Blind Man with a Pistol

Ten Things I Will Miss About Scotland

It’s been a busy month for BMWAP. Yesterday morning I woke up with the sun rising over the Forth Bridge, grabbed my bags and took a taxi to Edinburgh airport. Yesterday evening, I found myself driving down Highway 2 through the cornfields of Ontario. As I work through the trauma of leaving behind the old country, please indulge me. Blind Man with a Pistol presents: ten things I will miss about Scotland.

10. The Roads

The A9 Highway through the Highlands

The A9 Highway through the Highlands

A Canadian tourist from Nova Scotia once complained to me about how long it took to drive from Edinburgh to Aberdeen (3 hrs) considering the short distance between the two great cities (200 km). I told him he was missing the point. Scotland might not have the ten-lane monstrosities that infest the 401 corridor, but if you want to get quickly from the lowlands to the highlands, take the train. Otherwise, relish the winding roads through rugged, barren landscapes where your only company may be a few sheep who have strayed off the heather. The stunning drive between Ullapool and Achiltibuie takes an hour even though the two towns are only 10 miles apart as the crow flies. But, as my 80-year-old cousin from Aberdeen says, sometimes, ye just cannae go as the crow flies.

9. Cask Ale
This is the first of three alcohol-related entries, but a necessary one. Cask ale (or ‘Real’ Ale’) is unfiltered and unpasteurized beer fermented in the barrel and hand pulled directly from the cask without the use of gas. The result is a splendid thing, a diverse beverage that can be light and citrusy or dark and brooding. And there are dozens of great choices throughout Scotland (some of my favourites: Cairngorm, Skye Breweries, Fyne Ales and Kelburn). Wherever you are in the nation, pull up to the local and expect anywhere from one to twelve cask-conditioned options brewed within a few miles of where you sit. It might not have the punch of a good Bohemian Pilsner or the depth of a Belgian Trappist, but damn, it is wonderful stuff.

8. The Sea
The wind is fierce in Scotland, year round, and on it you can taste the sea, even if you are miles inland. But it is only when you are on the coast, or on one of Scotland’s hundred isles that the force of the sea overcomes you. It’s not like Canada’s lakes, or the calm of the Pacific West. Surely our maritimers know a thing or two about the Atlantic, and its colder, rougher cousin the North Sea, but it was Scotland where I first understood the sea. Scotland was built from its waters: fishing, shipbuilding, and now off-shore oil drilling, and this history is evident throughout. Fishing for mackerel while standing on a rock in the middle of the north Atlantic, casting my rod directly into the sea, is one of my fondest memories of the past two years. Whether you’re on the Victorian holiday resort of Portobello beach, the Fife fishing harbour of Anstruther, or the evocative, prehistoric rocks of Skye and Islay, the Scottish sea’s call is compelling and unforgettable.

7. Football
It’s simply everywhere. Withdrawal will start soon. I lived a few blocks away from Easter Road stadium where Edinburgh Hibernian FC play. On Derby day, when the Leithers play the Jam Tarts (that’s Heart of Midlothian FC, natch), the entire neighbourhood heaves. On any day of the week from Spring to Autumn, I can head over to the Links or to the Meadows in a t-shirt and trainers and withing five minutes I’m accosted and propositioned by someone looking for a few more players. It doesn’t matter where you go in Britain (and, indeed, with the exception of Canada and the United States, the world) football crosses all barriers of language, culture and class. Did you see Nakamura’s free kick? Aye, what a cracker. What about Mulgrew’s red card? An absolute disgrace. Lafferty should be ashamed. From the wit of supporters’ songs to the grace and grit of the beautiful game, this is a void that hockey can scarcely try to fill.

6. The Forth Rail Bridge
I f’n love this bridge. And I’m not ashamed to say it. Completed in 1890, it will have to wait until well into the 22nd century before it needs to consider retirement. Its neighbour, the Forth Road Bridge, on the other hand, a wee bairn in comparison, opened in 1964 and will need to be closed by 2020. I’ve spent many hours in South Queensferry admiring the Victorian elegance of this beautiful, Industrial-age construction.

