• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Who do we think we are?

IT is a question that, in this of all years, has a special, urgent resonance:

what does it mean to be Scottish? September's independence referendum, which could see Scots voting to terminate the 300-year-old Union with England, is forcing many Scots to assess their Scottish-British duality more seriously than they ever have before.

The question of Scottishness will be discussed in detail at a conference on Wednesday, being staged by Edinburgh University.

Understanding Scottish Identity will explore different aspects of what it means to be Scottish, as well as their historical developments and recent expression.

Among those taking part is the novelist James Robertson, who believes the notion of "Scottishness" has been refashioned in recent times to the point where the country has become much more inclusive and refreshingly eclectic. He told the Sunday Herald: "We have a gay woman [Ruth Davidson] leading the Scottish Tories, and a gay man [Patrick Harvie] leading the Scottish Greens.

"The Tartan Army doesn't take itself or Scottish football too seriously. We have Asian Scots, Polish Scots, even English Scots, while the Celtic Connections festival has broken down barriers and built all kinds of links between Scottish traditional/folk and other music."

Robertson said his fellow ­novelist Allan Massie had pointed out the paradox that as Scotland has become more politically self-aware, and on the surface at least more culturally confident, through globalisation it has become a place increasingly like everywhere else.

"Perhaps, though, this isn't a paradox, but simply what happens when people feel their sense of identity under threat.

"We all know the potential for feeling to turn into something defensive, or aggressively exclusive.

"Without being complacent, some of the noticeable features of what might be called the 'refashioning' of Scottishness in recent times are inclusiveness, an ability to laugh at ourselves, and a willingness to imagine new ways of being Scottish."

Robertson said the shift in attitudes towards sexualities was evidence of how relaxed people have become about what being Scottish - or being human - means.

However, he added that not everyone was comfortable with every manifestation of Scottishness.

"Language is a fundamental part of anyone's identity. The 2011 census reported that 1.5 million people, nearly 30% of the population, said they spoke Scots. That this was the first official attempt to count speakers of Scots tells us something: that both the government and media response to this finding was almost total silence tells us something else."

Scottishness, like all identities, is constantly changing, the author added. "Scots in the 19th century were no less Scottish for being active participants in the British Empire. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of a 'strong Scots accent of the mind' and there is something pleasing about that phrase.

"It suggests that the head-versus-heart dichotomy so often trotted out is false, and that reason and passion work together to make us who we are, and who we think we are."

Also taking part on Wednesday is Professor Tom Devine, director of the Scottish Centre of Diaspora Studies at Edinburgh University, and one of the country's foremost historians. He said: "At the moment all the opinion polls, probably going back to the 1990s, suggest that Scottishness is now more dominant than Britishness.

"What nationhood is, is a kind of collective sentiment. If it is that, the sentiment will change, and the dual identity therefore is fluid.

"Britishness was predominant during and after the Second World War. Now it's Scottishness.

"In terms of September, future historians will conclude that if there is a 'Yes' vote, the 300-year duality will have been shattered. If there is even a slender majority in favour of No, the historians will conclude that the Union will have withstood its most severe test since 1707, and that the old dual identity was sufficiently resilient to cope with that."

Devine said the Union was experiencing a "crisis moment", adding: "People tend to reveal themselves more in a crisis. They tend to consider things that they haven't done in the past. The referendum is a catalyst for trying to work out what the meaning of the nation is.

"But this is not just confined to Scotland," he added. "The amount of media contact we have been receiving in my centre at the university has been truly astonishing.

"I sometimes feel that the referendum is a device to raise Scotland's profile abroad, and it has emphatically done that."

l Understanding Scottish Identity, New College, 1 Mound Place, Edinburgh. Tickets £25 (£15 students)

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

229330