ILLUSTRATION BY MEG TELFER
Just what is it with colonized countries? What exactly is it that makes them lick boots, embrace the dominant hegemony, trivialize their history, caricature their culture and prostitute themselves throughout the too-brief summer months in a desperate attempt to take back some cash from their erstwhile marauders and pillagers, now known as tourists, who fly or drive into their country to stare and to admire and to wander in these vast and empty spaces? Well might you wonder.
And already you have identified me: that outdated, parochial phenomenon, the Angry Scot. A chip on her shoulder, the result perhaps of a Braveheart or a Rob Roy movie, or a rare Nationalist by-election victory, or glimpses of Northern Ireland self- determination. Oh how she oversimplifies her history. We have all surely moved through and beyond the sullen sulkings of province-led politics to the Broader Picture. The World View.
But indulge me. Because there are an awful lot of non-Scots who own an awful lot of Scotland. My Scottish education, excellent in so many respects, failed to teach me a memorable piece of Scottish history which could explain this phenomenon (although we got English kings and queens and Turnip Townshend) and so we were left to draw our own conclusions from the world we saw around us. Impressions gleaned in childhood and rein forced in adolescence cling like limpets into adulthood despite valiant efforts to shake them off. Some might claim they are not altogether inaccurate, all the time. This is how it happened.
In the early 1970s our classroom numbers were swollen with American kids whose fathers were overseeing the arrival of the oil-rig construction site at Nigg in Rosshire in the Highlands. Heady days. The kids had names like Chip or Jon (without an 'h') or Pippa or Kaare, and I and my less brash pals pressed ourselves against the school corridor wall as these tall, tanned gods and goddesses strode through our lives. Many of us wept aloud as they moved on to colonize another land hungry for investment, the closest to Donny Osmond we were likely to get back in the 1970s in the Highlands of Scotland.
Then there was the aluminium smelter at Invergordon (long since closed), which also brought incomers, most of them English, who similarly took over or so it seemed.
We were in awe because they spoke with the same accents as the newsreaders on the BBC, and they answered back to the teachers and didn't return to the school until September because they adhered to English school holidays despite being in Scotland - like going abroad and still eating fish and chips.
Of course now I know that we just didn't mind or notice the quiet ones, but back then I learned only one description. This came from my quiet and unassuming mother who bore ill-will against no living soul save those whom she dismissed half- nervously and half-contemptuously as 'loud and American' or 'loud and English'. Never just the nationality, always loud. Is prejudice born of envy?
So forgive me. I've been abroad for the past four years and just got home a few months ago. Yes, it's great to be back. Sorry? Oh, in England. South of England. These past four years. When I first got back my accent was so dented that I was asked if I was enjoying my holiday in the Highlands! But it's back now, the flat vowels and the slightly rolling 'r' and is as welcome as the clean and bracing gales of winter and the sweeping grandeur of mountains and moors in this north-west corner of Sutherland.
So thank you, England, for awakening a desire to know more about my country. Not the details of kings and queens this time but the causes of the empty glens and straths, legacy of the Clearances which are soon to be fossilized in sterile and politically vacuous 'Heritage Trails': on the system of land ownership which results in empty moorland behind my house, owned by an English estate and a Danish Count and leased to the affluent for shooting and fishing. And then there are the empty properties, charming and picturesque holiday homes if you are on holiday, second homes if you are rich, an outrage if you're homeless in the Highlands and many are.
Every now and then a small but angry (and as yet ineffectual) anti-English anti-incomer group issues statements to the press threatening indiscriminate attacks and petrol bombings of non-Scots-owned properties. It doesn't happen, which is just as well as it could raze most of this corner of Scotland to the ground and wreck the next tourist season; which would be a shame, because becoming a theme park, a gross caricature of ourselves, is surely Scotland's biggest growth industry.
I will learn to love them, the tourists and the incomers. I will give thanks that a fragile economy is boosted annually by sales of Bed and Breakfast, bar suppers, petrol and postcards. I will rejoice that formerly thriving communities are 'revitalized' as old properties are bought up and schools are kept open by people from down south who only want a better way of life, and that it surely is.
But lurking among the logic and the facts the pangs remain. They are the same pangs that can be felt wandering through the woods at Culloden, or in the long-deserted pre-clearance villages in Strathnaver and Kildonan. It is a sorrow in the blood that has been there for too many centuries, an ancient Celtic melancholy that is pathetically easy to mock, and impossible to define; it is an impotent statelessness, an embarrassed silence. It is the lump in the throat, hastily swallowed, at the sound of a pibroch. It is love of a land that is strewn with 'PRIVATE - KEEP OUT' notices. It is the rage at the 'loud and English' voice shouting at me, 'Keep oaf may lend' as I amble across a moor near Loch Broom and pass a pristine whitewashed cottage. Once out of sight I scratch 'Give Scotland back to the Scots' with a biro on her fence post. It is wave upon wave of a Scottish consciousness and it's high time I got over it. Wouldn't you say?
Alison Napier is a Scottish freelance writer living and working in Northern Scotland.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996
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