Whose culture is it anyway?
From ‘See You Jimmy’ to the Scots ‘cringe’. What does culture mean to you?
In case you didn’t know, we are currently in the midst of a cultural conversation nationally. What, you didn’t know? Well you do now. I’ve been trying to engage in this ‘conversation’ recently, but like most conversations I have, I seem to be talking into a black hole. Call me old fashioned but I thought conversations went two way… but in the absence of feedback I’ve resorted to writing my thoughts and opinions.
You might get luckier than me, you might be smarter than me – here are some places you can ‘have your say’ – in what you may find to be a rather one sided conversation.
Is anyone listening? I can’t say. But if you don’t speak you don’t have any right to get angry when your opinions and views are ignored. And hopefully, in what follows, I’ll be able to convince you that culture is something that is important to us all, and that your opinions should count – so it’s worth spending some time sending them into the black hole.
For me, culture is inextricably tied up with identity. That’s why it’s important.
In the late 19th century it was not unusual for people in Scotland to refer to their location with the initials N.B. North British. Scotland as part of the ‘Empire’ became a minority region of a greater global power. And some people were doubtless happy with that. Some people doubtless still are. Post Indy Ref I have to say, I find myself thinking of Scotland as ‘North Britain’ rather too often. I’ve become frustratingly cynical about my own culture and how it manifests in the modern world. ‘Too wee, too poor, too stupid.’ Aye. Right.
We are all aware how effortlessly the English elide British and English. It’s a behaviour we may laugh at or rail at when it comes to sport – our sportsmen/women are British while they succeed and Scots when they fail. But, beyond that, it’s something we should not simply dismiss as trivial.
In todays ‘one nation’ Britain (which seems ill at ease with the acceptance that there are four ‘nations’ in Britain apart from in sporting fixtures) if we get recognition at all, it is as a ‘minority’. And that means our culture is seen as ‘minority’ culture (along with the cultures of Ireland and Wales). I baulk at this. It’s a case of context is everything. We are only ‘minority’ in the context of British culture and identity and if you do not (as I don’t) accept that Scottish culture and identity IS a minority part of something bigger (and better?) but instead is a culture and identity in its own right, then we are in no way a minority simply by being Scots.
It all smacks of ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ right? Nationalism can be an ugly word, we all know that, but Scottish nationhood is NOT the same as the unacceptable face of fascism. Don’t fall into that specious argument trap. Scottish nationality is Scottish identity, which is Scottish culture. Deny one and you are on the slippery slope to losing your cultural identity.
Revision point One: Our culture is NOT in any way a minority thing. It’s the culture of our country, our people and it is a fundamental part of our national identity.
But, I hear you ask (well, it is a conversation after all isn’t it?) What is culture?
I’m sure I’ve done this before but here goes with a definition: Culture (noun)
2. the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society.
For me 2 takes precedence over 1. FUNDAMENTALLY our culture is the ideas, customs and social behaviour of a particular people or society. That which makes us Scots. From ‘see you Jimmy’ hats to the Scottish ‘cringe’ it is who we are. For me, 1 is a manifestation of 2. And as such, is important. You don’t have to buy into the ‘human intellectual achievement’ as being ‘high brow’ but you have to see that a full definition of culture is as follows:
Our culture is the ideas, customs and social behaviour which are manifested through our expressed communication, including the arts.
Have I convinced you yet? Our culture is who we are – as a people, a group, a community, a nation. And my contention is that Scotland has its own individual and unique culture which is NOT in any sense a minority one but a culture in its own right.
But what then, is our culture? What sets us apart from other cultures? This, is the very nub of the question. And this at the root of the questions being asked in the Scottish Government Cultural Strategy Consultation. (aka the Culture Conversation) Whether they really want to hear or not is another matter, but they are asking us what we think our culture is and what value we place on it. They are not, in my opinion, making it easy for the average Scot to engage with the ‘conversation’ as a two way thing – but that only puts the impetus on us to do more to speak out. If you shout and no one listens, you can be aggrieved. If you don’t even bother to shout, you have no right to complain. I know no one is listening, and that is frustrating, because it’s silencing by proxy, but I will speak – even if not heard.
Let’s approach from another tack. In biological terms ‘culture’ is the site where things are grown – a place which maintains tissue cells, bacteria etc in conditions suitable for growth.
