Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Haggis, the High Road, and a Chat for the Ages

“A Scot will give you the shirt off their back,” a new friend explained, as a group of us discussed her people, her nation, and the future of this rugged and resilient land, late into a cool, fall night outside a blowup pub in a yard in Scotland.

It was only my third day on Scottish soil, yet I understood exactly what she meant -- a lesson learned just moments after we arrived.

My wife and I landed in Edinburgh two days prior in the mid-morning, tired and hungry from the overnight flight. In a rental car with the stick shift and steering wheel in the wrong place, we anxiously set out for our destination – a cousin’s home in Hamilton, southeast of Glasgow – hoping we’d find some food along the way.
We passed small houses, tightly-packed villages, and flat fields shielded by morning mist as we navigated round-a-bouts and typed ‘breakfast near us” into a smart phone. Google pointed us to a chain coffee shop in the village of Chapelhall. Lack of parking and luck took us further down the block to a spot in front of the Mallagh Family Butcher & Bakers, a small storefront on a squat block of stores.
The sign out front read, “Full Scottish Breakfast.” We parked and entered awkwardly.
Like a bounce house for adults, this blowup
pub served as the night-after party place.
Inside the tiny butcher shop, we were confronted by a long case of meats along one counter and a shorter one of pastries, rolls and steak pies on the other. Behind the counter, men and women toiled in white aprons, serving the small gaggle of customers barking greetings and orders faster than an American could comprehend.
When I say tiny, I mean it. The place was miniscule. Nowhere to sit. No tables, no chairs, and barely room enough to change your mind.
“What would you like?” an older gentleman shot our way as we looked blankly at the board behind him, trying to decipher the names and prices of the various items listed. At least, that’s what I assume he asked. The Scottish accent is notoriously hard to decipher for the untrained ear. Yet it took less than a syllable out of my mouth for him to know we were lost and hungry Americans.
A few indecisive moments and misunderstood attempts to communicate later, my wife and I decided to leave – a full retreat, so that we could regroup, reconsider our options, and prepare for our next Scottish encounter.
“Aye,” he said to us, holding up a finger to imply we should stay put. “I have your sausage rolls coming.” He quickly followed that with a nod, “On me.”
Before we had a chance to refuse the offer, a younger, taller butcher darted from the back with two wrapped sandwiches. The older gentlemen handed them to us as we thanked him and said he shouldn’t have.
“You’ll be back,” he nodded again. A strange thing to say to two Americans who might never set foot in Chapelhall again.
But he was right. After devouring two soft rolls with square sausage while sitting in the front seat of our rental, we went back in for a bag of scones. And he filled our ears with small talk about where we were headed, how it was near where he grew up, and what we thought of Scotland thus far, at least that’s what we think he said.
To have any hope of understanding the Scottish accent, you have to listen closely. Not merely pay attention, but actually listen, focusing and straining with every fiber to break down what’s being said and reassemble it in your brain in way you can understand it. It’s not just the accent, but the speed, the cadence, and their general penchant for colloquialisms that make it so hard to follow.
If you haven't danced to The Proclaimers 
and sung Loch Lomond, you haven't 
been to a true Scottish wedding
My wife and I were in Scotland for a family wedding – her cousins Brian and Mary were celebrating the marriage of their eldest daughter. And, since they’d made the transatlantic trip to come to our nuptials years ago, we wanted to return the honor. So we did. And for a total of five days and four nights this fall, we ate, drank, danced, celebrated, and spent time with my wife’s Scottish relatives.
We had a blast, etching memories we’ll never forget, like singing Loch Lomond while linked in arms with an entire wedding party. And our hosts made us feel incredibly welcome, putting us up and feeding us well, including a Full Scottish Breakfast with four types of sausage and breakfast haggis.
In our time there, and after saying “what was that?” more than I care to count, we also got better at understanding the wondrous Scottish accent, to the point that we could not only order sausage sandwiches but hold actual conversations.
On our third night, the bride's parents hosted a party in an inflatable pub in their yard, and I engaged in a particularly enthralling chat with a handful of new Scottish friends and a British gentleman from Portsmouth in the south of England, if my memory serves me. Over beers and flavored gin, we discussed the European Union and Brexit. We debated globalization and immigration; news in the age of social media and the rise of Donald Trump -- which they were most curious about. And, of most interest to me, we talked about the complex world of Scottish politics.
To ever hope to understand politics in Scotland, and the Scottish people’s place in the world, you must not only listen closely, but you also have to wrap your head around the region’s complicated history, which has been shaped by economics and religion, proximity and pride.
And, it’s a history that’s still unfolding.
At the foot of any conversation about politics in Scotland these days lay the remnants of two major public votes held in recent years. In September of 2014, after months of persuasion, years of planning and centuries of debate, Scotland held a referendum on its independence. On that day, 55% of Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and 45% voted to become its own nation.
Then, not even two years later, in June of 2016, the entire UK voted 51% to 49% in favor of Brexit, the referendum on leaving the European Union. If it had been up to just Scotland, however, Brexit would have failed miserably, with 62% opposing it and just 38% in favor.
In Scotland, questions on these votes tug at the minds of friends and neighbors alike, much the way the Trump election does with Americans: How did you vote?
And as the economic turmoil of Brexit begins to show on Scotland’s main streets, a new question has arisen. Would you vote the same today?
Because, ironically, one of the arguments used for voting against independence was how it would hurt Scotland’s EU membership. Following the loss of industrial jobs starting in the 1970s, and with the growth of a service-based economy in recent years like financial services and tourism, along with exports like whisky and oil, the Scottish economy has become deeply entwined in that of larger Europe. And that’s been a good thing for much of Scotland. But, will that continue? Will tourism, the financial services sector, and even, whisky take a hit?
