monolinguists and cultural unionists. There is also an expressly religious (ie anti-Catholic) element to this. See for example the comments below the line in the Herald here.

So the hostility is a swirling mass of class and religious prejudice, with a good dose of misogyny thrown in – in the case of Lennie Pennie, Iona Fyfe, Emma Grae and others.

They threaten the mostly white, male audience at some visceral level.

Back in 2013 Murdo Macdonald wrote on ‘Finding Scottish Art’ for Bella. He said:

“In 2010 I presented a paper to the Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig conference at the University of Aberdeen entitled ‘Reflections on the Neglect of the Visual Art of the Scottish Gàidhealtachd.’ In that paper I noted the curious neglect of the visual aspect of a Highland culture that had produced both world class illuminated manuscripts in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries and the founder figure of modern Scottish painting in the nineteenth century. At the heart of my concern was, and is, the necessity of re-appropriating such lost histories. Such concern has informed my research not just with respect to Highland art but with respect to Scottish art in general. There should be no need for such re-appropriation, yet even after the publication of Duncan Macmillan’s comprehensive book on Scottish painting in 1990, it was easy to find yourself in one of those strange conversations in which your interlocutor was earnestly trying to persuade you that in fact the area you were studying did not exist. Typically people would tell me that Scotland was a literary nation and that the visual tradition, was, almost as a consequence of this, of no account. Since many of my interlocutors were themselves Scots, or others sympathetic to Scottish culture, this struck me as an intriguingly auto-destructive attitude.  But what underlay it was, of course, ignorance. A refusal to believe that any significant cultural tradition existed, if they themselves had little knowledge of it. ”

None of this reflects a country at ease with itself, it reflects a country in which anglo-normative values prevail and in which routine abuse against Scots and Gaelic speakers is everyday.

When the Proclaimers released This is the Story in 1987 there was uproar. While the album was hugely popular the response from some quarters was ridicule and shame. The duo had the temerity to sing in their own accents. We’ve moved on since then, but the attitudes remain.

When James Kelman won the Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel How Late It Is, How Late – the Oxford educated judging panellist Simon Jenkins, described Kelman himself as ‘an illiterate savage’, suggesting his inability, and ineligibility, to write.

When he took to the stage to accept his award Kelman stated: ‘my culture and my language have the right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss that… A fine line can exist between elitism and racism. On matters concerning language and culture, the distance can sometimes cease to exist altogether.’

Many Scots who voted No have cultural confidence and base their views on their political or economic judgement. I’m fine with that, I acknowledge it and recognise it despite thinking they are entirely wrong. But many don’t. Many have been brought up to believe that their own culture is inferior, or simply doesn’t exist at all. This is a simple fact played out every day by people who feel threatened by songs or books or road signs, by a young woman tweeting a ‘word of the day’ or by publishers translating books into Scots.

There is nothing explicitly nationalist nor political about using your own language. The terrified people who have politicised this are the monoglots, the unionists and those who can’t accept cultural diversity.


Comments (25)

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  1. Ariel Killick says:

    There’s more – daily forced cultural pygmification – BBC Scotland radio and televisual output in both English and Gaelic is nothing short of insane – regularly, blatantly apparently stuck in the 80s or earlier, so constantly platforming music during its prime cultural programmes (esp. The ‘Culture’ show) that it seems like straight up trolling. I was shocked to see a teenager snort derisively as part of a project when I asked if she liked any Scottish TV shows – I shouldn’t have been. I am shocked – as an Australian and Irish citizen with my mother hailing from Bury – just how regularly English voices are platformed everywhere on BBCS radio coverage – it is so wildly Colonial and so utterly, utterly abnormal.

    1. Thanks Ariel – insane and inane.

    2. DAVE says:

      YES Ariel. I’m sick and tired of English voices covering all fitba’ matches whether in Germany, France or any other country. When Scotland plays England at football the commentator is always English. Same with golf championships. We Scots invented both of these games and yet our Scottish commentators are ignored.

      Of course F.M. Sturgeon says nothing as always. She recently admitted being British so until we get a Scottish leader like Alec Salmond we’ll never see any change.

  2. Alan says:

    I think the most pertinent thing he says is : “you just look at this bunch of, I won’t say, but what we’ve been through and you go, you know, this is where we should be and we should have our own country and it should happen now.”

