This is the written transcript of Andrew O’Hagan’s keynote lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival where he shares the story of how he moved from voting No to supporting an independent Scotland.
THE vanity of each generation is to believe we are living through the greatest period in history. Each generation imagines it is germinating a brand new world, that the times are glorious, that their period is the most interesting ever to occur, that earthly progress would turn around now for a thousand years and their names would be written on water. The Romans believed it, and their civilisation is now a heap of lovely ruins and a dead language.
And yet there are good reasons to trust that the 21st century will indeed be a time of times, a period for the ages, as we proceed toward new formulations of what it means to be human, of what constitutes a society, of what characterises a culture and what makes a nation.
My ancestors came to Glasgow from Ireland with soil on their hands. They soon replaced it with engine grease, but not before they had fought themselves clean with the local culture, and I enjoyed a Scottish childhood in which 400 years of history was inscribed at the level of daily life.
In the town in Ayrshire where I grew up, the Catholic church was adjacent to a blue hut in a field, a hut that lay dormant for most of the week. But on Sunday morning, about 2 minutes before 10 o’clock Mass, the hut would thump into life, a big bass drum at the centre, as the local Orange Band embarked on its weekly rehearsals. You could see the funny side of that, and, in time, the blue hut was replaced by a library, which carried books by people for all over the world who feasted on the different kinds of loyalties that make a world.
My Glasgow grandparents weren’t just poor, they were Victorian poor, subject, when I examine the records, to privations and self-defeats that would’ve made Charles Dickens blush. Yet we had added to the country that took us in by helping to build a Labour movement at the centre of it.
Even in my post-industrial childhood in the 1970s and 80s, the old arguments died hard, yet only at the end of it, and after a few harsh doubts of my own, did I realise a modern Scotland had been born around us.
We were immigrants, after all, but now we had inside bathrooms and national healthcare and jobs. It took a while for some of us to get over the grief of the journey, and we hadn’t the literature yet, to soothe or express it. But that came in time, the poetry and the prose, the drama and the art, and the Scotland I’d always known in my head and in my day began to exist in the literature of our country.
The title of this lecture is ‘Scotland Your Scotland’, tipping a hat to that famous essay of 1941 by George Orwell called ‘England Your England’. It was a brave essay at the time, characteristically unflinching in naming those parts of the national character that should be named. At the time of writing it, Britain was facing the greatest threat to its existence since the Norman Conquest: wolf-packs of German U-Boats surrounded the coast, bombs whistled overhead, yet Orwell trusted that the fighting spirit could still endure a few incendiary home truths.
The English were a ‘sleep-walking people’, he said, and ‘smutty’ and ‘snobbish’. He said they were ‘hypocritical about their empire’; ‘they are insular’. But, for all that, Orwell observed that the English nation, for all its promotion of class differences and proud stupidities, ‘is bound together by an invisible chain’, even if it was ‘a family with the wrong members in control.’
I grew up hearing jokes about the perennial Scotsman, the English, and the Irishman, jokes that in our house had a 66 and 2/3rd chance of scoring a direct insult. But national stereotypes used to be more fun, or so it felt, and the reason that we have always had such resourceful comedians in this country is that we generally find our misfortunes to be more diverting than our triumphs. (Quite handy that, as it goes.) Entertained by our own kitsch, remorseless about our own vanities, it is not accident that Scotland fostered the best variety theatre in the world.
There were comedians in our house, and in the house next door, and my late father spent his last moments on earth trying out new material.
‘You told a lie on Radio Four last week,’ he said to me.
‘A lie?’ I said. ‘On Radio 4? I don’t think so.’
‘You did so,’ he said. ‘You told them we had no books in our house when you were growing up. That isnae true. There was one; it was green; it sat on top the fridge for ages.’
‘That was the Kilmarnock Telephone Directory,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t count.’
For years, in Scotland, my Scotland, I felt that England was all the better for having Scotland attached to it, and vice versa. I’d grown up with a strong sense of solidarity and had a natural Leftist belief in the commonality of these islands, of a joint commitment to decency and shared destiny, presenting a united front up and down the land against barbarian elements, which first meant, for my generation, Margaret Thatcher and her notion of ‘no such thing as society’.
It was in my veins, that belief in land-hopping progress: such magical thinking always seemed to me to be sewn into the literary imagination of Scotland.
