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Xenophobe's Guide to the Scots

Xenophobe's Guide to the Scots

by David Ross

Innate instincts

A Scotsman likes to feel that, almost by instinct, he could guddle a trout (palm it out of the water) or gralloch a deer (disembowel it with his knife), even if he spends his day driving a bus or designing software.


A kilty cover-up

If the Scots were to shed their seriousness, they would be noisier than


Innate instincts

A Scotsman likes to feel that, almost by instinct, he could guddle a trout (palm it out of the water) or gralloch a deer (disembowel it with his knife), even if he spends his day driving a bus or designing software.


A kilty cover-up

If the Scots were to shed their seriousness, they would be noisier than the Neapolitans and wilder than the dancing Dervishes. Their reserve is not a defense against the rest of the world: it is a protective cover, like the lid of a nuclear reactor.


Rob joy

Calvinism is still deeply ingrained in the Scottish soul. A Scottish poet, overcome by the joy of sunshine and blue sky, once cried out what a fine day it was. The woman to whom he spoke replied, “We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it.”


Cunning and clever

The Scots respect cleverness and like to feel that they possess plenty of it themselves. In Scotland there is nothing wrong with being clever, so long as you show it by words or actions, rather than by bragging. You don't have to hide it. To say of someone that “he has a good conceit of himself” is neither praise nor blame, just a statement of fact.

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Oval Books
Publication date:
Xenophobe's Guide
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4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Xenophobe's Guide to the Scots

By David Ross, Catriona Tulloch Scott

Xenophobe's Guides

Copyright © 2011 Oval Projects
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-908120-81-6


Nationalism & Identity


If there is one characteristic that defines the Scots it is that they are different. Not better or worse than anyone else, but definitely not to be confused with any other nation. A great deal of effort is put into being distinctive. Some people think this is all to do with the tourism industry, but they are quite wrong. The Scots do it entirely for their own satisfaction.

Living as they do on the north-western edge of Europe, the Scots have evolved their own way of doing things, and take great pride in it. Being Scottish is not simple and straightforward, and for many Scots perfecting their Scottishness is a lifetime's activity.

This may lead you to think that the Scots are a nation addicted to showing off and boasting. Nothing could be further from the truth – they just want you to appreciate the fact that they are people who dance to their own particular tune. Knowing this enables you to appreciate their finer points: this is the essence of judgement, and all Scots are judges at heart.

The Scots have a very sustained and steady sense of their own worth, and they don't mind who knows it. Apart from such things as whisky, tartan, bagpipe music and Dundee cake, they have given the world the bicycle, gas for lighting, the first effective steam engine, the pneumatic tyre, chloroform, the telephone, television, penicillin, the ultra-sound scanner, paraffin, the mackintosh, the milking machine, the water softener, Dolly the cloned sheep ... and if you didn't know this, they'll be glad to enlighten you. This is not a reticent, withdrawn, sorry-we've -bothered-you set of people.

Exported Scots

About 5 million Scots live in Scotland but over the past few centuries 30 million Scots have been scattered to the four corners of the earth. There are special nuclei, 'little Scotlands', in South Carolina, Eastern Canada, the South Island of New Zealand – and in the BBC. Yet though they have been Americans, Canadians or New Zealanders for ten generations, they know deep down in their hearts that they are really Scots. Many with only tenuous reasons for attachment are drawn by sentiment. Forebears of the artist Whistler, whose middle name was McNeill, hailed from a small island on the west coast of Scotland and his American descendants make regular visits 'home'.

Scots, it seems, are often keen to leave their country, then spend the rest of their lives attending Caledonian Society Meetings, celebrating with haggis and singing mawkishly sentimental songs, with tears in their eyes, about their 'Highland home far across the sea'. They always have a 'Highland home far across the sea', even if they came from Glasgow.

How they see others

Non-Scots are divided into two main groups:

1. The English

2. The Rest

If you belong among The Rest, you have a head start.

