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Essays on Scotland by Claire R McDougall



Living in exile brings the homeland into sharper relief. Apart from bouts of listening to The Alexander Brothers during my teenage years, I don’t think I felt particularly nationalistic. Scotland seemed to have taken a back seat to England. It had lost its pride and at worst was a country of disillusioned and weary alcoholics. The Scottish accent was after all a sign of low birth (according to the class system that was more rife in those days) and something to be got rid of. The lowly Scottish schools I went to had no standing in the class hierarchy even within the walls of Edinburgh University. By the time I came to live in America, my Scottishness, to all intents and purposes, was on its way out. Had I stayed in Britain, it would most likely have disappeared altogether.


So leaving Scotland actually became my redemption as a Scot. Everything Scottish suddenly took on new meaning: the touch of inch-thick moss on a stone wall, the smell of high bracken in the summer, the tiny wren on a branch of Rowan tree, the sense of nature unbroken and untouched. America is a much bigger place, of course, its wilderness more vast. But I can’t get away from the feeling in America that everything has been mapped out and marked, what is wild is cordoned off in parks and designated areas. Everything is owned and you can’t walk on it without trespassing on someone’s rights. The lakes are ringed with houses, the desert populated with wilderness seekers, the oceans by sporty types in layers of sunscreen and bravado. The feel of Scotland is something altogether different and it breeds a different type.


If you manage to fight your way up a sheep trail through shoulder high bracken to the top of a Scottish hill, there’s no feeling of quest, of man against nature. There just is nature, with its own movement and its own breath, heaving. The hills pile one against the next, the sky is low and always moving, the islands are solitary dark shapes in a flat unpopulated sea. You might notice a boat, but it is a fleck, like yourself, no more significant than foam on a roller coursing its way down to the beach. Except you couldn’t call anything in Scotland a beach, which is why we call it the shore. A beach is for sport and fun; the shore is for solitary walkers defying the sky’s attempts to empty itself and drive you away.


It breeds silence, this land, because it is a type of coagulated silence itself. A lot of Americans feel a little uncomfortable here, because speech has very little currency. It’s the look and the nod and the things left unsaid that have meaning, and the “chatterbox” is looked upon with suspicion. The eyes look askance, because of what the people of Scotland have gone through, because they are not now what they once were. It’s a gut-wrench, this place called Scotland. It’s a windy, thoroughly sodden and dripping, cold to the bone place with cups of tea in the hand for the warmth it offers, and hot-water bottles in your bed. It pulls on you when you hear the pipes and when its history is untangled from the cover-up and finally told. It’s an intensely musical, proud and fierce people that emerge out of the fog of conquer and the suffering of a nation made to bow to another crown and another set of ideals that couldn’t be felt anywhere near the heart.


It’s a phenomenon really, this Scottishness. It outlasts everything. Americans whose families moved here hundreds of years ago still feel it. Pipes and Highland Games proliferate over here. I have even eaten haggis made in Texas, and it was good. It’s a genetic probability, a natural tendency, it’s something lodged deep inside breeding and doesn’t let go of its descendants. It drives me back to Scotland every year on improbably long night flights over the ocean and leaves me stranded on one of those lonely shores, separated now from my fellow Scots by my American-ness. I do not feel remotely American. It’s not the nature of what goes on in my heart. That was claimed long ago when I came out on Scottish soil, when the first sights I ever saw were those roofs and chimneys of Edinburgh, its grey streets and maroon coloured double-decker buses. But what really claims me is the wild, which is ninety-five percent of what Scotland is about. It’s the hillsides of rhododendrons struggled free from their cultivation and gone rampant across hillsides, and forest floors in a purple haze of bluebells. It’s the dark shadows of hills covered in a pink shimmer of heather bells and the shadow of all of this as it stretches itself across the heart.


This is who I am, accent or no, despite any place of residence. I have no choice in the matter, so the least I can do in exile is write it down.



