May 19, 2021

To be British and live in a foreign land means never having to do much explaining about where you come from. Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Queen (HRH Elizabeth II), the Queen (the film), Queen (the band), The Beatles, Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, Manchester United… the list of instantly recognisable symbols is long.

But if you complicate that a little by coming from the northern half of Britain, well, that’s a bit different. Yes, there are many world-famous Scots — Adam Smith, Arthur Conan Doyle, James Watt and Sean Connery, to name only four. But with the exception of the last one, none of them wrapped themselves in tartan, and so they are usually associated with the broader “British” identity.

Of course, if the SNP were to have their way, then the very concept of Britishness would be abolished, and Nicola Sturgeon is adamant that this option should be put to the vote sooner rather than later. Were that to happen, then I think these figures and others would be retconned as purely “Scottish”, in much the same way that the post-Soviet states projected their modern identities into the past. Thus was the prophet Zarathustra resurrected in the late 20th century as a Tajik national hero, for instance. Whether or not such retcons gain credence with the wider world, however, is another matter: Nikolai Gogol remains resolutely part of the Russian literary canon, despite his Ukrainian origins.

As for Scotland, I think this retconning might prove to be quite challenging, also. For instance, in more than two decades spent living outside the UK, I have found that many people are quite foggy when it comes to my homeland’s precise constitutional status. They know that it’s not part of England, but the shared parliament and royal family and currency are confusing. Despite this, awareness of Scottish symbols is high, thanks in no small part to Walter Scott cobbling together all that malarkey about clans and tartans in the 19th century. Our whisky is also held in high regard, and many a golfer aspires to play at the Old Course in Saint Andrews. In fact, I’d say that as far as small countries go, we don’t have it too bad — we’re certainly better off than the Belgians with their waffles, Tintin books and melancholy kickboxer.

But still, as Scots are few in number and comparatively rare beyond British shores, we remain quasi-mysterious to many. So whenever Scotland has appeared in the media, or come up in conversation in the different places where I have lived, I have always found it interesting to think about what that says about my homeland, how it is perceived, and whether, after almost a decade and half of nationalist rule, those perceptions are changing.

For instance, in Moscow in the late Nineties, I learned very quickly that by far the most famous Scotsman as far as Russians were concerned was a wee Australian in blue face paint named Mel Gibson.  “Ah, Scotland,” they’d say. “Braveheart!” “Yes,” I’d say, “Braveheart.” True, members of the older generation were familiar with Robert Burns in the Soviet era translations by Samuil Marshak, and quite a few people had seen Highlander (where the Scottish guy is played by a Frenchman rather than an Australian). But overall, to be a Scot abroad then — and since — was to live in the shadow of Braveheart.

Usually I would bluff my way through discussions of the film because I hadn’t seen it, and most people found that baffling, even disappointing (“How can you not have seen Braveheart?”). I suppose it would have been easier just to watch it, but I am very good at sustaining Larry David-style points of principle over things that are inexplicable to others. I’d been taught about William Wallace as a child, but even then, I thought there was something not quite right about the myth. I think it was all that stuff about losing, and then being eviscerated while still alive — it just didn’t seem like something I wanted to aspire towards.

I was more of a Robert the Bruce kind of guy, and not just because his bones were buried in my hometown of Dunfermline. I liked how he — you know — won. Besides, yearning for the days when hairy dudes roamed the heather and had periodic fights with the English just wasn’t my bag. I preferred the bewigged intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment: a handful of brilliant individuals coming up with world changing ideas on the fringes of Europe. That seemed like a healthier model for the nation, (though, I grant you, less appealing as fodder for a Hollywood blockbuster).

However, despite the predominance of Braveheart, it wasn’t all Mel Gibson all the time. I remember discussing Dolly the Sheep. I liked to explain that Dolly had aged much faster than a sheep produced by the traditional method and was now preserved forever in the National Museum of Scotland, where she received visitors every day — our Lenin. I also tried to steer people towards Trainspotting because I felt that it captured Scottish nihilism quite well, and I had a story about Irvine Welsh renting Jean-Claude Van Damme movies from the video shop in Dunfermline which made him sound very uncool. But Trainspotting did not endure; people did not want janky Edinburgh junkies. They wanted Braveheart.

And so it continued, for years. It was while I was living in Russia that Scotland held its referendum on devolution, but I don’t remember that catching people’s attention. It wasn’t supposed to; Labour thought that Scotland was their fiefdom and that that they would run it forever, like Moscow ran its satellite states during the Cold War.

When I moved to the US in 2006, I discovered that Braveheart also cast a long shadow over the land of the free, although Sean Connery was very popular, as was the late night chat show host Craig Ferguson, extracted to LA via Cumbernauld. One year later the SNP took power, but things were still quiet for at first, although I do remember one unusual story making it across the waves a few years later. In an early act of cultural auto-colonisation, the likes of which are now commonplace across British institutions, an MSP lodged a motion supporting the gay wedding of the little-known Canadian superhero Northstar to his partner Kyle in the Astonishing X-Men #51, published by Marvel Comics, the New York-based subsidiary of the Disney corporation. Admittedly, I read about it on a crap comics website; even so, it felt like a new development.

But the hitherto super-boring world of Scottish politics was about to change drastically. Mel Gibson’s dominance as a conversation topic for people mildly curious about where I came from was seriously challenged in 2014 when Scotland voted on whether or not to remain inside the UK. Suddenly the possible dissolution of a 300-year political union was in the headlines and, for the first time ever, the continued existence of a collective British identity seemed in doubt. Most people in the US had simply never thought about any of this before. Starting about three days before the referendum I found myself fielding all kinds of questions about independence (not that I had a say in any of it, mind, because the SNP had disenfranchised all Scots living overseas).

A cheat sheet, rather than a detailed discussion of, say, claims about the viability of North Sea oil was all that was desired, so I didn’t discuss the issues at length. But that was fine — it was startling, and refreshing, after all this time to find that the Scotland my family lived in, and to which I regularly returned, was finally more compelling to the people I knew than Mel Gibson’s bekilted action movie.

Still more striking, however, was the mood the day after the referendum. I vividly recall going into work and feeling a strange sense of anticlimax among those who had talked to me about it. Presented with the opportunity to turn everything upside down and strike out on its own, Scotland had voted to… maintain the status quo. What lay behind this sense of disappointment, I wondered, among people who had zero skin in the game? At first I thought it was the influence of the revolutionary war — for Americans, declaring independence from the meddlesome parliament in London is ground zero for their national identity. And perhaps that was part of it; but now I wonder if it wasn’t also the shadow of Braveheart. Everyone appeared to have seen that film, they had all heard Mel’s stirring words about freedom, and here, given the chance to at long last fulfil Wallace’s dream and seize independence, a majority of Scots had turned around and politely declined to do so.

The referendum was a watershed moment in the global imagination, the moment at which Scotland ceased to be a nostalgic fantasy and became a modern country, a place where things sometimes happened, things that required further explanation. Now, with Nicola Sturgeon insisting on another referendum, I suspect it is only a matter of time before I find myself answering questions about Scotland’s constitutional status again. The conflict with Boris is scoring headlines even amid the raging garbage fire of America’s self-obsessed media. I’ve already discussed the hypothetical of a hard border between Scotland and England with one curious Texan.

An awareness overseas of Scotland as a place that, culturally at least, is not fully British is definitely on the rise. I’d say that’s half the battle for the SNP, but it isn’t — independence is a zero-sum game, after all. It is a change, however, and a significant one. Something else has changed, too: these days I’m more likely to be asked about Outlander than Braveheart. And I haven’t seen that, either.