We are a thinking people, quite literally — we had an intellectual Enlightenment based on the notion that strong philosophy could outwit suspicion any day. Scottish intellectual life, furthermore, has been distinctive in its dedication not only to speaking its own mind, but of entertaining opposites to its own certainties, dealing in the places where extremes meet and where contradictions come alive.
It is no accident that the great progenitor of the myth of human opposites living in one body, Robert Louis Stevenson, grew up in Heriot Row not ten minutes from here. No coincidence that the thinking mind, in Scotland, is a brain not addled with conventional wisdom, but speaking truth to power, as Robert Burns deathlessly does, and where power changes, so will the mind criticising it.
I grew up loving all that, and feel it is germane to our situation now. More than any parliament or studio, a literary festival, this one above all, is therefore not only the ample but the perfect place for a rumination about the nation.
Once upon a time, reading Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, I imagined the seas around us could come alive and speak truths about our existence as old as the rocks. There is a moment in that book when St Columba raises his staff and summons the snakes out of the sea, and they rise, these talking beasts, live from the depths of Iona Sound, to tell him who he is.
In every corner of Scotland, and in the seas that mark us, it is magic realism of that sort that is the order of the day. Not old certainties. Not opinion polls. Not fears and the fear of further fears. Not isolationism. Not trolls. Not what you used to say or what your mammy said that time. Not Reporting Scotland or Newsnight. Not Donald Trump or the Chief Whip or that guy who used to play the pipes outside the Playhouse. Not previous convictions, or pension funds, or old school ties or something I wrote before.
Newness in thinking is like loyalty in love: it doesn’t just exist because it was there before; you have to create it fresh every day.
Scotland used to feel too sorry for itself, and was once addicted to historical injury, but that notion is now as old as the people who said it, and I should know because I’m one.
Every nation with a rich past has sectarianisms to deal with, but our job is to engage them, not simply by denouncing them, but by supplanting them with bigger thoughts and more exacting passions.
That is where we are today, where we are in these gardens of the imagination, digging for fresh truth amid too many old prejudices going nowhere.
Rather than pretend, as various politicians do, that they have all the answers, why not start, in this place, by admitting we are boldly searching. Our perplexity is our situation. Our perplexity is our opportunity.
‘How do I strengthen the better angels of our nature?’ Barack Obama recently asked. ‘And how do we tamp down our tribal impulses?’ A beginning — I would suggest — might lie in our simply admitting we are in a situation that is new both to our political certainties, our party loyalties, our tribal impulses, and our sense of what was previously admissible.
That’s what writers are for — to replenish the imagination, and to steer, nowadays, by magic realism through the portals of virtual reality, into an open space of fresh possibility that we will soon constitute the nation. In a time of fake news, the journey has been very real, and relates not to some fictional realm or conjuring of the Net, but to a real place, a terra firma, one of the most beautiful on earth, this very place, Scotland, where some of the most original thinking about humanness has taken place and will take place again.
The statues you see around you were not put there by Walt Disney: they were erected by the will of the people, and are of David Hume and Walter Scott, James Boswell and Robert Fergusson, geniuses for whom Scotland was a stately, multifarious mind, a place where epochs could be enlivened, histories recorded, and Constitutions pre-written.
When the Scottish Referendum was going on, I found I was asked to speak about it every single day. In the morning, the Today programme; in the afternoon, the New Yorker or CNN. But I didn’t answer and I didn’t say a word. I knew they wanted me to reaffirm, or spin upon, things I’d said 20 years ago, or passages I’d written in novels, or to contradict the captivating talk of some nationalist or other, but for my own part I wanted to do something I’d been taught to do in a Scottish primary school 40 years ago — Watch, Listen, and Learn.
Quietly, I went to the rallies. I attended the conventions. I heard all the speeches and stood in the shadow of the flags that fanned the people cold. A writer, I learned, has a responsibility to the political life, as well as a superiority over it. Politicians believe in power; writers believe in dreams. The thing was to avoid the microphone. Keep it shut. Let reality do its thing. ’I have never seen myself as a spokesman,’ wrote James Baldwin. ‘I am a witness.’
