Michael Stark looks up from his smoked haddock mornay and pint of heavy, straightening his kilt before bemoaning the cultural vacuum of contemporary Scotland
Scotland today doesn’t exactly have a reputation as the cultural centre of Europe. In present times, our claims to fame include the Edinburgh Festival, that stunning exposure of up-and-coming mediocrity and tasteless comedy, that wee place Prince William went to university, and the Falkirk Wheel. Your average Glaswegian of almost any age would baulk at the prospect of going to a reading of Burns or some other ‘pyurr poash shite’ or having a glass of real whisky, instead preferring an evening ritual of donning jeans covered in pockets and a t-shirt with nonsensical writing all over it to go to the local Wetherspoon’s for ten pints of Carling followed by a large doner.
It wasn’t always like this. The degradation and near-collapse of traditional Scots culture can be sited in the rise of consumerism. I don’t mean some anti-capitalist statement, but rather to illustrate something of the standardisation of popular culture throughout much of the developed world. The genealogy of our own literature, cuisine, dress and languages can be adumbrated most instructively by reflecting on the harsh lives of crofters and subsistence farmers throughout much of Scotland’s history until the Industrial Revolution: contrasted with today’s world of plenty and our lives of comparative luxury.
But ‘put your sgian-dubh down, Starky,’ I hear you cry, ‘are you trying to tell us that we should be complaining about the advent of modern conveniences?’ Well, no. But the idea that the loss of our heritage should be the price of progress is unacceptable. Burns, our most famous and eloquent poet, was ever dedicated to the advancement of the situation of the common man and extolling his many virtues. Yet were he alive today, to see that this common man’s descendents had abandoned their proudly rustic, plebeian traditions of oral poetry, folk songs and dance in favour of The Sun, hard house and grinding, he mightn’t be ecstatic.
The basic question underling the debate on the decay of heritage and tradition asks ‘What is culture and how does it affect our lives?’ We can say that it is the expression of the attitudes and lifestyles of a people, passed down for posterity. In this we can understand further the origin of some forms of high culture cast aside in the polarisation of the religious landscape of Scotland after the Protestant Reformation, and leading up to the era of the Jacobite revolutions. One of our most talented composers, Thomas Erskine (‘Fiddler Tam’ to his countrymen), composed in a distinctly Franco-German Catholic style, though with unfamiliar Scots interpretations and influences, and was himself a son of the revolution – so we can see why successive generations of Presbyterians, fiercely opposed to a Stuart restoration, would have had no interest in the musical forms he epitomised.
Culture is also about perception. Today, in a British context, Scotland is considered something of a backwater both intellectually and culturally. Yet throughout the early modern period this country, much smaller than England, managed to sustain four universities, and had a fairly comprehensive intellectual scene, by comparison with England having only two universities until the 19th century. The philistinism associated with the more extreme brands of Protestant religious expression, which have developed in Scotland since the middle ages, is largely responsible for the reversal of these progressive trends in education.
Sadly, much of the contemporary Scottish ‘identity’ is rooted in ignorance. A prominent example is that most famous of Burns’ songs, ‘Auld Lang Syne’. Nationalists are quick to sing it on Hogmanay, but slow to confirm what it actually means. Translating the Scots title of one of our most famous songs erroneously as ‘Old Times’ Sake’ has become something of a shibboleth for the over-eager yet under-researched Scot.
The incoherent yet ubiquitous notion of the ‘posh twat’ deserves a mention. For all the contemporary protestations of national loyalty and working class credentials, we lose track of the true regional and national pride of our ancestors, exhibited most conspicuously through dress. Tartan is in danger of being relegated to the status of tacky formalwear, worn without thought as to what it represents and what it really does say about the wearer’s family, nationality and heritage. As a student of Arabic and Arab culture – in which, traditionally, what one wears gives a good idea to one’s peers about one’s family origins and regional loyalty – it saddens me deeply to see that our same tradition has almost disappeared.
Every wannabe pleb and his mother love shouting about how much they hate tweed. Yet this other most traditional cloth is inextricably rooted in Scots heritage too. Harris Tweed, by definition, has to be hand-woven by islanders in their own homes on the island of Harris. It really says something that many of my countrymen would prefer Super-Dry tablecloth shirts made by Chinese slave labour to the garb of our forefathers, woven in a manner which supports one of our people’s age-old ways of life.