Ye Tak the High Road…

scotsmanThis Autumn – very soon now – the Scottish people will be asked to vote either to stay in the United Kingdom, or become an independent nation, thus severing a bond tied in 1707, and a history that extends much further, back to the days when the political alliances of sovereign nations in Western Europe were still being formed. 

It’s a long history.  It was a difficult and intricate alliance which was simplified by union; and now a Napoleonic Scottish politician wants to make everything difficult again.

It would be foolish to argue that 300 years have brought unity.  They have not.  The instinctive mistrust an Englishman feels when confronted by a man wearing a skirt may be part of the explanation, or it may be something rather more visceral.

We do not even wholly share a mother tongue.  Our conjoined languages have eroded national identity somewhat in the area known as the Great Glen (the wide fertile lowland area between Glasgow and Edinburgh) but as anyone who has traveled further north will testify Scottish is a very different means of communication.

If you believe that England and Scotland share a common language read any poem by Robert Burns.

The Scottish are a creative, innovative race.  Logie Baird started the idea of television,  Fleming discovered penicillin,  James Watt built all sorts of interesting things involving steam and we are deeply indebted to Thomas Telford, without whose canals we would have nowhere to deposit our used shopping carts, dead cats etc..  Anywhere in the modern world you will find accomplished Scottish engineers and artists who have wandered from their homeland, and will do almost anything to avoid going back.

Scottish food is, at best, edible.  Porridge, the national breakfast dish, a kind of lumpy wallpaper paste, must be eaten with salt, not sugar.  No-one outside Scotland has ever appreciated this apart from Goldilocks.  haggisHaggis (the less said about the ingredients the better), is mealy and chewy in a cloying sort of way, while Black Pudding is – well – Black Pudding.  Mealy and chewy…..

The truth about Scottish cuisine is that no-one eats it, least of all the Scots.  Their true national foods are Fish and Chips.  And being Scottish, their interpretations of this essentially English dish are imaginative  – hence chocolate bars and even chocolate coated ice cream fried in batter (think Baked Alaska, then try not to think too hard) – in fact anything as long as it is accompanied by chipped potatoes.  

Pizza and MacDonalds also feature heavily.

The United Kingdom (i.e. England and anyone who can get a word in edgeways) is particularly fond of Scotland for two reasons:  whisky, and oil.  These two products define the English way of life (drive to work, drive home, get drunk) and we are loath to see them as anything other than an inalienable right.  To be forced to import them, with all the attendant duties and expense, would be a travesty.  For this and other reasons in the event of a vote for independence I see the re-building of Hadrian’s Wall as becoming a necessity, otherwise cross-border smuggling will run rampant.  As a matter of personal preference I shall also press for the area between the Antonine wall and Hadrian’s Wall to be declared a bagpipe-free zone.

The truth is, I will miss the Scots if they leave the Union – not because the annual armed raids across the border to Wembley Stadium will cease – they won’t.  Football between England and Scotland will persist, and if anything, the fan activity will become even more aggressive:  (Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle on the cost of demolishing London’s old Wembley Stadium:  ‘Why didn’t they tell us they wanted it pulled down before the last international?  We’d have done it for nothing!’)frankie-boyle and not because of (speaking behind hand, sotto voce) the whisky.  Since no misguided sense of patriotism will convert me to English wine, I’ll still be drinking it; in fact, I may set up an agency for a little quiet cross-border activity, if the vote tears us apart.

 

No, I will miss the self-deprecating Scottish humor, the wonderfully relaxed approach to life and work, the warmth and the hospitality, almost as much as I will miss the guy always seated at the end of the bar who proves that if we are separated by our mother tongues, we yet share the language of drunkenness.  If he becomes an immigrant it won’t be the same somehow.

 

So come on, people of Scotland, don’t close our joint account – vote for a United Kingdom.  We still need your money.

 

Hey, Jimmy!   Ah bliddy luv yooo!

The Gretna Diaries

Last weekend I found myself in Gretna Green.   Someone foolishly brave enough to marry there was foolishly brave enough to invite me.Image

Gretna Green, for anyone not ‘in the know’ is the first Imagevillage you come to after crossing the border from England into Scotland.   For several hundred years English law decreed no-one beneath the age of 21 was allowed to marry without parental consent, and then only by a priest in a church.   The law in Scotland permitted marriages to be conducted by any ‘respected citizen’, and the age of consent was 16.   Need more be said?

