When I was growing up in Bahrain, I went to an International school with a British curriculum. Though we had multi-cultural mufti days, kids standing in the desert heat in saris and kilts, we were taught history from only an English viewpoint. You could argue that the history of the Industrial Revolution and the Vikings affects all of us, is interesting and important no matter your cultural heritage, but I don’t remember looking at these points in history from anything but an English viewpoint. We didn’t learn about Bahrain’s history apart from on the annual obligatory visit to the National Museum, we didn’t learn about the history of the Gulf and we certainly didn’t learn about any modern world history. Going over the Tudors, the Romans and the Ancient Egyptians again and again, retracing the same ground with the same answers to tests, I was convinced that history was boring. The whole of history!
I was in university before I learned much of anything about my own history and even then it was mostly because I consciously chose the module that had ‘Scottish’ in the name. I was taught about important events, things that had happened that directly affect how I feel about myself and my place in the world. As an example, learning about the Battle of Bannockburn, one of the most famous victories in Scottish history, is more interesting because it happened where my Granny’s house now stands: there is a personal element, and that element has helped to shape me.
When I chose to study Scottish Literature there were four universities that offered it as a course, even though there were twelve universities in Scotland at the time. I did not have the option of studying Scottish Literature at an English, Welsh or Northern Irish university, though I could have studied French or Russian Literature in any of these places. Of the four, I chose Stirling for a number of reasons, one of which was to be close to the family I still had living in Scotland. I lived in Stirling for six years and even now I get a pleasant shiver when the train turns a corner and the Wallace Monument and the castle bookend the view of my home.
I read Scottish Literature to learn about Scotland. More than that: I wanted to learn about being Scottish. I needed to know where I came from and to try to develop an idea of where I was going, and a big part of that was developing and exploring my cultural identity. I needed roots. Scottish Literature is diverse; there are sweary, shocking writers and experimental, post-modern writers, there are transcendental writers and terrible, terrible writers. Some write about Scots, some don’t. Some write in Scots, some write in Gaelic, some write in the Queen’s English. Some write in Urdu. Stories cover everything from hard drug use to anorexia to detectives in Botswana. Scottish Literature is broad and varied, much like Scots themselves, and though it is impossible for me to gain my understanding of myself and my history through books alone, they have been an excellent place to start.
Reading about places physically close to me, recognising characters from books in pubs, hearing somebody actually use the word gallus- all of these experiences have driven me to find out more, by reading more, by searching out art, by walking and eating and drinking and talking and listening. My Scotland is different from yours, but there will be definite similarities, threads that link us together and weave us into our culture. What has made Scotland special for me are the landscapes, traipsing over hills and through burns and being certain of finding a pub with a fire; being bewildered, bedazzled and bemused by the talented (and talent-less) offerings at the Fringe; my Pictish skin frazzling on sunny beer garden afternoons.
Scotland may be famed for tartan, Nessie, whisky and haggis, but there is so much more to us. We are more than The Auld Firm and constant rain. The Visit Scotland version is alright, but it’s time to show the world what makes Scotland unique. For me, this has been the adventure of exploring my home land, running through heather and midges and bloodying my knees. For you it might be the close-knit group that converge on a certain table in your local pub, the acerbic wit of the porter in your halls, the view from the top of a gothic monument. What makes Scotland special is everything that Scotland is, and the way to invite the rest of the world to see this side of us is though art. By allowing ourselves to be represented, and to represent ourselves in our culture: in art and poetry and music and prose.
We must teach our children the history of the world, and the history of Scotland. We must teach them to question conventions, of which the union is one. Through knowing our past we create art, and though art we touch each other and make connections. We build relationships, both on personal levels and on a global one. I don’t want Scotland to become other, but I want us to fulfil our potential. And we can’t do that if we are just another forgotten sub-division.
It’s time to stop being marginalised. It’s time to stop accepting ‘our lot’ when Westminster imposes changes we didn’t vote for. Part of our confidence must come from the way we are presented at home and abroad, by ourselves and by others. Scotland is a nation with an important cultural legacy, an expansive history and an intelligent, caring population, and we’re ready to step up and claim our place in the world.