Yet I noticed something beginning to happen that didn’t happen when I was a younger writer: I began not so much to build defences around my own arguments, as to awaken to their weaknesses. It’s often a failure of intellectual curiosity that causes us to learn nothing form our own experience: we merely defend what we’ve said before, make a god of what we are known to believe, regardless of changes in the circumstances before us, because that makes us feel better, and feel that we were right all along.
But what happens if you try to understand the look in the eyes of my opponents? What if the No voters in the country allowed themselves the luxury of imagining without prejudice just exactly what they think they would be losing?
Me first. A writer’s job, after all, is not to defend what she believes in, but to animate what she can barely imagine. Many people in 2014 felt that the argument had not yet been made. And perhaps it hadn’t. It certainly hadn’t, in some respects.
But it began to seem to me that the ground was shifting nonetheless, regardless of opinion, and that a re-constituted Scotland was already in process.
Despite the seeming defeat and the constant punditry and a comic debility of Westminster power, what if we were already in the early days of a better nation, with the idea carefully minted and the coin merely to follow?
I was at the count in Glasgow the night of the Referendum. As I walked among the tables, hour after hour, I realised something strange, especially strange to someone like me who had always believed these islands were better united. It hardly matters whether or not I wanted the Nationalists to win, it was more than it felt they already had.
They would lose that night, but as I drove back to Ayrshire at 5 o’clock in the morning, passing down to the coast and a view of Arran in the early light, it seemed like a different country. The major parties won the referendum but lost the future. And it was their fault and their myopia — Labour had dealt in fraudulent politics and David Cameron, in playing the English card on the morning of the result, may have committed the most stupid and divisive political act in these lands since Margaret Thatcher introduced the Poll Tax.
As I drove away from the count in Glasgow in the middle of the night I felt the Union wasn’t saved, it was in fact over. And Michael Gove appearing on Jim Naughtie’s programme, playing on my car radio, convinced me that the main British parties had, for the time being, bankrupted themselves over Scotland.
The fight over Brexit would only deepen the chasm.
In fact: Brexit has transformed the chasm into a black hole of impertinence and impossibility. Now that the picture is clearing, we are left with an image of a belated Little England posing an existential threat to a Scotland that has seen itself for years as European.
I have never believed writers should have anything to do with governments, and should never hitch their intellectual freedom to the shifting agendas of political parties, or the careers of those looking for votes.
I believed Alexander Solzenitzyn, many years ago, when he said that governments should be nervous of writers because each writer is a government in himself. The egotism of writers and that of politicians could scarcely be more different. What politicians want is power and what writers want — if they’re any good — is the truth beyond the facts, and to increase our capacity for wonder.
Like the poet Norman MaCaig, the first independence a writer must go for (and constantly) is the one he or she embodies in themselves. And I have to say I despair of the political trolls, those who are brutally warped by their own certainties, and can only think ideologically or not at all. We all grew up in a sectarian society and perhaps they still don’t know what it means to value their own toleration, and don’t know how to honour the change they feel is necessary.
Yet you can forgive a certain amount of dander being up. After Brexit, it seemed overwhelming to many, and not only in Scotland, that Theresa May’s high-handedness — and lack of political courage — has already compromised Britain’s trading position within Europe. Yet Scotland’s vote against that outcome was simply too clear for the schism to be papered over in the old way.
Theresa May, by blankly ignoring this, and by seeking again to appease the right wing of her party, a group yet alien to Scotland, supplied an insult to Scotland’s intelligence that it didn’t take much intelligence to see.
I didn’t stay home with my questions: I took them to the Supreme Court. I was the only novelist there during that week of the Appeal, and it was stale manna from the gods, I can tell you, listening to the government’s lawyers argue that a constitutional alteration the size of Brexit did not require an Act of Parliament.
I won’t enter into May’s Cavalier — and I mean Cavalier with a capital C— attitude to the balance of power in the constitutional arrangements of these islands, but it was too little commented on at the time how events in the Supreme Court revealed a blundering attitude towards Scotland’s integrity as a political body.
For those of us who had always supported the idea of the United Kingdom, it was a shattering moment, to see how willing May was to ride rough-shod over Scotland’s discreet authority, enshrined in the Scotland Act of 1998 and located in the Sewell Convention, so that she could hold onto power and please the Brexiteers whom she had formerly opposed.
