Love And Magical Thinking: From The Province Of The Cat

Next year in September will be the tenth anniversary of the 2014 referendum campaign. Although the result was gut-wrenchingly disappointing those who were 16 then and first-time voters will be 26 in 2024, and the majority of them will still be for Yes, with a desire to see their country reassert her independence. The optimistic spirit of 2014 – the closest Scotland came to a year of magical thinking – still survives, despite setbacks and hostility from every media outlet – as poll after poll shows support for independence at a steady 50+%. This is nothing short of miraculous, especially when you consider the brain-rotting antics of the SNP. Surely to god they cannot all be in MI5?

From Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin the magical thinking crosses the Skye Bridge, from Ayr to Inverness it marches to keep the magic alive. The young lead the way in Edinburgh to claim that Scotland can and should rejoin the European Union, that they have a confidence in Scotland, that there is another way to be free of the racist millionaires who sit in Westminster and to rise above the mediocre aspirations of the three main parties in Holyrood. What the young know is that both governments have failed Scotland. The one on the Thames is malevolent. The one beneath the Castle Rock is disappointing. The former will go down into the pig-swill of history and be consumed by the very monsters they have created. Of the latter the young people ask: where is the realistic strategy for achieving independence other than the one produced by Believe in Scotland? Just what the fuck have you been doing for the last decade?

Recently I watched on STV a mind-numbingly clueless representative of a Labour think-tank trying to get his head around what the Scotland in Europe rally in Edinburgh meant. All he could come up with was that if all those thousands of people – a sizeable proportion who would be young – spent their time going around the doorsteps at the up an coming Rutherglen and Hamilton by-election then their time would be better spent. Even the presenter was left a bit agog at his inability to see Scotland as a nation and the campaign for independence as something else other than a party political election campaign issue. The cause of independence crosses over all the boundaries of Scottish society and politics. This is Labour’s great betrayal of the Scottish people – they keep us trapped in the prison of the Union by their mindless (and groundless) adherence to it. The only future for Labour in Scotland lies in the acknowledgement of the need for a just constitutional settlement for an ancient nation and the reasserting of the sovereign rights of the Scottish people. Unless Labour recognise that this settlement is the concern of the people of Scotland, and not in the power of any government other than our own to grant it, then Labour are gone like snow off a dyke North of the Tweed and the Solway.

This set me to thinking – what, actually, is a country? How can the struggle for independence be more than a hopeful gaze to the future coupled with a fearful glance to the past? I have read and agree with Believe in Scotland’s independence road map and Salvo’s Stirling Directive – you can read this for yourself here – and am encouraged by both. Yet somehow our country is more than this. Where does Scotland start and stop in our consciousness? What is it made of, other than rocks and bog? For our people – for any people in any country – the answer must be love. A kind of love that is both active and passive, that gives and takes, which moves forwards and back at the same time. This is what the American writer James Baldwin had to say about it in his 1963 non-fiction book, The Fire Next Time,

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

That “sense of quest and daring and growth” is what we must embrace. It is a synthesis of future projection and of memory. A country, an individual, without a memory, is a ghost. John B. Yeats, the father of the poet W. B. Yeats, once wrote in a letter to his son,

“The best thing in life is the game of life, and someday a poet will find that out.”

Needless to say he did not think that his son, William Butler, was that poet. John B. Yeats was trying to get his genius son to come out of the fairy mound and to observe the people, before it was too late. That was the future he was trying to secure for his poet son, mainly because they had shared memories and the father wanted his son to acknowledge them.

