Carl MacDougall (2001) Painting the Forth Bridge: A Search for Scottish Identity.

painting the forth bridge.jpg

I’m sure I’ve got a Scottish identity. You might have one too.  I wasn’t looking for mine, but here it is. We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns.  It doesn’t lie in that ear squeal we hear on every channel when counting down to New Year. Or the cheuctering twirling plaid and stripping the willow. Or the Scottish and Rye of The Still Game. These to me are fanny water.

Listen instead to Anton Chekhov in A Dreary Story which sounds to me very Scottish, and not just a remark about the weather, he offered the observation ‘Tell me what you want, and I will tell you who you are’.

Funnily enough as Roman Catholic of quasi-Irish parentage I want much the same as the individual described by Edwin Muir ‘as the most important figure in Scottish history’.  I want the same as John Knox. ‘I want a school in every parish, a college in every town and a university in every city…and regular, organised provision for the poor.’ In other words, I want to be Norwegian.

The only thing that seems to unite Scots is summed up by Sorley MacLean in the fact we’re not English. We’re not a Braveheart nation, but we are a nation. The future in not in the cheviot, the stag or the black, black oil, even although more of the black stuff has been found in the North Sea. Fossil fuels are the past. The future is green. Scotland can be one of the greenest nations in the world. Let us adapt to it together and stop listening to rich men’s lies. And in the words of Norman MacCaig let Scotland and its people be like its ballads and poetry of the people and for the people:

All of them different –

Just as a stoned crow

Invents ways of flying

It had never thought of before

No wonder now he sometimes

Suddenly lurches, stalls, twirls sideways,

Before continuing his effortless level flight

So high over the heads of people

Their stones can’t reach him.





Growing up in Scotland, BBC 1, director and writer Liam McArdle.


This is fantastic viewing. I wasn’t about in the 16th Century when John Knox thought it a good idea that every village and every Kirk should have a schoolteacher, and every child should be able to read god’s word in the bible as a bastion against Popery. Until fairly recently that was the model of schooling for many children in Scotland and can be viewed through the prism of novels such as Sunset Song and characters like Chris Guthrie. The people that owned the land, owned the people on the land, then as now, but they added value to their subjects by education. This is not a new idea. Sam Wilkin, Wealth Secrets of the 1%, shows how around 115BC Roman slaves were educated to what would be considered nowadays ‘professional’ level and ran the equivalent of vast conglomerates, because educated slaves could be sold for more and gave greater value to their owner. This may explain how Scotland, a little drip of land in the Atlantic, produced so many wealthy and world leaders, but let’s not forget the role of British Empire, with many Scots as administrators.  Andrew Carnegie is another example, born and in Dunfermline in 1835, his upward trajectory to becoming one of the richest men in the world from humble beginnings has its roots in village schools, but also in the decline of handloom weavers and the movement from the land of the majority of the population to urban centres. This is shown graphically in a number of ways. Legislation dating back to 1872 that all children between the ages of 5 to 13 must attend school and must receive an education, which would be provided by the parishes and later by local authorities. With the population of Glasgow growing faster than that of London or any other metropolis, Tureen Street accommodating 1200 pupils was built in Carlton’s East End in the nineteenth century, but before the school was finished an even bigger school, St James’s was being built 150 yards away. These were ‘temples of learning’. But the writer James Maxton, the son of two schoolteachers, noted something that was picked up by recruiters in the Boer War and The First World War, out of 60 youngsters Maxton took for physical education lessons, only 30 could push their knees together. Rickets and disease was the bed companions of the urban poor and this was reflected in the school intake.

Richard Holloway remembers school as being something done to you. Rote learning and the tawse. Every teacher had one and the programme takes a step back into history and visits Lochgelly, were tawse making was an industry. I must admit I couldn’t quite work out how schools would work without pupils getting the belt. It seemed to me then a rather stupid idea to outlaw it. I’m sure if the current 680 000 pupils in Scotland had their phones and tablets taken off them and were made to walk to school and thrashed soundly every day we would have a more disciplined society. Don’t think North Korea, with more rain, but my schooling forty years ago.

The darker side to education is also touched upon Holloway and by the former Machar Liz Lochead. Protestants went to one school, Catholics went to another. This to me is an anomaly that needs to be changed. And private schools which feature here (a measly £36 000 per annum, per pupil) those social carriages of the rich, should be shut down, not expanded. But I understand why there were Catholic and Protestant school. Hate. In 1918 there were 450 000 Catholics in Scotland, most of them if propaganda was to be believed, living in a single end in Glasgow. Kirk run schools didn’t want them and Catholic charity schools tended to be substandard and their pupils received substandard teaching. The riches of local authorities were thrust upon Catholic schools and they have flourished, and their pupils have flourished, having a better educational record than their Protestant counterparts. But I’d argue their time has past. We are a secular society. No more Catholic or Protestant schools. Certainly no more tax breaks for the private Edens of the upwardly mobile. Just schools. And anybody that suggests that we should go back to testing and the eleven plus, really should watch this programme.  Didn’t work then. Won’t work now, but as we know it’s not about that, it’s about saying my children are better (and more deserving) than yours.  In the competition for top university places and jobs every little bit does help. That saddens me, but I can see through it. It’s here. Watch this programme.

