Boots and Roots: A Meditation
Before Christmas just passed there were various threads on Scottish Clans and Families about rights to the title ‘Scot’ or ‘Scottish’. Far from a relatively minor Facebook debate, there was an issue at stake – how we Scots (if I may be so bold) regard our diaspora cousins. Amanda (who is English, by the way) had to begin another thread to clarify the attitude of her group towards said cousins. There had been an imputation that only Scots born Scots were welcome to the group, and that she (actually, ‘we’, but that’s for later) did not consider people born outside of the geographical land masses of Scotland to be Scottish.
The tricky thing to understand is that Amanda’s comment was about who is, or is not, allowed on the group; not about who can claim ‘Scottishness’. However, as one group member quipped:
“… *catapult sound-effect* OFF THEY GO … flying off the bloody handle, clutching the wrong end of the
In fact, some 110 contributors did go ‘off’ – for 4 days. After 300 comments exceeding 18,000 words it fizzled out. In between there were four partings from the group. Result? No minds changed, no further forward. Still truer to Facebook, it all began on new thread a few days later. Quelle surprise!
Is it reasonable to leave it at that and allow the subject to wend its weary way to nowhere in particular? In some ways, yes. Despite the utter intransigence of most, such discussions at least raise awareness of the different apprehensions. However, something a little closer to a resolution is actually needed, however incomplete a prospect.
I hold two position which I really ought to declare:
- I do not like people not from Scotland calling themselves Scots.
- I don’t like the way some of our diaspora cousins, especially the US ones, get booted around the internet like some playground whipping boy. It’s not nice.
Anyway, to be clear, the issue at hand is not Facebook group membership. That gets lost at reply 1. It is about who has the right to call themselves a Scot – probably the oldest type of discussion in the entire history of anthropology and other community politics focused disciplines.
The fact is, nobody really has a simple and unfettered right to call themselves a [insert whatever nationality here]., because any national or ethnic handle is a loaded term. It is not only acceded to, but; conceded / applied by other ingroup members, and; sometimes applied by outgroup members. But, if nobody has the right, what is the point of the phenomenon? Well, that’s all a bit metaphysical, but for the moment, let’s just assume that there is a point, because we’re all human, all flawed, and all frightened, for one reason or other. It’s how we are built to survive.
Let’s start with a taxonomy of the main ways in which ‘Scot’ is understood or articulated, at least in the thread under discussion.
A Scot is a Scot Unto a Hundred Generations. Allegedly.
The first thing to do is figure out the variables. Oh, yes, there’s variables. If you were looking for an easy answer, look away now.
▪ intended place
▪ registration of birth
▪ citizenship by right
▪ citizenship by choice
▪ raised in Scotland
▪ not raised in Scotland
▪ raised by Scots in Scotland
▪ raised by non-Scots in Scotland
▪ raised elsewhere by Scots
▪ raised elsewhere by non-Scots
▪ raised elsewhere by
umpteenth generation people who state their identity is Scots
| ▪ raised in Scotland for first
years of life
▪ raised elsewhere for first
years of life
▪ full blood
▪ half blood
▪ any bloody fraction
▪ DNA percentage
▪ by generations
▪ from reality
▫ will claim what ever ‘is in the heart’
| ▫ self classify as human
▫ world citizen
▪ from Scotland
▫ via Ireland
▫ via Canada
▫ via the US
▪ of the statement
▪ of the statement
▪ Oh, hell
▪ Ignore according to taste
And now to the taxonomy. It’s simple really, but the number of variables means the number of possibilities is incalculable by this dude. Furthermore, all the internet storage capacity in all the clouds in all the world is not big enough to accommodate them all. Just pick any of the above and synthesise with any of the above, at any titration you prefer, and there’s your answer.
So, that’s useless, then. Well, of course it is. Here’s what we are dealing with:
“…honestly, how dare you. What I carry in my blood is just as powerful as being born in Scotland…”
“…I know where I was born but know that my ancestors are Scottish makes me Scotch. Yea!!!..”
“…my step-mother was Italian and I have no other connection with Italy. So, as I’m Italian by proxy, you are Scottish by proxy – or we just out-and-out adopt you. Now you’re official. Problem solved…”
“…If you wish to say you are Scots without alluding to your birth country, it is entirely appropriate. My grandfather, born in Canada of parents born in Scotland told me when I was little these words, done very seriously. “You are Scots first, Irish second, Canadian third, and American dead last…”
“…If people want to say they are Scottish, which to be properly elitist should be Scots, who really cares? Was it all worth all the fuss and name calling? … Is it not my own right to “ignore where I was born”? Your attempt to control speech, even in a way you think is proper is the issue. Censorship.”