My first memory is of my mother’s heartbeat as she told us stories from Homer and the Norse sagas, and the musical sound and rhythmn of milk hitting a pail as my Gran milked a cow as she sang the beast a song from Strathnaver. How could I forget that? That for me is Scotland: my mother’s stories and my Gran’s songs. I have held onto them all my life. Which is just as well because in my first week at Dunnet primary school I encountered Dick and Dora, Fluff the Cat and Spot the Dog. I am afraid they had no agency and held no interest compared to Achillies and Hector, Sveinn Ásleifarson and Magnus Erlendsson. Having read through Dick and Dora once and expressed my derision I was given a copy of the King James Bible and told to sit at the back and read it and if I had any questions just to put my hand up. Which eventually I did. “What,” I asked Mrs Docherty “does begat mean?” “What do you mean?” she answered wearily. “Well, Miss, there’s pages and pages of it!” My declaration was met by stony silence. Somebody else had their hand up and that was the end of that. My mother was a district nurse and midwife and over the years I soon learned what begat meant. I also learned, through the King James Bible, about language and what it could do. This to me is Scotland

The first lines in the King James Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” These are mighty and resonant words for a young boy to read and hear in a Caithness primary school in the early 1960’s. Now, like Tony Blair famously declared, I “don’t do God”. But I am a playwright and I do theatre and in 1994 in the village of Helmsdale in east Sutherland the Grey Coast Theatre Company mounted the huge community play, “The Great Bunillidh Volcano”. The performance began with a young boy from the primary school, standing proudly in front of the Bridge Hotel, and he addressed the audience with these words, “In ay beginnin wis nuhain. Then thur wis suhain.” Then the play was on and the production moved through the village taking the population of Helmsdale with it. That is a memory and also a future. The people of Helmsdale still talk about it and they are Scotland.

Baldwin was right – memories, like love, should not be a mask that “we cannot live without and know we cannot live within”. They are the cultural soil from which meaningful lives grow. This is not without struggle and at the heart of this struggle it is difficult to remember what is important. For example it is often the case that we can forget that the cause of Scottish independence is an heroic one. We are confronted by a massive power and the outcome, as yet, is unknown, if not binary: either the UK persists in its repression of our desire or it doesn’t. We either achieve independence or we don’t. Either the SNP wins a majority of seats at the next general election or they don’t. It is a form of madness to think that Scottish independence will mean that life goes on as normal once independence has been achieved. We are challenging an entire system and I suggest that when the Union is dissolved every aspect of our cultural and economic lives will change. We must be prepared to “Gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being,” as Rumi the 13th century Persian poet wrote. “Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.” Or, as the Sardinian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) put it, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.”

A good example of this living without illusions and overcoming half-heartedness, to reach out to majesty, is the poetry of Rob Donn Mackay. Not so much the poetry itself, which is a music unto itself, but the fact that it exists at all. Rob Donn (1714–1778) was a cattle drover from Strathnaver in North West Sutherland. He did not read nor could he write in his native Gaelic. His poems were composed on the tongue – and mainly to pipe tunes – as Strathnaver, at that time, was entirely an oral culture. Nothing of Rob Donn was published in his lifetime. The Gaelic literary establishment thought little of the Bard of Strathnaver and considered his Sutherland Gaelic as being crude and unrefined. When a selection of his poetry was eventually published long after the bards death the poems were almost unrecognisable so altered and refined had the editors thought to make them, much to the disgust of the people of Strathnaver. Now Rob Donn Mackay has more poems and songs extant in the Bàrdachd than any other poet to date. Why this has come to be is because the people of Strathnaver memorised all of Rob Donn’s poems and kept them alive in their tradition, to this day. I cannot think of a greater act of collective love than that. This is reaching out into the majesty. This, most definitely, is Scotland. Magical thinking and practical actions. Surely that must be the motto of our dream?

As a poet and dramatist I am always looking to combine the personal and the political, the intimate with the epic. Each individual who assembled in Edinburgh, and at every rally and meeting across the country in the future, to declare their belief in Scotland and their desire to see their Scotland re-connected on her own terms with the rest of the world, has their own story, their own memories, and in so being are part of the collective energy – they, most certainly, are Scotland. They do what they do from love and how precarious and elusive are the ideas with which we attempt to explain the mystery of love. A mystery that is part of a greater one: the human being, who, suspended between chance and necessity, transforms their predicament into freedom. There is an intimate, causal relation between love and freedom.

