I had planned to be in Perth for the regular meeting of the SNP’s National Council of which, for my sins, I am an elected member. There was in fact a decent debate on the merits of the European Arrest Warrant and the fact that Theresa May seems to be body-swerving it rather than fixing its more egregious flaws.
But I had also noted that the Perth Burns Club were holding their usual seminar in celebration of St Andrew’s Day, this year rather ambitiously entitling it “A Day of Scottish Life and Culture“. The afternoon was divided in three: Timothy Neat gave a talk of Hamish Henderson, Dr Marjory Harper of Aberdeen University spoke of the diaspora and selected personal interviews she’d made distinguishing the types of folk who characterised emigrants post- as opposed to pre-war.
But the highlight for me was Lesley Riddoch who gave an illustrated presentation Scotland Is a Nordic Country? (great emphasis placed on the question mark) and gave the answer best expressed by the German “Jein”. Much more than “yes and no” “Jein” implies a degree of tortured ambivalence by the person uttering it.
A student of Norwegian, Lesley delighted in pointing out obvious links in our dialects like “kirk”,”quine” or “braw”. She also emphasised the easier air links between Scotland and Norway now possible due to our common oil business. But as soon as we got down to examining details, several cultural gaps yawned open, with the Scots not usually coming down on the more favoured side.
Using two photos of Wick and Hammerfest harbours taken in 1900, both are jammed with fishing smacks gathered for the herring. A hundred years later, Wick is deserted but Hammerfest has a variety of ships in port, including one of the dozen 12,000-ton Hurtigruten (Coastal Express) ferries that provide daily sailings to/from the South.
Hammerfest lies North of the Arctic Circle and a 24-hour/2,000 km drive (via Sweden) from the capital Oslo but feels less isolated than Wick (5-hours/250 miles from Edinburgh) because of the efforts the Norwegians make to link it. And it’s not just communications. Andritz Hydro, Hammerfest is the company that not only installed a major tidal generator project there to harness tidal streams near the North Cape but they are also supplying us equipment we’re still experimenting with in the off Islay and Orkney.
But the key message Lesley brought was one of attitude. Norway faces far more complex civil engineering problems than Scots in linking our country together. Not only have their main rail lines to Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim all been electric (efficient & green) for decades and coastal communities linked by the daily ferry (see above) but they have been furiously improving their road net and now have almost 100 major bridges and a spectacular stretch of road called the Atlantic Road that they claim to be the most scenic stretch in the world. Though I hae ma doots on that last one, it is typical of their can-do attitude.
In Scotland the state of our train system or the A9 or Wick harbour or the drift of youngsters from the Isles are all regarded as part of life vicissitudes. “Ach, weel—whit can ye dae?” is not just a common attitude but illustrative of a state of mind our Norwegian neighbours would not thole for an instant.
Although she did not say it specifically, I think Lesley would love—instead of them roasting on Balearic beaches for two weeks—to ship boatloads of Scots wholesale to Norway to imbibe the culture instead. They’d get a lot more out of it than sunburn and their 10L of duty-free Stoly. They’d see what was possible in 21st century living if you drop your own 19th century attitudes.
And, speaking of money, Lesley was quite scathing about the cost of things in Norway. Taking £1 = NoK9, city apartments cost £1,000 per month rental, a meal for two comes in around £80 and a beer will set you back £7. But then, the average salary after tax is around £33,000 (UK median wage before tax is still under £20,000). They have around 2 1/2 times our purchasing power. But for us visiting Norway, it’s as steep as the third world visiting here.
So, when Jim Murphy is rabbiting on again about the ‘Arc of Insolvency’ as his text why Scots dare not leave the comfort of the Union, ask him if he’s been to Norway lately, failing which, ask him if he’s had both barrels from Lesley Riddoch on the matter: that would surely set him straight.