On the other hand:
“I understand what you are saying, but the longing for family ties is strong with a lot of people. Granted, some people are RIDIC … most people claim ties out of that need to know where we came from.”
Not everybody is being simply intransigent. Some people have a genuine desire for an identity which they feel they are missing.
For this reason, the Scots need to get a bit of a grip and cut the diaspora some slack.
All of that said, I would note at this point that perhaps the most important and least variable of the lexicon above is ‘from’. And while I will use a similar concept later, I would also acknowledge that the truly intransigent will insist that ‘from’ could encapsulate almost all other variables.
A slight detour is needed before proceeding. Having dismantled the thread for a half close reading and textual analysis, it became clear that the phenomenon of (for the moment let’s call it) false claiming, is most prevalent in the United States. So, what I say from now on is to be understood as musings in some ways, and not an attack on our US cousins. The facts are the facts, and I can’t help that, but it is in no way intended to be along the lines of:
Seems like we Americans have been catching flack for saying they’re Scottish Americans. We just say American. It seems like we are the least liked nationality here.
The United States is like no other diaspora territory. Like the rest, it’s full of people who have built an enormous new country on belief and hard work. But it is rather curious for us non- US Americans. It is an amalgam of 50+ states, each of which resists the federation like an existential imperative. Canada is still part of the British commonwealth, has a small number of provinces, two major identities subsumed fairly well under the Canadian banner, and is reasonably comfortable in its own formation. Australia, exactly the same.
A well respected BBC journalist working in Washington recently remarked that the Americans, unlike Europeans, are frightened of their own government. There’s probably a big argument to be had about that – elsewhere – but the idea transfers that there is something not to be a part of.
Furthermore, there is the old line that United States citizens have no history or heritage and it bothers them. I don’t really buy that, especially in the current context. But I do suspect that US citizens more naturally regard themselves as other within their own culture. One might even think of US citizens as tardises: autonomous in every sphere, and bigger on the inside than the universe on the outside, able to hold many conflicting, inter-tiered identities at once. They actually prefer to other themselves, rather than submit to the federation. Trekkies will see the parallel between the Federation and the Borg!
When any of us speak to each other, we know who we are speaking to, and the answer to the question ‘who/what are you’ or ‘what is your background’ is directed at another person who stands on the same ground. But for our American cousins, the next tier of identity priorities includes external national identities far more than for other nations. A Scot might say ‘Highlander’, ‘Glaswegian’, or ‘Borderer’. For US citizens, included in the next tier, alongside state identities ‘Texan’, ‘Californian’, or ‘Mainer’ etc, are ancestral national identity markers. Far from the simple, arrogant, stupidity which is lazily proffered by critics of this, I believe it to be quite nuanced, in fact. Communication is always contextual. So when talking to another American in the street, the local identities are more likely to be used. But in an internet forum context different needs apply, and the ancestronationality may be used.
It could be argued, of course, that in a group such as Scottish Clans and Families, the Scottish part is pretty much superfluous. But that would be to ignore the countervailing factors of accommodation (a well known form of mimicking an interlocutor to show solidarity and respect), and just plain not differentiating between one ethereal ingroup from another, where the platform (e.g. Facebook) doesn’t always facilitate differentiation easily. Of course, there’s always:
“When we have 7 different ancestry roots to type, forgive us if we don’t type American with “so and so” roots, after every single one.”
“Insinuating … that Americans should just respond that they are “American” is pretty saddening for an American to hear. American’s are from multiple ethnicities, and we are very proud of it. We claim what’s in our blood, in our family, whether being born their or not.”
“Since I was born smack in the middle of the Argyle Colony, Cape Fear, … where virtually no one moved in or out from BEFORE the Revolution until after WWII (I’m not kidding). I’m about as Scottish as anybody in the world! If you’re not aware of how the Cape Fear region of NC was settled by Highlanders in the mid 1700s, you’d probably enjoy reading up on it. We’re American, but consider Scotland “home”, feel a kinship with all her people, and follow what goes on there with great interest.“
Conversely, Canadians maintain a strong and vibrant Scots cultural tradition. Gàidhlig is still spoken in the Maritimes. The music culture is second only to Scotland in size, and it might be argued, equal in importance. In the United States that same music heavily influenced Country music, but has also been more subsumed by it.