Once in a far-off kingdom there was a princess named Scotta.  She lived among the fair-skinned freckled people of the tattoos, but some say she herself had a look of the dark-skinned, dark-eyed ones. No one really knows where she was born or who her mother was, but what was never in question was that she was a beauty, not just fair of face but spirited, quick-witted and her head always full of bright ideas.  Scotta lived with her step-father, a man who came from a different and larger region, one that had some reputation as a warrior nation. 

When Scotta was still young, her father entered into an agreement with the nobles of that other land. Their prince by name of Saxon was looking for a wife, and the stepfather sought to bind the two countries together by marriage.  This way, his kingdom would be safe from invasion and the rewards for his coffers wouldn’t do him any harm either. 

He arranged for the wedding of Scotta and Saxon, decked the halls, and brought in the best trumpeters; he had the chefs roast the most succulent pigs, bake the finest pies, and wine was brought in from the lands across the sea. He invited dignitaries from far and wide. The only person he didn’t tell about the wedding was his step-daughter. This marriage was so important to him, he didn’t want anything getting in the way of it. 


The day of the wedding arrived. Scotta was awoken by her maid and presented with the wedding dress her step-father had had made by the finest tailors in the land. Only then was she told of her impending marriage. What could she do? The guests were already arriving; the stage was set. Scotta had never met her intended husband and bed-fellow, and she did not see herself as living anywhere else but in the land where she had grown up.  Yet she had to obey. She walked down the aisle with tears runnning down her cheeks. This marriage might be good for her step-father’s estate but it meant nothing to her heart.  She had always thought of herself as free, and that is how she thought she would remain. Yet here she was, about to be married to the prince of another land that she hadn’t chosen and didn’t even know if she would like.

Now Saxon was not as young as Scotta and had already accrued a few wives, women from other lands that had come to him much in the manner of Scotta, women whom the nobles of his country had acquired to bring wealth and power to their kingdom. These women didn’t please Saxon, in fact he rather abused them. His kingdom became rich with their gold, but he showed them no respect and kept them locked together in a tower of his castle.


This new princess from the north, this Scotta, was just another pawn in the game his nobles liked to play, the accruing of wealth that kept their kingdom powerful. Scotta was a little different in that she was proud and bright, and as such provided Saxon with sport at first. But when she started mentioning going outside or thinking out loud about her homeland, she had to be contained, just as the others had. It was all so tedious; the prince grew bored. The nobles took charge and forbade Scotta to speak her native tongue, sing her native tunes. They isolated her and wore her down until she really did begin to think that she had no value except as a pawn in their game. Only at night when everyone was sleeping, did she sit by a small slit in the castle wall, secretly singing the songs of her people and remembering the place she had come from. It had been so very long since she had seen her native country or any hint of it. In the meantime, the nobles drew on the capital of her land, until the people of that land grew poor and hungry, and even her step-father began to have second thoughts about this arrangement.


But it was too late.  The nobles of this land had grown so rich, they owned all the town criers, all the printing presses. No one would believe what had transpired, how many princesses they had locked up in their towers and how badly treated they all were. Scotta grew thin, a mere shadow of her former self.  It mattered little to the nobles; no one would ever know. If anyone raised a question about what went on in the palace, they were executed on the spot.

And then one day, the jester made a joke to a crowd in the town square about the smell coming from all the dead princesses buried in the castle grounds. No one ever saw the jester again, but the truth had been spoken, and people began to talk among themselves. Neighbouring countries started coming in to take every one of their princesses back. The nobles grew frantic. How were they going to keep their wealth and influence if they lost all of their princesses? But they still had  Scotta. She was a particular jewel in their crown. Money from her land had helped to build lavish houses and even the walls that ran around the circumference of that kingdom. 


Unrest grew among the people of that land.  They wanted Princess Scotta set free. The nobles started to issue decrees. The princess Scotta, they said, had grown weak in the head. For her own good, she had to be tied up. Her country was too poor now, they said, to withdraw their side of the agreement. The people of her country relied on the marriage of Scotta and Saxon for survival. And besides, they said, who would want break up the marriage of these two love birds?  The disquiet grew silent. Scotta’s step-father withdrew his army. There was nothing for him to do now but to stick to the old allegiance.


