Even the Guardian has recently highlighted the debate here in Scotland whether we should be teaching Scottish culture in schools. For me, this is the ultimate daft question. My reasons are not political, nor simply because it is hard to find a comparable country where the national culture is not part of the school curriculum. My reason (those still suffering from the Scottish cringe should stop reading now) is that we’re good, and not just historically good. But, as a nation, do we know that?
The Enlightenment put Scotland on the cultural map. And, whether in contemporary drama, art, literature, music, etc., Scotland can still hold its own. Indeed, since Kelman, the crime novelists, a clutch of poets, McMillan, etc. came on the scene in the nineties, any growing political awareness has been outmatched by a cultural one.
But, even all of that does not explain why I am such a passionate advocate of teaching Scottish culture; my reason is because of all that I missed out on in my life because my sixties schooling offered none. Now, I had a fine education in North Berwick and Edinburgh but my first inkling that it lacked, big-style, came when I signed up for a Philosophy class at the Hume Tower (I read Physics but there was this girl, see…) and was confronted by Hume himself. I had never heard of him.
Then I fell over Prebble’s Glencoe in Thin’s bookshop and was asked to leave or buy it. I still have that tattered copy forty years later. Stumbling across roofless Cracaig village on Mull was accompanied by reading his Clearances as I set about discovering my own country. I discovered Sibelius but could not explain why I liked him so until I came across MacDiarmid’s lines in Goodbye Twilight that, from our Highlands and Islands:
“what a symphony should come, more ghastly and appalling than Sibelius’ gaunt, el-greco-emaciated, ecstatic Fourth!”
Celebrating my own culture spurred me to explore others’: the lyrical humanity of Under Milk Wood; Stoppard’s penetrating plays; the profundity of Rilke’s Duino Elegies; the disturbing images of Bosch. It also led me back to epiphany on the depth of my own culture—that Vettriano and Bellany were preceded by the Colourists, that Gray’s epic Lanark had roots in A Scots Quair, that Morgan’s insightful humour reached back as far as The Bruce.
I’m as dismayed as most Scots that we were sent home from New Zealand with not one try on our scorecard and that our Euro 2012 future now hangs by a thread with a dirty great Spanish machete swinging towards it. But why (with the exception of mould-breaking Andy Murray) do we invest so much wild enthusiasm in sports, only to be dashed again and again to wallow in “aw, we wiz shite” self-flagellation that seems to have become universal since 1979?
Though I have little time for the kailyard tat of the Royal Mile or the “90-minute patriots” that Sillars derided in 1993, why do we, as a country, fixate on sports when our culture is (at least at present) so much more world-class? All our high schools have sports pitches; every town has junior soccer. But how many high schools teach Scottish culture beyond Tam o’ Shanter? How many evening art classes preach Peploe’s passionate or Vettriano’s precise styles?
Forget politics and the sterile rammy about ‘seperatism’. I’ll take Burns’ best over his contemporary Wordsworth’s because he was more insightful, while remaining memorable to this day. Carol Ann Duffy is an entirely fitting successor to the towering Ted Hughes as poet laureate. But where is any of this in our education system? If Scots were to devote half the passion to their culture that they devote to their sports, then their self-esteem would be such that it would probably overflow into the sports arena as well. But the difference would be a quiet confidence, rather than the brittle hope that runs through much of our presence on the international stage.
Scots culture is alive, well and pure dead brilliant; time we all learned it.