“Why are you still here in Scotland?” my brother asks me when I meet him in Tennents Bar. It is a good question. I was in Canada for over twenty years and yet it never quite took. In the early days I played football with other Scots and it was all about reminiscing and trying to find the Saturday scores from home. Later, in pre-internet times, it was tattered copies of the Glasgow Herald arriving three weeks past date but pored over as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rugby Special was on Canadian television then, the games a week old, and I remember the strange feeling of watching the gloaming descend on Netherdale or the Greenyards and the fans starting to make their way home as I once did. But Canada was nice and healthy and clean and the days just passed. And back in Scotland, a father dead at 57, his father dead at the same age, fluttering hearts and malignant moles, an Irish name and West of Scotland antecedents, and me the oldest male of the next generation. Better make a run for it.
But perhaps that is not why I left at all. For the last four years I have been a professional Scotsman in Vancouver, running a Centre for Scottish Studies at the local university. I have spoken of Burns to First Nations people called Bruce and Wallace and attended St. Andrew’s Balls, the only one in the room from Scotland and the only “dancer” who didn’t know a step. And I have spent a lot of time asking Scottish emigrants why they left Scot-land and have yet to meet one who really knows. The curator of the local golf museum told me of sitting in a packed Canadian Consulate in Glasgow in 1971 when two young men came in the worse for drink, looked at the queue and said “Aw Fuck it. Let’s go tae South Africa.” A former Premier of British Columbia whose parents came from Rutherglen said what upset him most at his elementary school was that he had no grannies, uncles, aunts, or cousins around in the holidays. Running away to anywhere and from everyone is the story of modern Scottish emigration (untold).
Strangely, there is nothing much to help explain any of this in Scots-Canadian literature. Margaret Laurence’s Scots rake around in the local dump and talk of a place far away. Alistair MacLeod’s Cape Breton Scots are more familiar, their dislocation palpable even when they are materially successful in Canada, but theirs is Highland myth. When his characters in No Great Mischief actually make it to Scotland, they meet people whose concerns (where were the French ships in ’45?) are not mine. Even the genius of Alice Munro is dimmed temporarily by the routine search for her Ettrickbridge ancestors inThe View from Castle Rock. The Irish, as always, have a stronger modern connection. Brian Moore’s Ginger Coffey delivers pizzas in Montreal with half an eye open for anyone who is going to report his straitened circumstances back home. The experience of the modern Scottish lowland emigrant, however, remains uncharted; the vacuum filled by kilts and Burns Clubs.
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But now I’m back in Scotland to stay and asked to explain how it feels. I worry that I might be one of those Scots-Canadians from Still Game, wearing shorts in the rain, balancing sunglasses on top of a baseball cap and taking comfort from the conceit that “at least we have not lost wurr accents.” I am wary too of the idea that I should feel like a derelict. Before the Scottish election the on-line forums regularly declared that the Scots who left had forfeited not just their vote, but their right to an opinion. And friends have re-imagined their staying in Scotland as a kind of vocation; their own years in the south of England not even a migration, far less a desertion. One person writes that emigrant Scots had “desserted” their country and, of course, some did – making a great plaid pudding out of it and icing all of us.
The initial impression of this returned deserter is that Scotland hasn’t changed much at all. I enjoy the pork terrine and bottled German beer in the Merchant City, but when I set off down the Gallowgate everything looks the same. The same rubicund faces and mottled noses; more Buckie bottles now, perhaps, than Tennents cans, but otherwise much as I remember it. In Cumbernauld, the carbuncle capital of Scotland, where my mother lived for thirty five years, there are BurgerKings and big box supermarkets, but the place doesn’t feel any different, though I do notice another Cumbernauld on the other side of the A80; a richer and, I suppose, better place where people with jeeps can live in peace. Two Cumbernaulds, two Scotlands.
And Scotland’s still rule-ridden, perhaps even more than it was. Everywhere a sign -“Wait here until you are called forward,” “Toilets for Customer use only.” In Alan Bennett’s diaries he records a visit to an Inveraray restaurant that had beans and toast as separate menu items. When he asks for beans on toast an unsmiling woman says they don’t do that. On the train from Edin-burgh to Glasgow one of our company has a first class ticket but sits with us in the regular carriages. When he asks for the free coffee that comes with his ticket he is told he can’t have it:
“You can only get free coffee if you sit in there.” [pointing to the Business Class section]
“So I should go in there, get it and come back here again?”