I am in the business of writing. I write about Scotland. I try to say what is true about Scotland, because art and truth have this strong allegiance. That is why art is suppressed in totalitarian societies, why Solzhenitsyn was confined to the Gulag. It’s why when it comes to the death of Scottish politician and anti-nuclear activist Willie MacRae in 1985, history won’t call it assassination, but playwright George Gunn does in his play 3000 Trees. Art is where the truth of any culture lies, where what should be said is finally said. It is a threat to the powers that be precisely because it is a mirror in which the faces of the people are reflected.  This is the power of stories. They can say what history dare not. 


One thing I miss about Scots living over here in America is their insistence on the truth. I miss that aspect of the Scottish character that isn’t the slightest bit impressed by fame and fortune.  It doesn’t care. If you look at American politics, as I’m sure you do from the other side of the Pond, it looks just like a circus, doesn’t it? Millions and millions of dollars spent on clown-like candidates with barely an ounce of honesty in them.  In America you can posture and perform, and people buy it. That wouldn’t go down in Scotland, would it? It runs contrary to the Scottish character to be taken in like that. 


And yet, in a very similar way, Scotland is being fooled. Westminster with its fingers in the pockets of the London-based media is using fear and manipulation to hold onto something that it took without the people of Scotland having a say. And it has got used to using the rich resources of Scotland and doesn’t want to let go. You can’t blame it for that. But you can blame it for the lies. You can blame it for the fear-mongering and the manipulation. You can fault the lack of transparency and you should. 


This thing between Scotland and England wasn’t ever a marriage, folks, no matter what Neil Oliver of The Borders says. If it is a marriage, then it is one of the most dysfunctional ones in history.


You don’t have to agree with me, and you don’t have to vote Yes in September. But you do have to be the good Scot that you are and not be fooled. If they say to you, you won’t get your pension, that you can’t survive on your own, that you are too wee, too poor, and too stupid, don’t take that lying down. Why would you? It’s not in your character. Make a point of asking for the evidence. 


Standards and Poor’s, the world’s leading independent credit rating,  predicts that Scotland would garner an AAA rating as an independent country. Billions of pounds of oil revenue, renewable energy revenue, food and drink revenue, would no longer be diverted to the south. So why are there people walking around in Scotland today saying we’ll not make it on our own? The truth is they can Devo-Max you all they want, but face it, all they have ever wanted is control of the filthy lucre. That is not going to change. That’s the truth and it is time for this smoke screen of petty lies and threats to stop. It’s time for us to call a halt to it, just by taking a stand and being on the side of the truth. 

Don’t buy the bullshit, Scots. You are far, far better than that. Get the facts, read the McCrone report, peruse the Business For Scotland site, look over the Declaration of Arbroath to see what our forebears had to say about an independent Scotland. And if you still want to stay in bed with England, then may it be your choice not the decision of someone sleep walking with Stockholm syndrome trying to argue that the only thing Westminster ever wanted was our own good. Because it wasn’t. That’s not the kind of arrangement it has ever been. This was never a marriage. Don’t be fooled. It runs against any sense of who you are.



Picture used with kind permission of Rob Outram

Scotland has had many incarnations, and it is about to recreate itself all over again in 2014 when Scottish devolution goes to public vote. It’s not that Scotland can’t decide what it wants to be, it’s just that it has rarely been left to define what that is, let alone live it. 


When the Romans pulled out of Britain in 410 CE, Scotland, or Caledonia as they had called it, was made up of Picts, Lowland Scots and Gaels. By the time of William Wallace, Defender of the Scots, Gaelic was the language spoken in most of Scotland, or Alba, as it is known in that language. 

When Robert the Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn, Alba became a united force for the first time.


So, why is Scotland not a nation anymore? Why has its language receded to the islands and to a few enclaves along the western shores? Why is it that only recently has Scottish history been taught in Scottish schools? Why does Scotland have no standing within the European community? Why when Scottish tennis star Andy Murray wins the Olympic finals or the American Open is it a victory, not for Scotland, but for Great Britain? 