Our politics transcends the material world even though the material world will kill us all. What is a country? What is the opposite of magical thinking, love and freedom? Well, it is this. It is not just oil companies that are raking in massive profits at the expense of the public. Across the UK many big companies are posting huge profits, as their prices soar. The top 350 companies in the UK have doubled their profit margins since 2019, according to recent research from the Unite union.

Why is this happening?

Many companies are using the cover of inflation to push their prices up beyond their increased costs and so making more profit. Unite has dubbed it “greedflation”. Overall, this means that the ‘flows of wealth’ from ordinary people to the rich are increasing. And this is driving inequality. Inequality growth in the UK has been put into hyperdrive by this cost of living crisis, as big companies and the rich drain more and more wealth from the rest of us. There is no mystery to it. It’s called exploitation.

This is why we need an independent Scotland. This is why we need loveand magical thinking. This is the game of life. Let’s play it, wholeheartedly and when we march along our city streets and Highland by-ways let us have a real sense of quest and daring and growth which is the end is what magical thinking is. It is love.

©George Gunn 2023

Comments (24)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    Scotland is a sandbox, littered by poetry, infested by griefers:

  2. Meg Macleod says:

    As always,George.hammers home the truth.
    Westminster is just the puppet of others who act quietly in the background. The fight for freedom goes beyond an dependent scotland.the spirit of humanity is under threat…
    If i could roar loud enough i would banish the puppeteers… but alas I am no wolf…and the little piglets… you and me… are in grave danger .check the small print a nd read between the lines of recent and proposed changes in laws.what do they really well they use camouflage

  3. Bill says:

    In the beginning George Gunn created the hope and aspiration that would see off the carpet baggers, the toe rags, the fascistas and the incompetents. Thank you George for an excellent article. Send the fiery cross round the glen and I will be there. Let us go with the young – my seven grandchildren demand no less


    1. 230903 says:

      I can’t help thinking how ‘sending the fiery cross round the glen’ trope was taken up the diasporic ‘Scots’ who formed the Ku Klux Klan.

      It’s nice to see it make its way back across the Atlantic; a Homecoming, indeed!

      Let’s send those ‘carpetbaggers, toe-rags, fascistas, and incompetents’ homeward to think again.

      Heady stuff!

  4. John Learmonth says:

    So George is happy to be ruled by Brussels but not by London?
    Personally I’d prefer to be governed by neither but even if Scotland became independent the rest of us will still be governed by an Edinburgh centric elite.

    1. BSA says:

      Fear not. You will always be governed by your arse.

    2. Jennie says:

      Every country in the EU has an equal voice. Scotland does not have an equal voice in Westminster. That’s the difference.

      1. 230804 says:

        ‘Scotland’ doesn’t have any voice in Westminster; the UK parliament is an assembly of elected members, who equally represent constituencies of roughly equal size in terms of population, rather than their respective ‘nations’.

        One of the main differences between the UK and the EU is that the UK lacks just such a council of nations. The Council of the EU assembles government ministers from each EU country equally to discuss, amend and adopt laws, and coordinate policies. The ministers have the authority to commit their governments to the actions agreed on in the meetings. Together with the European Parliament, the EU Council is the main decision-making body of the EU. The UK (and Scotland, for that matter) doesn’t have a such a council; they only have their respective parliaments, whose members are elected equitably, from among the entire population that’s subject to the parliament’s jurisdiction, rather than federally, along national lines.

        Perhaps, to improve its union and as a sop to the residual nationalism of its members, the UK (and Scotland) needs something like a ‘Council of Nations’, which would function as the EU Council does in its decision-making, to give equal representation in its decision-making to its union’s constituent ‘nations’ and to complement its parliament, which gives equal representation to its constituent citizens or subjects irrespective of their nationality.

