Celts Behaving Madly: Drug-Fuelled Gaelic Romanticism Has Rejuvenated Scottish Culture

By Watson, Don | New Statesman (1996), January 24, 1997 | Go to article overview

Celts Behaving Madly: Drug-Fuelled Gaelic Romanticism Has Rejuvenated Scottish Culture


Watson, Don, New Statesman (1996)


"We are the lowest of the low," the character Renton famously says of the Scottish in the film Trainspotting, "We can't even pick a decent country to be colonised by. We are ruled by effete arseholes."

And yet the ruling culture's subconscious has recently been subject to a highly successful counter-colonisation, with Ewan McGregor's portrayal of Irvine Welsh's smart-arse junkie an ironic crowning moment.

Ever since Rab C Nesbitt first sprawled across our screens with his poignant documentaries on the social surrealism of Glasgow life, it has been impossible to turn a television on without catching someone with a Scottish accent trying, with varying degrees of success, to be funny. Even Nesbitt's spiritual ancestor Billy Connolly has undergone a career resurrection. Going out is no escape, because every tube carriage is stuffed with people hiding behind Irvine Welsh paperbacks; newspapers report that publishers are "almost indecently desperate" to sign up their own pet Scot.

The Crow Road, based on the work of the previous Scottish bad boy, Iain Banks, became essential television viewing. And there are even plans to film a sequel to Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl which, with its revelation that Scots could be wry and romantic, as well as brutally funny, formed the catalyst for the Scottish Cultural Revival before last.

So what is this English fascination with the noble savage of the nineties? Some of it has to do with that great overused word of the decade-so-far, the "zeitgeist".

If there was a televisual icon for the eighties it was Inspector Morse. After ten years of Thatcherite philistinism the ivory tower of high culture no longer seemed like something to be torn down. It seemed more like a refuge. In this context Morse - the Britannia of poetry and classical music, sitting in his semi-detached citadel surveying the darkness and banality of the suburban wasteland - was a figure for the age. In the nineties, with Thatcher's radical stupidity replaced by a more familiar pomposity, along came Robbie Coltrane as the Glaswegian psychologist Fitz, saying, "Bollocks."

Fitz is the personification of the positive side of the New Lad phenomenon, the side that says complex ideas can be expressed without pretension, something the Celtic nations have always done more effectively than the English.

The English envy the Scots because, they believe, the albatross of class is not hung around Scottish necks from birth. In reality, of course, Scotland has its class divisions, like anywhere else. It's just that the widest gulf is between working-class folk who pretend to be middle class and the ones who don't. Puritan, Anglophile respectability held a stranglehold on Scottish culture for decades, and it was only in the seventies that the frigid fingers began to lose their grip.

The other great cause of envy among the English left is the feeling that Scots have the privilege of problem-free patriotism. During the era of Tory government even the most ardent Labour supporters had felt some sense of national responsibility for the nation's wholehearted embrace of the Conservative Party's petty acquisitionism. Margaret Thatcher so epitomised the English schoolmistress figure that the apologetic Englishman found the brutish, bristle-haired and bulldog-toting present had driven out any vestige of pride in Albion.

A good way to judge a nation is to look at its football. It is, after all, in a competition such as Euro 96 when the greatest numbers group behind a thing called "England", "Scotland" or "Germany".

During that competition it was widely commented on that while the Scots had a rousing anthem of national pride in "Flower of Scotland", the nearest thing the English could muster was the Lightning Seeds' theme tune to the competition, "Three Lions".

In fact, while Scottishness may be politically less difficult than Englishness, there is discord behind the displays of Scottish unity.

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