Before I go on, I must make a disclaimer about my own DNA. I am a Scot, born in Edinburgh and descended from the McDougalls of Dunollie in Argyll, whose founder was Somerled, Lord of the Isles.  I grew up in Argyll, but I must admit another strain to my heritage, which has to do with the Edmondsons and the Watkinsons, both families firmly of the northern counties of England. I say this, because, as much as my heart beats for the victories gained over the centuries in the Scottish Wars of Independence, I am not raising another army here. I am simply trying to lay out the facts. And the fact of the history of the United Kingdom is that its minorities have suffered mightily under the arm of English rule. Scotland might have suffered the most.


Edward Langshanks, King of England from 1274 to 1307, known as “The Hammer of the Scots,” had an especial hatred for the northern Britons, and particularly for its freedom fighter William Wallace. Scotland wasn’t a nation to Langshanks but a rebellious child that had to be taught a lesson. He paid off the Scottish Lords, already distanced from their earlier clan counterparts by the influx of English blood, and brought armies to stamp out the rest. He stole the Stone of Destiny, a symbol of Scottish pride, and parked it under the throne in Westminster Abbey. And after putting William Wallace to a heinous death, he had his body dismembered and displayed in the four corners of Scotland, to warn against any further ideas of freedom. If there was one thing the English government feared and has always feared, it is a sanctioned and united Scotland. 


But the Scots kept after it. Under the banner of Robert the Bruce, nine years after the murder of William Wallace, Scotland became a sanctioned nation. But it wasn’t to last for long. Repeated invasions by England took their toll on the Scottish monarchy. For a while, after the murder of Mary Queen of Scots and the subsequent death of England’s Elizabeth 1st, Scotland’s King James (Stuart) was moved to Westminster, and it looked as though the question had become moot. But it wasn’t long before the Stuart line was ousted and the Hanoverians were set on the English throne instead. 

The Jacobite rebellions tried to re-establish a Stuart monarchy in Scotland but were defeated by the English at Sheriffmuir in 1715 and Cullodon in 1746. 


Even into the era of Dickens, Scottish “rebels” were still being hanged, beheaded and quartered in the name of Scottish Independence. From the gallows, Scottish weaver Andrew Hardie told the crowd that his execution on the charge of treason was “for no other sin but seeking the legitimate rights of our ill-used and down-trodden beloved countrymen.”


Fearing the kinds of revolutions run by such “rabble” as were beginning to sweep continental Europe, the English government decided to stamp out Scottish nationalism once and for all. This time they had a more sinister method up their sleeves, the kind of thing they were doing to Native Americans at the time.  The most effective way to eliminate a culture is not with armies, but by removing the pillars on which that culture rests. After the Jacobite rebellions, the English government made it illegal to speak Gaelic, to wear the kilt or play Scottish music. The ethnic cleansing that was the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries drove out a large percentage of the country’s Gaelic speakers to the New World.


So, in Scotland, we speak English now, laugh at those in traditional dress, and “hing oor heads, and a’that.” Like a child from dysfunctional parents, Scotland regards itself as beholden to its parent England.  Only sixty-five percent of Scots can even imagine being separate. The myth that has been promulgated is that Scotland lives on welfare shelled out by England; an independent Scotland would be broke. 

But this subsidy myth is actually not only not true, it is the opposite of the truth. Scotland is not subsidized by England, but the other way around.


Since oil was discovered off Scottish shores in the nineteen seventies, the industry has generated three hundred billion pounds in revenue for England. Scotland currently stands fifth in world wealth rankings. Such is this cash cow for the English government, it secretly “annexed” six thousand square miles of Scotland’s sea bed in 1999.


To lay out the full potential of Scottish oil, for itself, it drew up the McCrone Report

and promptly marked it Top Secret. No one, least of all the Scots, knew how massive were the oil reserves around Scotland, until thirty years later when the report was forced out by the Freedom of Information Act. Even now the English government makes it practically impossible to decipher oil revenues by hiding them under spurious headings. It has been an out and out cover-up. 

The truth is that Scottish oil is worth thirty million pounds per day, and despite the myth perpetrated by Unionists, 2012 was the biggest year ever for new North Sea licenses.


