Am I a Nationalist?


I’ve never really considered myself a nationalist. Not really.  It’s a word that conjures up images of Saltire-waving Bravehearts (I know, I hate that I used it too) who are fully paid up members of the Alex Salmond fanclub.  That never felt like me, even when I was an SNP member.

Recently though, I’ve started to wonder if maybe I am a nationalist, just not the caricature nationalist that is painted by the Unionists and the mainstream press.  And maybe it’s okay to be called a nationalist, after all I keep being called a cybernat on twitter.  Perhaps I should start taking it back?

Wikipedia defines nationalism as “a belief, creed or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with his or her nation” and I guess that’s what it boils down to: identity.  If I identify myself as Scottish then surely I’m a nationalist?  It seems pretty simple really. Only, maybe that’s too simplistic for a country with a complex constitutional relationship such as Scotland.  There is a large percentage of people in the country who apparently identify themselves as both Scottish and British, so have a sort of dual-nationalism.

I find it hard to relate to the dual-nationalism concept.  Not once can I remember writing British on a form, or feeling more British than Scottish.  There’s certainly a part of me that identifies with British culture though, and that is perhaps key when defining your national identity. I can relate to the same pop culture across the UK; there’s a definite shared cultural experience and this is steadily increasing with the ever growing access to fast broadband across the country.  We can now sit in Aberdeenshire and explore exhibitions at the British Museum from the comfort of our own homes, but does that make me feel British?  Well, no.  It’s just not as easy as that.

And it’s not just a geographic identity. Where I’m born and where I live are just quirks really.  They are things that have happened but they don’t really define who I am any more than what I had for breakfast this morning (peanut butter on toast, crunchy).  I feel connected to a nation through shared experience, shared ideals, culture and the people, not just because I happen to be in it.

So what makes me feel Scottish?  Everything!  Even the way the independence debate has been conducted only serves to reinforce a feeling that I belong to a Scottish nation and that this is an argument to decide the fate of that nation.  I’m fascinated by culture, both contemporary and historical but find I’m drawn to Scots culture like a moth to a light.  The history and art of Scotland is endlessly fascinating and easily identifiable for me, partly because I can relate to it through family but also through experience.

It’s this ability to relate to culture that means, for me, I am Scottish.  Because my grandparents grew up on farms I’m drawn to Bothy Ballads and folk culture, it represents a connection to my past that intrigues me and which I still feel can be relevant to culture today. Additionally, it’s shared experience that connects us to contemporary nationhood.  I feel Scottish because I can relate to friends and feel enriched by individual experiences within Scotland – perhaps going to a gig or a walk in the hills.  Every experience reinforces a sense of place and then nationhood.

But I still don’t want to wave a flag.  I watched the Scotland vs England recently and felt a real sense of joy when James Morrison thumped the ball but I had no real desire to grab a Saltire and run around waving it screaming at the top of my lungs.  I punched the air and typed Yaaaaas on twitter.  Does that make me less Scottish?  Of course not.  Conversely, I find it really hard to feel any passion or excitement for anything other than Scottish Premiership football because I have no investment in the EPL or any other league.  My emotions and culture are all in for Aberdeen football club and I don’t care if we’re playing Ross County, it’s still more exciting for me than Man Utd vs Arsenal.

Of course, the other great cultural identifier is music.  I don’t think there’s anyone who would deny Scotland has it’s own distinct musical tradition but we also have a well defined contemporary music scene.  Our bands are famous around the world and it’s something that many people living here identify with.  There is a distinctive Scottish ‘sound’ or at least a ‘feel’ to our contemporary bands, not least due to an apparent new found confidence in their own accents and the influence of Scots traditional music.  So could this be a proclamation of national identity? Am I Scottish because I enjoy listening to bands rooted in Scotland, who reflect a similar cultural experience to my own one?  Or is it just that I’m exposed to more Scottish bands due to location and I’m reading too much into it?

Growing up, there was a distinct sense of pride at one of ‘our’ bands being on TOTP or making a dent in the charts.  Now that the charts are all but meaningless this has lessened but my sense of ‘ownership’ of Scottish bands hasn’t changed.  I’m still proud of the success being seen by the likes of Chvrches and I have to ask myself why am I proud?  Part of it is because I just think they’re pretty damned good at crafting pop songs but also because there’s a sense of ownership, which has to be linked to my national identity.  Because they’re a Scottish pop group I feel that little bit closer to them.