For years a Gretna blacksmith stood ready to splice the hands of nubile and eager teenagers who hot-footed it over the border with their parents in outraged pursuit.   Elopement was an edgy affair, so in case the ceremony had to be interrupted before their vows, a room was available for the happy couple where their pursuers might catch them in bed together.  This to deceive parents who, believing their children’s marriage already consummated, would accept defeat and leave.  The ceremony was then concluded (as soon as it was possible, presumably, to get the participating parties out of bed).

Those concessions in the law are long gone; yet Gretna refuses to go with them.  It has managed to establish itself as a different and romantic means to troth plighting.   ( Incidentally the green is long gone too – The Old Smithy is a gift shop, any other available space redeveloped to offer ‘retail opportunities’)   So what was I expecting – some sort of alternative to Vegas? 

The good burghers  of Gretna have refined the anvil wedding to an art form.  All the essential ingredients are there.  Let me just expand upon the main ones, to save time:

An Anvil (romantic).

In the true Gretna tradition vows are exchanged over one of these blacksmith’s essentials, symbolic of the annealing of metals.  The other blacksmith’s essential, a hammer, is mercifully absent.   In the venue I attend the junior-sized anvil does not look up to hammering and might be given to complaint if pressed.

Scotsmen.

Scotland has a lot of these.  Unless you are directly hailed as ‘Jimmy’ you only notice the costumed ones, of which there may be several.  I find Scottish national dress a difficult area because it is – well, a dress.  BTW, as part Scots myself I feel entitled to comment and I freely accept the charge of jealousy because my knees would never lend themselves to the tartan.  I just think the sight of several kilts together is excessive.   Moreover it is a garb requiring a certain rugged manliness to carry it off – upon a morbidly obese horn-rimmed bespectacled accountant?  No.  Balder heads reduce the noble bonnet and crest to something resembling marsh grass on a sand-dune, and the presence of a ceremonial dagger in a sock (knowing the general good humour one usually associates with drunken Scotsmen) lends entirely the wrong kind of edge.

Then there is the sporran.  Apparently this where a Scotsman keeps his loose change – now positioned as it is, I would imagine it unwise to carry too much loose change, for fear of weight- induced damage.  However, since Highland dancing is comprised almost entirely of leaping up and down with knees wide apart the constant whooping of the dancers can be easily explained.

The Inappropriate Bride

The venue I attended was hosting three other weddings that day, which gave me ample opportunity to witness the celebrations and fallibilities of others.  I’m not given to bitchiness, honestly, but isn’t it unfortunate that in Scotland a stalwart bride in a dress several sizes too small is so very likely to bear the name ‘Fiona’?   No, that’s too cruel…..

Bagpipes.

ImageThere is a special place in hell reserved for the person who decided the pipes were a noble part of Scottish tradition.   Pipers turn up everywhere.  At the wedding both the groom and the bride were led to the altar (or anvil) by a solitary piper.  I have little to add to this, except to say I look forward to pipe music as eagerly as I anticipate gastric flu, and to add a hint:  should you attend such a wedding, avoid taking an outside seat to the right of the central passage.  Upstanding for the bride, you can expect the full blast of the pibroch in your left ear as the piper passes – an experience similar to being caught without ear defenders by the engine of a jumbo jet.

Cameras

There is nothing wrong with providing disposable cameras everywhere, really there isn’t.   Just because I have a mortal fear of shutter and lens, I feel no resentment at having my unattractive features imposed upon everyone else’s happy memories.   No, it isn’t that.   It’s my awful imagination, and the thought of a Japanese version of Gretna…… 

So was it a bonny wedding (forgive the choice of adjective – I’m feeling a little Gaelic)?   Yes, it was.  I had expected tacky and although by all the auspices it should have been, it somehow wasn’t.  Maybe I’m biased – maybe I overlooked some flaws simply because the bridegroom was the youngest of my sons and he had gone to so much personal trouble to ensure that the day worked – whatever the reason, the ceremony was simple and emotional and the company, as we once put it before the word acquired a subtly different meaning, was gay.

And right now?  The happy couple are in Mauritius with the Indian Ocean close by and I’m back at home.   I am pleased to confirm I was able to shake off the last three Scots pipers as I crossed the border, but I still feel there might be one somewhere out there,