The poison at the heart of Scotland


By Kenneth Roy

So it is over, this interesting week at the Scottish Review. A journalist from a London-based daily, who is ‘thinking about writing something’ (on the great literary bust-up), phoned last night to ask me what I thought it was all about.

I said I hadn’t the faintest idea: that it had erupted from nowhere and that I simply sat here spiking the stuff too extreme to be published, making as fair a selection of the rest as I could manage, re-arranging the odd comma, inserting the missing hyphens, and waiting to clear the debris from the next explosion of ill-feeling. He seemed to understand.

I added that, wherever the various disciples were heading, their ultimate destination was closer to Dunipace than Damascus. Actually, I didn’t add that; I’ve just made it up.

The journalist said of the row that what it was in the beginning (whatever that was: neither of us seemed quite sure) was not what it was in the end; or perhaps appearances were always deceptive. Then he said something interesting:

‘Well, it’s Scotland,’ he said.

We both knew instinctively what this meant: that we have a taste for punch-ups, verbal as well as physical, and that pugilism of one sort or another is never far from the edgy surface of our national life.

Must it always be like this? Here is a quote from a speech that will be made this coming Sunday and will, I expect, be much commented-upon.

‘As we in the Christian community strive to show compassion and charity to our neighbours, we ask the members of our literary community to exhibit more compassion to one another in their dealings. I have been dismayed to read of writers insulting, demeaning and attacking each other in the most intemperate way.’

Cardinal Keith O’Brien – a fellow petitioner in the Megrahi case and therefore someone with whom I feel a certain affinity – will not mind, I hope, that I have amended the text of his forthcoming sermon, substituting ‘literary community’ for ‘political community’ in the first sentence, and ‘writers’ for ‘politicians’ in the second. Otherwise the paragraph is unchanged; and the meaning.

The point he will make about our bickering politicians (presumably in the wake of the Whiteford/Davidson affair) is that they are failing to engage in constructive debate. But could not the same charge be levelled at several – repeat several – of the contributors to the Scottish Review discussion? Should these able people not be holding a mirror to our society, scrutinising it closely, rather than smashing it into little pieces – sometimes over each other’s heads?

Cruickshank was an intellectual who thought deeply about his craft, about plays (he wrote a few himself; wish I knew what happened to the scripts), and about his native country.

‘It was yah-boo,’ said the journalist from the London-based daily. Some of our readers have been diverted by the yah-boo, others have been depressed by it; I suppose it’s possible to be both. But it was not exactly an edifying spectacle. Earlier this autumn we gave a platform to rival supporters of Rangers and Celtic football clubs for a frank exchange of views on sectarianism. It didn’t seem to achieve anything in the end (although it rumbles on), but I see it in retrospect as a fount of calm enlightenment.

Many years ago, when I was editing a little magazine about the theatre, one of our earliest contributors was a delightful man called Andrew Cruickshank. He is remembered, if he is remembered at all, for his part in a BBC television series, ‘Dr Finlay’s Casebook’, just as poor Dulcie Gray, who died this week, seems doomed to be remembered for another TV series, ‘Howard’s Way’, which accounted for all of 0.1% of her long career.

Cruickshank was an intellectual who thought deeply about his craft, about plays (he wrote a few himself; wish I knew what happened to the scripts), and about his native country. He told Scottish Theatre magazine that what he wanted to see in Scotland was a ‘gentle, civilised nationalism’. Years later, when I quoted this saying of Cruickshank’s in a newspaper column, the man in the next column, Alex Salmond, replied that this was what he wanted too: a gentle, civilised nationalism.

But is it what we’ve got? Even now, I can picture the bloggers on Newsnet Scotland (where many of these pieces are re-published) dipping their pens in green ink at this assault on the good name of Alex Salmond and at the offensive idea that we are somewhat deficient in the qualities of gentle, civilised nationalism. They will reply in their usual fierce spirit that gentleness, damn you, is what we’ve got and that I’d better start believing it. Let me assure these sensitive souls that I’m not getting at the first minister. The gentle, civilised nationalism of which Cruickshank spoke goes beyond politics. It is the expression of a national culture.

As this week’s stairheid rammy unfolded in the Scottish Review, I thought fondly of old Andrew and his vision of a gentle, civilised Scotland and wondered what he would have made of the poison which seems to be at the heart of it.

And finally…(the uplifting item at the end of the bulletin, once spoken by a tipsy Reginald Bosanquet, and designed to send us to bed with a chuckle): from what I hear, the other stushie of the week, over funding of the theatre in the Highlands, may have a happy ending; or what is called these days a positive outcome. Well, that would be something to pluck from the wreckage.


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