Pride is important.  When asking people on twitter about national identity some said they identified as Scottish but didn’t feel any pride or shame in that, it was just who they were.  So perhaps it’s the connection between national identity and pride/shame that drives a definition of nationalism. You can be Scottish but have no emotional connection to that identity, just feel kinda meh.  But if you identify as Scottish and feel an emotional responsibility in that, be it pride or shame then there’s a goal being shared in.  You either feel pride because of a national achievement or shame due to a lack of it (this can be real or imagined of course), both come from a desire and recognition of nationhood and a certain standard that it should aspire to.  And this is a perfectly natural thing to feel surely?

So as someone who has always identified as Scottish and with a strong bias towards Scots culture in all forms, I take pride in our achievements as a people and a country.  I feel disappointed when we aren’t quite being the country I believe we can be and I feel shame when we let ourselves down.  This is the result of my national identity, my shared experience of Scots culture both traditional and modern, both in the arts and in our wider community.   I am a product of place, time and the people I encounter and I guess this has made me nationalist.  Not a flag waving extremist, but just a guy who acknowledges that Scotland is a nation, with distinct culture and experiences which should be celebrated.

Some of this comes back to that scourge of modern Scots culture: the Scottish Cringe.  This is when people who call Scotland home feel embarrassed about celebrations of Scots culture.  Be it bagpipes, Gaelic, speaking Scots in public or even singing in a Scottish accent.  We’ve nothing to be embarrassed about if we celebrate traditions and cultures honestly.  It’s when they’re co-opted or commercialised that it becomes something worse, the shortbread tin vision of Brigadoon Scotland, but our culture is much more than that.

You just have to look at our rich language and dialects across the country, the literary tradition that this spawned from Hugh MacDiarmid to Liz Lochhead; the bothy ballads of the north-east which are treasured across the world except in Scotland; the influence of traditional music across the world, displayed admirably each January at the Celtic Connections festival; our ridiculously successful visual artists who have held a virtual monopoly on the Turner Prize for the last few years; we have world renowned playwrights and the biggest arts festival in the world, but how much of it focuses on Scots culture?  Shouldn’t we be celebrating all this if we identify as Scottish?  Why don’t we?  Why wasn’t I taught about Norman MacCaig in school or even some bothy ballads?

The funny thing is, everything I’ve written here will apply to people on both sides of the independence debate.  There will be some in the No camp who agree that we should celebrate Scots culture more, who identify as Scottish and take pride in our achievements, but they aren’t taking the next step towards nationhood.  There will be some in Yes who want independence but suffer from chronic Scottish Cringe and have no interest in our culture.  This is fine, everyone is different of course and I can only talk for myself.  But don’t we owe it to ourselves to take a look at our own national identity prior to next year and decide how we really feel?

National identity might not be at the heart of this debate yet, but it’s a huge part of why the independence referendum has come about. Everyone has their own reasons for voting yes or no, for feeling Scottish or British but we need to recognise that it’s okay to be a nationalist in this sense; it’s okay to be Scottish and celebrate it.

How do you feel about national identity?





Interestingly, from the small number of responses I gathered on Twitter, no one was really rushing to define national identity or declare rampant nationalism either as a Brit or a Scot. Of the 3 people that defined themselves as Scottish, one I believe is a No voter (but could possibly be convinced) and the other two are definite Yes. This probably says more about my twitter followers though and the kind of people I engage with online. I’d like the independence debate to effect long-lasting positive transformation in Scotland, particularly when it comes to Scots culture. If we can encourage more people to celebrate traditional and contemporary Scots culture then something good will come from this often bitter and divided debate, regardless of the result. If we can do that while also achieving a Yes vote, we’ll have the makings of a truly confident and influential nation.

David Officer
National Collective

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There are 9 comments

  1. Alistair Livingston

    I feel more and more English theses days. I lived in England from age 18 to 38 so I guess English is my default state, though it is the England of the anarcho-hippy-punk counterculture.

  2. Jenny Lindsay

    Thanks for this David: it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot for the last few months. I’ve always felt Scottish, never a nationalist, but this debate has by necessity had me thinking about whether, perhaps, identifying as Scottish and wanting independence de facto makes me a nationalist. I started writing something about it, but it was utter mince :) You’ve said a lot here that I was grappling with – ta!

    1. David Officer

      thanks Jenny! it’s one of those things that people don’t want to associate with because of the very clear negatives aligned with extreme versions of nationalism but as Scottish nationhood isn’t about any extremist version of nationalism but about a civic reawakening then we should embrace it, or at the very least discuss it. We are talking about nationhood so we should be discussing national identity and how we feel about that.

