Vanishing Scotland

Vanishing Scotland Vanishing Scotland

It’s a big question. Is Scotland becoming less Scottish? Answer, yes. Bigger question – does it matter? Nationalistically, no. Economically, yes. (I think.) The above illustration depicts the demise of (perhaps superficial) ‘Scottishness’ in Scotland’s culture: from the deep seriousness of Burns and the global caricature that Harry Lauder helped to coin… to the blank cosmopolitanism of Franz Ferdinand. But then, perhaps, one of the key strengths of Scots as ‘people-exports’ was their ability to go native.

Here’s how it dawned on me, while working overseas, that being Scottish is no big deal.

Like Sinatra sang, “It happened in Monterey.” I was in the old Mexican city as Executive Creative Director of a New York ad agency for a ‘power breakfast’ with a global client.

Over burritos in the second-best hotel I’ve ever stayed in, we were chatting about our careers.
I told him that, before working on Madison Avenue, I’d founded an ad agency called SMARTS, and that I came from Scotland.

In turn, the client modestly revealed that he’d been the Deputy Finance Minister of Mexico and, before that, the Deputy Foreign Minister and… suddenly three distinct thoughts jumped into my mind.

1. Burritos for breakfast – that’s a bad idea.

2. No wonder Scotland’s tourist industry struggles when you can stay in a great hotel like this for so little.

3. See this educated, successful, worldly man? The idea of Scotland has never crossed his mind before.

Since then – whether I’ve been working in Manhattan, directing ads in Paris, pitching in Dublin or just doing business in the English regions – I’ve had this nagging feeling about Scotland’s international profile. Especially when you come home and the difference in the air, business-wise, is almost palpable.
You can’t put your finger on it. Is the idea of modern Scotland simply hard to articulate? Or is it just that – like Scotch mist itself – the very idea of Scotland is evaporating?

Even an inkling comes as a shock. You’re Scottish; the world and its mother knows Scotland: whisky, haggis, golf, tartan, tarmac, TV, the telephone and thermos flask – we invented the modern world, for chrissakes. Sure, you’ve got an accent, but it’s the distinctive, cultured, non-English version of the international language of commerce. You think.
However, except for one eccentric flute player in Central Park, I’d say no American stranger correctly identified my accent as Scottish.

Most people guess you’re Irish: “You sound just like Colin Farrell,” as one lady server laughably put it. Even allowing for the average American’s lamentable sense of world geography, far too many simply have no idea. In a city which already has two official languages (American and Spanish), a babel of other voices and a parade for every ethnicity, the Scottish accent is rarely heard. Tartan Week comes and goes, and no-one mentions it to you. Even though you sound like Sean Connery. You think

Yet imagine the possibility that the average New Yorker hears something more like Latka Gravas, (Andy Kaufman’s role in ‘Taxi’): a funny voice from some small, indeterminate and (therefore, obviously) insignificant country.

Even if people are not our ‘product’, consider the issue of national visibility and identification.

There are about 500 Italian pizza parlours in New York, and maybe 300 Irish bars. How many Scottish pubs/restaurants do you think there are?

One.

Yeah, I know. We were too busy founding America to open a bar. So, how many Irish bars are there in, for example, Barcelona? Plenty. But only one Scottish pub. And it doesn’t sell any Scottish beer.
For me, that’s the issue.

What makes us visible? Which distinctive economic activities – ‘Scottish produce’ if you like – round out our culture among competing international interests? Even if it’s not a physical product, what recognisably distinct, differentiated benefits do we offer, that the world
cares about?

The aesthetes among us may shudder. Surely, culture is more than the sum of a nation’s GDP? But equally, a living breathing culture can’t just be our collected bric-a-brac, the stuck record of our broken history.

Yet even if ‘Scottishness’ could be the sum of our cultural output, you might still be worried.
Not long ago, I popped in to see Douglas Gordon’s exhibition ‘The Vanity of Allegory’ in Berlin. I’m a bit of a fan, but I’m not sure how many people would recognise his work as Scottish.
Last year, I went to a revue by Scotland’s leading music school. The theatre was half-empty, but the show was entirely filled with American standards.

I attended the opening of the new concert hall in my home town – the first major venue built in Scotland since 1990. Other than 15 minutes from the ever-excellent Craig Armstrong, this gala celebration of a major Scottish cultural event was played out with music from Austria, France and Czechoslovakia.

I went to a J&B party in Cannes and it was rare, except that, run by a London PR firm, you wouldn’t have known the drink was Scotch. It was just contemporary generic hooch, diluted with fruit juice.

At least the Lyceum’s 40th Anniversary featured Liz Lochhead’s take on Molière. It’s the kind of event yuo’d think would be buzzing with energy, and business people making connections. Nonetheless, I hugely enjoyed an evening among Edinburgh’s senior citizens.

Are these just random events, and we can point to any number of countervailing instances? Or do you sense a common thread of unravelling culture? The fear of being seen to be parochial; art that downplays Scottishness; business cut off from ‘country of origin’; a nation no longer interested in itself. But isn’t ‘self-interest’ – in every sense of the phrase – what defines a nation, and binds competitive economy to potent culture? Just ask the Irish.

National self-belief is certainly an issue, as Carol Craig points out in her excellent book ‘The Scot’s Crisis of Confidence’.

Yet you doubt if such insecurity springs from a deep-set national psyche. Our young people – shivering in sportswear, in pale imitation of gangsta-style – can’t even have heard of Dad’s Army and Corporal Fraser, never mind mugged up on John Knox and David Hume. To me, failure looks more like learned behaviour: we simply see how Scottish society gives away its best opportunities with the generosity of a Bertie Vogts’ back four, and assume we’re not good enough.

In a wider historic and economic context, you could argue we have not defended each other that well, either. Has lack of collective will helped erode the cultural ‘line in the sand’ that guarded Scottish interests, easing the drift of business decision-making (and spending) out of Scotland?
Or, more positively, are we so busy being ‘international’ that we forget to foster our own contribution to the global party?

So, what now? You can’t legislate for Scottish solidarity: it’s elective. But, if your own prosperity and quality of life depends on Scotland, it’s an essential investment.

To create a self-supporting economy – with a vibrant culture that can be uniquely and credibly identified as ‘the best wee country in the world’ – we have to become self-supporters. I woke up one morning and a voice on the radio said:

“Hey, you’re listening in the greatest city in the world.”

And that was in Dublin.

Now, wouldn’t it be great to hear something like that on ‘Good Morning Scotland’?

A version of this article previously appeared in Scotland’s national newspaper The Scotsman