Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Man's a Man for A' That

Buchanan kilt
I’ve been reading around and immersing myself in the flood of information about the Scottish referendum.  For reasons I can’t explain, I feel I ought to be taking a side.  However, the more I read and learn, the less inclined I am to do so.  That hesitation probably suggests I would vote no, if I were living in Scotland and were eligible to vote.  But then, if I were living in Scotland and eligible to vote, I have little doubt I would be a Scottish nationalist.  It comes as no surprise to me that the vote is evenly divided.

Go to the web page of the Gretna Chase Hotel.  It will tell you it’s on the Scottish-English border.  It also says it’s located six miles north of Carlisle.  I suppose they leave it to you to note that since its address is Gretna, Gretna, DG16 5JB.  (DG, I assume, stands for Dumfries-Galloway, that means it’s in Scotland.  But the Gretna Chase Hotel is south of the Sark River, and the Sark River, I’m told, marks the border in the westernmost part of the country.  There is a tale, I suspect, in this imprecision.

Go to Google maps and type in Carlisle (clearly in England) and Dumfries (clearly in Scotland), select “directions” for how to get from one to the other, and you’ll see no mention of crossing a border.  The map shows the road crosses the River Sark, but the designers of the site saw no reason to make anything out of that.   You’re simply travelling from one part of the UK to another.

My grandfather left Dumfries in his 20s back in 1903 and emigrated to America.  It’s conceivable he bicycled in his youth the fifteen miles to Annan, the original home of the de Brus family, including Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s hero-king, at some point, and possibly the next eight miles to Gretna and the border, as well.   I always thought of him as coming from Scotland.  I never thought of him as coming from near the Scottish-English border.  The things you can learn if you allow yourself the time to rummage around in an independence referendum.

I’m working with an assumption that the main arguments for Scottish independence are emotional and the main arguments for continued Union are rational.  It’s head vs. heart.  And that is the reason the decision is so painful and whatever decision is made is liable to lead to considerable resentment.

Have a listen to Sheena Wellington, singing “A Man's a Man for A' That" at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in May of 1999.  

Call up the guide to unfamiliar Scottish terms used by Robert Burns 

Give fools their silks and knaves their wine,
A Man's a Man for all that…

and you’ll see what’s at the heart of Scotland’s left-leaning politics.   Choosing a piece of poetry by Robert Burns is no surprise.  He’s routinely cited as Scotland’s pride and joy.  But why this particular piece, on the pride of being of the poor?

This brought back a memory of a trip to Scotland in the 90s when I went with friends to the Isle of Iona and was swamped with more details of the origins of Scotland than I could absorb in a lifetime, or so it seemed.  What struck us was the plainness of the remaining buildings to which they were ascribing such tremendous significance.  A local pointed out a dark small room in what looked and felt like a shed.  “Our answer to Westminster Abbey,” she said.  Give fools their silks and knaves their wine, indeed.

I’ve been listening to the arguments for continued union.  I won’t list them; they are all over the place.  The UK is something to be proud of.  A force for freedom and democracy, a partner with Europe against the bullying of Putin’s Russia and the chaos in the Middle East, a bridge between America and Europe, a united nation with a flag that represents a united fight in two world wars.  Something worth holding on to. 

And to the arguments for separation.  My heart tells me these folk to whom I owe my name – family name and given name both – in seeking a more equitable nation where the rights of the little guy are not trumped day in and day out by the bankers and politicians of London, deserve to be given an opportunity to get out from under vulture capitalism and give their local politics a go.  This link, for example.   Problem is, of course, that pulling away from a far-away tyrant sometimes lands you in the lap of a local tyrant.  Let's not forget the rivalry between Glasgow and Western Scotland and Edinburgh.

I can’t make a serious claim to Scottish identity.  I thought I’d give it a try once, years ago, when I was looking for a way to get to live and work in Europe and discovered you can apply for UK citizenship if you have a grandparent born in the UK.   That notion hit the rocks pretty quickly when I realized how much work might be involved in getting a copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate and having to explain that he left Dumfries in 1906 and never went back, not even for a single visit.  And then, of course, somebody would no doubt expect me to go live in the UK.  I wanted UK rights.  But I already had three homes, one in San Francisco, one in Japan, and a third one, now greatly slipped away, in Berlin.   I wanted privileges, and did not have anything I wanted to give back in exchange.  So much for that.

But although direct citizenship and residence was out, that didn’t lessen my sense of connection with Scotland.  Like many Americans of European descent, our family lived in a kind of old country diaspora, and kept the old country coals burning by teaching children a pride of place of origin.  In my home, we didn’t say my mother was “from Germany originally”; we said she was German.  And my father was not the son of an immigrant Scot; he was Scottish.  I had to contend with being of mixed parentage (it sounds almost ridiculous now, but it was an issue when I was a child, actually).  I had three grandmothers.  My mother was an only child, and that made me the only grandchild of her mother for the first five years of my life.  But my mother had been raised by her aunt, so I effectively had two German grandmothers.  And they were German speaking and took it for granted I would take on a German identity.  My father’s mother was Canadian, not Scottish like her husband, and had six grandchildren, two by each of her three sons, and one set of cousins lost their mother early on and lived with her, a move that couldn’t help but create a little more distance between us.  So I readily identified as German and not Scottish.  Which upset my father no end.  I remember vividly an agonizing discussion when he made plain that he thought one took one’s identity from one’s father’s family, and that family was unmistakably Scottish.  I tried to argue that his mother was Canadian (English-Canadian, yet) and that my claim to Scotland was pretty diluted.  No, sir, says my father.  If your father is Scottish, you’re Scottish.  He would have made a great Orthodox Jew.

