A Study of the Scots
Examining some of the world's most wonderfully frustrating people
Scottish Traits and the Personality of the Scots
Self-isolation, social distancing, house arrest, lockdown…..choose your poison it all amounts to the same quandary. We’re stuck indoors for the foreseeable. Travel plans cancelled, work ceased or radically altered and social lives decimated. Tough times for us all and quite rightly I’ll not be talking much about travel for some time while we power through. But I felt it important to pause briefly from my on-going and increasingly concerning destruction of the whisky cabinet to jot down some thoughts on something that’s never too far from my mind. The Scots, and our distinctively Scottish traits. What an odd bunch we are.
A never-ending enigma of paradoxes, frustrations and bemusements. We’re straining at the leash to be judgemental and opinionated….yet deeply reticent and prone to caution, held back by deep-rooted fear. We’re kind, fair and ethically-led, yet thrifty, dour and bitter. A mess of personality, I’ve chatted at length with both Scots and non-Scots about the state of us and have responded with both pride and empathetic frustration to their summations. Let’s delve.
The Scottish Nature, Temperament and Values
I’ve loosely concluded that simply being Scottish is a heavy burden. We’re expected to embody something. Both men and women, although men probably even more so. To display shades of the legendary heroics of our ancestors (we invented almost everything you know), yet comply ethically with the unwritten code of Scottishness which we are all such strict and devoted followers of.
Big advocates of equality, Scots have embraced the modern world, particularly in the last decade or two, to welcome ‘new’ Scots of all types under our little umbrella. We have a very liberal mindset where immigration is concerned. Gender equality is ahead of the pace also, with your average Scottish man living in relative reverence of the Mrs and a Scottish government led by Nicola Sturgeon, one of Europe’s most popular politicians. We value education, which is why it’s free. And we look after the most vulnerable through free medical care and support. As societies go, Scotland does a good job of offering somewhere safe, fair and happy to live. This stuff’s critically important to us.
So we’re all very chuffed with that, but what about how our psyches influence Scottish traits? First, there’s the issue of modesty. We like acknowledgement of our gallant efforts at being a good Scot sure (pat on the head), but are usually uncomfortable with direct praise. We can’t exit the conversation fast enough if that materialises. Gruff, monosyllabic small talk and desperate references to the weather or the Cowdenbeath football score can be expected instead.
Then there’s our nature. We have had to put up with the long-term accusation of being tight-fisted, as in stingy. I’d unsurprisingly disagree, although there’s no denying our cautious and calculating tendencies. We’re also loyal, considerate and generous when it’s called for. Especially when drinking and allowing ourselves the rarest of unguarded moments when we may permit those deeply buried emotions to burrow just ever so slightly upwards towards daylight. Is it any wonder that alcohol is so prominent in our lives?
But it doesn’t take long for the contradictions to begin. While there’s no question that we fight ferociously to control and hide our emotions, they can spectacularly spill out in certain circumstances. Extreme ethical and moral eruptions such as a woman mistreated, an innocent exploited or an unfinished pint spilled and your average Scottish bar is likely to turn into a grotesque arena of out-of-shape gladiators suddenly obligated by Scots Law to unleash their inner Braveheart.
How we regard others
I think the Scottish trait of being extremely friendly is a well-earned one, and that’s because we genuinely have a lot of time for people from the wider world. We like tourists, it’s not an act. I would put it out there with relative confidence that Scots prefer non-Scots to themselves, most of the time. You guys are the undoubted beneficiaries of our best behaviour – did you really think Glasgow taxi drivers were always that friendly? Perhaps it’s the excitement of something new and unfamiliar, perhaps it’s that under-the-surface desire to be liked and loved. With that heavy burden of Scottishness around our necks, we unburden by presenting the best of us to others, secretly (and insecurely) hoping for approval and admiration at the same time.
Certainly we feel a kin with our near-neighbours. The Scandinavians have intertwined nicely into our historical storyline and Viking tales and heritage remain integral on the Northern Isles in particular. We are very proudly European for the most part, long taking a curious comfort from our Auld Alliance with the French and our modern-day infatuation with the Spanish (with whom we enjoy the vast majority of our holiday time), despite the stark cultural differences. To be in the front row when a Scot is caught in a Southern European physical embrace truly is a sight to behold. Bolt rigid, wide-eyed and the tragic epitome of social awkwardness, this riot is fortunately fading slightly with the passing of each generation….even if extravagant warmth and physical displays of affection will never be our most natural suit.
Casting the net wider than Europe, we assume pretty much everywhere else is exotic and probably much more exciting than drab old Scotland. Why folk from far fields – who have never set foot in Scotland – are so keen to see themselves as ‘Scottish’ is amusingly bemusing in the extreme. We welcome all with genuine and slightly confused warmth, keen to hear what on earth made you decide you wanted a holiday in the rain.
The Irish are our much more gregarious and extroverted Celtic pals from across the sea. Similar, yet so very different. The comparison has perhaps best been summed up as so – the Irish are fire on the outside, steel inside. Scots are the reverse. Cousins that very much enjoy the occasional meet up (drink), things are only likely to turn ugly if the they dare to suggest that they possess the superior whisky.
The English are something else entirely and our story is long, tumultuous and endlessly inter-connected, for better or worse. History has possibly never seen such an intense relationship between two countries. The English have been to the Scots friends, allies, family, rivals, oppressors, enemies…..all have been true at some point. Contrary to lazy assumption, I don’t think Scots (aside from the odd nutcase) simply dislike English people. That would be nonsense, and blatant racism, not something we’d tolerate. History is inescapable, and every generation of Scots will inherit those bruises in some form or another. But equally Scots were all too willing to be joined at the hip with England during the booming years of the British Empire. We enjoy pretending there’s an almighty distance between us when it suits and oppression has often been an easy shield. “Poor wee Scotland”, we’re good at that. Yet there is no question that a complex resentment simmers away, bubbling up now and again as has been seen even in recent political times. Fascinating neighbours, indeed.