I think the organic, verbal view of culture should be accorded more significance. Rather than seeing culture as a noun, something that just exists but you don’t have to engage with – which in reality means it’s imposed from on high and we ignore it as much as we can – this approach suggests it is an active thing, something we all have a responsibility to nurture and to ‘grow.’
A key question then is: do you think that culture is something that should be imposed from above, or something that we grow from the grassroots? I believe the latter. And unless we, at the grassroots level, tell them up there what we think culture is and what we expect from it (and what we are doing to maintain it) then they will tell us what it means to them (and for us). I for one resist cultural imposition. I’d like to say I think this is a trait of Scots cultural identity, but the North British effect makes me question this.
Now, how about culture as cliché. That’s something we as Scots have perhaps become too used to. ‘Tartan and shortbread’ is delivered as an ‘accusation’ - the sneering, smear of ‘kailyard’ is set over popular grassroots culture. I’d like to talk about what the ‘See you Jimmy’ hat signifies. Is it a comment of self-imposed ridicule? Is it an example of Scots humour? And what is wrong with Tartan and shortbread? These are the sort of questions I think we should be asking (as component part of the ‘bigger’ question of who we are and how we manifest ourselves.) I do not accept the ‘standard’ view on any of these issues. Who will talk with me about them?
What about defining ourselves in quotes? The Canongate Wall at our Parliament Building is home to a number of Scots quotes. http://www.parliament.scot/visitandlearn/21013.aspx
Who picked them? Where is ‘there are few more impressive sights than a Scotsman on the make’ from Barrie? Why is that most quotable of Scots, RLS represented with ‘Bright is the ring of words.’ Why does MacDiarmid (not even his real name) have three quotes and Burns two? Why does Dumfries and Galloway have quotes from the Bible rather than from Crockett? Is it true that God is a Scotsman?
Perhaps the one that most ‘inspired’ many Scots around Indy Ref time (I know it did me) was attributed to Alasdair Grey:
‘Work as if you live in the early day of a better nation.’
But it’s actually a quote from a Canadian poet. It will serve us, surely, but it’s not from our indigenous culture. What does all this signify?
Might I suggest that the fact we are so happy to beg, borrow and steal from other cultures and are in many cases simply ignorant about our own culture - historic, scientific and literary – is not altogether the most flattering part of our cultural identity. There’s that Scots ‘cringe.’ We have a strong conceit of what ‘best’ means (perhaps too strong) but we do not give due credit to our ‘best’. We are, after all, ‘too wee, too poor and too stupid,’ (and often just too disinterested) when it comes to things cultural. We believe we are a minority. We wrap ourselves in tartan and despise ourselves for doing so. There was nothing wrong with tartan. But like many another thing, we let it become appropriated for North Britain and then commodified for the world till it stopped being anything that means anything Scottish – are we in danger of doing the same to ourselves? Too many of us deny who we are, more comfortable being part of something bigger – despite what that ‘bigger’ thing signifies. British Empire? Really? Nuclear super-power? You want that? Foolishly prosperous nation in a fundamentally unequal world? What’s to be proud of there?
Are we in danger of becoming our own cliché? I fear so. We all trot out ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’ but what do we actually mean by it? Do we really hold ourselves up as a culture which respects or promotes equality? Do we (as we used to say when I was young) coco. [that, my friends, is what I suggest is an example of Scots ‘slang’ or patois.]
I will come to Scots language in due course (never mind the Gaelic). The elephant in the room may well be that we comfortably write in English but cannot thole or conscience ourselves writing in Scots if we want to be either heard or listened to (or understood). But simply because we’ve been ‘oppressed’ by the privileging of English language, does that mean we should deny our existence outwith the context of English/British culture? [I’ve heard the language/grammar police deny that ‘outwith’ is even a word].
Scots, we are told, exhibit a fundamental duality of character. Yet we cannot be a servant o’ twa maisters (an Italian play by the way). It’s a weel kent feature of Scots identity that we believe no one should get ‘above themselves.’ We despise Barrie for his comment ‘there are few more impressive sights than a Scotsman on the make’ without stopping to consider what it actually might mean. But oh, how proud we are of Andrew Carnegie. Oh, how we want to claim J.K.Rowling as one of our own. (well, some of us do!) We are hidebound by hierarchy at every turn and would rather see ourselves as ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ than stand up and ‘be a nation again’ (except when singing at sporting fixtures) – oh, and of course we are all shite at sport, right? Why leave it at sport? Why not buy in to the Trainspotting Generation and show your complete lack of self-respect? I’ve heard so many people proudly declaim the ‘Scotland is a shite place’ speech from Trainspotting, that I despair. * That’s not duality, my friends, that’s self-harm. And why, as a culture, do we favour self-harm as a means of cultural expression? You’ve got the refrain pat by now – ‘See me Jimmy, I’m too wee, too poor, too stupid.’