However, traditions, in their active form, and in their memory / identity form, while not the same thing, can be equally as strong. The Canadians are much more settled in their more homogeneous Canadian self identity. The Australians are perhaps just as settled, but suffer from something else that the Canadians do – a natural antipathy to their more powerful neighbour. The Scots have this with the English; the English with the French, and; so on. The only difference is that the Australians take it out on the pommes, rather than the Malaysians, as near neighbours in history.
New Zealand is like Scotland. Literally, apparently. But also too small in size to be particularly worth worrying about. And I don’t mean that in a patronising way, at all. Both of our countries are regarded by the rest of the world as something of a small thing needing protected – forgetting that we ran the empire, and the All Blacks run the ball! Scotland, like New Zealand, is cute, cuddly, and, if not in need of protection, in need of celebration and fellowship. Allegedly.
As with myself, if I am asked where I am from by another Scot, or someone in Scotland, there’s no way ever I am going to say Scotland. I’ll always say the Highlands, or Arisaig. Look at a Facebook profile: ‘from’ and ‘lives’ are two different categories. I was once propping up a bar in Arisaig where I was raised for all but the first few months of my life, but had been absent from for four or five years by that point. A man who I had never met before was talking to me, and I asked him where he was from. He said Arisaig. Now, excuse me… I truly felt like he was stealing part of my identity, and he was messing around with it. He was a similar age to me, but I’d never seen him in any of the three local schools. What was he doing bandying about parts of my identity like they were of no matter and easily attained? Turned out, he was from Edinburgh and had been working in Arisaig for about a year. Thus Arisaig is where he was from. Allegedly. Contextually, though, he didn’t recognise me, so the answer was Arisaig, because how was he to know my level of knowledge.
I shouldn’t be bothered? Aye, right. I still regard him as an impostor, because I simply do not regard ‘from’ and ‘lives’ as coterminous. Indulge me, please, by agreeing that my position is the correct one!!!!
The Cuddly Haggi
Forgetting the rights and wrongs of the claim to Scottishness for the moment, I alluded earlier to something we ‘real’ Scots tend to forget: … they love us. Who loves us? Everybody. (Pretty much). Somehow we have managed to slip off the empire’s shoulder and evade blame – blame which could be said to be disproportionately attributable to us. There is a bigger Irish diaspora in the US, and possibly in other diaspora territories, than there is Scottish. And, while ‘Celtic’ and ‘Irish’ are often coterminous, the Irish also get battered with the boozer trope, and in a negative way. Even when Scotland gets that one, it’s rather more gentle. Sure, did we not invent whisky? Popular culture is full of lovable and/or roguish Scots in a heroic or anti-heroic tradition – Groundsman Willie, Shrek, Brave, Highlander, Braveheart, Rob Roy, Miss Jean Brodie, Craig Ferguson, Billy Connolly, Scottie, Scrooge McDuck. Even in the antiheroic we are conceived of as unwilling to be pushed around – not exactly a character flaw. Scots would have a job achieving unpopularity anywhere unless determined.
I believe that makes our identity an aspiration, to a greater or lesser extent. We also have the distinction of being the source of the not-massacred-at-Culloden-cleared-Highlanders, and; the neighbours of the colonial English. In short, we are a myth that many others like to associate with. The rights and the wrongs of these myths are largely irrelevant in this discussion, except fo rwhere we want to go. But more of that later.
All of this is open to dispute, perhaps all a bit sentimental, and can be attributed to many other identities in the world. It’s not hugely scientific, and I don’t set out to claim it is. But much of what I have described are identity markers prioritised by others, not so much by the Scots themselves. Internally it is different. There could easily be an invisible mirror on the Scotland England border, and when the locals look over they see themselves: a shower of happy go lucky, but also very dour, hangdogs wondering why they can’t get over there and improve their miserable lot. We’re not actually so different from the English – not the northern ones at any rate.
Scotland’s citizenry has just spent three years discussing its national identity through the mincer of an independence referendum. The two different sides in that are immaterial. What is material is that both sides had an idea and went for it. Such is one of the few times any cultural group gets to openly define itself, either in the conversation or the decision. And that autonomy is not about to be ceded lightly. By either side. Scotland believes in its own myth of itself, unsurprisingly. But, that’s our myth, not‘yours’.
