In the months leading up to my semester abroad, a lot of people asked me why I’d chosen Scotland. So many, in fact, that I started to feel defensive. Surely no one would question the decision to go to London or Rome or Paris. When I arrived in Edinburgh, I thought I was safe from the barrage of inquiries. Then a Scottish girl in my Scottish history class asked me, “No offense, but … why would you want to come here?”
I didn’t know how to respond. It should have been easy: “Well, I think it’s cool that on my way to class in the oldest department of English literature in the world, I walk by an 880-year-old castle and a 340 million-year-old volcano.”
This might have satisfied an American, but she probably didn’t think it was cool, or she wouldn’t have asked the question. So I said, somewhat lamely, that I wanted to study English from a different perspective. She looked unconvinced.
Apparently, even Scottish people thought I was crazy for wanting to come to Scotland. It turns out that this is an example of what’s known as the Scottish cringe, a cultural inferiority complex some commentators have observed among Scots.
From my perspective, it is hard to understand. Scotland is beautiful. It is also full of intriguing contrasts. It spans Highlands and Lowlands; its capital includes Old Town and New Town. It contains Scots who dismiss their culture and Scots who are fiercely proud of it.
Scottish identity is complex, especially because Scotland is also British. Technically, it has been British since 1707, when its union with England created Great Britain. But as a recent piece in The Guardian asks, “How British are the British?” The article cites a study in which 52 percent of English people surveyed identified as British rather than English. Scots, on the other hand, overwhelmingly identified as Scottish, with only 19 percent calling themselves British.
Scotland has retained a distinct identity during three centuries of union, and in recent years it has taken steps toward independence from the UK. 1999 marked the establishment of a new Scottish Parliament. While the U.K. Parliament in Westminster retains power in matters such as foreign policy and defense, the Scottish Parliament can legislate certain areas such as education and health policy. The current first minister of Scotland is Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party and a strong advocate of Scottish independence.
I hadn’t heard much about Scottish nationalism until a trip to England with my study-abroad program. I sat in front with Evan, our driver. He took us by way of a country road, explaining, “It’s much more interesting than the motorway.” As a tour guide, he recommended lots of underrated places to visit. “Hire a car — that’s the real way to see Scotland,” he advised. My questionable ability to drive on the left side of the road was a minor detail. The important thing was seeing Scotland.
We soon reached the border. “We’re in England,” Evan said — and spat out the window.
He laughed, but it wasn’t a joke. Evan has voted for the SNP all his life, and he told me about the independence referendum that Scotland will vote on within the next five years. If the referendum were to pass, negotiations for Scottish independence would begin in Westminster. Although the issue is controversial and fraught with emotion, independence seems to be a very real possibility.
While current events in Edinburgh are exciting, the city refuses to forget its past. The Scottish Parliament sits opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse, home of Mary, Queen of Scots. Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s makar (national poet), dramatizes this constant presence of the past in her play “Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off”. Describing Scotland, one of her characters quips, “National flower: thistle. National pastime: nostalgia.”
In one sense, the independence movement marks an effort to leave this nostalgia behind; the SNP uses rhetoric of moving Scotland forward. But the push for independence relies on a strong sense of Scottish identity, one built up through centuries of conflict and contradiction, passion and poetry.
One of my favorite pieces of history in Edinburgh is the Scottish National Monument. Modeled on the Parthenon, the monument commemorates the lives lost during the Napoleonic Wars. The project ran out of money after 12 columns were built, and the monument remains unfinished. I think this makes it more powerful. Incompleteness gives it a haunting effect appropriate to its remembrance of loss. It stands proudly on a hill. No need to cringe.
Caroline Barnes is a junior in Morse College. Contact her at email@example.com.