But there is a duality. Between being proud of who we are and understanding that gallus is not the same as boastful. I just went and looked up the word – and here’s what greeted me:
stylish, impressive (esp. Glasgow “He's pure gallus, by the way“). Orig. derogatory, meaning wild; a rascal; deserving to be hanged (from the gallows)
Make of that what you will. All the worlds a… and one word in its time plays many parts – an whaur’s yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?
And then there is Scots ‘high’ culture. For me this is a contradiction in terms. For me, a fundamental part of Scots culture is that people are not held in great esteem simply because they have more (be it education, money, ‘talent’ – whatever that might mean – beauty or skill.) Surely we can all agree ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’? Or is that just another clichéd quote? I believe ‘High’ culture is an English (or British) invention. It is hierarchical in the extreme and it develops as a way to keep people in their place. Those at the top tell us what is valued and we doff our caps and agree. But that’s not something I recognise as a fundamental part of the Scots nature. I believe that the Scots ‘cringe’ is something that has been imposed on us in word and deed over generations leading us to believing our familiar refrain: ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ to make up our own minds or to speak our own minds.
The assault from ‘high’ culture comes in many forms. Obviously it’s seen when we are told that opera is ‘better’ than traditional music or that sculpture or conceptual art are more culturally valuable than ‘knitting’ or ceilidhs. But it’s also seen where we are told that one version of our language should be privileged over another. That we should standardise and formalise our grammar and spelling for example. That anyone who says ‘I should of went home’ is ridiculed as ignorant. I believe (though I have to say my belief is waning) that Scotland is bigger than that. More diverse than that. That as a culture we appreciate that the communicative act itself is more important than the package it’s dressed up in. That the heart is as important as the head – emotion is not a dirty word in my understanding of Scots culture. David Hume agreed with me. I doubt but whether youse do.
But as you may be aware, I’ve already been trying to develop an argument to illustrate that concept that ‘Enlightenment’ culture is not fundamentally the culture of the indigenous Scot. If you want something to talk about, here is my opinion: It wasn’t in the 18th century and it isn’t now. It’s a manifestation of a proto-British view of the world and yes, a capitalist view of the world which sits uncomfortably with a culture rooted in the community. Scotland is no longer a rural, peasant nation that’s for sure, but the privileging of the urban over the rural is not one of the prouder aspects of our modern culture.
The rural idyll is a thing of nostalgia for the urban majority, cast up to those who live in the country. A huge part of Scotland is rural. Most of its people are now urban. Yes, there is a mis-match going on there somehow isn’t there? And what impact did the Clearances (Highland and Lowland) have on our cultural identity?
It is the urban/rural duality that particularly exorcises me when I think about Scotland’s cultural identity. In the context of Scotland as a nation and cultural entity in its own right (which is the only way in which I will see it), I contend that rural culture holds the status of ‘minority’ and it is this ‘minority’ cultural tradition (and reality) I fight to promote and preserve; in the face of an urban majority which privileges the ‘high’ culture and urbane manners of the urban hierarchy, who are oh so convinced that they are not an elite (cultural or otherwise) simply because they are in the ‘majority’ in one sense. They think that ‘gritty urban realism’ and ‘Tartan Noir’ dictate what Scots culture is.
Refuting the role of the rural in Scots culture is, for me, part of the root of our problem. We have lost the power or desire to nurture our culture in the same way as we neglect or mis-represent our rural communities and landscape. I cannot argue strongly enough that it’s a ‘North British’ view of culture which presents rural Scotland either as the place where rich, landed Tories hold sway (yes, it’s true that there are more than enough of them taking more than their share of the rural pie) or a land of teuchters who are ‘too wee, too poor, and too stupid’ to understand that they should simply up and move to the cities. Rural Scotland is either a place seen as an idyllic playground (but for the rich, or aspirational) or a benighted, culture free zone - the kailyard. Though what, I ask, is wrong with kail? Is it not indeed a superfood? Why can we not see the beauty of our rural landscape (along with its harshness) without using words such as ‘majesty’ or ‘grandeur’.
