A young man takes part in the Highland Games. Credit: Kristian Buus/In Pictures via Getty Images

November 28, 2019   4 mins

“In the year 810, a man named Ken became the very first king of Scotland. He decreed that Scotland would be a country in which men talked, and everyone else listened. And over the centuries men certainly did talk.”

So opens a rather brilliant and fun documentary on a topic that fascinates me: the ‘ideal man’. Many of my male friends — both gay and straight, have told me that masculinity is like a prison, giving them little flexibility in how to live and behave. Increasing numbers of us — whether male or female — are trying to work out what it means to be a man these days. Stereotypes are being challenged and gender roles supposedly more fluid.

In her new documentary, The Ideal Scotsman, Rachel McCormack looks specifically at Scottish masculinity. She explores the Scotsman in all his incarnations — from the ‘hard man’ of the Glasgow knife gangs, to today’s tearier version (Andy Murray, take a bow).

McCormack, a proud Glaswegian, has long been fascinated by men in kilts. I’ve seen first-hand why: I accompanied her on a trip to Edinburgh while she was researching a book on women and whisky, and witnessed how she is generally treated by the male-dominated whisky industry. She wasn’t once phased by the often outrageous sexism she was subjected to; but she did challenge it firmly and reasonably while drinking the blokes under the table.

“Public life in Scotland”, she tells me, “is overwhelmingly male and unfriendly to women.” That’s why she decided to make the film. “I wanted to see what Scottish men were doing with all the space they are taking up”. Men are 50% of the population, she says, but they dominate public life.

But is that specific to Scotland? In many ways, yes, she says. “Despite our changing political culture, Scotland is still overwhelmingly male.”

The best-known expression of Scottish masculinity is probably that represented in the 1995 film Braveheart, a fictional tale based on the life of William Wallace, who led the Scots in the First War of Independence against King Edward I of England. The film emphasises the machismo of Wallace and juxtaposes this version of a man with the heavily homophobic depiction of the English Prince Edward and his male companion — all make-up and feminine attire. The message here is that proper Scotsmen are hard and heterosexual and have a passionate love for their country. Nationalism is what true men fight for.

McCormack wanted to see if that is still the case. She tells me she was particularly “interested in what the male is like now that there is no hard industry to shape that ‘hard man’ caricature we remember. How do they see themselves and their position as men in Scotland today?”

And so she talks to actors, historians, writers, and even a celebrated male ballet dancer. She tracks the Scottish man through time, too, starting with the Highland Chiefs and ending with Rab C. Nesbitt and the uber violent Begbie in Trainspotting.

Throughout the documentary, McCormack manages to have intelligent and meaningful conversations with both hairy-arsed geezers and the new wave types; she gets them all to really think about what it means to be a man today.

And she finds that things are changing. Tough young men such as ballet dancer Chris Harrison and writer Chris McQueer have a much healthier outlook on life. “Harrison is one of the bravest men I have ever met,” she says, “a heterosexual ballet dancer when he was growing up in rural Stirlingshire was not something that would have been allowed to exist easily and it is very obvious he had a really hard time.”

Harrison is a great interviewee. In the film he talks about how it is now much easier for Scottish boys to do ballet — but stops short of attributing that change even slightly to himself, which one undoubtedly could.

McQueer, in turn, talks about the generation of working-class men being brought up mostly by single mothers, who don’t want to be like the older generation of men. “They didn’t want to disappoint their mums and their grans,” says McCormack. “I found that really sad as it appeared the only way to cut out a toxic legacy was if the men disappeared.”

In fact, one of the most interesting things she discovered was the way sons relate to their fathers. She said she noticed a particular “emotional repression” present in many father-son relationships.

This really resonated with me. And it isn’t peculiar to Scotland. As a feminist who has spent all her adult life campaigning to end male violence towards women — one woman is killed every three days by a former partner — I am constantly confronting the reality and repercussions of toxic masculinity. All those men who assault women are, in the main, given permission to do so by the indoctrination and perpetuation of sexist stereotypes.

Behaviours are handed down from generation to generation. Boys are bullied in order to become ‘proper men’, taught to fight, told that women should be kept in their place and are simply sex objects. On a more common — if insidious — level, the casual normalisation of gender roles in the domestic setting, such as leaving the housework and childcare to women, is far more common than many so-called ‘modern men’ would like to admit. We feminists are, in a way, a man’s best friend. We know that men can choose not to be dicks and we are fighting to tell them as much.

So it was refreshing to hear that there is a younger generation kicking back against the particularly rigid stereotype of the Scottish ‘hard man’. It is clear from both the film and from my own observations as a feminist that today, at least for the younger generation, masculinity isn’t nearly as restrictive as it was.

McCormack agrees. “It does seem to be changing dramatically,” she says. “The younger generation seem in a much better position to cope with life, like women and have a more pleasurable life.”

Thankfully, the stereotype of the Scottish man is shifting from that of Rab C. Nesbitt — the angry, lazy, middle-aged man with stubble and in a dirty string vest — to the point where male ballet dancers and pro-feminist sportsmen such as Andy Murray can get a look in.

Which isn’t to say that my work is done. When instances of male violence against women and other men falls to a record low; when fewer boys look to hard-core pornography for their sex education, and a few more of them pick up a vacuum cleaner and nappy every now and again — maybe then we will be able to feel assured that toxic masculinity is becoming obsolete. But until then, it is alive and, unfortunately, kicking hard.

The Ideal Scotsman can be watched on iPlayer.

Julie Bindel is an investigative journalist, author, and feminist campaigner. Her latest book is Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation. She also writes on Substack.