Simon Stephenson

ACCIDENTALLY admit to an American that you are Scottish and you can generally expect to hear either that they are Scottish, too, that it is their dream to visit Scotland, or that their forefathers came from a place called ‘Glass-gow’ and perhaps you have heard of it?

I am never prouder of our country than when I am away from it, but living amongst such unearned devotion has often led me to wonder just what it is about our little nation that inspires such affection. Is it our renowned landscapes, our progressive politics or our mind-blowing litany of world-changing inventions? Is it our whisky, our golf, our Andy Murray? Is it simply our legendary humility?

Fortunately, I knew where to look for the answer, because each summer many Americans demonstrate their affinity for our country by attending Scottish festivals. Here in California, the season kicks off early with the Scotsfestival, held aboard and alongside the Clydebank-built RMS Queen Mary at its permanent mooring in the Los Angeles suburb of Long Beach.

I drove down to Scotsfestival – whose website, it may be worth noting, optimistically describes Clydebank as a ‘quaint seaside town’ – on a sunny Saturday morning with The Proclaimers cranked all the way up. As Craig and Charlie lamented, ‘All the blood that flowed away, across the ocean to the second chance’, I joined in full-throatedly, even though I myself have long since become that blood.

When I arrive at mid-morning, the Scotsfestival is in full swing and the Queen Mary looks resplendent in her black, red, and white Cunard stripes. There is nowhere to buy anything resembling breakfast or even coffee, but the bars are already doing a spectacular trade. Currently a month and a half into a dry 2020, I feel as if I am letting our national side down.

On a field enclosed by a white picket fence, the Highland Games are already underway. A woman in a mini-kilt and Led Zeppelin T-shirt launches a hammer with such extreme power and lack of direction that it almost decapitates a nearby judge; this being Southern California, his only reaction is to enthusiastically high five her. The next event is an American invention that involves using a pitchfork to toss a burlap sack over a high bar. Lochaber, no more.

In an adjacent area of perfectly green grass, a half dozen immaculate sheep stand as if waiting for their close-up. I take it upon myself to educate their American shepherd, Ted Thompson: if he wants his sheep to look authentically Scottish he needs to muddy up their underbellies, spray paint them with a blue hieroglyphic, and ideally set them wandering loose on a country road. Ted politely explains that his sheep look this way because they are decorative sheep, bred not for wool nor meat but simply to look good while being herded. Ted has never been to Scotland, but had ancestors that came from Ayrshire. Keen to make up for my sheep faux-pas, I inform him that Ayrshire is Robert Burns’ country. He is not familiar with ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, but immediately gets the sentiment, pointing out with a wry smile that he has a friend who is a Trump supporter, and yet they manage to find mutual ground.

I head next to the ‘Clydebank Cross’, a tented encampment of battle re-enactors. The website promised this would provide ‘a taste of what it means to be Scottish’ through its ‘woodwork and metalwork demonstrations’. Woodwork and metalwork have never felt a strong part of my Scottish identity, but the re-enactors are at least demonstrating another of our national characteristics that I can relate to: they feel that they have been treated unfairly, and consequently are morose.

Specifically, they are unhappy about the location they have been assigned. It is hard to blame them: next to the portaloos and tucked behind a row of mock-Tudor structures still covered in fake snow from last season’s Winter Wonderland, their encampment will not attract much foot traffic today. They dutifully clean their muskets like the good soldiers they are, but their hearts are not entirely in it, a situation they underscore by frequently setting down their muskets to show each other YouTube videos on their iphones.

By the time I have wandered through the nearby ‘Vendor Valley’, my own heart is no longer entirely in it either. The concessions here sell claymores, chain-mail and pikes. The website had claimed this Vendor Valley would ‘take you back to a Scottish market’, but it seems another outlandish hope. Perhaps you can pick up a claymore at the Barras if you know who to ask, but surely no self-respecting Glaswegian stallholder would ever post a sign in a medieval font that proclaims they accept ‘Master of the Card’ and ‘Lady Visa’.

A-Z of Outlander: Everything you need to know about the hit TV show

I begin to suspect that that our American cousins don’t love Scotland at all, but simply Braveheart and Outlander. Yet if this is the case, I can hardly blame them. Mel Gibson shouting for freedom while wearing blue face paint might be an absurd version of our country, but I mostly exist in an equally delusional version of theirs, one where Martin Sheen is President and acts on the scientific advice he gets from a wise-cracking Jeff Goldblum. This being Los Angeles, even the Queen Mary once starred in a movie, playing herself in the 1966 flop Assault on a Queen, in which Frank Sinatra uses a salvaged Nazi U-boat to conduct an improbable heist on the grand old dame.