This Scottish identity was intensified by the fact that we spent our summers in Nova Scotia.  To be Canadian was to be French-Canadian or English-Canadian, but my family in Nova Scotia sailed right past that distinction and claimed not English origin but Scottish.  Don’t forget, my father told me once, we almost named you “Bruce Alan” after Robert the Bruce.  In the end, they named me Alan John, moving Alan to the front and giving me my father’s name as a middle name.  Robert the Bruce, if your Scottish history is weak, was the King of Scotland who successfully led the wars against the English around the turn of the 14th Century.  He is celebrated for his victory at the Battle of Bannockburn 700 years ago this year and is considered a Scottish hero to this day.  Alan survived, with the Scottish spelling (Allen is considered English).  Some tell me it’s the Celtic word for bold.  Some tell me it’s the Celtic word for rock.  Doesn’t matter, so long as it’s Celtic, you see.

When I was sixteen I ended up in a hospital in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and had to stay there for a month.  My family had to return to Connecticut, and because I was alone, the priests from St. Francis Xavier College would visit on a daily basis, and I quickly made friends with several of them.  The hospital was a Catholic hospital and the priests were descendants of the followers of Queen Mary.  They were Gaelic speakers, and between listening to them and the bagpipes on the radio at least an hour each day, I felt first hand the still strong connection between Scotland and Nova Scotia.  It was one of the few places around where people didn’t routinely accuse me of misspelling my last name, like my elementary school teachers did when I wrote it with –nick at the end.  They knew it was a Scottish variant of MacCormack, and didn't wonder at the explanation that our name was a sept of the Buchanan clan.  

My sense of pride in my Scottish heritage soared when I tuned in to the debates over the right of same-sex couples to marry in the Scottish Parliament and watched Scotland become the 17th nation to grant such rights.  Since Scotland leans left, it’s no surprise that gay groups routinely credit Scotland with being gay-friendlier than England is, although since England now has such rights as well (they got there first, actually) that’s a bit unfair.  Still, one picks up things other might miss.  This video of one of the groups supporting independence, for example.  Listen for the line in the song that goes, "gay or straight... who gives a damn..."  [we all support Scottish independence].  Little things mean a lot.

Alba gu brath – it’s pronounced “Álapa goo bra” – long live Scotland.  It was once something for disgruntled nationalists to go around saying.  Gaelic-speaking Scots number fewer than 60,000 native speakers, these days, about half the population of Peoria, Illinois, although another 30,000 or so speak it to some degree.  Now, with the new popularity of the idea of independence, you can hear the call a whole lot more.   But while Welsh is an official language in the UK, Gaelic is not.  There will no doubt be an increase in interest in breathing more life into Scots Gaelic if independence comes (and maybe even more if it gets voted down and there is a backlash), but outside of the Outer Hebrides (which sounds for all the world to me like Ultima Thule – the ends of the earth), it is hard to find speakers.  Nationalism being what it is, that doesn’t prevent the use of two languages on the new Scottish Parliament/Pàrlamaid na h-Alba  building.  Still, when comparisons are made with Catalonia, whose independence from Spain has language at the center of the fight, it is well to remember that Scots are speakers of English. I went to Scotland in 1960 hoping to study the Gaelic language.  I didn’t know where to begin.  There were no schools.  I tried asking around in bookstores.  The advice I got was, “Better go to Ireland.”

I said earlier that I was working under the assumption that the arguments for independence are mainly emotional.  I’ve mentioned the singing of Robert Burns’ “A Man’s A Man” at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.  I might have added what happened just before or after – the words uttered at the official opening:  (here, at minute 7:36) 
The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March, in the year Seventeen Hundred and Seven, is hereby reconvened.   
 Go ahead.  Tell me your eyes are dry.

But that’s not to say there are no rational arguments for independence.  The Scottish claim that they vote Labour over and over again, whilst England votes Tory over and over again, and it never matters what Scotland votes.  They get what England votes for.  Think American blacks voting at 90% for Democrats and getting a Republican Congress over and over.  That’s not just emotional stuff.  It’s a pretty solid argument, although one can pick apart the claim that Scotland itself speaks with only one voice.  While hitchhiking to Scotland back in 1960, I was picked up still in England by a Scot heading home.  “You’re a Yank!” he says to me, with delight, soon as I opened my mouth.  When I told him my name, he was even more delighted.  “By the way you are dressed (I was carrying an umbrella) I thought you were English and almost didn’t stop.”  I told him I was heading for Edinburgh.  “But why would you want to go to Edinburgh?” he asked.  “Too many Englishmen there.”  He then regaled me with tales of battles with England and the time a Scot had pinned an English soldier to the ground only to realize he had lost his knife.  “No problem,” he says to me, “he just lunged forward and ripped his throat out with his teeth.”  I figured it was time to get out of the car.

John Oliver has a hilarious take-down of the seriousness of the event here.     Note, that while poking fun at the Scots he also refers to the union as a “300-year arranged marriage” in which England has been “a little bit of a dick since the honeymoon.”  And, as many are quick to point out, when a couple is on the verge of divorce, the winning line, if there is going to be one, really ought to be “I love you,” if the marriage is going to have a chance of getting back together.  Not “You’re going to be poor and you’re going to be sorry.”  The rationalists are at a disadvantage here.  

In any case, the time for the neutral voices  is over.    It’s time to make a decision.

Glad I don’t have to take responsibility for what that decision will be.

Buchanan quilt source

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