To Kilt a Mockingbird

08 Mar
To Kilt a Mockingbird

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

To turn a George Bernard Shaw quip on its head, might it be said that England and Scotland are two cultures separated by a common economy?  For that seems truer than suggesting that it’s two accents and aspirations separated by a House of Commons, much as romantic myth or the zeitgeist of exiles would have it otherwise. 

Warp & Weft: Heritage and Heretics

Let our hearts first be broken the quicker to make amends: the kilt was invented in France — not by the French, to be fair, but by Jacobite Scotsmen in the early 18th Century who, unaccustomed to the swelter of Parisian heat, aired themselves off by folding and pleating their woolen tunics.  It is not for nothing that “tartan” comes from the French word tiretain, meaning to pull or tug (as in crisscrossed bands — think plaid).

Making matters worse for the wistful, the white shirt traditionally accompanying a kilt also is more Gallic than Gaelic, in this case adopted from Breton peasants.  It is best to get all of this out of the way first, for the roots of Scottish nationalism are firmly planted in histrionics, not so much history.  Much of what comes to mind when ur-Scottishness is invoked comes from a romantic revival in the 19th Century, thanks in no small part to the antics and unabashed zeal of Sir Walter Scott.  Whether it’s Northern Highlanders proudly clad in kilts like bygone giants of a golden age or that each clan of Scotland had its own plaid (which had everything to do with canny salesmanship and nothing to do with corresponding authenticity), this is what ethnographers call “an inventive tradition.”  For sure, this flies smack-dab in the face (faith?) of what so many of us have been taught, which is little more than a misconception wrought by Holyrood and Hollywood.  (Surely it ought not be much of a surprise that Braveheart has as much to do with historical accuracy as Mel Gibson’s brawling rants have to do with law enforcement.)

So what?  Well, amongst other reasons, Scotland is poised to vote in a national referendum in two years time whether to separate from the United Kingdom and become an independent nation, which could have the effect of resembling something closer to Virginia and West Virginia than say Serbia and Kosovo.  Half of Scotland identifies itself with being British, not Scottish.  There is absolutely no distinction whatsoever in ethnicity betwixt England Scotland.  Unlike in Wales, where there is an admirable (if wildly imprudent) movement to reclaim Welsh as the national language, nobody but right-wing jingoists or folks of Scottish descent in America and Canada takes Gaelic seriously.  Indeed, you will find far more disputes and factiousness between different football clubs and the religions associated in each than any real anti- versus pro-England sentiments; or the class divisions between the agrarian north and the urban south (or still the Nordic-esque Shetland islands and the mainland).

For the first time since its inception the Scottish National Party won a landslide election last year, giving it an improbable majority in the Parliament.  (This is comparable to Parti Québécois in Canada with respect to a political party whose main platform is separation.)  Now, normally I’d be all over and all for this sort of thing.  Shouldn’t Scotland finally free itself from the yoke and thumb of London after all these internecine centuries, these chapters writ in blood and broken promise?  A rot of gobshite that, as the Irish might say.  And the Irish should know — they who did fight a horribly bloody (in both senses) war for independence from England and smarts still from the tear and tension of Northern Ireland.  Regardless, the principal catalyst behind Scottish independence comes from the discovery of oil and gas in the Northern Sea.  The claim is that “the English are stealing our oil,” which is far more a throbbing argument stirring passion than the cold potato nuanced truth: multinational corporations extract the oil and pay handsomely for licenses to do so.  But to contend that this oily emolument is hoarded by England at Scotland’s expense enables a delusion of nationalistic grandeur.  If only in terms of healthcare, Scotland does most well as a net beneficiary of the UK: it receives much more than it pays into the system.  Which happens to be the other rationale behind the current topic of independence.

Prime Minister David Cameron — who is never far from Thatcher’s shadow (which typically is a bad thing if you’re Scottish) — has inherited a fantastically complicated predicament of paying for public expenditures and how funds are allocated in Great Britain (i.e., England, Wales, and Scotland) and Northern Ireland.  One part fear-mongering, one part number-crunch, the Scottish National Party speculates about cuts coming from Westminster.  Yet this is precisely the sort of thing that may well bite you in the arse: if Scotland were to become independent, how will it pay for what it has benefited nicely from under the UK umbrella?  The ratio is roughly is 55 million English to 4 million Scots.  A go-it-alone attitude would be like leaving a generous insurance plan after quitting your job in order to be self-employed and pay through a private plan.  (This analogy, alas, works only in America, where we have the worst health care system of any developed nation.)  You can’t eat your haggis and have it, too.  How will any of this be paid for without significantly raising taxes?  And would that be worth it?

It hasn’t for Puerto Rico.  No decade is ever complete without some discussion of statehood.  But if that were to happen, Puerto Ricans would have to pay much higher taxes to enter the fold.  (Maybe to help chip in for all those revised flags; adding a 51st star can’t be that cheap, can it?)