5. Accents
If someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, and someone who speaks more than two multilingual, what do you call someone who only speaks one language? British, the old joke goes. But this isn’t entirely true (save in Benidorm). While the chance that an English speaker from Halifax and one from Vancouver sound pretty much the same is fairly good, the chance that a Rangers supporter from Govan and a Banker in Morningside have the same accent is virtually nil. Indeed, two people born and raised at the top and bottom of Leith Walk in Edinburgh are likely to have completely different brogues. Geography, education, and class are so tightly knit up in the accents of the British Isles that just hearing a Scot speak releases a highly wrought narrative of place and time.

4. Fresh Seafood
I used to think I liked fish. I had no idea. When mussels and scallops that were swimming happily in the North Sea in the morning are on your dinner plate by sunset, you realize that you have been deceiving yourself all these years. At the fishmonger, you’re overwhelmed with a spread of creatures you’ve never heard of before, with evocative names that may as well be a different language: coley, witch, sea bream, plaice, razor clams. Served up simply and fresh, little beats the fruits of Scottish seas. Even the common chippy assumes a certain elegance when they can serve up freshly battered haddock, with chips and mushy peas, like the Anstruther Fish Bar.  I’m not sure I can ever eat fish again from a place where I cannot see or smell the waters from which it came.

3. The Hills

The Red & Black Cuillin Mountains, Isle of Skye

The Red & Black Cuillin Mountains, Isle of Skye

From Arthur’s Seat that rises majestically over Edinburgh, to the evocative, desperate hills of Glencoe that still weeps with a century-old tragedy, to the primeval, fantastical mountain of Skye, the hills of Scotland are singular and magnificent.  In the spring, the ewes bring out their lambs, who can barely walk, and who express a playfulness and curiosity that delights the soul. In the late summer, heather splashes rich purple wide and far across the deep-chrome green of the highlands, releasing its unique spicy, honeyed scent to the breeze. In winter, the hills are unforgiving, lashed with maritime wind and rain over long, dark nights. And they wait just outside the major urban centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh, a short drive or train ride away. I never felt more connected to the story of Scotland than when I was on the hills.

2. Whisky
Not ‘Scotch’, never ‘whiskey’, but maybe usige beatha, whisky flows through the veins of Scotland. It’s just that no one in the world does it like the Scots. The world beverage industry is overrun witm multi-mationals: Diageo, owners of Guinness and Seagrams, oversee some of the best whiskies in the world. Only three distilleries in Scotland, out of hundreds, remain independent. So whither the romance? No matter how hard capitalism might pressure whisky towards broad appeal and blandness, whisky, more than any other beverage, is rooted to the land. The way the water supply runs over peat grass, the way the sea salt seasons casks aging on the docks, the way Border-grown barley is malted and dried, the distillation of Scottish whisky cannot be reproduced and cannot be rushed. Lagavulin now sells almost every single barrel it produces as single malt, rather than dishing off extra to make cheaper blends, but Diageo cannot increase the distillery’s production.  I make this much whisky, Lagavulin says, and I cannot make any more. And the land is there, in the glass, when you drink it: the peat bogs of Islay, the heather of the Orkney islands, the volcanic rock of Skye, the sweetness of the River Spey and the crystal-clear burns of the bright Scottish Lowlands. I might miss the whisky, but as long as I can find a dram of Talisker, Ardbeg or Glenfarclas,  I will never miss Scotland.

