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Scots Abroad – Scottish Review of Books
by Kenneth White

Scots Abroad

October 29, 2009 | by Kenneth White

A COUNTRY IMPLIES A PHYSICAL background, a population, a cultural context, and a horizon of intention. At times, when, for various reasons things in the homeland get murky and mushy, or else trivial and twittery, it’s in the outlands that the horizon of intention is best represented and advanced. A great deal of the best Greek thought was done, not at Athens, but in what the old maps called Magna Graeca (the shores of Anatolia, for example). To take an example closer in space and time, if we think of really significant Irish writing in the twentieth century, it’s not the nationals working on localist lines that come to mind, but Joyce and Beckett, who spent most of their working life in the outland. It takes time for the work of such people, based often on a deeper knowledge and larger conception of the indigenous culture than the version current in the homeland, to get integrated into the mainstream, but when this happens, then, the real sea-change can occur. And, if it doesn’t, well, those works remain on the horizon like magnets.

Billy Kay’s book is a documentary on what we might call Outer Scotland. I’m saying Outer Scotland rather than the word Kay uses: diaspora. This Greek word, meaning ‘dispersion’, ‘scattering’, is pretty heavily connotated, with an implication of forced expulsion. This may indeed sometimes be the case (in Scotland, we’ll think of the Clearances), but it is by no means always the case. The motivations and the movements may be entirely different. I’d suggest that, in the most interesting cases, the out-land is more in the nature of an aura – like the ring of Saturn.

Before exploring the more interesting aspects of Outer Scotland, let’s get rid of the crapulous kitsch that can pile up here and there, at home and abroad, in the name of ‘Scottish identity’. Starry-eyed as he can be whenever he gets a glimpse of tartan or hears a tinkle of the Doric, Billy Kay has this: “I too find aspects of Scottish Americana way over the top – I once saw a kiltie with what looked like a dead sheep slung over his shoulder, and I do not find the concept of a haggis princess appealing.” Glad to hear it, Billy. “But”, he continues, “given the choice between attending Highland Games in North Carolina, for example or the cauldron of hatred that is Ibrox or Parkhead on Old Firm match day, I would take the harmless benignity of the former rather than the malignant, sectarian repulsiveness of the latter.” If this were the only choice we had (it may sometimes feel like that), we could all consider mass suicide as a fine prospect. But, fortunately, another space is possible, and we can get into it, at least part of the way, with Billy’s book.

For decades, Billy Kay has been blood-hounding the globe, picking up scents of outgoing, exploratory Scottishness. This documentation has gone into radio programmes, and elements of the radio programmes get back into the book, giving it at times a more broadcasting than literary effect. For example, a lot of pretty ditties and convivial doggerel get quoted that, half drowned in music, would come across well enough on the air, but get a bit more shown up in the page. All you want to say to the author at those points is “OK, sentimental value, Billy, sentimental value” (for Billy has his heart in the right place), and get on to other tracks.

The other tracks are there. On them, you can follow merchants, mercenaries and missionaries, pedlars, poets, philosophers, and, not to forget the everlovin’ mainstream, football-players. With a pell-mell of picturesque detail, a welter of connexions, and random insights into ‘hidden history’. If you’ve never heard of ‘the Scotch coast’ on Hawaii, here’s your chance. If you’ve never come across Gregor Macgregor, the prince of Poyais on the bay of Honduras, or Lord Cochrane, the wolf of the seas, Billy will introduce you. If you’ve forgotten the biography of Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, gallus gaucho of the pampas, flamboyant president of the first Scottish National Party, who dismissed Westminster as “an asylum for incapables”.

There’s a geographical structure to the book, which isn’t sustained, but which is evident and palpable.

