By George Kerevan
SITTING on my bookshelf is a dog-eared copy of HG Wells’ science fiction novel The Sleeper Awakes, about a man who awakens after 200 years in suspended animation to discover that, courtesy of compound interest, he’s the richest man in the world. I won the book nearly 50 years ago as the prize given (annually) at my school, Kingsridge Secondary, in Drumchapel, for writing the best essay on the life of St Andrew, Scotland’s patron saint.
Kingsridge Secondary is long gone. But looking back, I find it fascinating that a school in a working class housing scheme, in Glasgow, in the 1960s, would demand its pupils take an interest in the history of a Christian patron saint, far less write biographical essays about him.
Another other thing that intrigues me is that the prize was funded personally by a local councillor. (Sadly, I don’t remember his name – any ideas, anyone?) Local politicians putting their hand in their own wallet is novel, but seeking to encourage children to (a) compete with each other, and (b) learn about Scotland’s patron saint, would create a stushie today. You’d be accused of an SNP bias, political interference in the curriculum, and destroying the confidence of every child who didn’t win.
I didn’t keep a copy of the essay so I’ve no idea what it said. However, it left me with a soft spot for old Andy, and a modest passion for his saint’s day. Alas, in recent decades, interest in St Andrew’s Day has gone through a dry patch, as many modern Scots began to cringe about anything that smacked of tartanry or the kailyard.
This cringe had a good side. It was Scots rejecting the notion that Scotland was trapped in some romantic Celtic twilight. But the cringe has a bad side, if it means rejecting our heritage outright. Without a heritage to build on, we will never be a self-confident nation.
Which is why we need to turn St Andrew’s Day into a celebration of modern Scottish national identity – of a people of diverse tongues and diverse backgrounds, but who share a common home and a common destiny (whatever we decide in 2014). Here are some ways we could do this that don’t involve taxpayers’ money:
• If you want to celebrate a “national day” then you need to make it a genuine public holiday. Thanks to former MSP Denis Canavan, the 30 November is a bank holiday. But this means little in practice, as firms are not actually obliged to give employees the day off. So let’s have a proper holiday on St Andrew’s Day. The CBI and Institute of Directors will moan, but with so much austerity around it will cheer folk up. Besides, an extra day off in the winter will cut firms’ energy bills.
• To stimulate popular involvement, establish an official St Andrew’s Day Council, on the same model as the National Australia Day Council. Sportingly, the Aussies celebrate Australia Day every 26 January, the date the first convict ships arrived. The Australia Day Council (funded by sponsorship) promotes celebrations across the country and sends famous Aussies to local events.
• A national day needs a focus. So let’s reward our heroes and heroines on St Andrew’s Day. Every year, the Australia Day Council awards the title of Australian of the Year and other honours, from nominations submitted by the public. Unlike our own Pommie honours list, this has nothing to do with the establishment rewarding itself. Instead, the Australian awards celebrate active citizenship, the old and the young, science as well as the arts; and local as well as national achievement. We need the Scottish equivalent.
As you might imagine, the Aussies are quite populist about who gets to be Australian of the Year. Past winners include opera singer Joan Sutherland, the Seekers, and actor Paul Hogan – as well as philanthropists, aboriginal activists, doctors and Nobel Prize winners. So look forward to Scot of the Year going to Biffy Clyro, Alan Cumming or Andy Murray.
• St Andrew’s Day in Scotland lacks popular traditions. This isn’t the case in Eastern Europe where the evening before St Andrew’s Day is traditionally when young women can discover whom they will marry. In Austria for instance, unmarried women get together to drink wine (chardonnay?) and recite a spell, called an “Andreasgebet” or St Andrew’s prayer, to attract a husband. In some versions the girls are supposed to be naked, but this is not absolutely necesssary unless you’ve drunk too much.
A simpler variation involves throwing a shoe over your shoulder: if it lands pointing to the door, the girl will get married in the same year – which doesn’t actually leave you a lot of time. So girls, you know what to do next St Andrew’s Day eve. Boys, you have been warned.
• In France, the high point of Bastille Day, each 14 July, is the annual military parade down the Champs-Élysées. Scotland, with its long martial tradition, should hold a similar parade every 30 November, broadcast live on television. There are some wars we should not have fought, but we should honour the men and women we sent to fight them.
• We need an appropriate St Andrew’s day meal. This must involve Scotland’s national dish – stovies. I’m not joking. What other nation’s restaurants are embarrassed by its traditional food?
• Finally, what’s the point of a saint’s day if you don’t see the saint? In 1969, Gordon Gray went to Rome to be appointed the first resident Scottish cardinal since the Reformation. To mark the occasion, Pope Paul gave him relics of St Andrew, which now reside in St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. Every 30 November, why not take them out and parade them around the capital in a torchlight procession. Tourists would love it. Sure I’m an atheist but I love pageantry and the feeling of belonging that ritual involves.
Which is, after all, what St Andrew’s Day should be about.
Courtesy of George Kerevan and the Scotsman newspaper