One of the most significant exemplars of Scots culture from my childhood is what has now been enshrined as the ‘right to roam.’ The fact that there’s no law of trespass in Scotland, is I have always believes, a sign of cultural strength. In current ‘law’ Scotland has some of the best ‘access’ laws in the world – but I need no law to tell me where and whether I can walk. For me, one of the most important elements of my cultural identity is the belief that whoever may ‘own’ the land on paper, I am connected to the soil beneath my feet by a deeper law. I do not own Scotland, but Scotland perhaps owns me. It’s this visceral relationship to my country that is central to my cultural identity. I am ‘of Scotland’ in a sense that I belong. And my belonging is not about ownership it is as vital as breathing.
I’m a rural Scot. I am interested in rural Scots culture. Thus I champion all that it can achieve and represent. We have writers who write about rural Scotland – everything from escapism to ‘gritty rural realism’ – whether or not it is privileged by the urban, ‘high’ ‘North British’ culture or not. I contend that it is partly (as Scots) having lost our connection with the land that explains how we’ve lost our connection to a vital part of our culture. It’s not ALL our culture of course but it’s an important component part.
I should start to draw my one-sided conversation to a close. I wonder how far we deserve the culture we are being fed (or palmed off with)? I suggest that, sadly, every time we express disinterest or apathy we deserve what we get. Every time we ‘accept’ a top down offering, every time we doff our cap at ‘high’ culture and accept our place as ‘North British’ we are putting one more nail in our own cultural coffin. Every time we think of Scotland as a ‘minority’ part of something bigger which is fundamentally not what we even are, we are putting in one more nail.
Here’s the situation folks. Scotland has a unique culture. It is rooted in our common ancestry and identity. It’s not all pretty, but it’s ours. We are ‘see you Jimmy’ and ‘Scotsmen on the make’ and our biggest cultural ‘issue’ is our own response to our diversity and duality – our own inability to see the significance of the rural/urban split – our own misunderstanding of our own past/s. Our landscape is diverse and so is our culture. But it is OUR culture. We are not simply part of some bigger British Empire. We need to recontextualise who we are. We need to think really deeply about it. We need to talk about it. We need to challenge it.
We need to challenge why most of those in positions of ‘power’ in ‘high’ culture are not indigenous Scots, or are people who are happy to be a minority part of ‘British’ culture. We need to question why we view culture as something to be imposed on us, and why the diversity of our own minorities are not valued – why do the urban majority/elite laugh at or despise rural ways?
Our culture is both part of our identity and an organic thing that we should nurture if we want to preserve and ‘grow’ it into something to be proud of once more. In my opinion the problem is, for too long we’ve overlooked it, neglected it, and allowed ‘consultations’ that do not truly consult, to tell us who we are, what we should be and what we deserve culturally. The Scottish ‘cringe’ is too often a reality.
For me, Scots culture has aye been rooted in the community. I see community being eroded as fast as the dunes on some of our ‘prestigious’ beaches. I sense that I’m fighting a rear-guard action – and that the result of our cultural conversations will in no way bring out that ‘better nation’. I fear that Scots culture is headed for extinction as I leave you with that famous toast ‘here’s tae us, wha’s like us? Damn few an’ they’re a’ deid.’ If we want to be more than this, and more than a Burns cliché , we will have to stand up and speak for ourselves. I urge you to, one way or another, get involved in the Cultural Conversation. If we don’t nurture our own culture, we’ll be forever condemned to that most noxious of refrains. ‘too wee…’ If I were English at this point I might quote Orwell and state ‘I will not love Big Brother.’ But I’m Scots so I’ll point my finger at Welsh and say ‘I refuse to be a Trainspotter.’
‘It's SHITE being Scottish! We're the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are COLONIZED by wankers. Can't even find a decent culture to be colonized BY. We're ruled by effete assholes. It's a SHITE state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and ALL the fresh air in the world won't make any fucking difference!’
It’s a rant, but being proud to rant it is no badge of pride. If you are Scots and proud of this, I pity you. If you are Scots and find this in any way offensive – step up and do something about it. Start talking about what Scots culture means to you. Don’t let yourself be defined by North Britain or by Trainspotting. Want to ‘be a nation again?’ Then get off your bahookie and kick the ba’!
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