The Scots generally find strangers fascinating, and many are the tales recounted by the lonely traveller of how he was welcomed with open arms in some remote Scottish glen. As long as he wasn't English of course.

Americans are liked partly because many of the Americans who come to Scotland are of Scots ancestry, but more because of their perceived uncomplicated open-ness and generosity. Canadians are equally popular, if not more so, because they are even more likely to be just a few generations away from being Scottish themselves.

The Scots also like Europeans, especially those from Scandinavia, who they see as fellow-Northerners, sharing virtues that combine individualism and community spirit, and enduring the same testing weather conditions. They particularly admire vibrant and fully independent countries whose populations are not much bigger, or perhaps even smaller, than their own – like Denmark, Switzerland and, of course, Ireland, that other Celtic nation, so similar in many ways yet so different in certain fundamentals. From the great mixer-blender of history, the Irish have emerged with fire on the outside and steel inside. The Scots are the exact opposite.

The 'Auld Alliance'

The ability of the Scots to get on with anyone is amply proven by the fact that throughout history they have always managed to maintain an alliance with the French – the Auld Alliance – a feat not even attempted by any other European culture. The unkind might suggest that the only thing the Scots and the French have in common is that both believe that any race that dislikes the English couldn't be all bad, but this is a vile rumour.

The 'Auld Enemy'

The Scots have given the world so much, usually without asking whether it wanted it, but they are obliged to accept that the main conduit of innovation from outside – political, social, cultural, industrial – has always been that large country to the South, the 'Auld Enemy', England. Always more numerous, always richer, always ready to assert their superiority, the English have been thorns in the Scottish flesh for a thousand years. The Scots have learned their pride, their nationality, their characteristics good and bad, chiefly at the hands of the English, often violently. They are not about to forgive them for it.

When God created Scotland, says a favourite Scottish story, he looked down on it with great satisfaction. Finally he called the archangel Gabriel to have a look. "Just see," He said. "This is the best yet. Fine mountains, brave men, lovely women, nice cool weather. And I've given them beautiful music and a special drink, called whisky. Try some." Gabriel took an appreciative sip. "Excellent," he said. "But haven't you perhaps been too generous? Won't they be spoiled? Should there not be some drawback?" And God said: "Just wait till you see the neighbours I'm giving them."

A concern shared by the Scots is that, as a nation, their behaviour is the product of a deep sense of being a lesser nation. A country cannot give up its independent nationhood, as the Scots did in 1707, without a few qualms and a sharp sense of what was being lost. Even before that, Scotland was twice turned into a province of England (under Edward I, the 'Hammer of the Scots', and under Oliver Cromwell). Both times, independence was reclaimed. The Scots are used to picking themselves up and starting again – you can see this process at work in the country's regular ability to reach the World Cup Finals in soccer, only to be knocked out in the first round.

However, any fear of inferiority is misplaced. Like a small broadcasting station whose wavebands are jammed by another, the Scots have always had to shout to make their voices heard and their presence known. Otherwise the stifling proximity of England would have silenced them long ago and Scotland would be a sort of northern extension of Northumberland.

Scots are quick to sense patronage and arrogance in an English accent, especially a 'posh' one. It brings out the latent prickliness in the Scottish character. (It's not for nothing that the national emblem is the thistle.) They label the English as snobbish, class -ridden and self-satisfied. The two nations have been eyeball to eyeball for so long that what each sees of the other is more caricature than reality. The reality is that for 250 years the Scots and the English have not fought each other on any field more bloody than a sports ground.

Most English people are blithely unaware of how much the Scots resent the English habit of using the terms 'England' and 'Britain' as if they were one and the same. And what annoys the Scots even more is when it's a Scottish success that is being celebrated at, say, an international sporting event, and the English claim it as British.

This goes some way to explain why thousands of Scots will be turning cartwheels if Iraq has beaten England at lacrosse or real tennis. Scots who have never seen a game of cricket have been known to go on week-long binges to celebrate the fact that some minuscule third-world country has managed to beat England at its national sport.