Without England filtering off Scottish oil money, Scotland today would be as prosperous as Norway has become in recent years because of its oil reserves.  As the McCrone Report put it, Scotland would have “an embarrassment of surplus,” and be “the second strongest currency in Europe.”  An independent Scotland would produce seven billion pounds per year just in oil revenues.

But even before the oil boom, Scotland exported more per capita than the rest of the UK, in whisky, meat, timber, fish and tourism. Today it is the leading producer of wind and tidal energy. The renewables industry in Scotland is growing massively

Scotland produces eighteen times its requirements in North Sea gas and exports 24 percent of its (mainly hydro-generated) electrical output to England. Scots represent 8.4 percent of the UK population but generate 9.4 percent of its tax revenues. Scotland has been consistently running a financial surplus compared to England’s consistent deficit (from 2006-2010, 3.5 billion pounds surplus against England’s 96.1 billion deficit.)


And yet the English government stands by its figures of how much oil is left, that it is all but finished now. It refuses to let go, just as Spain keeps within its grip its richest region of Catalonia. 

But the seals are open, and we know about the cover-up. Scotland is not another county of England, and its shores, oil rich or not, do not belong to England. 


There is an overwhelming case for Scottish Independence. The only thing holding us back is that remnant of doubt hammered into us down the centuries. But the reason the film Braveheart hit a nerve is that there is something in the Scottish spirit which does not give up and lie down. Edward Langshanks knew this; the English government has always known this. 

Scottish people are resourceful, intensely inner and proudly creative. They have contributed much to the modern world: the steam engine, surfaced roads, the bicycle and the tire, the telephone and the television, anesthesia and penicillin, not to mention the King James Bible. Scotland was the first fully literate nation.  Voltaire called it, “the intellectual capital of Europe.” And what would the literary world be today without Tam O’Shanter, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Jekyll and Hyde, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes and Trainspotting? What a different world it would be without the Celtic music that lies at the heart of so much contemporary music.


Scotland can stand by itself, and yet in an age when we are trying to break down divisions and work as a global community, should it? What good does it do to rebuild walls and segregate a people when we are trying to heal divisions? The answer lies in that little axiom that good fences make good neighbours. People just function better within well defined bounderies. The break up of the massive USSR into its smaller components is testament to this. Only when nationalism goes rampant does it do damage, as was done by Nazi Germany, and, for example, in Northern Ireland. 


The reasons for Scottish independence are simply those cited by Ghandi for the independence of India. To Ghandi it was a matter of karma. Scotland doesn’t need governance from Westminster any more than India did. Any nation that has been hammered, either by actual force or the more sinister methods of cultural genocide, should be given the chance to take back what was taken from them: their language, their customs and their pride. And this the world over. 

Scotland is a nation, always has been, and come it will, for a’that. The cat is out of the bag. The domination and the lying and the greed need to end now.


Whatever page of Scottish history you turn, it drips with blood, but let’s use that now not as a means to anger but to propel Scots forward in honesty as kings o’men for a’ that. Ghandi seized the day, and so will we. He didn’t force anything, just licked his finger and held it to the wind. He became the change he wanted to see, and we must do the same. The law of Karma requires it.


So, let us make a new proclamation at this important juncture in Scotland’s history. Let us repeat the words of those who died in the 1820 “uprising”: Our mission as Scots at this moment in history is not to bear arms in an act equal to the one that conquered it in the first place, but “To show the world that we are not that lawless, sanguinary rabble which our suppressors would persuade the higher circles we are, but a brave and generous people determined to be free.”


In 2014, on the seven hundredth anniversary of Bannockburn, when Robert the Bruce gathered Scotland under the aegis of a Scottish flag for the first time, Scottish independence will go to the people for vote. But before we vote, let us put fear aside and understand our nation’s true potential. It is time to get past the stigmas and the propaganda we have been fed, because we are worth more than that. The pith o’sense and point o’worth are higher rank than a’that. 