“No you can’t. It’s not the coffee, it’s
the cup. It’s a different cup. That cup [pointing to the different cup] isn’t allowed out of the business section.”
Mostly it is silly, even funny, but sometimes an unexpected jab of cruelty. A pub on the Royal Mile won’t give a 77-year-old diabetic Canadian woman a glass of water. “We’re not allowed to serve tap water.”
In 1981 the Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh had a sign that said “No Nude Showering.” The sign is still there today and I haven’t seen a sign like it in any other pool anywhere in the world in between times.
“We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people would-n’t obey the rules,” says Bennett in Getting On. I have a dream for Scotland that we’ll see a day when jakeys have business class cups and nude showerers sit down with members of Edinburgh City Council to drink free tap water.
* * *
And yet I sense a kind of collective fight back. The chattering classes are on the move. But others are fighting their corner too, jabbing away for the chaotic and the unpredictable. Irvine Welsh says somewhere that he didn’t realise what an eccentric country Scotland was until he left and came back. How much more so coming back from Canada where eccentricity is virtually proscribed? In the supermarket on Byres Road, I wait patiently in a line with eight others while the cashier explains to her friend how much better off she would be if she was in prison rather than working there. Her boyfriend, you see, is in prison and has a television in his cell. He also has a mobile phone in there though he is not supposed to have that and had to sneak it in. Down at the charity shop the old lady in front of me tips her donation from a black bag onto the counter. The last thing to fall out is an extra large set of ladies underwear. “Sorry we don’t take underpants,” says the woman behind the counter. “Aw fuck it, how did they get in there?” says the old lady, “give them here” and she hauls them into the rubbish bin.
Scotland feels better than it did twenty years ago. Or perhaps it feels as if it is about to get better. And this despite an avalanche of bad news – the fattest, the most violent, the drunkest, the shortest lives – and lots of blame to pass around. Canada, by contrast, presents its citizens with an almost continuous diet of good news – the fittest, the healthiest, the longest life span. And yet when the system there collapses, it does so spectacularly. The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is wiped out by drug addiction – “the land of the walking dead” as one Scottish visitor described it as we made our way through there. Outside Vancouver I taught in a school – a place of order and neatness, docility – which bordered a sprawling pig farm, the owner now charged with killing prostitutes from the Downtown Eastside and disposing of their bodies in ways that would be thought far-fetched in a horror movie. Yet nobody blames Canada for the pig farmer. They blame the pig farmer.
* * *
The best days are the ones when nothing makes sense. I thank the hugely overweight guy who hands me a bag with a bottle of water and a banana in it and a booklet on healthy eating. I yawn my way through a debate in the Scottish Parliament on binge drinking, but it gets a lot more interesting when I go to the pub round the corner and find some of those who were inveighing against the “scourge of Scotland” binge drinking themselves. When James McFadden scores I dance across the pub in Broughton Street. and yell until hoarse. In Vancouver I had season tickets for the city’s ice hockey team but I never danced as I did for McFadden and I can’t imagine anything that could have happened to make me do so.
And above all, Scotland’s good when it matters, when the stakes are highest and the rules don’t apply. For the first two nights she is in a room off the emergency department, the one the bean counters wanted to close. When I go to find her, doors marked “Staff Only” mysteriously open so I could get in and I walk past the queue of casualties from a Coatbridge Saturday night without a murmur of protest. Later in Ward 20 she can’t get any more air and a nurse called Helen comes in. “Hold your mum’s hand” she says, “she might take another breath and it can gie ye an awfie fright.” As it turns out, she doesn’t take another breath, but I get an awfie fright anyway, saved only by Helen and her sun ray of kindness to a complete stranger.
The train’s coming into Glasgow even though the electronic read out says “You are now approaching Croy.” The conductor settles the issue with an apocalyptic announcement – “This is Glasgow Queen Street, the last and final stop, where this train will terminate.” The ticket barrier on the platform won’t let me out but it doesn’t matter – there’s a guy there who opens a gate. “Alright mate” he says and not for the first time I wonder what happened to “Jimmy” and whither “pal”? But yes, alright, fine. Actually, pure dead brilliant, but nobody says that any more either except at Prestwick Airport where it is written on the side of the wall, close to where the plane for Canada used to leave.
Harry McGrath is Coordinator at the Centre for Scottish Studies, Simon Fraser University,Vancouver