It begins in Scandinavia, from where it moves over into the Baltic countries, Poland and Russia. Norway meant for Scotland the herring trade going out, and the timber trade, known locally as ‘the Scotch trade’ (skottehandelen), coming in, the Norwegian writer Petter Dass having his origins in this connection. Sweden meant mostly mercenaries, with Gustav Vasa building up a strong Scots contingent in his army, but one of the most active merchants in Stockholm was Blasius Dundee, and in Gothenburg there was a lot of Scottish trading and shipbuilding. Likewise at Elsinore in Denmark. In Poland, the Scots merchants gathered into a Scottish Brotherhood, with a book of rules and records called The Green Book Of Lublin, while Scottish pedlars wandered all over the Polish countryside hawking their wares. In Russia, Patrick Gordon was commander of forces under Peter the Great, and Charles Cameron was architect to Catherine. In the Caucasus, at the Skotslandskaya Koloniya, Henry Brunton translated the Bible into Tatar. The Russian writer, Lermontov, author of A Hero of Our Time, was the offspring of a Scots merchant, Lear-month. The popular Scots word for cash, ‘kopeeks’, is straight from the Russian kopeck. And if, in the fields of Angus you can still pick up lead tokens with Cyrillic script on them, it’s because they were seals on bales of flax imported from Russia in heavy-hulled Baltic brigs and worked by Scottish weavers to make sails for the seven-seas navy and coverings for wagons rolling West into Kansas and California.

Before you get at the live lines of the outfield in America, you have to get round not only the previously evoked pile of kitsch but a mass of gothic goonery, especially in the sirwalterscottish South. But some of the best boys in gray were Scots, and Sam Houston whittling his stick and wondering about the future of the US had a recognizably Scottish shrewdness about him. It’s elsewhere though that the lines are clearer. In the Constitution, for example, inspired by Scottish ideas, along with French ideas and Iroquois models. On the canoe trails, up to the lands explored by Alexander Mackenzie, where Scots rubbed shoulders with French-Canadian voyageurs and joined Indian tribes, like John Ross among the Cherokees in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Not forgetting the great John Muir who reminded the US that it should maintain its wilderness, or the ornithologist Alexander Wilson, second only to the Ameri-can Frenchman from Nantes, Audubon, or the botanist David Douglas.

Scottish work in Africa was mostly humanitarian. That there can be an objective collusion between mission work and colonialism is evident. As Bishop Desmond Tutu put it: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. ‘Let us pray’, they said. We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” But David Livingstone from Blan-tyre and Mary Slessor from Aberdeen were clearsighted about it all, with Livingstone out to put an end to the slave trade while pursuing his Zambezi explorations, and Slessor ready to go further into African ways than most of her fellow Victorians.

We can come back nearer home via the Iberian peninsula, from where the whole trans-Atlantic thing started out. For Kay in this book it’s mostly a question of wine : port, sherry, malaga, with Scots merchants well to the fore, and John Drummond (João Escocio, John the Scot) out in Madeira. I would have followed other lines myself, but the wine line in itself is interesting enough, and that wine, epicureanly employed, can be a factor of aesthetic and intellectual expansion, who will deny?

I’ve kept France for the end of our Scotoplanetarian peregrination, because it‘s there that Scottish activity on the political, intellectual and aesthetic level has been the most intense. Kay quotes the example of George Buchanan, poet and historian; David Hume, philosopher; Patrick Geddes, sociologist (in a large and polymathic sense), and does me the honour of suggesting I continue in my own way that line.

Another of the book’s themes is ‘Jock Tam-son’s bairns’ syndrome prevalent in Scotland. Kay appreciates its egalitarianism, as I do, but also sees, as I do (and MacDiarmid did), its negative aspects: ‘the cutting people down to size’, ‘the exclusion of excellence’. In the book, however, he tends to skirt round such problems, in order to sing ‘Scots wha hae’ without too many interfering buzzes on the line.

Lastly, I might suggest that if Kay is right in seeing in Scotland, even now, as a “culturally colonised mentality”, maybe his own stance of Rampant Scottish Identity is only a second stage, and that the third stage to which we can maybe attain is to get out of the identity complex altogether and into an old-new, archaeo-novel, field of energy. What seems sure is that, without getting fixed in an anti-English pitch which is also part of the scotomatic syndrome, Scotland was more Scotland, and, socially and culturally , a more interesting place when it had more contact with Scandinavia, the Baltic lands, Holland and France than when it was semi-attached to England under a British flag which, in trying to get the island together, leaves out a whole continental lot.

To sum up. If The Scottish World is not a complete cultural geography (that’s still on the horizon), what Billy Kay does, and he does it well, true to his intention of adding “an open, international dimension to our sense of national identity”, is weave a web of world-wide Scottishness with a weft of critical humour and a woof of knowledgeable feeling.

by Billy Kay
Mainstream, £16.99
pp304, ISBN 1845960211

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