Richard Holloway (2012) Leaving Alexandra. A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. Richard Holloway (2016) A Little History of Religion.

I guess I should review these books individually, but it’s my blog, I have god-like powers and can do anything I want. I asked Richard Holloway to sign my book, which is his autobiographical writing, when he visited Dalmuir library. He asked me what I wanted him to write in the flyleaf, I said that book you were talking about earlier, Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just because I wanted to read it. I’m with the Society of Friends on this one, no kowtowing. No bended knee. Books are holy things. But what they mean that’s a mystery. Perhaps a blessed mystery.

A Little History of Religion has the merit of being little.  There’s not a lot of love there, references to divine love, followed by divine genocide, but the common feature of both books is a movement from faith to doubt. Richard Holloway is a prolific author. He is a former Bishop of Edinburgh, Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church and Gresham Professor of Divinity. A theist believes in God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God. And an agnostic believe in both view. I’m a bit like that, only worse, or better, depending on your point of view. Richard Holloway’s autobiography, in particular, is a beautiful book because it is true. True to who he is now and compassionate towards who he was. Wisdom often takes a lifetime. Perhaps it never comes. And some religions that believe in the merits (and demerits) of reincarnation believes it may take lifetimes. I’m in no hurry to find out the truth.

The commonalities of both Holloway’s books are a belief not in doubt but in faith. The most dangerous kind of hate is certainty. The latest example is Trumpism, a back to the wall beleaguered party that triumphs against all the odds. This is combined with revanchist call for revenge against all those against them. Mary Queen of Scots for example had John Knox and his followers singing outside her window and shouting you’re getting it hen, as soon as we’ve got it. And they were right, but it took three blows of the axe, making her suffer first. She was going to hell anyway, or heaven, if you were a good Catholic.  The Plains Indians danced their feet off, but the white man wasn’t covered in ash, although Holloway does acknowledge buffaloes did come back, not so the Indians. Of course, the Palestinians on the West Bank shouldn’t be there because God bequeathed that land to the Israelites and everybody else is an interloper, because God can’t be wrong and no international laws or treaties can make that right. The Promised Land means The Promised Land. Move pal. Or else.  Just the same as Trump can’t be wrong because he is considered so right about making America great again. Anybody that have doubts is getting it. First on the hate list, China, second, Russia, next up the rest of the world. On bended knee we must come and return to a past that never existed to pay homage.

It’s not Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao or indeed Emperor Nero that provides the template for certainty among uncertainty but Nick Bostrom in his book Superintelligence. When the robots or whatever you want to call them figure out –very quickly – that the humans they are ostensibly serving aren’t very smart then they become gods. But even Gods have uncertainties, moments of doubt. These superintelligent robots will use all the earth and its distant stars capacities to reduce uncertainty to a point where it becomes absurd, in human terms, not that there will be any need for humans. But all religions are absurd, but they have a logic to them.

Holloway preaches a message of love. A parable he frequently uses is the parable of the blind man and the elephant. I attributed this to Rumi, but I may be wrong. Each clutches a trunk, an ear, a leg and describes what they feel and what they see. All are telling the truth of what they perceive. But when partial truth become the whole truth each sect goes to war over their vision and allows no dissent. A tusk can never be an ear, because God does not allow such things.

Note the righteousness of religion. It can never be wrong, because God cannot be wrong. A tautology that is rarely taught. Another parable Holloway is fond of is the Good Samaritan.

A man fell among thieves who left him naked and unconscious on a dangerous and deserted road. A priest came along followed by his assistant. They were good men who wanted to help, but their religion prevented it…Next along is a Samaritan, one of the races Jews were forbidden to associate with. His religion has the same prohibitions as theirs.

Both men are religious in their own one, but only one is compassionate as God is compassionate. And it’s a common refrain in Holloway’s writing, ‘the institution that claims to represent God can easily become God’s greatest enemy’. Amen to that.

Another parable Holloway favours is Matthew’s parable of workers in the vineyard all coming at different times and being paid the same rate of pay. God’s like that Holloway is saying and we don’t really understand Him (although He might be a She, but is never an It). If you don’t believe me, he says, read Job. According to scripture God gets into a bet with the devil and lots of bad things happen to Job, including losing his wife and family, all his wealth and suffering from endless and painful diseases. What makes it worse is ‘Job’s comforters’. They seem to have all the answers, but when God appears he’s not happy (God is never happy, or he doesn’t appear) and his standard stick is ‘my wrath is kindled against you and your two friends…’ I guess that means hell and everlasting damnation. But God is good to Job. He stops torturing him. And he gives him a new family and even greater wealth. Holloway is good at this bit. Basically, he’s saying what anyone with common sense would say, ‘fuck off, god, I liked my old family, even the smelly dog.’ And I’m with Holloway with this one if Abraham agreed to sacrifice his son, well, there’s something a bit sick about that.

Holloway’s call for a godless morality might be beyond us, for the very good reason we might not be here much longer. I don’t believe in the rapture. I believe in the apocalypse of greed and gross stupidity. Oh, well, I guess, our parents have been saying the same things for years. Things ain’t the way they used to be. I’m sure I’ll look good as a dead person. Go on, with your god-like powers, use that line from The Life of Brian. ‘We’re all individuals!’

Voice from the back of the crowd, ‘I’m not.’