"It's (bleep) being Scottish! We're the lowest of the low. The scum of the (bleep) Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever (bleep) into civilization.”
This particularly profane and evocative quote comes at a pivotal moment in Danny Boyle’s classic 1996 film Trainspotting. Faced with the chance to pick himself up and start his life anew in spite of great personal adversity, Renton, the story’s anti-hero, instead chooses to spit out and stand by these memorable words about his native people before returning to the heroin addiction that had crippled him for so long. Unsavory as they may be, remember these words; we will come back to them.
Ask an American about Scotland and they’ll most likely say that Braveheart has been their main source of information about the UK’s northernmost nation. That was certainly the case when my Arcadia orientation group was asked about their prior cultural knowledge upon arrival to the country; kilts, bagpipes, and Mel Gibson shouting “FREEDOM!” are how the American gaze has largely defined Scotland and its people. We like to see it as a wholly romantic place, consisting solely of barren, beautiful highlands and people who are gruff, boisterous, and entirely incomprehensible when they speak. In short, we exoticize, just as we do with any other place or people that we don’t want to take the time to truly understand We take a few surface-level facts that we’ve learned from Wikipedia or Hollywood and construct an image that ultimately says far more about us than it does about the country we’re “describing.” This literally happened in the case of Brigadoon, “The Scottish Musical,” a 1954 Gene Kelly movie which was filmed entirely in a Hollywood studio after producer Arthur Freed visited Scotland and purportedly could not find any filming locations that were “suitably Scottish!” Braveheart, of course, was filmed primarily in Ireland, and contains so many historical inaccuracies that America’s favorite source of Scotland’s history can barely even qualify as a Scottish film (although let’s not allow this to detract from the fact that is still quite an epic cinematic accomplishment). In short, America’s Scotland is a concept largely our own, disappointingly removed from the reality of this nation that predates ours by so many centuries. Is there hope for us, then, to learn anything true?
To do so, we must come out of ourselves and realize that an essential element of Scotland is a dualism that permeates its culture and history. It is home to some of the most resplendent, striking, breathtaking scenes in the natural world, and its population is plagued by unemployment, poverty, and alcoholism. It gave the world the telephone, the television, and refrigeration, and also the bird flu, the deep-fried Mars Bar, and driving on the left (yes, I’m very much counting that as a negative). The nation’s universities are world class, and it’s culture is infused with a self-deprecation that can extend well into self-debasement. Notice, however, that I don’t say “and yet” in any of these contrasting statements; this is very important. Scotland’s best aspects exist alongside its shortcomings, not in spite of them. To say “Scotland has this great thing, and yet also this terrible thing” is to divide Good Scotland from Bad Scotland and to imply that if only Bad Scotland could be gotten rid of, the nation might finally flourish. This is, again, an attempt to exoticize and define Scotland as an “other,” to mold it into our own image rather than see it for what it is, a nation that thrives and struggles and seeks and sins and desires much like ours does. It is more helpful instead to attempt a distinction between Constructed Scotland and True Scotland, with the intent of breaking down our own fanciful perception so that we might see reality more clearly.
Here we come to the heart of the opening quote from Trainspotting, for the backdrop to Renton’s profound and profane monologue is a gorgeous train station in Rannoch Moor, a stark and isolated spot in the Highlands that encapsulates some of Scotland’s most beautiful natural assets. Rather than try to enhance one or reduce the other, the scene thrusts both the beautiful and the ugly aspects of Scottish culture to the forefront and allows them to exist simultaneously and in tension with one another. It provides a truth that may not be as comfortable as the unhindered, patriotic jubilation of Braveheart, but is still a truth and is thus inherently virtuous and far preferable to a soothing fabrication. The truth is that reality is always a balance between the attractive and the unpleasant, and we need to look no further than our American culture to see this demonstrated in our own lives. America, too, is a country of great natural beauty plagued by economic and political ills. We are a nation of great hope and opportunity that must acknowledge an often sordid, violent, and hateful past. Our cities are home to some of the greatest individual and cultural achievements this world has ever seen, all of which exist right alongside miserable oppression and indefensible inequality. To deny the undesirable is to rob ourselves of the ability to really understand our own culture, and the same goes for any other culture we may interact with. While in Scotland, my goal is to learn and understand, not romanticize and idolize; thus, I will continue to engage with every facet of the culture that I can, from the resplendent to the unassuming, from the thrilling to the mundane, from the endearing to the unsavory. As best as I can, I will come to know this place as it is, not as I want it to be. Let’s see what I find.