      2. John Learmonth says:

        So Jennie,
        Does Greece have an equal voice to Germany in the EU?

        1. 230804 says:

          It does. Both Germany and Greece have equal representation in the EU Council, and, in the EU Parliament, the issue of equal national representation doesn’t arise, since MEPs don’t partition themselves in national blocs but in supranational ideological blocs.

          The problems that Greeks experienced were the result of their own national government falling foul of the EU’s supranational banking rules, to which it was itself party as an equal member of the EU Council.

          1. John Learmonth says:

            Really, so you think austerity would have been imposed on Germany?
            In your dreams

          2. 230804 says:

            I would hope that it would have. However, given the economic inequalities between Germany and Greece, I can’t see Germany ever falling foul of the same banking rules that apply equally to them both. But… never say never!

          3. John Learmonth says:

            The Germans set the banking rules, the Greeks don’t.
            Germany pays 2/3rds of the EU budget.
            He who pays the piper calls the tune.

          4. 230804 says:

            The European banking rules are set neither by the Germans nor by the Greeks but by the European Banking Authority, which was based in London until 2019, when it relocated to Paris, following Brexit. The chair of the EBA is appointed by the European Parliament. The current chair is a Spanish national; his predecessor was Italian. The current Executive Director is a Frenchman; his predecessor was a Hungarian. Not a Boche in sight!

          5. John Learmonth says:

            True, but who pulls the strings behind the scenes.
            Your living in cloud cuckoo land.
            Nothing against the Germans but they run and pay for the EU and so the EU does what they’re told to do by their paymaster.

          6. 230804 says:

            Germany has no greater power within the EU’s institutions than any other members. The German government does pay more (in absolute terms) into the EU than any other member, but only because it has largest Gross National Income; in relative terms, it pays the same proportion of its GNI as any other member. The system of contributions is in effect a progressive income tax, only there are no higher or lower ‘tax brackets’; it’s in this that the system’s equitability consists and is guaranteed.

            (BTW I don’t know where you got you figures (off the side of a bus, perhaps?), but according to the Statista Reseach Department, Germany met only 1/5th (33 million euros) of the cost of the EU’s 2021 budget (164 million euros), not the 2/3rds you claim. Hardly the EU’s ‘paymaster’.)

            Nor does the German government have any supernumerary clout within the EU’s governing institutions, as I’ve already pointed out. Member states participate equally in the EU’s collective decision-making processes or governance.

            The German government undoubtedly uses diplomacy within the EU in pursuit of its own national interests, but so too does every other member. And the exercise of such diplomacy is hardly running the Union to the disadvantage of its other members.

            As for the conspiracy theory that the German government (or whoever) pulls hidden strings behind the scenes to control the EU’s operation: it’s just that; a conspiracy theory, the truth or falsity of which is not worth contemplating. Conspiracy theories can simply be disregarded as not worth contemplating because their central claims can be neither verified or falsified. They are unverifiable and unfalsifiable because, being conspiracies, any evidence that could verify or falsity their existence is necessarily hidden. That’s the nature of conspiracy theories: their truth or falsity is undecidable; they’re what some philosophers of scoence call ‘bogus theories’.

            Finally, you seriously need to up your game. Uttering platitudes like ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune.’ does not an argument make. Show us some evidence that Germany ‘calls the tune’ or ‘pulls the strings’. (But, of course, you can’t because your conspiracy theory’s unverifiable.)

  5. Duncan Sutherland says:

    My first memory is of sunlight filling my eyes and suffusing my mind with the realization that I existed, whoever I was and whatever I was, and that I existed in a world with which I would have to come to terms. Eventually love and what one might call magical thinking came into the picture, as did reason and the magic of music together with the music and indeed magic of language and the language of those around me, which was initially Doric, which, like Gaelic, is not of much interest to most of Scotland, as you may have noticed.