1. The Pubs

Port o' Leith Bar, Edinburgh

Port o' Leith Bar, Edinburgh

Let me tell you something, America. A pub does not need retro replicas of Guiness adverts. It does not need faux-oak pannelling or overpriced imported beer (N.B. Tennents Lager? NOT A LUXURY ITEM). It might need a fire place. A pub (it’s short for ‘public house’, remember?) need only be a meeting place for a group of people tied perhaps by geography, perhaps by philosophy, where they can rest, talk, decompress and love. Some pubs in Britain are known as ‘free houses’: pubs that owe no bond to breweries, landlords or holding corporation. They are for no one except themselves and those they care for. Some pubs open at 6am to serve the dockworkers coming off the late shift (and, admittedly, a few wishing to wash their mouths out with whisky before work). Some pubs serve (generally bad) espresso and a choice of wine for their upscale clients with different tastes. Some are folk music meccas where musicians sit in amongst the clientele, because we’re all, after all, just out at the pub. Some are out-and-out boozers that offer one lager, one ale, house spirits and cider, so drink up because we’ll take no hassle after last orders. All are vibrant, wonderful places, where you can bring your dog and North-American-style booths are eschewed for walls lined with benches on which you might have to sit beside someone you don’t know. A pub is a place for young men and old women, and everyone else in between. There are a few public houses in Canada in this tradition (and very few of them advertise ‘Extra Cold Guinness’) but in Scotland there are thousands, a land spoilt for choice. There is nothing I will miss more than a bright Scottish pub with my favourite cask ale on offer, a freshly stoked coal fire, and a green-eyed lassie with an empty glass. Cheers.

Sunset Song

The Scottish government has abandoned its plans to lease up to 25 % of its crown forests to private companies. Perhaps they’ve learned something after all. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the great socialist author of the trilogy A Scots Quair (1932, 1933, 1934) had something to say the last time Scotland tried to mortgage its future for the present.

Chae went round all Kinraddie on his leave that time and found changes enough to open his eyes, maybe he was fell wearied with the front, folk thought, there was nothing on there but their pleitering and fighting. And the first change he saw the first morning, did Chae, lying down on his bed for the pleasure of it and Kirsty at the making of his breakfast. And Chae sat up in his bed to reach for his pipe when he looked from the window and he gave a great roar; and he louped from his bed in his sark so that Kirsty came running and crying What is’t? Is’t a wound?

But she found Chae standing by the window then, cursing himself black in the face he was, and he asked how long had this been going? So Mistress Strachan looked out the way he looked and she saw it was only the long bit wood that ran by the Peesie’s Knapp that vexed him, it was nearly down the whole stretch of it, now. It made a gey difference to the look-out faith! but fine for Kinraddie the woodmen had been, they’d lodged at the Knapp and paid high for their board. But Chae cried out To hell with their board, the bastards, they’re ruining my land, do you hear! And he pulled on his trousers and boots and would fair have run over the park and been at them; but Kirsty caught at his sark and held him back and cried Have you fair gone mad with the killing of Germans?

And he asked her hadn’t she got eyes in her head, the fool, not telling him before that the wood was cut? It would lay the whole Knapp open to the north-east now, and was fair the end of a living here. And Mistress Strachan answered up that she wasn’t a fool, and they’d be no worse than the other folk, would they? all the woods in Kinraddie were due to come down. Chae shouted What, others? and went out to look; and when he came back he didn’t shout at all, he said he’d often minded of them out there in France, the woods, so bonny they were, and thick and grave, fine shelter and lithe for the cattle. Nor more than that would he say, it seemed then to Kirsty that he quietened down, and was quiet and queer all his leave, it was daft to let a bit wood go vex him like that.

But the last night of his leave he climbed to Blawearie and he said there was nothing but the woods and their fate that could draw his eyes. For over by the Mains he’d come on the woodmen, teams and teams of them hard at work on the long bit forest that ran up the high brae, sparing nothing they were but the yews of the Manse. And up above Upperhill they had cut down the larch, and the wood was down that lay back of old Pooty’s.