In a major respect the Yes campaign had been right: it wasn’t really about nationalism, it was about fairness and self-definition, about sovereignty in a much finer sense and now it was also about the march of history. It took the full unfolding of the case to see with total clarity that the Union was corrupted. It was the end of another old song, and it was hard now to resist the fact that Britain was being smashed by those who claimed to defend it, and that Scotland would probably be a better country for all that.
I speak for no political movement, but must say, that no party will do for this country that is not in touch with the growth of ideas. In the national song, it is proud Edward that is sent homewards to think again, but what if — all along — it was us who must think again, as our native philosophers taught us to do?
Should we not send ourselves homework, our proud army, to think again about what is was we said No to? ‘In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act,’ said our friend Orwell. And what is the truth now? Can we with a fresh conscience now say that Britain is taking us forward? Can we say that leaving Europe, without our consent, is set to enhance our children’s lives and connect them more constructively to the world of the future?
Some would say so, some unionists and some nationalists too, but a heavily majority would not, and many young people in Scotland feel they are being sold out by their own grandparents. Strangely, it is the younger ones who are more profoundly in touch with Scotland’s intellectual traditions.
It is not at base a political argument, but a philosophical one, a humanitarian one, an ecological one, putting the rights of all men and women, and all children, before the fears of a class of account-holders.
And it’s a task of bravery for the account-holders to see that: there are much larger accounts at stake. The world is not right, and the task of our combined generations is to put it right, or leave the possibility open. Letting Scotland take its place at the table of modern nations relies on your bravery in thinking again.
In 1926, at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, W.B. Yeats railed against those who objected to the uncomfortable truths embedded in Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Yeats told his audience there was a difference between national pride and national vanity. Only an immature nation was vain, ‘and did not,’ he said, ‘believe in itself…and wanted other people to think well of it, in order that it might gain a little self-confidence. The moment a nation reached intellectual maturity it became proud rather than vain.’
England is not Goliath to our David — it is, rather, a sister nation in troubled times. But a sister is not the same as a self. And history is not the past, it is the present. Scotland must now define itself against the small-nation retreat-ism of not just England but of any small country that has rouble leaving behind a 19th-century model of existence.
Our moment has arrived.
We are where we are. And it may be that the bigger unity, the modern union meshing Scotland with Europe and the world, is now a journey Scotland makes alone.
Sitting in the Supreme Court, listening to successive lawyers for the Westminster government commanding Scotland to toe the line, I felt the UK’s ruling council suddenly appeared absurd. The moral mandate, and the imaginative mandate, more importantly, must lie with Scotland itself, when it comes to Scotland, and Westminster must answer to itself for how it dismantled a project that it claimed to adore.
Britain has mismanaged itself out of existence, and Scotland may not be the beneficiary, but it can certainly be the escapee, free to succeed or to fail in its own ways. At least we will enjoy the dignity of not endlessly repeating a history that we know has come to an end.
We were addicted to that narrative, the imperial story and then the neoliberal account of how a capitalist society must be, and it built many buildings, deregulated many a city, and boosted many a criminal network, whilst keeping the powerful in power and the poor in their place.
But when the imagination awakens to something better…what then for the old guard? What then, when the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, as William Blake called them, are broken off, when the illusion of dependence is shattered, when the imagination does it stuff, and some sweet new air comes up from the glens, singing ‘From the river to the sea, modern Scotland will be free’?
The problem, in a sense, with 2014, was that Alex Salmond was too emotional and so was David Cameron. The thought of a reconstituted Scotland might give rise to emotion, but it should not be an emotional decision, and too much emotion has always unbalanced the case. If Mr Salmond had thought more about the currency question and less about how to unfurl a saltire flag over the Centre Court at Wimbledon, we might be standing now in the independent republic of Scotland, but equally, if David Cameron had thought less about what was won and lost on the playing fields at Eton, and denied himself a round of silly buggers over Europe, the death-knell of the Union might have been delayed.
But Brexit gives the lie to the notion that Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland have sovereign force within the system of power at Westminster. As Edmund says in King Lear, ‘The wheel is come full circle’ — we are here.
A fictional Scotland is one of the world’s strongest brands, in terms of nationhood. So strong that the country has struggled to live up to it. When Arthur Freed, the great producer in charge of musicals at MGM in the 1950s, hired Gene Kelly and wanted to make Brigadoon, he came to Scotland to scout for locations. On his return to California, he told the executives at Metro that they should just build a set on the studio lot to shoot the film on. ‘The problem with Scotland,’ he said, ‘is — you know — it’s just not Scottish enough.’
