“Scottishness” – Reflections of Identity

Ironically, I tend to feel most Scottish when I’m not in Scotland. Living and working in Scotland, surrounded by other Scots, Scottishness is often something which you take for granted. It’s just a given, underpinning society but not necessarily talked about unless there’s some major sporting event, Burns’ night, St Andrew’s Day or similar.

However when I moved to London to study at university, I was quite unprepared for the transformation of my identity. Firstly, because there were hardly any Scots at the London School of Economics, it became a defining characteristic. More than one Jo in the year group? I became “Scottish Jo”. Most strangely, though, I felt like I was the London branch of the Scotland and Glasgow Tourist Offices.

Forever trying to put right the misconceptions people had about my home country, I’d be encouraging tourists and international students to go to Scotland (“it’s not just mountains and glens, you know – the cities are also worth a look”) and open their minds about Glasgow (“no, it’s not a horrible industrial city – actually, it’s very cosmopolitan with fabulous architecture and it was European City of Culture in 1990″). And travelling home, there’s always something special about passing the sign on the motorway that says “Welcome to Scotland” or looking out of the train window seeing the hills of the Borders stretching out.

In Scotland, though, I’ve always felt uncomfortable hearing anti-English sentiment expressed, like when some Scots will support any team in the World Cup that happens to be playing England. I see Scottishness as a positive characteristic, being proud of our country. Defining ourselves by what we are not is more a sign of insecurity. In the recent Commonwealth Games, of course we found ourselves watching the television, willing on our Scots athletes to success. But it was also wonderful to see Welsh, English and Northern Irish competitors doing well.


I see no conflict in being both Scottish and British. Surveys over the past 20 years show this is the case for most Scots. Around two thirds of Scots claim dual identity to a greater or lesser degree, though the most important identity is generally Scottish.

I remember filling in my first passport application form, and experiencing genuine confusion about whether the correct label under “Nationality” should be Scottish or British. Fortunately, we generally don’t have to choose. Most of us anyway have multiple identities, layered one on top of the other. I feel strongly aligned to my community in East Dunbartonshire, and my attachment to Glasgow as the nearest city is fierce – especially if Glasgow is coming in for criticism. There’s also my Scottish and British identities, and I relate to being European, if a little bit more remotely.

David McCrone, Professor of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh has found that “people in Scotland have a clear understanding of the distinction between ‘national’ (Scottish) and ‘state’ (British) identities in a way people in England do not.”

I suspect many English people do not see much of a difference between being English and British – and this can lead to problems. Haven’t we all experienced that insensitivity when the terms English and British are used interchangeably on TV, as if it doesn’t matter? I think broadcasters and journalists are more aware of this these days than they used to be, but it can still fuel resentment. To Scots it seems quite strange for English sporting teams to use the British national anthem at the start of matches.

Devolution has had an interesting impact on England. There is now more discussion about what the English identity means. Efforts have been made to reclaim the St George’s Cross flag as a positive emblem, rather than an icon of football hooliganism. I welcome this, because the more distinctive the English identity is, the easier it is for the Scottish identity to be understood within the British context.


What makes us Scottish anyway? Is Tony Blair a Scot, having been born in Edinburgh? Some would say yes, but whatever the technical answer, I think there’s more to being Scottish than place of birth. Parental nationality is obviously one qualifier. But for that authentic Scottish outlook and feeling, you can’t beat growing up and living here, absorbing the culture.

Of course many Scots then spread their wings and end up all over the world. This presents us with a demographic problem, but it is also an opportunity. I once read that there were more Scots living abroad than in Scotland itself. What a team of ambassadors!

But what are we promoting as Scottish? This week’s Tartan Day celebrations in America brings together a range of cultural heritage with a few stereotypes thrown in for good measure. Haggis, bagpipes, whisky, folksongs, poetry, Highland dancing.

All of this has its place. Many a time I’ve felt a surge of emotion listening to a piper’s lament, or the exhilaration of a ceilidh dance rushing to a rousing tune, and the warm sense of national pride when introducing non-Scots to the delights of Burns’ Night (as well as relief that it’s actually a fairly straightforward dinner party in terms of cooking!)

For me, though, being Scottish is much more than a caricature of kilts and cabers.

We are a nation of innovators, prizing education and learning. It was us Scots who led the way in providing universal education, back in the 18th century. Scotland boasted 4 Universities in the 16th century, at a time when England had just 2. Philosophers, economists and scientists from Scotland were globally renowned in their fields, through the Scottish Enlightenment and beyond – David Hume, Alexander Fleming, Adam Smith, John Logie Baird, Lord Kelvin, James Watt, and countless others.

The Scottish education system is still much-admired and highly-rated. It is an indication of the importance we attach to education that Scotland is the only country in the UK to have abolished university tuition fees.

As a people, we are often mocked for being “tight”. I think the word thrifty is better. This sense of being careful with money has helped Scotland to establish a strong financial services industry. The Royal Bank of Scotland, for instance, is now the second largest bank in Europe. And despite our preference for a bargain, never let it be said that Scots aren’t generous. In the first 48 hours after the tsunami hit, Scots raised £3.5million for emergency relief for those affected – well above the average donation per head in the rest of the UK.

We’re friendly folk too. Scottish hospitality has a deservedly good reputation, and I even notice the difference at a very local level. Stand at a bus stop in Glasgow and you’re likely to strike up a conversation with whoever else is there. Try doing the same in London and you’ll soon get some weird looks.

Scotland is a proud nation, and rightly so. We have a rich culture, both past and present. Historical writers and musicians like Burns and Stevenson are joined by an array of exciting talent today – Iain Rankin, JK Rowling, Annie Lennox, Franz Ferdinand. Our pioneering attitude has left us a legacy of progressive reforms – we must nourish this entrepreneurial spirit, and use it to tackle the injustices and problems of the 21st century.

It was Voltaire who said, “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”. It’s a lot to live up to. With our history, innovation and passion, we Scots should relish the challenge.

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