February 04, 2012

Independent thought

The indomitable Scottishry.The real possibility of an independent Scotland has been all over the news in Canada because of Canada’s similar (but not really comparable) situation with Quebec. On Facebook I see all sorts of pipers and drummers – Scottish and not – appearing to support the idea of Scotland as a nation.

I was brought up to back the Scottish Nationalist Party. My parents were close friends with James Halliday, leader of the SNP from 1956-’60. From about the age of four on my American dad kitted out me and my brother and sisters with badges, posters, stickers and t-shirts with SNP slogans with the ingenious thistle-ribbon emblem (still one of my favourite logos anywhere).

When I went to the University of Stirling for a year in 1983-’84 there was a club day. My main reason for being in Scotland was of course piping, but I figured I should try to do something else. There was a table for the university’s SNP Club, staffed by fairly radical-looking students. Clackmannanshire is a traditional SNP stronghold, and my mother was born in Tillicoultry, so I figured, what the hell, I’ll join up.

I went to a few meetings that I remember consisted of a lot of callow raving about the English and the “Westminster government.” After a month or two came the club’s election of officers. As with many volunteer groups, lots of people were nominated as president, but no one accepted.

It was then when they tried to convince me – an American – to be the president of the University of Stirling’s Scottish Nationalist Party Club. It was also then that I realized how absurd this was. I wasn’t Scottish. I played the pipes and had a Scottish mother and liked to read Hogg and Burns and Stevenson, but that was as close as I could be. I understood at that moment that I had no business getting involved with serious Scottish politics. It was the last meeting I attended.

We non-Scottish pipers and drummers tend to think we have a right to be Scottish. Because we play the Highland pipes and strap on the kilt most weekends and often visit the country and usually enjoy a dram and a bit of haggis, we make the mistake that we can get involved with Scottish politics, and fancifully support the very serious concept of Scotland as a separate nation.

A great thing about piping and drumming is that these arts are a great equalizer. Lawyers mingle with high school students. A police officer plays next to a dentist. A refuse collector can also be a genius composer. An Obama supporter can serve a member of the Tea Party as a pipe-major – and not even know it. We get along because we’re equalized by a common passion for music.

I like the notion of an independent Scotland, but I also respect the serious implications of such a move. “The indomitable Irishry” was how Yeats described his countrymen, and that has always stuck with me. But just because I play the bagpipes doesn’t entitle me to campaign for the SNP. It’s up to the real Scots to decide for themselves, and everyone else should just stick to the music.


  1. Couldn’t agree more. I emigrated from Scotland with my family when I was 6 years old when my Father decided to look for a better future for us all, as it appeared to him at that time. Many people were doing the same thing back then due to the economy and politics of the day with Canada in the early 70’s appearing to be the land of opportunity. I have vivid childhood memories of the auld country and always feel like I’m coming home when I go over for a visit. I’ve even maintained my citizenship and can move back over and stay as long as I want to.
    At times I’ve tried to picture in my mind what it would be like to live and work in Scotland tgday, but have come to realize that (for me anyway) having spent the vast majority of my life in Canada that this is where I belong now. As such, I would really have no right interfering with the politics of a nation that at best I would have spent less than 2 months of my adult life visiting as a tourist, really. It’s the indigineous population that would have to live with any changes made to local society, not me…..Best to leave the politics to the Scots themselves.

  2. This is actually a really well made point. There are way too many people playing pretend at a nationalilty they’re not and throwing opinions in where they should be leaving the people involved to it. This applies to all nationalities or cultures one attempt to claim right to. I’ve always found it very evident when it comes to pipers or drummers from other nations who’s in it for the music/camraderie and who’s in it to (forgive the schoolyard-like qualm) ‘pretend’ to be scottish. It’s a completely clear cut distinction and personally I find the side of people who enjoy the music and banter infinitely more pleasant to be around. Sure, pipe and drum. Sure, love Scotland. No-ones questioning your right to like things. But, always remember that unless you live there and have a vote and such, you really have no say in what happens there. Be proud of where you’re from and don’t use the whole scottish pretence as a guise. Piping really is a worldwide party where anyone can join, listen and learn and we should be proud of the diversity we allow without anyone getting riled up in all the other non-piping topics that don’t matter one iota when it comes to piping. To paraphrase Stuart Samson, leave your politics, reputations, beliefs and predispositions at the door and just enjoy the damn music.

  3. The blog and reply from Andy Reid makes me think of a line from the Jethro Tull Christmas Album, where Ian Anderson sings “everyone’s from someplace – even if they’ve never been there…”

    As well as the sotto voce comment, often uttered by a former P/M at various highland games, of “Och, aye, laddie. Och f***in’ aye” when a self-congratulatory semi-ambulatory two legged tartan tea cozy walked by….ah, weel noo’, the guid auld days, ye ken…Och, aye.

  4. Very well written. I hate to be a stick in the mud but let’s not forget it was not that long ago when things like religion or sex or membership in a social organization DID matter. In the end, if all of us just shut up and let our instruments do the talking, the piping and drumming world would be a better place.

  5. Also, it’s possible to play bagpipes and not care what kind of beer you or others drink and it’s OK if you drink blended Scotch from Wal-Mart. Even fine if you admit that both arguably taste nasty when compared with an ice cold Coca Cola or grape Kool-Aid. It’s OK if you don’t like wearing kilts and refuse to wear them when not performing or competing. Another thing that’s nice is when you speak in the accent you developed while learning to talk as a toddler. Unless, of course, you’re in radio and TV and are attempting to sound like a neutral Nebraskan.

    While the actual piping itself becomes a lifestyle, the rest of it is ancillary and is not required in order to make music. The pretense in this shindig of piping drives me nuts on occasion. I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again. If pipes had been invented in Bermuda…
    We’d all wear light jackets, shorts, and flip flops would be permissible for daywear. And the weather at the World’s would be to die for.

  6. That’s all very perceptive, Andrew. The SNP’s brand of nationalism has never been the blood and soil or ethnic variety but entirely inclusive and civic: if you live in Scotland and want to be Scottish, you are (and it’s actually, and surely bizarrely, the Unionist side that periodically heads towards suggesting that there should be some kind of genetic qualification for the franchise). It’s to reflect that civic, democratic, peaceful nature that the name of the party was very carefully and deliberately chosen: “National”, and emphatically not “Nationalist”, Party. As regards the logo, I agree. I don’t know who designed it but the colours were chosen by my Dad and he chose those of his old University, Glasgow.

    I came across your post as my Dad died last week and thought you’d want to know – http://www.scotsman.com/news/obituaries/obituary-jimmy-halliday-author-historian-and-politician-1-2719521. My Mother and I were just reminiscing the other day about the holiday we had in Canna. I hope that you and the others are well and please pass on my regards to Tom, Margaret and Clarissa.




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