In the last analysis, we have parried skilfully with out own image, have made merry with the fake news about us, when in fact, Scotland is a world capital of clear thinking and sustained imagining. Scotland did better than most in the Age of Reason, it also did well in the Age of Sentiment. It did brilliantly in the Age of Steam and will do even better in the Age of Digital.
For my sins, I have spent a great deal of the last six years in the mirk of the new technology. I spent the best part of six months in a house in Norfolk with the head of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, a man under house arrest, and I later followed him into the Ecuadorian embassy in London as he tried with dark brio to evade his memoirs.
I spent a further period working with the man who may have invented Bitcoin, the digital currency that in time will replace paper money and kill the authority of the collapsing and corrupting banks. These and other ethical mires of the digital age led me to see that the world is no longer round: it is as flat as your computer screen, and as endlessly deep.
After 2008 and the banking collapse, through to the recent American election, when it became clear that the manipulation of digital forces, including Facebook, decided who would be the most powerful man on earth, it became no longer possible to treat of nations as if they were simply conglomerations of old habits.
At the back of my mind was the question ‘what makes a nation?’, and at the front: ‘what makes a person?’ Those late nights with Assange in the Embassy, a place where he has now been practically imprisoned for 5 years, he seemed a modern parable. Actually stateless, he has become, as one writer said, ‘a global influence, proving that with simple digital tools a single person can craft a new kind of power—a distributed, transnational power, which functions outside norms of state sovereignty that have held for centuries.’
And this is how an entire global generation see the question of politics in the future, not as a matter of polling stations and ‘I kent yer faither’, but a matter of arms-linking and marching through the liquid borders of the Net.
Those of us, including many of you here, who can remember a simpler world before hand-held devices — devices with more computing power than it took to put a man on the Moon — may believe the Net is just another of life’s spaces, but it is not — it has become the space of all spaces, and it seems inevitable now that nations will be, in some important respect, subsumed by it.
The Net provides a social infrastructure for international Scots, and not just for technicians, music lovers, environmentalists, and political activists, but for people who want to live in he world in a different way, and don’t want be kettled in physical space. Scotland can’t resist that any more than any other modern nation. It is arriving. The question for us is how to transform our institutions to make a a triumph of it.
Compared with the new communities of the Internet, Britain seems like a minor abstraction — all pomp and no circumstance. ‘GREAT BRITAIN’: the name we once gave to a situation we were in, where we traded our sovereignty for empire, before the empire was gone.
Increasingly the experience of life in Scotland is not one of feeling bordered by old constitutional abstractions, of sentimental attachments, of fattening prejudice and deflated pomp, but of being open to a sense of energetic existence beyond the fetters of geography.
I went to Afghanistan, and the young Scottish and Irish soldiers there seemed alienated from all national stereotypes, and they spoke as if blimpish Britain had died when their parents were young, somewhere on Goose Green. Their accents were clear, and they were proud of each other, but there was, for them, no hallowed corner of any foreign field that would be forever Britain. The young Scots felt Scottish in an international way. And Scotland itself, these last 15 years, has moved on from the old stasis I used to criticise.
In the digital age it knows itself, and such knowledge is not a confinement. The land is so distinctive, the songs are so good, the poetry is so vital, the whisky sublime, the humour like no other, the sense of enquiry so rigorous and flexible, the stones so ageless, the spirit so fierce, that Scotland will in the future be a wellspring of algorithms as strong as memories.
In my view, in the Internet of Things, Scotland is due to become one of the world’s strongest digital republics, a place whose institutions are daily enhanced and purified not only by the life of the country but by the life of all countries. We could one day be part of a neural network whose strongest boundaries are decency and goodness. The laws of Scotland will one day be both discreet and universal; right for the people of Leith, augmented by brilliance, and right for the people of Calcutta, restored and revised every minute in according to what we know and decide.
After that, our political institutions may not lie to us because their lies will immediately be obvious, and our churches will be colourful and wise, offering a sense of the magical and the sacred beyond the bounds of reason.