But all of these different views we have of the world and its people come together where hospitality is concerned. We love the stuff. It serves up to us all, on a plate, the chance to show off how Scottish we are. And for that, we’re always grateful.
How we regard ourselves
This is perhaps even more telling. While we tend to be on our best behaviour with visitors, the mask is on another face when dealing with fellow Scots. At our worst, we actually perversely enjoy seeing other Scots fail. A Scot who is visibly an achiever, doing well for themselves or being ostentatious in any way, is automatically to be subjected to jealousy, suspicion and dislike. “Getting too big for their boots this one”, “who’d they run over to get where they are” and such. It’s very telling in its simplicity.
Scots bumping into other Scots abroad is hilarious. An almost equal dose of dismay, relief, annoyance and fresh confidence come together to do battle. Delighted that they can finally stop pretending to speak any language other than their own (trawling through high school lesson memories has been exhausting, however much they like to think they’ve been getting away with it), this is matched by how un-exotic their travel experience has suddenly become with these new additions. How dare this lot come flip-flopping their way into my balmy utopia; but Thank God they are here as I’m no longer the only lobster on the beach and we can talk about how cheap the local booze is and why Greenock Morton may be in line for a marginally above-average season.
Before long in this instance, the conversation turns towards regional Scottish traits and is followed swiftly by an unstoppable torrent of judgement, scorn and stereotyping. It may sound like a benign geographical enquiry, softly spoken just at the point when a possible alliance is on the cards, but don’t be fooled. A more loaded scenario you cannot imagine as the seemingly innocuous words “where abouts are you from?” come nonchalantly marching into the equation. Expect immediate brandings along the lines of:
Glasgow – Psychos. Or military-grade socialists. Both, probably both. Taxi.
Edinburgh – Posh gits. And probably not really Scottish at all.
Aberdeen – Surprised I can understand a word they’ve been saying. Oh, and cheer up.
I jest, of course. We’ll rush to judgement, sure, but generally Scots abroad will get on much better than they ever would when at home. We like the reminders of the familiar, hesitant as we may be to admit it. In my younger days I was a holiday rep on the Mediterranean and took great joy in bringing Scottish famillies together, after a little handholding. We are unquestionably a different animal when we travel.
In the extreme of this, the Tartan Army are a legendary movement of travelling Scots who boisterously enjoy watching their team getting trounced on the road, proving with pride that we are still the best losers on the planet. They’re well-behaved, friendly-in-the-extreme and abundantly Scottish. And want to make sure everyone knows it.`
…..and why do we go to extremes?
Maybe it’s all about balance. While Scots are clearly prone to severe emotional restraint and an inclination towards the quiet guy at the back of the class, we’ve felt the need to counter-balance that by creating the bagpipe, maybe the most intrusively dominant instrument in existence. No-one tends to think of Scots as the life and soul of the party, yet we slapped a Scottish patent on New Year’s Eve and claimed the biggest shindig of the year as our own. And the most inward and reserved of us will unleash a shameless hell on the ceilidh dancefloor when these rare opportunities present themselves.
While there’s that inescapable image of self-imposed dourness, the irony is that we’d never shut up if we didn’t take our Responsibilities of Scottishness so seriously. We’d be gossiping away, scheming, harassing, policing and orchestrating. There’s so much we want to say, but are we allowed? And while our true emotions tend to stay behind lock and key, we love a wistful, even tearful, reminisce about the raw beauty of Our Scotland. Even those who have never been further north than Dumbarton.
Lest we forget the famous Scots’ pride of course. Proceed carefully, you’re on thin ice here. Because we generally love a good joshing and the opportunity for self-deprecation. Being wound up is part and parcel of our conversation and poking gentle fun at each other is entirely expected and welcomed. Like getting gubbed at sports, we’ll take it on the chin in astonishingly good spirits. Up to a point. Wound a Scot’s pride by taking things too far or striking a nerve and it’s a grudge for life, even if you don’t know it.
Coming back to equality, we relish the opportunity to help those in need. It’s like our calling. To help a neighbour with their shopping, buy a round for a luckless drinking companion or take it upon ourselves to mutiny against the class system, most Scots are primed and ready. Yet, we are thrawn. A very Scottish term, we take a perverse satisfaction in being obstinate and difficult. We enjoy knocking others off their perch with a “serves you right for enjoying yourself you happy bastard” salute as they tumble. It’s like a self-righteous need to defeat success.
Manners matter too. Perhaps this is best examined through hiking etiquette. If you were to take it upon yourself not to say hello to a passing Scot on a hillwalk, you will have quite simply ruined their day. I speak from experience. It is an almost physical wound when this happens, they’re stunned with the shun. They’ll take it back to their family to discuss at the dinner table, they’ll be lying awake that night mulling it over. An egregious slight, how very bloody dare they. The fact this Code of Social Understanding ceases its jurisdiction the second you get back to the car park is neither here nor there, of course.
So what are the Scots really?
Carefree and light-hearted we most hilariously are not but at our best, we’re honest, reliable and compassionate. Fairness reigns supreme and most Scots genuinely strive for a fairer and more equal society even if, in our eternal resigned pessimism, we fear we’ll never see one. Our moral compass is the driver in many of our decisions and big-heartedness is something we do well.
I’ll leave it up to you to decide if it’s worth having a Scot or two in your life.
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