Tag Archives: SNP

The Scottish Play and Scottish Ploys

I see that there’s to be a production of Macbeth in a translation into Scots, made by Robin Lorimer twenty years ago. It had to happen I suppose, for the English bard has been put into every other language, it seems. The next stage I should think will be to render him into Gaelic, seeing as how MacBeth was our best Gaelic king (as a commentator on the news story notes). Another writes in Scots (of a sort) thus:

Hearin onythin in guid braid Scots is a fell guid thing. Wi this Lorimer owersettin mony folk that wadna normally gang tae a Shakespeare production, wull nae doot hae thair een stappit open tae see a bit o internaitional cultur thae wad itherwise nae conseeder at aw. There maunna be ony boonds tae Shakespeare, an shairly MacBeth o aw the bards warks shuid be heard in Scots! Forby thon, is it nae a sad thing that the abuin article haed tae say “not to be confused with Gaelic”. Haein been tae twa-three Scots language plays afore, an seein folk wi tears in thair een because o hearin thair ain Scots Tung, I hae nae doot at aw that this play wull “blaw thaim awa”. I’ll awa an jyne thon queue for tickets!

But one has to suspend one’s disbelief when viewing the play (in any language). It’s really a fantasy out of the partisan historian Holinshed, and a great libel on a king who was to say the least more sinned against than sinning. Assassinations and usurping were not at all unusual back then [and since??], and MacBeth was actually a pretty good monarch, his reign lasting a bit longer than Shakespeare makes out. He shortens things up and telescopes time so that poor Macbeth reels towards his deserved ruin headlong. This is naturally better for drama, but makes a pedantic historian grit the teeth. Forbye this, the murder of Duncan (based actually on that of Duff) is portrayed as an individual act (no fellow conspirators), whereas history makes the noble Banquo just as involved, and Duncan himself is portrayed not as a weak ineffectual king unworthy of the throne but as a practically saint-like capable ruler. This agrees pretty well with Shakespeare’s new monarch James, who held to the comforting idea that kings are by God appointed (as the vicar of Bray says), and moreover traced his descent from the innocent Banquo.

The results are in for the council elections in Britain, and Labour rather surprisingly have done rather well in Scotland against all odds. But I suppose the Unionist mob and the howls from the partisan media (including the “unbiased” BBC) about SNP hypocrisy had their effect. Nothing daunted, Alex Salmond and his minions put a brave face on and note that overall SNP councillors total 402, more than before and more than Labour. Meanwhile the poor Liberal Democrats suffered rather badly, mostly I suppose because folk are fed up with the shenanigans of the Westminster coalition, but in spite of what Jenny Dawe says, in Edinburgh at least the fury and frustration of the citizens about the tram fiasco have finally been able to be demonstrated.

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Tak aff yer dram!

I see that the SNP idea of a minimum price for alcohol as a method of combating the scourge of “binge drinking” [a new phenomenon, evidently] has been endorsed by the Westminster government AND what is laughingly called Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Oddly enough though the Labour Party in Scotland [no such thing as a Scottish Labour Party] is set against the idea, probably because they have a visceral dislike of anything and everything the SNP come up with, and consistently vote against it. But it’s something that needed doing, albeit maybe not enough. Drinking of course has been a favourite hobby for Scots for a long time, going back to the Picts, if legend be trusted. I might as well pass on what dear old Robert Chambers tells us:

The Pechs were also a great people for ale, which they brewed frae heather; sae, ye ken, it bood (was bound) to be an extraornar cheap kind of drink; for heather, I’se warrant, was as plenty then as it’s now. This art o’ theirs was muckle sought after by the other folk that lived in the kintry; but they never would let out the secret, but handed it down frae father to son among themselves, wi’ strict injunctions frae ane to another never to let onybody ken about it.
At last the Pechs had great wars, and mony o’ them were killed, and indeed they soon came to be a mere handfu’ o’ people, and were like to perish aft’ the face o’ the earth. Still they held fast by their secret of the heather yill, determined that their enemies should never wring it frae them. Weel, it came at last to a great battle between them and the Scots, in which they clean lost the day, and were killed a’ to tway, a father and a son. And sae the king o’ the Scots had these men brought before him, that he might try to frighten them into telling him the secret. He plainly told them that, if they would not disclose it peaceably, he must torture them till they should confess, and therefore it would be better for them to yield in time. ‘Weel,’ says the auld man to the king, ‘I see it is of no use to resist. But there is ae condition ye maun agree to before ye learn the secret.’ ‘And what is that?’ said the king. ‘Will ye promise to fulfil it, if it be na anything against your ain interests?’ said the man. ‘Yes,’ said the king, ‘I will and do promise so.’ Then said the Pech ‘You must know that I wish for my son’s death, though I dinna like to take his life myself.
                                         My son ye maun kill,
                                         Before I will you tell
                                         How we brew the yill
                                         Frae the heather bell!’
The king was dootless greatly astonished at sic a request; but, as he had promised, he caused the lad to be immediately put to death. When the auld man saw his son was dead, he started up wi’ a great stend, and cried, ‘Now, do wi’ me as you like. My son ye might have forced, for he was but a weak youth; but me you never can force.
                                         And though you may me kill,
                                         I will not you tell
                                         How we brew the yill
                                         Frae the heather bell!’
The king was now mair astonished than before, but it was at his being sae far outwitted by a mere wild man. Hooever, he saw it was needless to kill the Pech, and that his greatest punishment might now be his being allowed to live. So he was taken away as a prisoner, and he lived for mony a year after that, till he became a very, very auld man, baith bedrid and blind. Maist folk had forgotten there was sic a man in life; but ae night, some young men being in the house where he was, and making great boasts about their feats o’ strength, he leaned owre the bed and said he would like to feel ane o’ their wrists, that he might compare it wi’ the arms of men wha had lived in former times. And they, for sport, held out a thick gaud o’ em’ to him to feel. He just snappit it in tway wi’ his fingers as ye wad do a pipe stapple. ‘It’s a bit gey gristle,’ he said; ‘but naething to the shackle-banes o’ my days.’ That was the last o’ the Pechs. [Robert Chambers, Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1870), 80-82.]