Scotland, your Scotland, is in the earliest days of a digital renaissance, when its greatest thinkers — David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson — are redeployed to address the questions of rights and responsibilities in the coming age of artificial intelligence, and where new thinkers, as yet unborn, will address what it means to be a Scottish person with Scottish instincts in a world of code and algorithms and digital money, in an endlessly open society of nations, Scotland teaching the world perhaps how to author a new Gettysburg Address for Peace; showing the globe — with historical examples — how to author a Vindication of the Rights of Robots.
The daily fluctuations of the news in Scotland keeps us to the old tasks, of looking at party leaders, polls, the ups and downs of the old order, whilst underneath, a new way of being in the world is drawing on Scotland to show the way to a future human environment, where the wealth of nations, where a theory of human sentiments, where a new history of civil society, becomes beautifully ripe.
Already, today, Facebook’s sinister priorities as an advertising space is being mobilised to influence the outcome of the next election more than all the media outlets in the UK combined. It was certainly so at the last US election. ‘We simply couldn’t have won without Facebook,’ says Trump’s digital strategist Theresa Wong.
As a result of all this, ‘America’, as a concept, now has its nose pressed right up against the foggy glass of its own Constitution, and it is no less true of Scotland.
It turns out we have exemplars in this country, people not afraid to wave a Mexican flag in Donald Trump’s face when confronted with his bullying tactics and lies over the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire. People not afraid to boycott the odious Daily Mail when it characterises the opponents of Brexit as ‘saboteurs’.
People of Scotland with a mind of their own, and a whole deep history of mindfulness, when it comes to opposing the banning of Muslims or the condoning of white supremacists who wish to fence off the world, as if the 20th century had never happened.
Scottish people, and the best of their leaders, show they are a century beyond all that, the isolationism that Trump and Theresa May would venture to make a credo of patriotism.
Here and there, home and away, we have all changed with the growth of Scotland, and we do not believe that our identity can only grow strong by means of expulsion and intolerance. That is not who we are today.
Scotland has problems galore, as any nation does, but I’d like to think our problems are honest ones, with no passion spent on hating others in the attempt to raise ourselves.
‘Politics may be reduced to a science,’ posited David Hume, and it is by science, computer science, that a new form of politics is being established. The question for us will be how to install a spirit of Scotland into these progressions — as it did, indeed, in the original Declaration of Independence in 1776, where Thomas Jefferson drew words and heart from the Scottish Enlightenment — and to deploy Scotland’s influence too as a wellspring of philosophical common sense in opposing the regressive, brutal, and vicious elements of digital life.
We are heading towards a neural network, towards a strong chain of digital republics, surrounded in our lives by super-intelligent machines that will in time demand rights as well as responsibilities, and it is simply anachronistic to fight to keep things the way they were.
Modern statehood is as much in flux as natural selfhood: what does it mean to belong to a nation, when you are 16 year old kid in Erskine, addicted to Facebook, producing and starring in your life on Instagram, playing X-Box half the night with any one of 40 million other 16 years old kids like you from Pasadena, Fiji, and Gdansk? In time they will tell us, but we must prepare our minds to listen.
Given Scotland’s experience and its excellence as a progenitor of new conceptions of the human, I think of it as the Jimmy Stewart character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. We may be pressed by the turbulence and and violence of the times to take up the gun, and protect what we had, but we will not bring weapons, we will bring the new books on civil society, we will write them ourselves, and we will make as well as print the legend of our own creative participation in the globe of the future.
Yes, there are challenges galore, there are buses to run on time and hospitals to equip and schools to turn into beautiful cathedrals of the new aspiration — but that is the task, and, as I said, our perplexity is our situation, and our moment.
It is for Scotland, your Scotland, to write the Magna Carta of the Internet, to author its Bill of Rights, to play its part in securing decency and opposing chaos, in advancing liberty, and finessing our passage from a world of closed borders.
To those alarmed by the speed of change, take heart: a true national culture feasts on change and adapts to it and stakes its claim upon it.
Imagine how the Scotland of the 1950s would have appeared to Robert Burns: the Firth of Clyde he looked down at as he drove the plough at Mauchline now a byway for nuclear submarines. Imagine how the Dumfries of 1840 would have seemed to him, while his own children still lived, and a steam-train puffed over the fields where he once had driven his donkey for the Excise.
Burns arrived in Edinburgh on 28 November 1786, with a passion for intellectual enquiry, and, well, a passion for passion, and within a blink of an eye, in cosmic time, the Lawnmarket he bided in would be a hub of international information and augmentation arriving by the second.