It’s an uncertain time for Scotland and its economic future.
A second vote on independence may yet occur. But in the meantime, Scotland reels with the ramifications of exiting the EU.
Hamilton, South Lanarkshire
We spent most of our time there in Hamilton, a quaint city twenty minutes outside Glasgow, with old churches, new college buildings, and a well-known walking and shopping district, where brick rowhouses line stone streets on the slight incline of downtown. Hamilton had great bones, I thought. Though I was surprised to see cell phone peddlers and pawn shops in storefronts where you’d expect to see bakers and boutiques – and likely did, not too long ago.
“It’s a bit run down, these days,” one of the young people we got to know said of Hamilton.
When I prodded, the city’s challenges were attributed to everything from the Brexit vote to ASDA, the UK-version of Walmart, that’s likewise taking shoppers away from the city centers. Whatever the cause, the same uncertainty that plagues all of Scotland was visible on the streets. A lesson on economics.
The lesson on religion began at the wedding itself. My wife and I are Catholic, as are her relatives in Scotland. So, we knew the structure of the mass that accompanied the ceremony, even if the priest was hard to follow at times. Yet, when we came to the part of the mass where you share a sign of peace -- shake hands and say “peace be with you” to those around us -- I turned around to a row of twenty-something Scots and extended my hand. They looked at me confused, even like I was a leper. Then at communion, not a single person from that row took part. And I realized they weren’t Catholic. Not that it matted to me.
Catholics only make up 19 percent of the total population, with most living in and around Glasgow. This population was boosted by Irish immigration in the late 1900s. In Glasgow itself, there are several poor, working class neighborhoods where Catholics dominate. And all the problems that happen in poor, working class neighborhoods exist there, defining Catholics for some Scots.
“There’s still a great deal of anti-Catholic bigotry,” another cousin told me later.
More Scots, if they’re religious at all, are members of the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian faith adhered to by about 25 percent of the population. And, in Scotland, your religion matters. It can tell people where you live, dictate where you go to school, and even influence which local soccer team you support. (Celtic all the way for my wife’s family).
Though, many young people may be starting to move away from these old divisions. In fact, a census in 2011 found that 37 percent of Scots claimed no religion at all. The looks I got during mass were likely the result of the agnostic youth and not disdain for Catholics. And several of the Scots I spoke with expressed their general concern for how religion often divides their community, and that was a reason so many chose to be non-religious.
Still, the residue of religion can be felt in many places, and it almost certainly affected how many voted on independence – though maybe indirectly.
The results tell the story. Of the 32 local municipalities Scotland divides itself into, only 4 voted in favor of independence. One was Glasgow. Polling also showed that people in their late 20s and 30s, the working class, and those living in “deprived” areas were more likely to support independence. Many of those areas are Catholic.
Clearly, there were many reasons for and against independence beyond religion, from the economic to the political. And most of those reasons speak directly to the historically knotty relationship between Scotland and the Brits to the south.
Looking for an outing the day after the wedding, we stumbled upon a vestige of that relationship. It’s hard not to stumble upon history when you’re in a place like Scotland. We found ours by asking Google for “Castles near me.”
A short drive later, my wife, father-in-law and I arrived at Bothwell Castle, a thickly built stone stronghold originally constructed in the 13th century. And one with quite the history.
Bothwell: Good luck storming this castle. 
During the First War for Scottish Independence, Bothwell fell into the hands of King Edward 1’s forces. In the year 1298, it was then laid siege for 14 months by the Scots, before falling into their hands. Edward’s forces retook the castle a few years later and held it until it was surrendered to the Scots in 1314, following Robert the Bruce's victory at Bannockburn. The Scots then razed Bothwell so their British foes couldn’t use it against them again.
“Spite is a powerful emotion,” a new friend joked when I relayed that part of the story.
A few years later, Bothwell was rebuilt and was famously occupied by Archibald Douglas, known as Archibald the Grim, the son of James "the Black" Douglas, a close ally of the Bruce and a character in Netflix new “Outlaw King” movie.
Over the next 500 years, Bothwell was expanded, ravaged and rebuilt many times, finally laying in ruin in the 18th century. But, for a couple of Americans with little sense of Scottish history, beyond watching Braveheart, it was a tangible and awesome reminder of the history of the region. A history of conflict and conquest. One that resulted in two people joining together for mutual benefit, and the tensions that continue to pull at the seams.
“And there it is,” exclaimed one of the Scots in our chat dramatically, almost comically. “There’s the patronizing arrogance we’ve come to expect.”
He was responding to the sole Englishman who braved our conversation and had wondered to the group how Scotland could possibly support itself if they did vote for independence. He qualified it by emphasizing that there are only 5 million residents, after all. Then he dug a deeper hole by mentioning that the Scots get great benefits from their inclusion in the UK, including free college.
“You think we wouldn’t do the same if we were independent?”
One of the misnomers of the debate is that Scotland is dependent on the UK for benefits. In reality, the Center for Economics and Business Research found that Scotland contributes slightly more to the UK economy than it receives. It was also pointed out in our chat that the free college program and free care for the elderly, which don’t exist in the rest of the UK, were enacted by the Scottish parliament and not as a way for the UK to prop up Scotland or to address its high mortality rate, which the group joked had as much to do with gin and sausage as anything else. And, yes, many Scottish do prefer gin over whisky. By my count, almost all of them.
Clearly, five days and a few conversations, though enlightening, are hardly more than a scratch at an understanding of Scotland and its people.
As for what the future holds, it is certainly uncertain. But I have faith in Scotland.
“We are a proud people,” she said. “And we are a generous people."
I concur.

Here's other articles you may enjoy: Going to Carolina; One Smiling Moment -- The Truth Behind an Okay Photo; and Real People and Pearls in the Crescent City.