"People Will Laugh at You If You Sound like That": When A L Kennedy Was Growing Up in Dundee, She Was Taught to Sound English. It Was Only in Exile That She Discovered the Richness of Scottish Culture, and Her Own Voice
Kennedy, A. L., New Statesman (1996)
I am a Scot. The statement may not have become more meaningful in the past few months, but it's certainly grown more topical, as the Kingdom debates whether it will stay United. Any identity-national or personal-is a work in progress, moulded by experience, circumstance, emotion and belief. Of those, belief may currently be the most important for Scotland, because the debate on Scottish independence is a contest between beliefs.
Against independence are those who believe Scottishness is a variation on an English theme, an alternative to the default. There are many quite convincing arguments against independence-economic, military, constitutional-but they seem always to be based on an assumption that, to many Scots, is patronising at best. For independence are those who believe Scottish-ness is something authentic and valuable. Scots may not trust their politicians, may worry about the future, may not care that much about independence-nevertheless, they find it hard to believe they and their country don't exist and will not warm to arguments (however well supported) that accept these absences as facts.
I dislike the media's tendency to pick a voice from a minority and assume it speaks for all, but I will say that I have found part of the non-default experience to be one of absences and non-existence. Although I am one of a relatively cosseted and familiar minority, during my lifetime I have still radically changed my understanding of what I am a Scot can mean, and what understanding and owning that part of my identity allows me to say.
I grew up in the country of the Bay City Rollers, Jimmy Krankie and Benny Lynch. I live in that of Annie Lennox, Peter Mullan and Andy Murray. In only a few decades the self-doubt, self-immolating success and degraded tartanry have receded and Scotland has given itself permission to be somewhere more confident and complex. Scotland is still a small, relatively poor country with a troubled history, but it seems to believe it can be more. Not for the first time in our history, we have the gift of desperation. We can comfort ourselves with sectarian myths, new racisms, lazy political cliches and cronyism. Or we can embrace what is less known but also ours: a tradition of fierce education and enlightenment, invention and co-operation. The acknowledgement and rejection of sectarianism, the saga of SuBo, the electorate's canny use of proportional representation, may all be little signs that Scotland is trying to make the best of itself. Absences are becoming presences.
I began in a place of absences-Dundee, a city still haunted by a railway disaster and the space no longer occupied by a collapsed Victorian bridge. The city had long been blighted by local government corruption, vandalism disguised as planning and a feudal division of wealth. My parents lived in the middle-class west end enclave where soup should be spooned away from you and peas balanced on the back of your fork. It was important to read the Booker Prize shortlist, attend the Art Society exhibitions and have tea at the Queens Hotel, looking out over the Tay Estuary and the stumps of the missing bridge. And it was important to sound English-sounding Scottish would define you, syllable by syllable, as a failure.
My parents actually were English, but not the right sort. Like most of the adults I knew, my parents had educated themselves out of the working classes. For their generation, social mobility wasn't just an X Factor pipe dream, but it did demand adjustments, sacrifices. My mother was brought up by her Welsh grandparents and had to jettison her North Walian accent during teacher training-people will laugh at you if you sound like that. My father, a lecturer, never quite shook his Brummy whine. But at least they weren't cursed by Scottish vocabulary-dreich, scunner, bam-or still worse, regional Scottish vocabulary-plettie, cribby, pullashie. They had succeeded by being partly not themselves. …