Picture used with kind permission of Frances Smee

I used to warn Americans who were waxing lyrical about their dreams of visiting Scotland, that the weather might not cooperate. But nothing brought this home to me more than when my childhood friend (let’s call her Rosie after her dog) invited me on a picnic down the Mull of Kintyre from where we grew up that was known to be sandy. A sandy beach. But don’t be fooled. Ignoring my own warnings, I accepted the invitation, and so we bundled our respective children into cars under a very low dark sky. 

 I didn’t get into the car immediately. My eyes were on the racing sky. “Perhaps we should wait for a better day.” 


“Och,” Rosie said, piling into the car the legs and arms from recently broken-down furniture. “You can’t wait for the weather!” 


This picnic was going ahead, and there was to be a bonfire. A plan is a plan despite the weather, and I should know all this. I grew up here under cloud. I remember overhearing on the street one day a hoary old man in exchange with a complainer about the weather. 


“Och, terrible weather these last few days,” she said. 


“Och,” he spat. “The weather’s the weather.”


Therein lies a whole life philosophy, and one to which Rosie obviously subscribes. She builds houses on remote islands and once went an entire summer while we were growing up bathing only in the sea loch by her house. (I should point out here, because of all the “Och’s” in my dialogue, and despite people telling me that this is just a myth about Scotland, that the word “Och,” does prefix any sentence, at least in Argyll, that contains even a hint of disdain. This amounts to a lot of sentences. It’s partly a result of the weather.) 


So our little convoy took off cheerily. One of the children was playing “Maroon Five,” which put me in mind of California, where as the song says, it never rains. The further we pressed down the mull, the darker the skies, the more the odd patter of a raindrop turned into an entire chorus. The wind was buffeting the car in the way the elements buffet everything in mid-Argyll, with a sly grin for the stupid humans who think they can get the better of it. Now some people, especially those who live under sunny skies, in California, say, might regard this as insanity, but it is a good insanity. It’s the kind of thing that made life possible at all at one time in Scotland when you had to scrape your sustenance from the ground; that, if you were unfortunate to have belonged to the thousands who were cleared out of the central Highlands and sent to live by the alien sea, would allow you to act like seaweed in all its permutations was a viable diet. 


By the time our convoy arrived at the parking lot adjacent to the beach, it was raining so hard we had to stay in our cars eating crisps, hopeful that the deluge would eventually resolve itself back into small patters. Once it did, and with no promise it would remain so, the odds and ends of furniture were off-loaded onto the beach and children were sent off for driftwood. Wet driftwood, of course, but a smoky fire was expected. Is there any particular reason why smoked fish became a staple in Scotland? Try building any other variety of fire on a Scottish shore than a smoky one. 


But, ever vigilant, Rosie had brought along a gas stove (smoky tea would never do, even for the descendants of seaweed eaters) and a tent to brew it in. We eyed the tent packed up and unsuspecting as the wind sought to cover it over with sand. (I secretly wished it would, so we could go home – I have really lost my touch.) We squeezed children into wetsuits, sent them in the direction of the sea and told them not to be Jessies (pace Billy Connolly – I remember those woollen swimming costumes, too.) Now for the tent.         


We unburied it, though it probably thought it was just fine wrapped up and bedded in sand. The verb to “erect” a tent doesn’t quite work here, in fact doesn’t apply at any time anywhere in Scotland. “Erecting” a tent involves putting one thing on top of another, skyward like a drystone wall. Setting this tent up under billows of cloud was more akin to bringing a parachute in to land. In other words, the wind had other ideas. The more we tried to corner it, the more it decided like Elphaba to defy gravity. If it had to be unraveled and exposed to the elements, it was going to be up rather than down. We tried weighting it with stones. 


“Ha ha,” laughed the wind. “A stone? Try again.” 


Bums did a better job. Wrestle your side of the tent to the sand and sit on it. No one would believe this except there is film footage to prove it. 


Eventually we managed to secure four corners, and the stove was duly set up inside, away from the wildly flapping sides. The door was zipped shut and water was set for boiling and a much deserved cuppa. 


Nothing says Beach Parties in Argyll better than drinking tea in your coat inside a tent. 


Not that I want to put anyone off Argyll, picnics or otherwise. But I have given fair warning.

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