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Issue 84 - What I Love About

Scotland Magazine Issue 84
December 2015


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What I Love About

A series in which well known individuals based around the world express their thoughts about the Scotland they know well

The thought of coming home to Edinburgh is one of the best things about going away in the first place. If that sounds odd, just try it on a day when the weather is reasonably clear. Your plane starts its descent over the Borders. There are the gentle hills. Fold upon fold; there are the hidden lochs; there are the browns, the golds, and, in late summer, the purples. You take a sweep out to sea before your final run in over the Forth. Fields come into view, neat and tidy; Arthur’s Seat like a crouching lion; the distant spikes and spires of the city, mysterious, alluring. And then you’re home and piling into a taxi driven, at least in most cases, by a driver who will be courteous and helpful, rather than, as in so many places today, indifferent or even downright hostile. W. H. Auden said that you can tell the state of a society by the way in which it treats its forests. That may be true, but I think a readier litmus test of any city is the attitude of its taxi drivers.

My pleasure at being back in Scotland, though, is not just a Polyanna-ish glow. Like any country, Scotland is a mixture of good and bad. As Scots we have our faults: we are inclined to blame others for our misfortunes; we are sometimes given to imagining that we invented everything worth inventing; and we can also have appalling weather at times. That’s the bad side, but it has to be mentioned – any hymn of praise that does not acknowledge the negative is going to be suspect from the start. So, what are the positive things about Scotland that makes me – like most of the people I live amongst – love this country with an intensity that sometimes hurts?

I think that one of the things that particularly appeals about Scotland is its intimacy. The world can be an intimidating place, with most people these days living in large cities populated by crowds of people they do not know. It was not always thus. We knew our neighbours because we lived in sparsely populated villages or, if we lived in towns, these were not all that large. We were not all strangers to one another.

Scotland, though, remains a village. I am always astonished at how quickly in any random gathering in Scotland people will establish connections. I recently introduced a friend of mine who lives in a remote part of Argyll to another friend who lives in Edinburgh. Their paths had never crossed, but immediately the friend in Argyll established that he had sailed with somebody who knew my Edinburgh friend. Then it was discovered that the sailing companion had a cousin who was connected by marriage to the Edinburgh friend’s cousin. That is not at all atypical – in fact, it’s more or less what one expects. Go anywhere in Scotland and you will find that somebody knows somebody who knows you.

I like that, and I think it is one of the most attractive features of living in Scotland. I know that there are other places where you find that sort of thing to an extent, but it is much more evident in small countries like Scotland or Ireland. It makes life personal. It creates a sense of community that is sustaining and comforting. It gives rise to fellowship and friendship. What sort of country is this small afterthought to the European continent? It is a place where at every turn you will encounter reminders of a colourful and dramatic past. It is a place that has stirred the romantic imagination – and still does.

Hugh MacDiarmid, the major figure of the 20th Century Scottish literary renaissance, might have the last word. The rose of all the world, he writes in one of his best-known poems, is not for him; what he wants is the small white rose of Scotland that smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart. Exactly.

Author biography
Alexander McCall Smith, is one of the world’s most prolific and best-loved writers. He has three books out this Christmas – The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (Little, Brown £17.99 hbk); Chance Developments: Unexpected Love Stories (Polygon, £9.99 hbk); and for younger readers – School Ship Tobermory (BC Books, £9.99 hbk).