    Forget about culture, nationalism, etc. You’ve got to be bloody batshit to want to be governed by the halfwits, incompetents, grifters and bottom dwellers that have the run of Westminster. It’s not a lack of confidence. It’s a bloody mental illness if you think you can’t do better than that lot. And it’s not because they are English, although the majority are. There are plenty of Scots who are adept at being equally awful and are willing partners. But independence is a moment when reform might be possible, and not just in Scotland. It’s not about Scottish independence; it’s about The Breakup of Britain. It’s an opportunity to do things differently, to create new systems that are democratic and have checks and balances and accountability.

    Wanting to stay in the union, whatever your claimed nationality, as it is is a bit like saying you’d love to eat a tub of dog shite and have pointy things shoved in your eyes. You could make a case for the union if anyone could figure out how to bring about significant constitutional reform but no one has and everyone knows there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of Westminster and the larger set of British governing institutions reforming themselves. The only questions is how bad does it have to get before you’ve had enough? This winter? Maybe. But I’m not sure its wise to bet against the Scottish and British capacity for masochism. Maybe that’s what holds the union together.

  3. John Learmonth says:

    The nationalist/socialist Brian Cox lives in Manhattan and maintains a second home in Primose Hill in North London.
    He’s also worth £15m.
    So if Scotland votes for indy he’s not going to be affected in the slightest as he left 50 odd years ago and shows no interest whatsoever in coming back.

    1. He actually does talk about coming back. But the diaspora have a legitimate voice. He’s a huge global figure.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        At least Big Tam/Sean Connery had his ashes scattered around Scotland despite living his life in ‘exile’.
        Although according to my Aunty’s he kept a lot of Edinburgh housewives very happy back in the day……delivering milk!

        1. dave says:

          I also delivered MILK in Auld Reekie in my early teens. When are you going to publish a list of your British / English people who live abroad and also put tax avoiding millions of pounds into Panama and other foreign countries? David Cameron immediately comes to mind. Where did Roger Moore live ? Simon Cowell live ? Come on, John.

      2. 220831 says:

        ‘But the diaspora have a legitimate voice.’

        Why? They aren’t citizens; they don’t participate in the civic life of the community.

    2. Wul says:

      Would you like to see a thriving Scottish film industry, so that talent like Brian Cox would be able to find rewarding work in Scotland?

    3. dave says:

      Hullo John. Why are you so jealous and envious of Brian Cox ? Is it because he has done so well for himself ? Whether he comes back to live in Alba or not no one knows. So what?

      Since 1707 all Scots have been conditioned through our English controlled educational system (especially PRIMARY school) to be inferior to our English masters. Too Wee, too STUPID and Useless to make anything out of ourselves…. ‘ye cannae dae that’. The reason for this English teaching is to make and keep Scotland a DIVIDED nation. Have you ever thought about that? It promotes jealousy and anger and causes Scots to criticize each other and hate each other in extreme cases. That’s the key to keeping Scotland as an English colony to steal our riches.

      As a VERY PROUD Scot I am very PROUD of Brian Cox and ANY Scot who has done well for themselves. Especially an independista like Brian and myself.

      Have you ever thought about why you are so angry ? Who told you to be that way ? Please re-read the second paragraph.

    4. dave says:

      You have no idea what is in the mind of Brian Cox. You seem to be very jealous and envious of a Scot who has done well for himself despite being conditioned to be lower class by our educational system (especially PRIMARY school) which has been controlled by the English Parliament since 1707.
      All Scots were and still are subjected to that inferior conditioning however those of us who refused to accept it are PROUD of our fellow Scots who do well for themselves no matter what country they live in.

      Have you ever asked yourself why you are so upset and angry over Brian or any Scot ? Who told you to be that way ?

    5. BSA says:

      Exhibiting there the cringing small minded parochialism and cheap point scoring which perfectly reflects the problem under discussion.

      I’m delighted to hear the perspective of the politically aware and engaged diaspora as I would be to also hear the same from any intelligent foreign observer. Where they or Cox pay their taxes is irrelevant since they are not looting the country at the same time and, courtesy of our contemptible media, we hear a whole lot of opinionated drivel about Scotland from those who are.

      Has it occurred to you that your own relentless attention seeking contrarianism regarding Scotland is also part of the confidence problem.

  4. Alan says:

    “Scotland has never been more ripe for it.”

    I wonder if our friend is echoing another Scottish export to America, John Witherspoon on the eve of the Declaration of American independence: “not only ripe for the measure but in danger of rotting for the want of it.” Ripe and rotting. That’s the measure of the situation.

