Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Strange but true - I love Scotland, but don't feel in the least bit Scottish

My brother has the great good fortune to live in the only constituency in the Socialist Republic of Scotland to return a Conservative MP at the last election, namely Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale. I’ve just returned from visiting the area for the first time.

You head up the M6 as far as Carlisle, turn off onto the A75 and you’re there. And, somehow, you can just tell it’s Tory. It’s almost entirely agricultural,  sparsely populated (60 people per square mile, compared to the Scottish average of 168), extremely pretty, temperate (warmed by the Gulf Stream), full of old abbeys and castles, there’s barely an immigrant in sight (the only ones I met were English), the main town – Dumfries – has a population of only 31,000, and, apart from people in cars heading for Stranraer to catch the ferry to Belfast, it’s not actually on the way to anywhere.
Sweetheart Abbey
Now, that could all have resulted in one of those down-at-heel, bedraggled Celtic fringe areas living off subsidies from England and the EU, yet still whining about how unkind fate has been to it. But Dumfries and Galloway looks and feels proud and self-sufficient and prosperous. The farms I drove and walked by were incredibly well-tended – no rusting machinery or abandoned cars or slummy farmhouses or shivering, badly-tended animals or endlessly barking, psychotic sheepdogs or illiterate, crayoned signs telling strangers to bugger off. Everything was neat, ordered, in its place. The ruined abbeys and castles were superbly well-kept, and the cafes and knick-knack shops were exceptionally salubrious, reasonably priced, and staffed by seriously pretty, well-mannered Scottish girls. 

In short, it felt like 1950s Britain, but with all mod cons.
Caerlaverock Castle
I’ve regularly been rude about Scotland in this blog: their greedy bankers and half-witted politicians between them just about destroyed our economy; I have no idea why my taxes are being used to subsidise a country which has its own parliament; I find it unbelievable that, were my son to attend a Scottish university, we’d be paying full tuition fees while his Scottish equivalent would be getting a free education thanks to my taxes; they gutlessly set the Lockerbie bomber free on “compassionate” grounds to return home to a hero’s welcome, and the bastard’s still alive; I’m tired of their endless sense of resentment against England and the English; I’m bored titless with all the talk of Independence – if you want to turn into Greece, be our guest!; and I’m unimpressed that they’ve managed to reduce the once-proud, energetic, hard-as-nails city of Glasgow to a state of perpetual beggary, while at the same time turning it into the most feckless, badly-run, criminal city in the whole of Europe (although I suspect Naples might run it a close second).

Drumlanrig Cstle      
In spite of all that, I like the Scots and their country enormously. I’ve always enjoyed working with them – there’s nothing like the old Protestant Work Ethic for getting things done. They’re brave, tough, clever, inventive, and have a great sense of pomposity-pricking humour. In my experience, they’re genuinely hospitable and kind to visitors. I love visiting the country: in particular the Highlands and Edinburgh and, now, Dumfriesshire – it is all ridiculously beautiful. 

But, despite being 50% Scots, I don’t feel in the least bit Scottish. 

Yes, I mist up when I hear the bagpipes – but a lot of non-Caledonians do that. I love the scenery, the sheer Northerness of it all – but I feel the same way about the Italian Alps. The Highland Clearances were disgraceful – but all that guff about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Robert the Bruce and William Wallace leaves me utterly cold: I spent Braveheartrooting for the English and their lowland chums. Whenever England play Scotland at rugby or football, I have no difficulty in choosing which side to support. 

I wonder if  the lack of any sense of belonging could be down to not having ever lived there.  

Apart from the opportunity to spend some time with my brother, the loveliness of the village in which he lives, and the glories of Caerlaverock Castle, Sweetheart Abbey and Drumlanrig Castle (ancestral home of the Dukes of Buccleuch and Queensberry), two things affected me strangely while I was there. The first was seeing a group of haaf-net fishermen
standing across the River Nith at low tide in the early evening sunlight, catching salmon and flounder using a method introduced by Viking invaders/settlers over a thousand years ago. The second was the sight of the Union Jack flying in tandem with the flag of Scotland at the local lifeboat station in my brother’s village – which, no matter what all the Thatcher-haters north of the Border might think,  is exactly as it should be.

And my thanks to the petrol station in Dumfries which features a sign at the exit reading “Haste Ye Back!” for giving the Grønmark boys a bloody good laugh. I think that may be taking the spirit of hospitality too far.

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