Drinking the hard stuff is supposed to be a characteristic of the Scot, but in the 18th century they really did drink to excess. (And by ‘they’ I include the English.) Burns in this regard was like enough of his fellows; but he was, for his time, a rather temperate man. Some folks drank themselves stupid at any excuse, preferably at a wake – it was said by some visitors to Scotland that a Scottish wake was merrier than an English wedding! It is also no real surprise to find it on record as happening (it surely happened more than once) that at the funeral of the mother of Forbes of Culloden the long cortege was absolutely stoned as they wound their way to the kirkyard (which was miles away) only to discover when they got there that they had left the corpse behind.

By Burns’s time folk drank quite copiously, but no one had coined binge-drinking yet. People did complain of course, particularly the Kirk, though sometimes their homilies were ill expressed. We’re told of a certain worthy divine who took his flock to task for undue tippling, and he addressed them thus from the pulpit:

“My friends, the habit of tippling or nipping is a very pernicious one. If ye want a nip, tak a nip, but dinna be aye nip, nip, nipping. For example, when ye get up in the morning, and ye feel a-sinking like, and a bit downish, and ye want a nip, tak a nip, but dinna be aye nip, nip, nipping. And, say, when ye hae sat down and are partaking of the mercies provided, and in case that some of the victuals might not agree with you, and ye want a nip, tak a nip, but dinna be aye nip, nip, nipping. And then, perhaps, when ye gaun and delve in the yird, say, suld the wark be heavy, afore goin’ oot, and to keep up yer speerits like, should ye want a nip, tak a nip, but dinna be aye nip, nip, nipping”—and so on and so on, till the thirsty congregation had his express permission to take about twenty nips between breakfast and dinner.

Dean Ramsay [Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character, 1857] tells of a drinking bout he was told of by Duncan Mackenzie, writer of the early nineteenth century:

He had been invited to a regular drinking party. He was keeping as free from the usual excesses as he was able, and as he marked companions around him falling victims to the power of drink, he himself dropped off under the table amongst the slain, as a measure of precaution, and lying there, his attention was called to a small pair of hands working at his throat; on asking what it was, a voice replied, “Sir, I’m the lad that’s to lowse the neck-cloths” (i.e. to untie the cravats of the guests and prevent apoplexy or suffocation).

He also tells of a party at Castle Grant many years before, where toasts were drunk again and again as usual, the company getting more incapable by the minute, and as the evening advanced towards morning, two Highlanders were in attendance to carry the guests upstairs, it being understood that none could by any other means arrive at their sleeping apartments. One or two of the guests, whether from their abstinence or their superior strength of head, were walking upstairs, and declined the proffered assistance. The attendants were astonished, and indignantly exclaimed, “Ach, it’s sore cheenged times at Castle Grant, when gentlemen can gang to bed on their ain feet!”

