THE ESSENCE OF SCOTLAND
By MORAY NIcLAREN
UNDER the guidance of a number of efficient travel agencies there arrives in Scotland every year a stream of visitors from England and overseas who have never been there before. Until recently I had a job which used to take me all over Scotland all the year round in the pursuit of broadcast material. During the summer there was no part of the country in which I would not come across our visitors, shepherded in large flocks, motoring or bicycling in parties, or wandering in pairs or singly over our highly-varied countryside. Visitors are usually a talkative lot, and holiday people are friendly. So frequently I found myself in con- versation with southern English, Americans, visitors from the Dominions and from France, and even Poland, all asking ill questions, and frequently expressing surprise at what they saw. The surprise was of two kinds. First a rather naive shock that things were not more different—why did not all Scotsmen wear the kilt? Why did we not all speak Gaelic, live in castles and drink at least one bottle of whiskey a day? and so on—second, a surprise that things were as different from England as they were, a surprise that was perpetually seeking information on and trying to define that essential and curious strangeness, or remoteness from England which is apparent to every intelligent visitor from the south.
It was, of course, impossible to define so impalpable a thing. The very fact that England and Scotland have so much in common makes their differences more subtle, more elusive of description, no matter how strongly felt. It was, however, tempting for a Scotsman whose circumstances have led him over most of Europe as well as Great Britain to attempt answers to at least some of the questions, and, in doing so, to formulate as much for himself as for his questioners some of the essential qualities of his country.
The puzzling variety of views about Scotland that exist is due, I think, to the fact that it is a country of extremes. It contains within its small space some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, and some of the ugliest. Its weather can be vile, or, for weeks on end, enchanting. Its inhabitants have a reputation for grimness and austerity only equalled by their other reputation for reckless abandon. They are citizens of the world, yet never lose their nationality. They have a world-wide name for meanness, yet Scottish hospi- tality and pride are famous (fier comme un Ecossais). You can hardly imagine two types of character at their extremes more different than the Highland and the Lowland, yet both essentially remain Scottish. They are described as pedantic- ally practical, yet anyone who knows them at all knows that they are at heart romantic or sentimental according to the individual depth of character. One could go on for pages in this strain. England has shown a genius for compromise, Scotland—well, perhaps not a genius, but an equal capacity for pushing things to their logical or passionate extremes.
These differences are often reflected in the individual Scotsman. You will find that the most close-fisted Edin- burgh lawyer will, when his pride of hospitality or friendship is touched, be astonishingly open-handed and generous. The lugubrious fellow whom you met casually in the hotel lounge and who replied to your conversational openings only with inarticulate monosyllables, can, when you get him in another mood, be eloquent and even exciting in his talk. The man who refused you rooms so grumpily when he told You that his place was full up will suddenly exert all his efforts to find you cheap and comfortable accommodation in the village, and will send round next morning to ask you how you slept. And, most surprising of all, the silent, shy Highland boatman who could not earlier in the day be induced to show that he had any opinions or emotions at all will if you find him at a Ceilidh sing with eloquence and feeling. His is not the formal song written down and learnt by rote. It is a song that is a part of his race, that he has heard and learnt without knowing he learnt it. To it he adds touches and meanings of his own that give to it his own individuality but do not rob it of its antiquity. You feel when you are listening to it that you are hearing the real voice of the past, not dug up by a scholar, but alive and sounding.
These contradictions are woven into the Scottish scene and character. They explain much, and should be borne in mind by those who on visiting Scotland wish to enjoy and understand it. They do not explain everything, however. There are certain general traits that are widespread and do not have their ubiquitous opposites. It is maybe a truism to mention the fortitude and determination of our nation. But it is perhaps not so obvious that this quality supports many manifestations. The Scotsman who is going to the Devil goes there with an urgency slightly shocking to the Southern debauchee. He seems to welcome the pains as well as the pleasures of loose living in his whole-hearted absorption. The truth is that for so long we have had to struggle with the adversity of weather, poverty and bickering war, that if we were to survive at all we had to acquire a capacity for grimness in our pursuit of any object. We had to be exterminated or not lightly put off. For so many centuries have we been subject to the marauder's knife, to the buffets and blows of our tempestuous Eastern weather, that I think (though I am afraid this will offend some of my compatriots) in his heart your true Scot is not really at ease unless he is conscious of deep thick surrounding walls and has his back away from the centre of the room. This, I suggest, is true psychologically as well as physically, and accounts for the reputation for dourness (a French word in origin) which we have acquired by those who have only tust made our acquaintance. I do not think we are sly and suspicious, but we prefer, cat-like, to turn round three or four times before we lie down. But when we do lie down I can assure you we do purr, if a trifle noisily.
Could anything be further from the agreeable, friendly, not very easily moved English type? Though we speak the same language and live under the same Government, there are these differences of character which go very deep, and which can be perceived by any intelligent visitor. They discover themselves in our architecture amongst other things. "What a foreign looking town! " is a remark commonly made by English people coming to Edinburgh for the first time. They are right. Those precipitous black houses on the hillside, those narrow, gutter-like (and I am afraid gutter-smelling) streets of the old town, those generous, wide spaces, those severely, but not domestically, ordered classical squares and crescents of the new town, those glimpses of the mountains and the sea, the Castle on its hill, put one in mind of many places, Boulogne, Cracow, Salzburg, a Scan- dinavian city—but not England.
It is the same with our scenery. Here is something, if not rich, at least strange. The coloured hills, the invading arms of the sea, the moorlands and the hard-won farms of the East all are profoundly different from England, and produce different things. In the English countryside you feel that you are always upon the edge of contentment. In Scot- land there is an ever-present "uneasiness that you imagine will lead you either to ecstasy or despair. Even if I am wrong, even if my conversations with our varied annual visitors have led me into too easy generalisations in which too many of my own preoccupations have played too great a part, I think these reflections are worth remembering. They explain a great deal.