A referendum? Let’s see if we can spell Norman MacCaig first


By Kenneth Roy

On the last working day of the year, in the last email to be received here in 2011, I was accused of ridiculing Scotland, of attacking ‘Norman McCaig’ and then retracting, of publishing Professor Tom Gallagher and of being insufficiently loyal to the first minister. Furthermore, I was addressed as ‘Ken’. Compliments of the season, but without the compliments.

It is true that Professor Gallagher does have a knack of getting under a lot of thin Scottish skins. It is also true that it would be commercially sensible to drop him. Every time we publish one of his occasional contributions, we lose friends and alienate people. Perhaps this is because Professor Gallagher makes no secret of his disdain for Mr Salmond. He likened him recently to a bumptious squire – not the most grievous insult ever levelled at a politician, even quite funny in its context, but the sort of remark guaranteed to cause offence in Scotland’s hyper-sensitive condition.

There are (you may have noticed) contributors to these pages – a majority – who take an altogether friendlier view of the first minister; and, anyway, the ruling party and its leader must expect to be criticised. It would be slightly worrying if they were not criticised. Actually, more than slightly worrying.

In the interests of free speech, then, Professor Gallagher will continue to be offered a refuge here for his treasonable opinions. As for myself, it would make life so much easier if I rallied round the first minister in the manner proposed and dutifully prepared three flattering editorials a week. I can drum up a press release as well as the next man. But, when I did this for a living ages ago, a note of semi-concealed subversion tended to creep into the blue-sky reports I had to draft for the people who were running the show. I found that I wasn’t natural cheerleader material. Sadly, this character defect remains.

But the charge that I once attacked ‘Norman McCaig’ and then had to retract – that’s more serious. I have never attacked ‘Norman McCaig’ and it follows that I have never had to retract. Come to that, I have never attacked Norman MacCaig either. Or retracted.

We have a problem. We are having a referendum – sometime, somehow, somebody’s – and maybe we are going to break away and do our own thing. But can we spell? If those who hold the cause of Scotland dearest, and who resent any articles in the Scottish Review less than wholly adulatory of the first minister, cannot actually spell the surname of one of our greatest poets, are we really fit for independence? Shouldn’t we complete our education first?

A country which had any sense of pride in its own identity, and in the best it had produced, would not insult Norman MacCaig’s memory in this way.

I mention this – the Norman MacCaig problem – because it seems to be more general. As we pointed out last month, a sign outside the spiritual home of Scottish literature, Milne’s Bar in Rose Street, spells Hugh MacDiarmid Hugh Mc Daimid and Norman MacCaig Norman Mc Craig. MacDiarmid has been dead a long time and may have been forgotten by most of his fellow countrymen, so perhaps we can excuse the mis-spelling in his case – memories being as short as they are; but Mc Craig or McCaig or whatever people care to call him still feels contemporary. A country which had any sense of pride in its own identity, and in the best it had produced, would not insult Norman MacCaig’s memory in this way.

The sign outside Milne’s Bar has been there for years, but SR’s exposure of it did provoke at least one reader into a small campaign to have it corrected. Irene Brown, when she called the pub, was told by the duty manager that the issue had been ‘the bane of my life’ since he took the job but said that the power to change it rested with Edinburgh City Council. He suggested that Irene Brown should contact them.

‘Which department?’, she asked.

‘No idea’, he replied.

The enterprising Ms Brown took it up with ‘Services for Communities’ and received this reply from Lisa Paton, business manager, on 4 January:

I’m afraid that you have been misinformed by the pub’s management. This sign is not the council’s responsibility. It is on private property and serves to promote a commercial business interest. I can only assume that the sign is the property of Milne’s Bar itself. I’m sorry not to be able to offer the response you were hoping for, but do please get back to me if I can be of any further assistance.

What a very Scottish outcome. The pub claims it’s the cooncil’s fault and the cooncil claims it’s the pub’s. Our national game is not golf or football but pass-the-parcel; they ought to make it one of the qualifying sports for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow; it would be more entertaining than most. Of this, however, we can be sure: the sign outside Milne’s Bar isn’t about to change.

But until it does – until we can manage to spell Norman MacCaig’s name correctly – it is difficult to take our ambitions as a nation absolutely seriously.

Ridiculing Scotland? So be it.


Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review