Outlander centres around Claire Randall, a Second World War era nurse mysteriously transported back to Jacobite times. With each hour I spend at Scotsfestival, I find myself sympathising ever more with her plight. Most of the men here are wearing kilts, and those that are not are sporting T-shirts that pledge allegiance to a clan on the front while listing bloody battles on the back as if they were stadiums on a rock tour: Falkirk 1298, Arbroath 1445, Prestonpans 1745.

I call in at one of the T-shirt stalls, but they of course do not have anything for Stephensons. Why would they? It is an English name, and two generations back on my mother’s side they were all Irish, so no luck there either. I am a Scotsman that has never had a clan, and a troubling thought now strikes me: is it possible that these Californians, with their Glengarrys and Jacobite shirts and their fierce Caledonian pride, are actually more Scottish than I am?

Feeling suddenly homesick, I am fortunate to find myself wandering in to the tent of ‘Clan Inebriated’. Styled as a clan for all those who do not have one, Clan Inebriated’s motto is ‘Gu Deoch, Gu Cairdean, Gu Spor’ – ‘To drink, to friends, to fun’. Clan Inebriated’s members pride themselves on traditional Scottish hospitality, and sure enough a whisky drink is quickly placed in my hand and I am offered a seat on a chair that turns out to also be for sale. Somebody is playing the chanter, and by the time I have finished my drink, I am a member of Clan Inebriated in every sense: dry 2020, no more.

When I bid my new kinfolk farewell, they give me another drink ‘for the road’. They assure me this is a long-standing Highland tradition, and who am I to argue? Feeling supremely Scottish – and more than a little drunk – I board the Queen Mary where the Los Angeles Scottish Country Dancing Display Team are about to commence a demonstration. The person standing next to me asks if I know Scottish dances and I – a proud veteran of many a late-night wedding Strip The Willow – confirm that I absolutely do. But then the LASCDDT proceed to dance a Founder’s Reel, which seems like a Strip the Willow except it also requires PhDs in Fluid Mechanics and String Theory. The dancers had all seemed to be genteel retirees, but unleashed on a dancefloor they have become the Harlem Globetrotters of Scottish Country Dancing. I leave before anybody gets the idea of making me dance.

Down the corridor, a bar has been converted to evoke ‘a cosy pub in Edinburgh’s old town’. They have got it spot on, right down to the dingy lighting and the folk musicians annoyed at being talked over. The first item on the pub menu is Haggis, Neeps and Tatties and I cannot resist asking the barman if it is popular. "People love to hear about it," he begins, diplomatically, ‘And they even love to see it too. They just don’t actually want to eat it, and usually end up going to the Starbucks on the next deck."

I slip disgracefully away to Starbucks, order my iced oat milk latte and bagel and head out on to the deck to enjoy them. They are both delicious, but I notice undernotes of shame and betrayal. Still, as I sit there, I hear the familiar rat-a-tat of a snare drum and then the first skirl of the pipes. And soon the sound hits me, the way it always does; right in my Scottish heart. I hurry back down to the dockside to see who is making this beautiful noise, to find out which storied regimental band are visiting from Scotland.

But they are not a regiment, nor soldiers, nor even adults. They are the teenagers of the local Glendora High School Pipe Band. They look resplendent in Royal Stewart kilts, dress black waistcoats and brogues. The music is note perfect, their Scotland the Brave the most rousing I have ever heard. And yet the most wonderful part is the band themselves: they are Angelenos of all heritages, and they are playing our music as well as I have ever heard even though I grew up within earshot of the Edinburgh military tattoo. A proud parent nearby tells me the band have been invited to the world championships in Glasgow this summer (now sadly cancelled) if they can raise the funds for accommodation. Before they have finished the first tune, I am texting my mother to ask if she has room for an entire pipe band.

Feeling happier and more proudly Scottish than I have all day, I tour the stalls of the Clan societies. As far as I can fathom, these are groups which allow Americans with Scottish names to fraternise with their fellow MacLeods, MacMillans and Mackintoshes, as if sharing a surname with a stranger was a bond rather than a mild inconvenience. Clan McPherson have the best branding – an emblem of a wildcat, and the motto ‘Touch not the cat but with a glove’ – and I am therefore disappointed to see that I cannot even claim any of the affiliated surnames listed on their stand. Still, I note that list includes ‘Smith’, and so I diplomatically suggest to the two American women running the stall that including the most common surname in Britain suggests that Clan McPherson are perhaps not too fussy, and maybe they could therefore affiliate a Stephenson too.

