The Unsentimental Scot

The recent brace of programmes on MacCaig on BBC4 made me think again of the way he embodied two familiar, almost stereotypical aspects of Scottish identity: the forthright lowlander and the subtle highlander.

This was, as he told us in the 1990 tribute, chatting in his witty, sly and still somehow confrontational manner (Zen Calvinist to the point of speaking in Mckoans), because his father came from Ayr and his mother from the islands, hence his strong attraction to both Milne’s Bar and Assynt.

Of the two programmes I far preferred the one with more MacCaig over the one with frequent references to ‘Norman’. Although Andrew Grieg’s book, The Loch of the Green Corrie, is a fine work, and both Billy C and Ally B were on great anecdotal form, there was in the second programme a whiff of sentiment absent from the first (and, it should be stressed, from Andy’s book).

This turned my mind to the strong relationship in Scotland between memory and sentiment, what MacCaig called the ‘exophthalmic stare’, paraphrasing MacDiarmid’s pithy line ‘like a dog when it loves you.’

It seems to me this tendency comes about because Scottish identity is never quite a single entity, though different Scots attempt different types of unity. For every urbanite, affirming the glory that is Glasgow, or deploring the drain that is Dundee, there is an Islander or Doricist, a ruralist – all digging as deeply into social and cultural history as their imagination or the local library will allow.

And of course there have always been syncretists like MacCaig, attempting to heal the various breaches between highland and lowland, Scots and Gaelic, Catholic and Protestant, loon and quine, traditional thisses and post-modern thatses.

But for several hundred years these crevasses in the psyche have been opening and closing, causing us to gaze across to various lostnesses whether in the western lands of the leal or in the paradisal past. That which we are closed off from we idealise (or demonise), and with the ideal creeps in sentiment.

Like nostalgia it is a response to some level of trauma, and its derogated position in the British critical vocabulary is in part related to our fear of our own suppressed emotional life, the quaking tearful interior.

It isn’t of course an accident that the brief cult of sentiment was embraced by the eighteenth-century likes of both MacKenzie and Burns (and of course the Irish-ish Sterne) at a time when Scottish identity was being subjected to the rapid evolution of enlightenment and rebellion and the rough assimilation into that partly Scottish invention, ‘Britain.’

Nor is it surprising that the virulent Victorian version of it which MacDiarmid rebelled against spread most swiftly while Scotland was trying on the fictitious tartan outfit of ‘North Britain’.

But it is important to continue to turn an eye as stringent as MacCaig’s not upon the manifestations of modern sentimentality, but rather upon their possible causes. After all, if we can be sentimental about Norman, where will it end?

Ultimately the question remains, as the nation turns to the hitherto neglected, unintegrated aspects of what it thinks of as its identity, can it maintain the dogged discipline of the prickly outsider, or will it settle for the easy (-osey) attitude of the domesticated mutt?

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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