by Peter Thomson
Quhit’ll ye dae wi yon herrins heids?
Quhit’ll ye dae wi yon herrins heids?
We’ll makkit thon in tae laifs o breid
An aa manner o things.
So starts a song sung by the gutting gangs of the NE of Scotland in times when the silver darlings swam in shoals up to 30 miles long as they migrated around the Scottish coast. The song itself is a nonsense song. The lassies who sang it did so to help while away the hours of repetitive work gutting, salting and packing herring.
But it is also a song about humour, resourcefulness and making best use of what is around you. In these times of increasing hardship for all but the richest in our society mayhap it is a way of being we will need again to see us through the next decade.
Quhit’ll ye dae to thole the curse that is on us?
The easy way out is to blame Westminster and the system of governance that has been imposed on Scotland by successive Union governments since 1707. Yet I would suggest we are where we are because we have forgotten, as a nation, what we are, where we come from and who we can be. Like Edwin Muir, and I assume many regular readers, would agree:
For I stand still for forces which
Were subjugated to mak’ way
For England’s poor, and to enrich
The kinds o’ English, and o’ Scots
Least congenial to my thochts
(My quarrel with England)
The crux surely is that we, the Scottish nation, have let ourselves be subjugated by either buying into the ‘English way’ of doing things, or worse forgetting the core intellectual strength of the Scots as thinkers. As Walter Bagehot , a 19th century political theorist, pointed out: “There appears in the genius of the Scottish people … a power of reducing human actions to formulas and principles.”
This genius is reflected in the structure of Scots Law (based in Roman Law and first principles) rather than English Law which is all about the precedent of a prior judgement on the matter. Again the question needs asked: what has happened to the constitutional and legal principles that are core to the Scottish Nation? Is Carol Craig, in her book ‘The Scots Crisis of Confidence’ right in her view that the Scots have given up on their own sovereignty and in doing so now consider they are powerless to influence our future?
It has been argued on these pages, by Paul Kavanagh, that the ‘Englishing’ of the Scots language has been to the detriment of our national identity, and on Open Democracy there was a learned article on how the English Empire used the English language as a tool for cementing the colonisation of conquered or subsumed nations. Recognising that this is happening is no new phenomenon, as Sydney Goodsir Smith wrote in 1941:
We’ve come intil a gey queer time
Whan screivin Scots is near a crime,
‘There’s no one speaks like that’, they fleer,
– but wha the deil spoke like King Lear?
(Epistle to John Guthrie)
More subtle but more dangerous has been the slow and steady anglicisation of Scottish education at all levels as the dominance of Westminster forced it into line with the English way. Scottish education has long been centred on a broad base of knowledge. In part this was historically a spin off of the Reformation and the rationalising approach to religious matters that was created in Scotland. Further an important outcome of the reforming zeal was the edict forcing all parishes to run a Sunday School which did not simply teach religious knowledge but also sought to ensure all children in the parish could read, write and do simple arithmetic.
The impact of this far sighted thinking was that by the end of the 17th century Scotland had one of the highest literacy rates per head of population in Europe. Most historians aver that without this base of education there would have been no Enlightenment.
Yet over the last 50 years we have seen Scottish further education move away from its broad based first degrees to more and more specialisation, from the first year onwards, in line with the English tradition. There are calls to reduce Scottish degree courses to three years from the current four (again aping England), but in the rush to be ‘competitive and cost effective’ what are we losing?
For me it is this undercurrent in Scottish thinking that looks at problems from first principles rather than seeing what the ‘facts’ can be made to fit. I have personal experience of the impact that focusing on ‘facts’ rather than first principles had on my university education.
Simply put it had to do with a certain approach to dental treatment and a new approach which was being thought through and appeared to be a much better way from the initial trials. When I tried to discuss the approach in a tutorial I was brusquely told by my tutor that if I tried the new approach he would have me kicked off the clinic or used it in any essay or exam he would fail me – the facts were the system taught at Edinburgh Dental Hospital worked in ‘experienced’ hands. Yet, even as an undergraduate, it was clear to me from first principles that the received wisdom did not work because it actually weakened the tooth structure. A simple review of my clinical group’s outcomes showed a high initial failure rate (put down to our inexperience) or frequent fracture of the tooth following this style of treatment in subsequent years.
This inability of students to question received wisdom in the increasingly pressured first degree courses is a great loss to our future development as a country. It left me wondering just what was the point of university if we were simply being taught by rote?
I cannot speak for current secondary education but my old school in Edinburgh is in the process of ditching Highers and GCSEs for the International Baccalaureate to enable its 15+ year olds to have a broader and more profound educational base than the current highly directed and target driven SCE system allows.
And whare is the freedom that made Scots prooder
Than any prood kintry frae here to the Indies,-
The freedom oor faithers won, shooder tae shooder,
When Scotland wis Scotland, an’ shindies wis shindies?
(‘Saunders MacSiccar’ by Hamish Hendry )
Our freedom is being buried by slavish following of English ways – we are getting what we deserve – and my concern is that it will only be post Calman Minus that the majority of Scots will finally wake up to what we will have lost for all time. There is an urgent need to return to the Scottish way of thinking, discourse, definition of first principles and state very clearly what it is we, as a nation want. From Westminster we will be inundated by ‘facts’ but ‘facts’ are ‘chiels that winna ding.’
If we are going to move the argument for the restoration of the Scottish nation onwards, the first stage has to be to achieve fiscal autonomy. We need people, not politicians, to make it happen.
Maybe the most important role for Newsnet in the coming weeks is to promote fiscal autonomy heavily, in a non partisan way. Let us start asking the question: why is it, when fiscal autonomy has a majority support across all Scottish voters, that three parties are so against the majority wishes of the sovereign people of Scotland. It is time to make the Unionist MSPs chase the issues rather than dictate the issue.
Sae think on whaur ye cam frae
Think on whaur ye cam
Oor Scottish sang’s
Been liltin lang
Think on whaur ye cam.
The time has cam fir cheenge bairn
The time has cam fir cheenge
Stand up strecht
Ye hae the richt
Today’s the day fir cheenge.
(History – Wha’s History? Stuart McHardy)