Yet still his Scotland would persist, and so would his voice, so melodious, finding the human pulse at the centre of change. Blood and soil nationalism wasn’t repugnant to him, but it wasn’t the hallmark of his empathy either: he felt for all creatures, and in his modern universe of human imagining, there was a place for everything.
It’s in the nature of Scotland, at its very best, to give everything its due. A glass of water on a table, so beautifully caught in the light of an afternoon by Francis ‘Bunty’ Cadell, the Scottish colourist. The attitude of a Glasgow couple, as rendered by the great Chic Murray, a couple blown out of their Gallowgate tenement during the Blitz by a flying bomb. ‘Ah, we’re fine,’ said the husband, speaking from the street where they still lay in the marital bed. ‘It’s the first time we’ve been oot the’gither in years!’
Everywhere, the Scottish attitude towards particularity: Miss Jean Brodie, and her famous ‘girls’, who seem still to march in a perfect line of viability down the road from Marcia Blaine High School. We see them, as we see many products of the continuing Scottish imagination, particular specimens of the human case, and they are bathed in the light of a reality being fully given its due.
They are made the more instantly available every to the world by digital means. Burns knew his culture, and it brought the best of itself forward as it marched steadily ahead, capturing life in the ebb and flow. A rage for fairness and equality was Scotland gift to Burns and Burns’ gift to us.
Hear the particular, hear the empathy, lift the farm like a lid and see, as another poet wrote, ‘farm within farm, and in the centre, me.’
To a Mouse by Robert Burns
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
‘S a sma’ request;
I’ll get a blessin wi’ the lave,
An’ never miss’t!
Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin!
It’s silly wa’s the win’s are strewin!
An’ naething, now, to big a new ane,
O’ foggage green!
An’ bleak December’s winds ensuin,
Baith snell an’ keen!
Thou saw the fields laid bare an’ waste,
An’ weary winter comin fast,
An’ cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell –
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro’ thy cell.
That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou’s turn’d out, for a’ thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter’s sleety dribble,
An’ cranreuch cauld!
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
Not all the waters in the rough, rude seas of the World Wide Web will ever wash the sympathy out of that poem. It is an essence, and Scotland’s essence — despite all the difficulties, all the trials, all the poverties, all the hurdles, and the contradictions — can contribute largely to the next era of life on earth, but only if the deepest reserves of our imagination can guide the mouse.
‘I want you to know,’ wrote a Russian reader to me recently, ‘that the poems of Robert Burns and the philosophy of Scotland, which I found on the Internet, has helped me to life my life. My search engine now leads me to other great minds and I feel that I have come home.’
Scotland is a place in which to live and breath and vote and argue, but it is also a place in the mind, a moveable feast, and self-improvement will be our greatest export.
‘In my end is my beginning,’ said Mary, Queen of Scots at the close of her own torrid life. The line makes an impression in Four Quartets, the late poem by that prince among modernists, T.S. Eliot. The lilt and flow of our own modernism is to be found there among the ashes of the old binaries.
Neither nationalism not unionism, but the best of both worlds in a conjuring of the new. It is already happening: history is now and Scotland.
The rhythm will be felt in the way we work for a future we could hardly believe, in a world we could scarcely know, where nations are imagined communities, and its legislators are imagineers at the centre of world events, and our people, Scottish to their core, can bring their native intelligence and bravery to the constant fixing of a world that needs it.
From the river to the sea, from the Advocates’ Close to the streets of Dundee, from the ridge of the Cuillins to the graveyards of Ettrick, from Castlemilk to Rothesay Bay, from Selkirk to the Saltmarket. From the teenagers in the bus stop at Inverkeithing to the hedge-fund manager in the converted lighthouse; from the family in Melbourne, Australia who took the £10 visa, to the maiden aunt in Canada who remembers the Electric Brae, from the ex-bus conductor in Elgin to the Scottish builder in Camden Town; the Lord High Commissioner to the Russian reader to the wee wummin wi’ the wean, singing to her of a Scotland that will one day become her. History is now and Scotland.
There is work to do, and a people to be, and we were never more ourselves than in letting ourselves go forward. ‘We shall not cease from exploration,’ writes T.S. Eliot,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree