A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
Today is St. Andrew’s Day. For those of you who suffer under the handicap of not being Scottish this is Scotland’s national day. Basically, it’s St. Patrick’s Day with more booze and less brag. The Scots are a hardy northern people known for thrift and ingenuity. Whereas it can be said that the Irish built America, it’s not as widely known that the Scots already owned the place when Paddy and Liam got off the boat. That’s the gist of it, really. Although the Scots basically shaped our modern world, they don’t get much credit for it – simply because they are who they are. So just who are these Scottish people?
The Scots obviously come from Scotland, a windy, cold, rainy pile of rocks, stuck out in the North Sea. Since nothing grows in that harsh environment, the economy, from the dawn of time, has been based on theft. Any agriculture that ever did exist is an odd combination of barley, oats, sheep and large stones. The barley was grown for whiskey, a number one Scottish priority. The oats was for porridge, which in Scotland, even today, is eaten with a knife and fork. The sheep were raised for wool, woven into the Scottish national dress (which actually is one) and the stones were provided by God to throw at the English. That’s about it for agriculture except for Scottish cattle — which are strange, squat, hairy and orange.
Geographically, Scotland is divided into the Highlands and the Lowlands. The only noticeable difference between the two is the Lowlands have less wind and the Highlands have more rocks.
Politically, the Scots, since the time of the Picts, have separated themselves into clans. In other words, they are a clannish people, wary and suspicious. For most of Scotland’s history, individual clans fought each other in ruthless battles for possession of their worthless stony soil. However, on occasion, the clans would forget their petty squabbling, join together and rise as one man to get beaten up by the English. This happened with such frequency that finally in 1603, the Scottish King James VI reluctantly agreed to be England’s king, as well — probably just to keep peace on the island.
For recreation, the Scots enjoy all sports that allow time for smoking and drinking. These include golf (a good walk spoiled) curling, darts and snooker. However, when pressed, the Scots play rugby, a primitive form of American football where the object of the game seems to be murder. They also play soccer, that dull game that yuppies watch every four years, and something called hurling (which is nothing like it sounds.) The strangest of the Scottish sports, however, is the caber toss, which can only be described as bulky men throwing telephone poles at each other. Curiously enough, this game has nothing to do with Alexander Graham Bell, the Scotsman who invented the telephone.
Over the years, the Scots have made major contributions to the evolution of Western society. In prêt a porter fashion, they’ve given us plaid — a severe, regimented, itchy woollen, best suited to private girls’ school uniforms and ugly sofas. In the world of cuisine, they are the masters of the haggis, a sheep’s stomach stuffed with oats and an assortment of other evil ingredients that normal people throw away. This mess is boiled until everybody loses interest, securely stored until it rots, and served on high holidays. Musically, their instrument of choice is the bagpipes (which have been called the missing link between sound and noise.) The pipes, as they are affectionately called, are normally played outside because their cacophony can fill an auditorium and people have been known to leave just to make room for them. Unfortunately, in the realm of the arts, Scotland’s greatest poet, Robbie Burns, has never been translated into English. Even his best known work, Auld Lang Syne, is only trotted out on New Year’s Eve because nobody has a clue what it means. Of course, the Scots’ greatest contribution to the modern world is Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. This long-winded dissertation is said to be the first modern work of tedious prose. Although it is referred to with stunning regularity, no living human being has read it cover to cover, and most contemporary economists would just as soon read the Glasgow phone book. In essence, Smith’s message can be summed up in two heavily accented sentences (Try it!) “It’s every man for himself, pal. You’re on your own.”
These days, the Scots are easily overlooked in the family of nations because they speak a language only they understand. Linguistically, it is related to English, Scots Gaelic and gibberish and has a close sliding scale connect with Scotch whiskey: more whiskey, less English. As contemporary philosopher, Robin Williams observed, the Scots are the only people in the world who answer questions with the intonation of another question.
Despite all these disadvantages, the Scots have a lot to be proud of. This is embodied in their national symbol, the thistle, a tenacious prickly weed that can survive anywhere on the planet. And there is no place on this planet where Scotsmen and women haven’t gone. They left their country in droves. Who wouldn’t?
So today, St Andrew’s Day, as you go about your business (just like you didn’t on St. Patrick’s Day) remember the Scots have a day, too, and a fine tradition. It stretches across time from James Watt, James Chalmers and James Dewar, to John Shepard Barron, Billy Connolly and Craig Ferguson. And above all else, remember: Sean Connery, a Scotsman, is still the best James Bond.
Oh! And, by the way, I’m first generation Scots. You can knock your own gang!