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Two Solitudes

In glancing over the online papers [they aren’t on paper any more, so what should we call them?] in order to keep up with the Mackintoshes, so to speak, I notice more and more that there seems to be developing a divide in the hapless United Kingdom that’s a bit unsettling. There has always been a certain minority in England that distrusts and even fears the Scots, and likewise there has always been a body of opinion in Scotland that feels the same about the English. Both groups have been vocal to a greater or lesser extent for years, and both have been discounted by the rest as risible jingoism. Nowadays however with the greater availability of soapboxes, especially on the Net, they are getting more coverage, and their message is louder. The papers that allow readers to respond to stories, at least the red-top tabloids, seem to tend to let them steam away with the most frightful invective, and it must be said that the target is mostly Scotland. Replies in kind focus on the slip-ups that those in the establishment keep on making, poking fun at Little Englanders and their isolationist stance which finds its apogee in the British National Party and UKIP. The latter seems to have no platform except “Get out of the EU”, which is understandable in a way since the involvement of the UK in the European adventure has caused a good deal of grief in many respects.
The Scottish National Party is but one group (albeit the most prominent and powerful) that favours Scottish isolationism, in that the yoke to be thrown off is that of England. Or at least of Westminster. Their insults are mostly aimed at dodgy politicians and not the inhabitants of the Home Counties. In fact it’s been pointed out that the English need independence too. They don’t have their own parliament to deal with English matters, which seems unfair. But then there’s this Referendum looming in Bannockburn Year. This is the main item in mind these days – the Establishment keeps on harping about the dangers and foolishness of a Yes vote, and finding ever more questionable reasons for attacking the very idea. They bring out big guns, or those presumed to be important and informed thinkers, practically every day, to opine from umpteen points of view about the ludicrous idea of Scottish independence. That referendum is two years away. The noise on both sides is going to get more raucous, the insults and dirty tricks and threats more vociferous, and by the time of the event will be a clamour to turn off those who are still interested. It’s going to be a long two years.

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Name-calling

The Internet Movie Database is very useful and even enlightening, but is at the mercy of those who write in to contribute to sections like the synopsis of a film. Take “Braveheart” – Please!!
No, but seriously, folks –
I had a look at the IMDb info on Mel Gibson’s effort and straightaway saw:
“In the 13th Century England, after several years of political unrest in Scotland, the land is open to an invasion from the south.”
This seems to say that Scotland was (maybe still is?) part of England. I grant you that from the point of view of Edward Langshanks, it should have been. But this is of course the long-standing point of contention – how the English (establishment) view Scotland. There’s a pretty decent little songbook put out by A L Lloyd called Singing Englishmen, which contains the songs presented at a celebration of British folk song hosted by Lloyd on 1 June 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain. It was an interesting programme, sung by the Workers’ Music Association Choir, with arrangements by the composer Alan Bush, and featured songs from all over Britain, and so inevitably included some Scottish songs. Lloyd was of course equating England with Britain, an arrogant and unthinking attitude, but he is not alone. I remember the outrage I felt as a teenager lang syne when I opened up Stanley Gibbons’ stamp magazine to read that “Many Englishmen, some of whom were Scotsmen, have been featured on stamps.” The editor gave an asterisk and a footnote to the effect that those were the contributor’s words, and while he was allowing them to stand (no censorship) he was keeping out of it.
But there it is. Somewhere I read that back in the 1700s an English parliamentarian exclaimed in astonished argument “Are not the Scots English?” – echoed I suppose by foreigners who equate the two very easily. French doesn’t speak about the British; it’s les anglais, of course, and when I was in Paris I took pains to tell my landlady that I was écossais. The Americans seem to be similarly careless a good deal of the time, but Canada with more memories of its Scottish heritage sensibly differentiates.
One of the consequences however of this ambiguity is that the separateness of the two countries is not considered, which has led to an emphasis on “Britishness”. That concept only got going after the union of parliaments, spurred on by the incorporation of Ireland around 1800; Scotland being referred to as “North Britain”, abbreviated on addresses to “N.B.” You don’t see that these days, thank goodness, although my fellow-Fifer Gordon Brown is on record as telling Americans, wasn’t it, that he came from North Britain (besides trying to erode his Scots accent, like an eighteenth-century hopeful wanting to get on in the real capital). Such things have for the most part disappeared, for somehow or other there has been an amazing upsurge in national pride of late, certainly since I emigrated to fresh woods in 1960. This does not mean, naturally, that everyone is waving the saltire with enthusiasm. All of a sudden the Labour Party is joining forces with its enemy the Conservative Party, along with the hapless Liberal Democrats, to put obstacles in the way of the Scottish Nationalists who quite understandably want to free Scotland of the English yoke. To this end, they are forming an unlikely coalition to support Westminster in its determination to run, or certainly put strings on, the referendum on separation promised by the SNP.
It’s as if the Scottish sections of the three main parties are playing down the Scottishness and saying they welcome English interference. One must not, naturally, impugn their patriotism or call them ant-Scottish (as one wee lass dared to in Holyrood the other day) – perish that thought!! But one can think of other adjectives.
Actually, I do think that the referendum, promised for 2014, will show a majority for independence. After the break, whenever that is in fact accomplished, those parties, now tied to the apron strings of their London HQ and the mother of parliaments, will be free to develop on their own in their own directions. I bet though that a few of them will mutter “Ah, but if we were still British, I might have made it to the ermine….!”

Happy New Year, by the way, to all my readers. One of my resolutions is to be a bit more regular with this weblog. It all depends of course on how riled or inspired I become. What I can promise you is a poem or two (Scots and English), and a tune or two (of my own devising), forbye a translation or two, and a bittie folklore.

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