Is your journey strictly necessary?


Kenneth Roy

Ah, St Andrew’s Day! Barack Obama wishes Scotland a ‘joyous’ one. In my native town, where the only snowy peak I ever climbed was to the press box of the dog stadium, they are marking the occasion by closing all the schools, not in honour of our grim-faced patriarch but because the patron saints of the 21st century, St Elf and his pal St Safety, have so decreed.     
     As the widely predicted flakes began to fall, BBC Scotland advised us not to leave the house unless our journey was strictly necessary. My response to these nannyish injunctions is always to do the unpatriotic thing and embark on as hazardous a journey as possible. Early this morning for example, under the light of a delightful crescent moon, I prevailed upon a young woman, the driver of a country bus, to take me all the way to Kilmarnock, an Arctic settlement in the west of our country.
     In celebration of this achievement, I had the scenes of chaos visible from the editorial window photographed for posterity. Picture it if yous will. But I am one of the lucky ones. There are many others who have found that their St Andrew’s Day journey was not strictly necessary and who have stayed at home to watch the weather forecast. Our thoughts are with them at this difficult time.
     Could it be that we have just triumphantly failed the first test of Dave’s Big Society? For the second winter in succession, we have declined to rise to the occasion. If Dave wants to see a community pulling together in adversity, he had best look elsewhere. The Big Society has been smacked across its smug little chops by a big, fat, uncommunity-minded snowball.
     Consider the fate of the prettiest town in Scotland (according to Billy Connolly). Christopher Harvie, the distinguished historian, has been stranded in Melrose for three days. Last night he managed to make contact with the outside world by telephone. ‘I’m about to send you an email,’ he said. ‘It’ll be the only thing getting out of Melrose tonight.’ Tact prevailed: I did not inquire of Professor Harvie why rotating squads of volunteers in Santa hats, led by the stars of Borders rugger, are not out day and night clearing the streets.
     Our hearts are simply not in the Big Society. Dave, you’re on your own, ma boy.

Somehow we have never been able to do St Andrew. Barack Obama would be shocked by our lack of engagement

     In view of the inclement conditions, Edinburgh has even had to cancel its St Andrew ‘s Day ‘celebrations’, a good thing too.
     When an Anglican bishop – not Bishop Pete, who must be regretting the exercise of his freedom of expression; no, another bishop, some other Pete – when this other bish arrived at Kennedy Airport he was asked by a journalist if he intended to visit any night clubs during his short stay in New York. He replied: ‘Are there any night clubs in New York?’ I feel much the same about St Andrew’s Day celebrations in Edinburgh.
     We used to do Hogmanay, a sad occasion personified by the Reverend I M Jolly, God rest his soul. I remember as a child being instructed to bring in the coal, a ritual I didn’t understand then and whose significance eludes me now, and arriving back in the house to find the room in tears. The lachrymose ritual has been reduced to the vicarious experience of watching teenagers cavort on Princes Street.
     We still do Burns Night rather well. A night of noble remembrance, dry laughter permitted when appropriate, yet imbued with a national melancholy. At a proper Burns supper, we are never far from the very Scottish presentiment that man was made to mourn.
     Yes, it is sadness we do best – ‘backward-looking into the abyss of time, an abyss echoing in the hour glass and the tolling of the bell’ as my friend Ian Mackenzie once wrote in the Scottish Review.
     But there is a limit even to Scottish sentiment and it is reached today. Somehow we have never been able to do St Andrew. Barack Obama would be shocked by our lack of engagement. Only a red-nosed BBC Scotland reporter could know so little of who we are, and how we regard our patron saint, that she could report this morning that many people would be staying at home because of the weather, but that ‘as this is St Andrew’s Day a lot of Scots are planning to take the day off anyway’.
     Andrew was a travellin’ man. He is said to have gone from Palestine to Asia Minor and the Black Sea. In the city of Synope, he is believed to have suffered great hardship, witnessing the burning down of the house in which he was staying. In Greece he forced his way through a forest of wolves, bears and tigers; he saw Russia and Poland too. Finally he was crucified for his pains. Was his journey strictly necessary? No doubt the BBC would have advised him to stay at home with his feet up.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.