    Scotland owes more to the Bard of Avon than to the bard of Strathnaver, where I would instantly be identified and defined as an outsider, although my maternal grandfather was from Caithness. I well remember the first Shakespeare play that I saw in a theatre, drinking in the vigour of the language which is our common heritage, thirsty for more.

    We are British, whether we affect to resent that fact or not. It is the reality of being mostly Lowlanders who have a dual nationality which constitutes Scottish identity, not some fancied shared Highland bond. There is no escaping that identity, which is just as well, as it is as valuable as the language and the shared British history which bind us together.

    The world with which Scots have to come to terms has no interest in Scottish Independence, because it does not fit into its plans. The international context has changed even since 2014. Have you not noticed? In the world in which we live some things are possible and others are not. The sun still shines in the world with which I still strive to come to terms but not on Scottish independence. Forget it and move on, shedding the load of self-indulgently assumed victimhood just as expeditiously as you can manage.

    1. Wul says:

      “Forget it and move on,… ”

      The cry of the School Janny and Polis man the world over, whenever things look like getting exciting. “No sale” pal.

  6. Drew MacLeod says:

    Excellent George! I read a lot of James Baldwin in my early 20’s, fiction and non fiction! I can’t remember which book but this quote has always stayed with me and I think it kind of fits in with your piece

    “Neither love nor terror makes one blind : indifference makes one blind”

  7. ScotsCanuck says:

    … an absolutely excellent post, I especially loved the “Dick & Dora” “Spot the Dog” references …. I also remember reading this Anglicised drivel in the early 60’s and couldn’t figure out who these children were as they bore no relation to my peers in Glasgow / Renfrew …. they were alien to my surroundings and my understanding of my world … but I was “spoon-fed” this Utopian English ideal, as if I was to aspire to it.
    Like you, I rebelled against it because I KNEW I was Scottish and this was not Scottish … obviously many years later I came to the conclusion this was to be my Assimilation into “Britishness” …. I’m great full to both my Mother & Father (both life long Nationalists) who grounded me in the knowledge of my Country & it’s history.

    I was never, am not now … and never shall be British.

    1. 230804 says:

      If you live anywhere in the British Isles, then you’re ‘British’. Of course, you’re perfectly entitled to relinquish your citizenship of the UK by ceasing to participate in the civic life of that imagined community (e.g. voting in its elections, contributing to its commonwealth by paying your taxes to HMRC, taking what you need from its commonwealth by using the public services those taxes pay for, etc.) and participating in the civic life of some other imagined community instead. But, so long as you physically live in the physical British Isles, you’re ‘British’.

      1. Jennie says:

        According to the Home Office you’re not British, no matter how long you’ve lived here, unless you have every item of the paperwork they demand and have possibly forked out nearly £2,000.

        1. 230804 says:

          I know. The UK government is just as slapdash in its nomenclature as ScotsCanuck is. Having the proper documentation is certainly a condition of being recognised as a UK citizen and therefore subject to the legal rights and responsibilities of that citizenship. The people who live in Ireland are thus still British, inasmuch as they inhabit one of the British Isles, even though they clearly are no longer citizens of the UK (except in the province of Ulster). The people who live in Scotland will likewise remain British even when they cease to be citizens of the UK.

          Properly speaking, ‘Britain’ and ‘British’ are geographical and not political expressions in the same way that ‘Europe’ and ‘European’ are. Properly speaking, Britain isn’t a political entity but only a geographical entity.

          It’s useful to disentangle these confusions for the sake of clarity in our political discourse.

        2. SleepingDog says:

          @Jennie, to clarify, because of the continued existence of the British Empire, British Nationality, Subjecthood and Passport eligibility are still decided on Imperial terms, and the applicable geography is imperial, not islandic:
          “Types of British nationality
          You can apply for a British passport if you’re a:

          British citizen
          British overseas territories citizen
          British overseas citizen
          British subject
          British national (overseas)
          British protected person”

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