How they see themselves

The Scots like to feel that they are a rather flamboyant and colourful people – tartan inside as well as out.

They see themselves as clever and well-educated. They respect knowledge and like to think that they possess plenty of it. In Scotland there is nothing wrong with being clever, so long as you show it by words or actions rather than brag about it. To say of someone that "he has a good conceit of himself" is neither praise nor blame, just a statement of fact.

Scottish cleverness is not entirely mythical. A civil servant from Edinburgh made his first visit to see his superiors in London. When he came back, he was asked, "How did you like the English?" "I don't know," he replied. "I only met heads of departments."

They also cherish their pragmatic, practical streak. A Scots housewife is, virtually by definition, tidy, able to sew cushions or bake a cake, and make her own breakfast marmalade. She may still darn her children's socks and she's sure to know six different ways of using up yesterday's cold potatoes. A Scotsman likes to feel that, almost by instinct, he could guddle a trout (palm it out of the water) or gralloch a deer (disembowel it with his knife), even if he spends his day designing software or driving a bus.

The Scots view themselves as independent-minded yet communally spirited, humorous and warm-hearted. A favourite word for themselves is 'kindly' which means friendly, good -humoured, easy-going, willing to share what little one has, thinking well of others, being part of the community. Well, every nation has an ideal to aspire to, and the Scots are no exception.

How they see each other

Scots identify one another by geography. When Scot meets Scot outside Scotland, only their shared Scottishness matters: they are fellow-countryfolk, though the cordiality will be all the greater if both are from Ayrshire, or Auchtermuchty.

At home they are rivals. A whole mental catalogue of social reference points is held in readiness. The Scots are an analytical people and never take anything at face value. Their most severe criticisms are reserved for one another. This is not a matter of high standards, but of sheer competitiveness, and even jealousy. Nothing can beat the vituperative energy with which small, schismatic Presbyterian sects excommunicate those who defy their narrow code. This happened to a one-time Lord Chancellor, who was expelled from membership of the Free Presbyterian Church because he ventured to attend the funeral of a friend who was Roman Catholic.

The rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow is famous. After their side won the European Cup in Lisbon, two Glasgow Celtic fans were setting off to hitch-hike home to Scotland when a car drew up. "Like a lift? We're going to Edinburgh," said the driver. "That's no good," they said, "We're going to Glasgow."

Edinburgh folk regard Glasgow as a trollop of a town, brash, noisy and vulgar. The Glaswegians retaliate with their view of the typical Edinburgher, "all fur coat and no knickers". A character in a story by Neil Munro (1863–1930) says: "All the wise men in Glasgow come from the East – that's to say they come from Edinburgh." "Yes," replies a Glaswegian, "and the wiser they are, the quicker they come."

There are other rivalries, including that between the Highlanders and the Lowlanders. Contrary to what many suppose, the mix of Celtic and pre-Celtic peoples, Nordic settlers, Anglo-Saxons, and Flemings is shared by them both. Thus the differences are cultural rather than ethnic, and used to be underlined by the fact that Gaelic, once the language of the whole country, continued for centuries to be spoken in the Highlands. This does not prevent the Highlanders from regarding the Lowlanders as being regimented urbanites little more civilised than the English. Not to be outdone, the Lowlanders consider the Highlanders to be a crowd of lazy, dreamy, feckless subsidy-junkies. It was obviously not a Highlander who composed 'The Crofter's Prayer':

Oh, that the peats would cut themselves,
The fish jump on the shore;
And that I in my bed could always lie
And sleep for evermore.

Competition and rivalry come right down to local level, and neighbouring towns often have highly unneighbourly things to say about each other. Even within a town, people form tribal divisions. In the Orkney capital of Kirkwall, the annual 'Ba' (ball) game' is fought out on New Year's Day between two sections of the town, the 'Uppies' and the 'Doonies', and no Uppie would ever dream of siding with the opposition, any more than would a Doonie.