What astonishes a lot of diaspora cousins when they arrive is that English bashing is not popular. They cannot fathom why we have forgiven the English for what they did(n’t) do to us in the clearances. Just like the music culture in the Maritimes is somewhat preserved and a little closer to what it was in Scotland when the Highlanders left, so is the general apprehension of the English in parts of the diaspora. But in this case it is untrue. Nobody was blameless in Culloden and what led up to it. The English were not the only nation on the ‘other side’. There were Scots there too, as there were English on the rebel side. The English were not the only aggressors in the aftermath. This particular trope of fellow feeling, of commonality and shared understanding, actually means very little to us. And while we’re not particularly keen to tell folks where to get off with it, we’re also very guarded about taking on their ideas of our shared identities. Like, being Scottish. Get one wrong, the thinking goes, and they’re all suspect. The cuddly Scot does not feel the need of protection, love, and cuddles, any more than does a bunch of muscle-marys on a manicured grass field howling in tongues – and with tongues – making scary faces and stemping their wee feet!
The fact is, we know what we are, and ‘you’ think we’re something else. And you’re not right. We love to be cuddled, but not coddled, and certainly not patronisingly so. The fellow feeling that is brought to us often feels more like an imposition. From long-ago.
So, the variables, articulated as discussed, lead nowhere really. Yet, if we Scots are going to reject inbound amorosity of the soul, we need to be able to say why we don’t want our soul stole. How do we do that? This is one man writing, trying to reflect a perception shown as a common thread in the wider discussion. As Angus Calder said, there are Scotlands of the Mind. What I write here cannot be regarded as the defining word. The claim to being a Scot is complicated. Some folks will be allowed, some won’t. It’s kinda arbitrary. Personally, I find that the least arbitrary definer is the voice, or more correctly, the accent-sphere.
I have a friend who went to Canada aged ten. He returned to Scotland aged sixty. He never had any doubt he would. When he left Glasgow as a boy, he’d have been a proper wee Weegie, accent and all. That would have stayed with him for a long time. Was he Canadian on stepping off the boat? I doubt it. When was he most likely to be able to go a day without being asked where he was from? My suspicion is when his accent developed more closely in line with the local one. The passport, the citizenship, the naturalisation, the law, the birds, whatever; none of it would have made him ‘Canadian’ in his mind, or in the mind of others. The process of emigrating the body is a dawdle. Emigrating the mind, however, is more difficult. And immigrating the whole is a joint, negotiated enterprise between immigrant and host culture. We can only truly say we are ~ish when we have blended in and become invisible, and even then there are caveats. For me, the voice is a major part of that invisibility. It tells – ‘one’ tells – in the very act of telling.
Formations of (cultural) attitudes are articulated in the very act of speech. Stress someone strongly and they will revert from their day to day persona – a necessary negotiation with the world – to the most basic of their instincts. Dialectical differences will become vivid. If the host culture uses a second language, the first will most likely prevail. These are the things which I believe indicate most tellingly of who we are. It’s not infallible, of course. But a ten year old will have altered dramatically by the time he is 15. All of that is a time of formation, accommodation, and consolidation of the identity. While some of it may be performative, rather than ‘innate’, a lot of it will be attested in speech.
Which is where another major variables set arrives – the raising of the child. Food and behaviour cultures within the home are very much a part of the negotiation into a new cultural milieu for immigrants. Thus while there might be a performative host culture accent for a child in a school yard, making them invisible, their modes of behaviour may well be different elsewhere, or at home.Therefore, can they be said to be one thing or another?
More bloody body fluids
Blood. OMG, as young smarytphones say. Blood is a liquid which masks a myriad of identity inconveniences. It is as close to heretical unchallengeability as religious faith. Indeed, it actually is a faith, at times. As if this was not a sufficiently strong conveyor of identity myths, some clown found a spirally thing in it which has been unleashed upon the world as an aphoristic strengthener of ‘blood making the person’. Recently, epigenetics have backed this up, suggesting that proteins attached to the DNA matrix provide all sorts of building instructions, behavioural traits, and possibly even race memory. Sort of like muscle memory for the developing body and soul.