    Interesting if you follow the Twitter link to see how much crap he takes for living in America. If only more Brits spent more time living outside the UK. Distance and perspective help you strip away the mythologies and see it for exactly what it is.

  5. Wul says:

    “….played out every day by people who feel threatened by songs or books or road signs, by a young woman tweeting a ‘word of the day’ or by publishers translating books into Scots.”

    Aye, but it’s not just a young woman tweeting a “word of the day” that is threatening them. It is the idea of people who might begin to know who they are that terrifies them. People who refuse to wear the label handed down to them by their superiors.

    People who might one day say; “D’ye know whit? We’re sick o’ this shite. We’re aff”

  6. 220831 says:

    ‘But the diaspora have a legitimate voice.’

    Why? They aren’t citizens; they don’t participate in the civic life of the community.

  7. Joe Murray says:

    Thanks, Mike, a quirk brawly descrived.

  8. Fay Kennedy says:

    The way people speak is always influenced by the culture. As James Kelman has said and I am of his age group that working class children were made to feel inferior; ashamed of their Glaswegian language, family and culture. I never could get the shortbread tartan narrative and still feel the indignity of those years after living in the diaspora of Australia for most of my adult life. We dismiss those early influences at our peril as can be seen from the continuation of the diehards who cannot bear to look beyond their unwillingness or is it indolence to another possibility for Scotland.

  9. Squigglypen says:

    Granny was Flora McDonald frae Ballahulish…spoke no English..just beautiful Gaelic. Her son fought for Britain in the Boer War and was at the relief of Mafeking…no traitors to Britain……Here I am …UDI…..no traitor to Scotland…forget all the ‘white noise’ from deranged folk and that wee country south of us about to become even smaller…….focus on beautiful Scotland ,her culture ,her language and the future of her children.
    For Scotland.

    1. 220901 says:

      You mean our languages and cultures – plural – surely, Squiggly. No language community – be it Chinese, English, Gaelic, Polish, Punjabi, Scots, or whatever – should be either privileged or disadvantaged in relation to any other in our increasingly global nation. We certainly shouldn’t link our nationalism to any particular language or set of languages. Social justice demands that it should rather be polyglottal and inclusive.

  10. SleepingDog says:

    Caroline Webb (in Chapter 1 of Fantasy and the Real World in British Children’s Literature) writes about Terry Pratchett’s debt to Scottish ballad Tam Lin and fairytale Kate Crackernuts when he wanted prototypes for his young witch-in-the-making Tiffany Aching character in her debut Discworld novel The Wee Free Men, featuring some Scots-sounding blue ‘pictsies’. And that case doesn’t even feature amongst the many adaptations listed on Wikipedia’s Tam Lin page:
    I guess these cultural influences go on and on.

    1. 220901 says:

      Yep, everything’s a remix, especially in balladry; that’s how narratives are transmitted through the generations. Terry Pratchett’s writing is chock full of borrowings from and allusions to other fantasy literature, which playfulness is part of its fun.

  11. Robbie says:

    Really like your post Squigglypen somehow seems to be warmth in.

  12. Tommy L says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Brian Cox’s analysis of Blair’s premiership and our lack of confidence in ourselves. We can wish it wasn’t so but denying it leads to the kind of manipulation thst puts me off supporting the present efforts towards so called “independence”.

    I’m all for the rising interest in Scots. It resembles how we speak around Clydeside. The gaelic revivals been a very good thing for us, but we could do with drawing back on some of the place name translations you get in the likes of railway stations.
    I suspect a problem for many nationalists and unionists alike is that a growing confidence within a population makes that population more difficult to control.

  13. Dave says:

    LAIRD Robertson is a nobody. He probably took a phoney ‘Upper English’ course from traitor Broon. It should be remembered that English culture comprises of two main things. CLASS DISTINCTION and FOX HUNTING.
    Ma mither didnae ken a lo’ o English.

    Ah aye mind hur saen: Dae tha’ agen an ah’ll gie ye a cluff oan the lug (o skelp yer lug.) She wis frae the Bordurs.

    Now compare that strong rich, dynamic Scots leid tae the lifeless drab, dull English:

    Do that again and I’ll slap your the ear. The accent would change if the English user had attended the school of the dumb….ETONS ( Boris, etc.).

    Ah’ll tak oor leid ower ilka foreign yin.

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