  3. Graeme Reid

    I think it’s a mixed bag in the Yes camp regarding nationalism which i think is fine, some celebrating and proud of Scotland’s past history pushing them to vote yes,others not bothered in the slightest more for carving out a new future and political democratic society,and if that means having a Scottish passport to be rid of Westminster then so be it.

    The word nationalism is being banded about by the likes of George Galloway and Nigel Farage and the vast majority of the no camp as a nasty dangerous belief or political ideology making out if you are nationalistic you are somehow anti-everything except for you’re creed and country,how i laughed when Farage tried to put a spin on his brief encounter in Scotland citing ‘dangerous nationalistic fascists????

    Did anybody in the press stop to ask the nationality of the people that tried to storm the BBC gates when nick Griffin was in town for Question Time? nope! it was a protest by people against the ideology and policies of the BNP and what they stand for!

    Farage knew his stramash was nothing to do with the ongoing push for independence but a protest of his UKIP parties racist,homophobic ideals but turned it on its heads trying to blame ‘nasty nats’!
    Even if a referendum wasn’t taking place im’e sure he would still get the same response no matter what!
    There a million miles between the ‘N’ in the Scottish national party and the ‘N’ in the BNP!

    Me personally,im’e a proud Scot but i dont see myself as a nationalist but if i did i certainly wouldn’t be ashamed of the title that has been twisted and skewered wrongly by the no camp,everybody to their own and all that.

  4. Juteman

    I don’t have a problem being a nationalist. Why should I?
    Did the good folk of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc have a problem with wanting to become an independent nation?

    Although i’m a nationalist now, I hope not to be after September next year.

  5. Tychy

    Nationalism: the most banal and vacuous of all ideologies. I like the idea that you have to ransack your psyche to try and feel nationalistic. Och, there’s a pulse of nationalism somewhere…

    This article becomes seriously depressing when it turns to the question of “literary tradition.” Supposing a Scot did want to take pride in Scottish literature (a philistine approach to culture, but anyway.) Foremost amongst Scotland’s literary achievements are David Hume’s “History of England” (the prose alone would influence Gibbon, Austen, Scott etc); Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” (which would inspire the Victorian Gothic revival); Stevenson’s “…Jekyl and Hyde” (inspired by Edinburgh but set in London); Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (also set in London); and innumerable other works which are stamped with an exclusively Scottish ambition. Scotland’s literature has been best when it faces outwards, rather than snuggling up in a nationalism which is really just provinicial.

    1. David Officer

      thanks, some interesting points about literature there, though I’m certainly not saying only literature about Scotland is relevant as that would be an odd argument. Just as listing lots of literature set in or about England is a rather odd way of responding to an article examining national identity.

      This article is just an exploration of identity, mainly mine, and i’m sorry that i feel Scottish and it depresses you. What is interesting is that you decry nationalism and describe identifying pride in Scottish literature as philistine, yet identify the ambition your list represents as “exclusively Scottish”. If it’s “exclusively Scottish” then that’s a national trait defined as part of Scottish nationhood surely?

      1. Tychy

        I’m sorry if my complaint is a bit confusing. I was arguing that the periphery’s desire to infiltrate and conquer the centre has been historically a unique creative force. The same desire can be seen in Scottish and Irish literature, so I suppose that the ambition is not “exclusively Scottish” although the forms that it takes sometimes are. In other words, some of the best Scottish literature has been created by the circumstances of the Union.

        A cultural union by no means dictates a political one, but if you want to value the elite of Scottish culture, then these things were often (not always) created by writers who migrated to London and/or wrote about England.

        I’m afraid that I do not think much of taking pride in national literature. The only thing that connects you to Burns is the random fact that you both happen/ed to be Scottish. It doesn’t help you to understand Tam O’Shanter any more than anybody else.

        Accounting for nationalism is rather like trying to pin down smoke…

        1. David Officer

          ah but surely it does help me understand Tam O’Shanter more than someone who isn’t familiar with Scots? I admit, it would be great to drop a bombshell and say I’m actually related to Burns but I’m not.

          Anyhoo, what connects me to Burns are his words and the shared experience as part of this land we all walk within. Sure, poetry and language are universal and you don’t have to live or visit a place to get a feel for what the words reflect but it can obviously help people feel more connected to the work. As I say though, this is all down to each person. If you genuinely don’t believe in nationhood, that’s fine. Your argument doesn’t seem to be that though, it almost is but then you keep relating it to the union and England. It’s just a different type of nationalism.

          Or maybe I’m misinterpreting your meaning. I have a lot of time for the view that we are all one people and borders are meaningless, I just can’t honestly say I feel that way (as I explained in the piece).

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