The harshest judgements, however, fall on football referees who are invariably assumed by supporters of the losing team to be in diabolic conspiracy with the other side. They frequently have to sneak from the ground with their coat over their heads.

How others see them

Foreigners believe that the average Scotsman is tall, with legs like tree-trunks and arms like Popeye's just after a can of spinach. He is supposedly prodigiously strong from caber tossing, has a red beard, a red nose and wears a bright red tartan kilt and a tweed jacket that would tear the skin off a lesser mortal in seconds. He drinks whisky for breakfast and eats nothing but porridge, haggis and salmon. He also likes to shout and fight a lot.

As everyone knows, racial stereotypes are notoriously inaccurate. In this case, however, the stereotype is an uncannily true thumbnail sketch of every second person you meet walking down Glasgow's Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday night. The bit about the shouting and fighting is, anyway.

To the English (who, however else they are viewed by the Scots, are not considered foreigners) the average Scotsman is a short, unshaven football supporter wearing a Scotland scarf which he holds out at arms' length as if waiting for it to dry. By profession he is either a trades union negotiator or a comedian. He eats nothing but fish and chips, drinks whisky and likes to shout and fight a lot.

To many other peoples (except the French), the Scots are English. They can't understand what all the fuss is about when they say something friendly like: "I would like to say how much I admire you English and your excellent football teams." After this they think that the average Scotsman likes to shout and fight a lot.

The French who have been intimately connected with the Scots for centuries have a saying 'fier comme un Ecossais' – as proud as a Scot. The Germans in the First World War called the kilted Scottish regiments 'the ladies from Hell'.

How they would like to be seen

The Scots would like to be seen by others as they see themselves. Failing that, the Scotsman of popular imagination – a tartan-swathed figure of heroic strength, red-haired, red-bearded and spoiling for a fight – is an image that Scots are quite happy to accept, particularly the stocky, unfit, balding ones.



The Scots are a nation of polarities: sober and wild, traditional and innovative, inhibited and emotional. It is these contradictions in the Scottish character that are exploited by Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the same individual is both the kindly doctor and his fiendish alter ego.

Few people can show greater kindness and concern for misfortune than the Scots. But they can also exhibit a brusqueness, a touch of aggressiveness, as if they feel that the world is a hostile place and they must square up to it.

Being canny

The Scottish characteristic of being canny, or being called canny, comes in various forms.

First there is the 'canny Scot' who thinks before he speaks. Some Scottish silences are merely the pause before the plunge. Deep and different things lie behind this – the wish not to offend being one. Another is the desire to avoid being caught making some foolish remark. The Scots are not just sharp judges; they have long memories. One feeble utterance can mark a person down as a brainless 'numpty' for life. It's an environment in which you have to be canny yourself to survive unscathed.

Secondly, there is the 'too-canny Scot' who has developed an exaggerated concern not to commit himself. For him it is best not to stick out in the crowd, never to be in any way 'kenspeckle' (noticeable). 'Always be cautious before folk' is the maxim of this individual, and nothing alarms him so much as being faced with the kind of direct question that probes into what he really thinks about some issue. A look of desperation will appear, he will glance this way and that, and finally mutter "Maybe aye, maybe no". He may harbour opinions of the most extreme kind, but he would only utter them among those he knows share them.

Thirdly, and perhaps the most common perception of the canny Scot, is the prudent, careful person, and its roots lie a long way back. Before the Industrial Revolution Scotland was not a rich country. People were accustomed to making do. Nothing was wasted. Centuries of deprivation have had an influence on the national character. The Scots learned long ago to husband their resources, financial or otherwise, in order to survive bad times, worse times, and times of real trouble, as when the English invaded. Bad times were normal and easier to cope with. Good times made them nervous – sooner or later would come a day of reckoning, so they saved whatever came their way, and stowed away their bawbees in dark corners.


Excerpted from Xenophobe's Guide to the Scots by David Ross, Catriona Tulloch Scott. Copyright © 2011 Oval Projects. Excerpted by permission of Xenophobe's Guides.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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