Those who know me will be cognisant of the fact that I am an avowed sceptic of the DNA industry. For the most part I regard it as somewhat snakeoilish. That is to say: the science is fine, but the people selling it make all sorts of unsustainable claims, and the consumer all too often swallows directly from the vessel without reading the label, far less the medicinal small print. DNA is a very large swamp to get through before we arrive at the truth, we’re only in the reed beds at the moment, and there be dragons. Some of them as big as Nessie. But, in essence (!), some folks take the blood myth on their own terms and use that as their excuse to claim Scottishness.
Now, there is some justification for this, albeit as strong as horoscopes in some cases. The further south to the equator we go, the wider we find noses getting, and the further north the narrower. This is physiological adaptation to temperature conditions, carried in the DNA. The problem arises when we attempt to get much more specific than the nostril paradigm. In short, when we try to cross the nature nurture divide. Some of the quotes given earlier clearly believe that nature is the blood-borne, overdetermining factor. While that may have some disputable credibility – the Scots are arguably more terse and less laissez faire than the French, and there is less French in us than Viking (!) – it all falls apart when we don’t go beyond the chosen land border to settle on identity marker choices. People insist they are Celts (by extrapolation from a largely geographic Scottishness), even though there is not such a thing as a Celtic DNA strain, but several which are found in ‘Celts’ and others. These might have come from the Mediterranean, the Baltic, etc, etc, etc. But no; folks stop at ‘Scottish’, as if the arbitrary relationship between landmass and genetics stops there, a priori. Incredibly, some folks can go through Canada and Ireland on the way, and only stop at Scotland, ignoring the others. Why not stop at Ireland, or why not get to the Picts and wonder where they came from? After all, there was Pictish residency on our part of this island before there was Scots. And where did the Picts come from? Even more weirdly, they will use the Scandinavian DNA percentages to claim being Viking (not a nationality) but not Norwegian etc, favouring the intermediate ‘Scot’. Why? Language issues with the Scandinavians?
One might argue there was a relatively stable period of about 1000 years of population where huge influxes did not happen between geographical areas, and therefore the Scottish DNA profile might have settled down into a more homogeneous group. But that’s a bit of a stretch, too.
Roots and Boots
As I have said on many occasions in the past, the Scots have to get used to the fact that there are more people outside of Scotland with Scottish heritage than there are in Scotland. As a result, we are not the sole custodians, or even owners, of that identity. Get used to it. Get over it. It is a plain fact. On the other hand, that diaspora needs to understand that there is a certain element of the identity ‘Scots’ that can only ever beheld by those who live and work in Scotland. And, given the variability of variables, even that concept cannot be tied down particularly firmly.
But not being able to circumscribe it and its circumstances does not mean it cannot be named. Nobody who has ever looked into a blue sky containing a single cloud can ever argue about that. The mere phenomenon of ‘cloud’, and it’s naming as ‘cloud’, makes it exist for us. Any attempt at defining where ‘cloud’ begins and ends, and what is ‘slightly warmer humidity’, will be utterly forlorn. No sooner than a decision is taken to undertake such a mad task, the cloud will have changed shape. With identity definition we can only agree to negotiate, very approximately, the parameters. The internal, the constituent part, must have priority of deciding what is and is not part of it.
So it must be for ‘Scot~’. The people who live in Scotland will make the decisions about who and what is a Scot, or is Scottish. They are the single largest, homogenous, continuous group. Those who are in Scotland, but have not been here for ‘very long’ will have a reasonably clear idea of whether they are a Scot or not according to the locals.
However, there is quite simply no way that someone who has never set foot in Scotland can claim to be a Scot. Period. End of.
But, it would be stupid, downright nasty, and logical folly, to deny the deep link and rights of expression. Scots born Scots do not have that right. And it wouldn’t be in our best interests to do so, either. Communication brings a wealth of contact and experience. We have to acknowledge that and find a way to make it work.
When the whole thing is distilled, it really is a matter of language for the greater part. How to articulate an articulation. I think making that easier and clearer would benefit everybody. Roots are important. That’s nature. But nurture is important, too, and that’s where one stands, and on what ground. In my metaphorical space, that’s boots. This is similar to the ‘ born from Scottish parts’, or ‘’ schemas. But those are somewhat clumsy bits of linguistics.
My preference is ‘Boots and Roots’: e.g. American Boots, Scottish Roots, or; Canadian Boots, Scottish Roots; and so on. It is easy, relatively unmetaphorical, and sufficiently accurate in its description. I’d like to propose that model, in order to accommodate all under, and around, the Scottish flag.