Predictably, I am wrong. They explain to me how in 1396 the McPhersons arranged a 30-man battle with their comrades the Davidsons over the issue of who would stand where during the forthcoming battle with their actual enemy, the Camerons. When the McPhersons arrived a man short for this spectator-sport rammy, a local blacksmith in the audience stepped in, sportingly killed more than his allocation of Davidsons, and hence to this day McPhersons consider all Smiths undisputed kin. This, I tell them, is undoubtedly the most Scottish thing I have ever heard.

Both women are regulars on the Scottish Festival circuit – Santa Rosa is next in the calendar, followed by Sacramento – and so I ask them just what the attraction is. They immediately talk of the bagpipes, and describe the exact feeling I had at the dockside earlier: "I want to cry when I hear them, I can’t even explain it, it strikes something so deep of longing and loss."

They then go on to talk about the communion the festivals themselves provide: "It’s like finding lots and lots of distant cousins. It fills this niche inside of us that wants us to feel connected with something that is longer than our own history here in America." Not for the first time today, I feel a little churlish for ever having found such earnestly-held affection anything other than profound.

At five o’clock, the Pipes and Drums prizegiving is held, and the Glendora High School Pipe Band rightly sweep the board. Over in the main field, the Highland Games have progressed to 'tossing the beer keg' which may or may not be an officially-sanctioned event. Down on the dockside, the disgruntled re-enactors have finally taken matters into their own hands and wheeled their cannons out to perform their final display of musket and cannon fire where they can be properly appreciated. The location they have selected is the entrance to the bagpiper’s staging area, and the rammy that results would make our own country proud. Kilted pipers yell at musket-wielding soldiers, and for a while it seems like a minor war might break out in the late afternoon. Ancient shouts of "Fire down!" and "Misfire!" mingle with more modern and less printable ones. It all feels wonderfully Scottish; nobody provokes us with impunity, and we do truly love a good stramash.

Back at the herding pen, Ted Thompson’s sheep-herding display is now in full flow, his border collie bringing out the best in his Hollywood-ready sheep. He asks the audience to consider if his dog is enjoying his work; we all look and see that Ted’s dog is not just enjoying it, but undeniably grinning. Ted then talks about the herding instinct and how some border collies are born with it, and some are not. It is, he says, as simple as that: if you want to herd sheep you are a sheepdog, and if you do not want to herd sheep, then you are not a sheepdog.

It occurs to me than that perhaps this is what it is to be Scottish too: an instinct. And if you feel that instinct, if the skirl of the pipes stirs your blood, you are Scottish. We are, by heritage and by choice, an inclusive people, so it seems fitting that being Scottish should not be much to do with being born in Scotland or having Scottish parents or even ancestors, and perhaps not even much to do with ever having lived there. Maybe being Scottish is a choice, and one that all the bekilted Californians wandering around Scotsfestival today have got right.

Now the sun begins to set, bathing the RMS Queen Mary in golden light. Children battle their siblings with plastic claymores, the Scotch Egg concession posts a sign saying Everything Sold Completely Out and the implausibly good-looking sheep are loaded on to their tractor trailer. On a stage, the singer of a folk-rock band talks about how he and the Queen Mary were both born in Glasgow but have somehow washed up here together, and then he launches into the Skye Boat Song.

It initially draws a loud cheer from the crowd, but they are quickly transported in to a reverie, and so am I. I am thinking of long-ago childhood holidays, trying to spot dolphins off the CalMac ferry and a peat fire in a drafty cottage in Lamlash. They, presumably, are mostly thinking about Claire Randall, because the Skye Boat song also happens to be the theme music for Outlander. Skye no more, then, and yet it does not matter: the song was anyway written a century after the events it claims to depict, and the lyrics were subsequently rewritten by Robert Louis Stevenson before being altered to better fit Claire Randall’s story. Here again, though, their version of being Scottish is just as good and as valid as mine, and perhaps more so, because it is even more inclusive. Who’s like us? Everybody that wants to be. We are, after all, all Jock Tamson’s bairns.

Set My Heart to Five, by Simon Stephenson, is out now on 4th Estate. It is described as a hilarious, touching, dazzlingly perceptive debut novel, and a profound exploration of what it means to be human.