But what about all that oil?  And here lies a classic paradox of economics: Dutch Disease, aka “the oil curse.”  It goes like this.  Suddenly you discover you’re sitting atop a whole heck of a lot of oil deposits.  Bonanza!  Black gold!  “We’re in the money!”  Right?  Well…  When a country exports large quantities of a certain commodity, its price increases — which then inflates its currency.  Now with an inflated currency, it becomes cheaper to import everything.  But this then has the unintended consequence of destroying that country’s own manufacturing base and its other exports.  Hence the curse.  And this has happened to every country that is rich in oil deposits.  Every country but one: Scotland’s neighbor in the North Sea.

Neither Saudi Arabia Norway

In the early 1970s, right around the time that Scotland discovered its reserves, Norway found itself the unlikely recipient of vast deposits of oil.  Sensibly apprehensive of the curse, Norway set up a finance ministry plan in 1974 that advised the following:
1)  A powerful and independent regulator should be created so that all companies played by the same rules;
2)  Not all of the oil should be extracted at once.  Rather, the number of licenses allowed would be limited.
3)  The money earned from all of this oil may not be spent on public works (road construction, parks, etc).
Instead, it must be invested back into the oil industry (drilling new wells, developing new technologies —
this was the 1970s after all, and safely extracting all this oil beneath the precarious North Sea was no
mean task).  Eventually, after the technology was created and new wells dug, all the money earned from
the oil would be placed into an enormous trust fund (now around half a trillion dollars, er, kroner, which is
essentially $100,000 for every Norwegian citizen).  AND YET only the interest on this oil savings fund
may go to the government for public works projects and the like.

Sometimes referred to as the “Norwegian miracle,” what Norway accomplished was almost impossible.  It told the oil companies they couldn’t do what they wanted, which was drill baby drill.  It explained to the citizens of Norway that they wouldn’t individually see this money.  And it commanded the politicians of Norway that they never talk about the oil policy during elections for political gain.

Perhaps the Shetlanders could glean a thing or two across the waters.

The Lowdown on Highland Nationalism

A particular phenomenon amongst immigrant enclaves is a tenacity to hold onto the past and the motherland.  It seems the farther away one is geographically, the farther one is in reality also.  Immigrants and successive generations tend to ritualize nostalgia.  If not renewed by modernity or living ties still back home, the past and one’s patriotism towards it can’t help but have a whiff of formaldehyde to it — not necessarily dead and preserved like a bug in amber, but a helpless recapitulation of what it remembers, which is to say — that which was, is…and always will be.  Because whereas the culture of the emigrated country has evolved and adapted to all the vicissitudes of modernity, the actual immigrants have not necessarily.  Modern day Norwegians come to places like Stoughton, Wisconsin, or towns celebrating Syttende Mai — Norwegian Independence Day — throughout Minnesota or North Dakota to learn the folk dances and music of yesteryear.  Contemporary Norwegians will know the sounds of Röyksopp and DumDum Boys, but little if anything of the hardingfele, while Norwegian-Americans can make a sacrament over their bunads and rosemaling.  The same way Scottish-Americans or Nova Scotians fidge and preen their pleats and sporrans.

It’s not without a tincture of historical reenactment, at times teeming on the hysterical.  But what homage is without this?  Homesickness is an affliction that cuts to the bone and squats forever in the marrow of the human soul.  We all miss some kind of home.  Not unlike a phantom limb, it is no longer there, but the pangs are real.  What becomes a wee bit ridiculous is when we idolize the nostrums of the past, especially as a way to justify paving an approach to the future.  If heritage is fetishized, is there anything of substance underneath?  (No jokes here about etiquette and attire insofar as whether one wears undies or goes commando in a kilt.)  Never mind when we selectively audit the boated roar of nationalism after its chauvinism has notably been cheapened and pawned.  Before the financial collapse in 2006 and 2007, two of the largest banks on the planet were Halifax Bank of Scotland Group and The Royal Bank of Scotland.  Today, in year 2012, they are both wards of England; thanks to their headquarters being in London, they got bailed out.  That meltdown would have dwarfed what happened in Iceland and Ireland combined.  But neither the Scottish National Party nor some Yank named MacAlister living in Memphis practicing his caber toss cares to cash in their two cents for that.  (I don’t blame them; the exchange rate is awful.)  Our tea partiers would do well to remember this the next time they don their tricorn hats and epaulets.  That is, unless your erroneous Chinese character tattoo can be seen peaking out on your neck or calf, in which case all is forgiven in the name of multiculturalism.  Say, what does auld lang syne mean anyway?


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One response to “To Kilt a Mockingbird

  1. Ross

    February 11, 2013 at 5:08 am

    I would certainly argue that there are ethnic differences between the people of the highlands at least and the people of the lowlands/England. The highlanders tend to be Gaelic/Pictish/Norman versus the lowland/English Britons/Angles/Saxons/Normans. Admittedly these ethnic differences are somewhat diminished given the number of English folk whom are now settling in Scotland but historically and in many family lines there is a distinct difference although not always apparent at the genotype rather than the phenotype. while there is certainly acceptance of the English in the highlands there is always an underlying disdain and distrust for the race rather than for individuals.


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