Folk had told him the trustees had sold it well, they got awful high prices, the trustees did, it was wanted for aeroplanes and such-like things. And over at the office he had found the factor and the creature had peeked at Chae through his horn-rimmed glasses and said that the Government would replant all the trees when the War was won. And Chae had said that would console him a bloody lot, sure, if he’d the chance of living two hundred years and seeing the woods grow up as some shelter for beast and man: but he doubted he’d not last so long. Then the factor said they must all do their bit at a sacrifice, and Chae asked And what sacrifices have you made, tell me, you scrawny wee mucker?…

Early in the year, about May that was, the rain came down and it seemed it never would end, there was nothing to be done out of doors, the rain came down from the north-east across Kinraddie and Chris wasn’t the only one that noted its difference from other years. In Peesie’s Knapp there was Mistress Strachan vexing herself in trying to make out the change; and then she minded what Chae had said would happen when the woods came down, once the place had been sheltered and lithe, it poised now upon the brae in whatever storm might come. The woodmen had all finished by then, they’d left a country that looked as though it had been shelled by a German army. Looking out on those storms that May Chris could hardly believe that this was the place she and Will had watched from the window that first morning they came to Blawearie.

— Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (1932)

I do. I will.

Yesterday, I heard Tariq Ali speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival (Warning: bagpipes at link!). Erudite, gentle and compassionate, Ali began with last month’s Glasgow East byelection, in which the Scottish National Party defeated the 25th safest incumbent in Britain, inciting Ali to label the incident ‘the end of New Labour’, and moved expertly from British politics to South Ossetia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Venezuela and back to Scottish independence. It was a masterful performance.

Ali pointed out that when Tony Blair’s New Labour came to power in 1997, if you read what Blair and his ministers were actually saying (which of course Ali did to no avail), they were advocating a continuation of Thatcherism. Surely the privatization of the Royal Mail should have keyed us in to the fact that there is little difference between the Conservatives and Blair’s Labour. Ali pointed to the chameleon tendencies of Tory ministers who found no difficulty finding a new home. Indeed, the recent confidence motion that demanded 42-day detention capabilities for anti-terrorism police saw progressive Labour MPs voting for the bill while every Tory voted against it. Under neoliberalism and capitalism, Ali argued, when you believe that the Market can solve everything, why, exactly, do we have government at all? Pro-market MPs are incidental, opportunistic and utterly indistinguishable.

Well, the party’s over. ‘When you base your politics on a lie’, Ali stated, ‘it’s only a matter of time before you get caught out’. He cited a Financial Times article by (sexist bigot) Lawrence Summers about the mortgage crisis in the United States:

the government should use its new receivership power to protect taxpayers and the financial system. In the process, payments to stock holders, holders of preferred stock and probably subordinated debt holders would be wiped out, conserving cash for the benefit of taxpayers. The GSEs’ borrowing costs would fall considerably, helping prospective homeowners.

In this scenario, the government would operate the GSEs as public corporations for several years. They would then be in a position to extend credit where appropriate to support resolution of the current housing crisis.

Punishing shareholders. Nationalization without compensation. ‘In the olden days,’ Ali said, ‘this was called “expropriation.”  China’s recent explosive growth has emphatically demonstrated that capitalism and democracy are not companions. Now, to save us from the devastation neoliberalism has wrought, the ex-president of Harvard University, in the pages of the Financial Times is advocating social democracy as the only available solution.

Under time constraints, Ali turned briefly to the situation in South America, where populist anti-poverty movements are changing the political landscape of a continent and delivering social change to the people. ‘It’s not revolutionary’, he said simply. ‘It’s social democracy’. If Scotland, for example, continues its path towards independence, they will have a new space in which to build a robust democracy. There is no point in earning it, Ali says, unless you are prepared to do something with it. Actions like the Ecuadoran village of Guayaquil, and their winning fight against Bechtel who sought to privatize their water supply should provide us with hope that we do not have to doom ourselves to another term of neoliberalism, now Labour, now Tory. ‘Change is possible’, Ali concluded. ‘If the will is there’.

So let’s, shall we?