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A National Audit of the Scots Language

languages.jpegScottish Culture minister Linda Fabiani revealed on the BBC yesterday that the Scottish Government (as which we all now should refer to the old Scottish Executive, after Alex Salmond correctly concluded that the old impenetrable name meant nothing to the public, having presumably been chosen by the London government with exactly that intent) intends to conduct an official audit of the Scots Language. Now, my first thought is to ask which Scots language?

It seems to me that one encounters a different Scots when travelling from Leith to Morningside (hell, Leith to Portobello!) let alone between

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Cullen Skink

robert_burns.gifBurns Night is approaching (25 Jan). Last night I got to thinking about traditional fare for that celebration. There’s no question about the main dish of course. Haggis and all its ritual accompaniments are the centrepiece. But there’s more than one way to start such a meal. Scotch Broth is a common choice. But my favourite is Cullen Skink.

So yes, I got to thinking about it. Then thinking more. Until my taste buds simply wouldn’t wait two more weeks. And it’s just so ridiculously simple to make, a fabulously delicious dish in minutes. So within half an hour I was tucking in. This is all it took…

To feed four, or two greedy-guts, the main ingredient you need is smoked haddock. One fish will do. (Don’t worry about quantities - any proportions will give a tasty result.) Grab a few potatoes, peel them if you’re fussed, chop them roughly with an onion (any size) too, and boil them in enough water to cover. Meanwhile fry the fish (skin up) in a goodly chunk of butter, until the skin will peel off easily (which you can throw away). Then just mix these ingredients, pour in as much milk as you have water (some people use cream), maybe mash them roughly (or don’t) then throw in a little chopped chives or spring onion (or not), parsley (or not), and salt & pepper. Done!

Ready to eat in fifteen minutes max. If there’s any left, it’s even better the next day. One of Scotland’s great dishes. Enjoy.


Trumping democracy

donald_trump.jpegDonald Trump’s plans to build a massive housing estate on a coastal nature reserve north of Aberdeen is still very much alive. The (unelected) Chief Executive of Aberdeenshire yesterday publicly backed Alex Salmond’s decision to “call in” the democratically elected local planning committee’s rejection of the plans. Our First Minister wants to overturn (oops, ‘review’) that decision, after private meetings with Mr Trump’s people which have been widely criticised as ‘sleazy’.

Doubtless the lure of a billion dollars (sounds bigger in US currency) “investment” in the local economy sounds great to planners responsible for easy ways to create ‘jobs’… especially when dressed up as a glitzy golf course (for which we’re currently so badly provided in Scotland). And I can almost understand how provincial media, politicians and bureaucrats are so easily seduced into permanently destroying our priceless heritage by the supposed glamour of dealing with an experienced developer like Mr Trump.

But I feel let down by Alex Salmond. Perhaps naively, I’d have hoped for better from him. This sort of ‘development opportunity’ asks big questions about the sort of nation we are, and want to be. Do we really just see our future measured only as consumers of economic output, selling our real long-term assets for a quick buck, knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing. Or shouldn’t we be thinking more twenty-first century? Isn’t Scotland a place where ‘quality of life’ should count as well as ‘standard of living’? Can’t we shape a nation in which irreplaceable nature reserves that give our natural landscape its character are recognised to have real value, even if the economists can’t count the tourist dollars? Come on Alex - be a Local Hero!


Oh, Andy!

andy_murray.jpgAs any Scot will tell you, glorious failure is a bit of a Scottish tradition. To be fair, there’s the odd sport where we’ve done far better than our numbers deserve. Formula 1, snooker, and, erm, women’s curling come to mind.

But as we all know, our national football team delights in nothing more than humbling the mighty when it hardly matters, then floundering in the face of the minnows, routinely resulting in a finale where nothing short of a miracle is needed, which we so nearly pull off, but not quite. (Can’t think when this last happened though.)

So some of us remain to be convinced that one Andrew Murray, tennis prodigy extraordinaire, is even of our genetic stock at all. A throwback? A mix up in maternity? I mean, this is tennis we’re talking about… a sport that requires athleticism, determination, huge reserves not just of skill but of stamina, cunning, and sponsorship. Could all the hype actually be true this time? A potential grand slam winner? Let’s give him the best coach in the world, to sack, then trust his obvious self-belief to see him through down under,in the first major tournament of his first (we’re told) truly competitive season…

Oh dear. Out in the first round. Business as usual. Fancy a game of darts, anyone?


A message to Catalonia, Spain

catalonia.jpgReading about the Library of Congress trying to call Scottish ‘English’ reminded me of a recent trip to Barcelona in Spain. Or should I say, in Catalonia? Or in Catalunya? Or, erm… oh dear!

Barcelona is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. But sadly I left the place liking its people less than almost anywhere I’ve travelled in the world, for the uncomfortable hostility repeatedly experienced in contexts where as a visitor I’m used to receiving anything from grudging acceptance to (more often) overwhelmingly warm hospitality. I almost always leave somewhere wanting to return. Not Barcelona.

The reason? I can manage a smattering of Spanish. But like over 99.99% of the world’s population, I don’t speak Catalan. And this matters there. So virulent is their nationalistic pride, that locals (who I’m certain know it fine) pretend not to understand a word of Spanish, even when asked for help by visitors. This didn’t happen just once, but regularly, rudely, until I learned to stop asking. It left a really nasty taste in my mouth.

And here’s the rub… watch Catalan TV news or read their papers, and the UK is routinely referred to as “Anglaterra” - England!! Talk about hypocrisy. I was about 8 years old when I learned to call (the old) ‘Russia’ the Soviet Union, on realising the parallels with my own dislike as a Scot to be called English. I’d be more impressed if the Catalans looked further than their own fundaments and thought about the principles of their principles!

But it’s also a reminder to the nastier elements here at home. Fortunately I think we’re a rather more welcoming folk than the Catalans I encountered. And other than a few nationalist nutters, I like the fact that most Scots regard national identity as something positive that embraces others, rather than a hostile trait that divides and excludes. Let’s keep it that way.

News just in - Scottish isn't English

scots_at_library_of_congress.jpgIn one of those about-turns best described as ‘better late than never’, the US Library of Congress has just reversed a rather unfortunate (not to say culturally ignorant) decision to reclassify all Scottish authors as “English”. The controversial proposal to extinguish the highly regarded contribution of Scottish literature as a distinctive entity from the official record met with a storm of protest from academics, politicians, and authors on both sides of the Atlantic.

Overnight, authors like John Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson, poets such as Robert Burns and the great McGonagall, and modern day bestsellers from JK Rowling to Iain (M) Banks would all have been recategorised as belonging to the English canon. Playwright and Poet Laureate Liz Lochhead, in typically restrained language, had accused the American authorities of ‘cultural imperialism’. And even the British Library went way out on a limb to ‘welcome the decision’ when news of the reversed decision came through.

It seems that the original misguided intention stemmed partly from a widespread and basic misunderstanding of the nature of language and languages, which for example calls English a ‘language’ but Scots a ‘dialect’, when any specialist academic will confirm that both have equal claim to authority. Which gets called which is a political statement, and nothing to do with linguistics. But few in the world of literature would challenge the fact that Scottish literature has always, rightly, been regarded as its own tradition. And for now, fortunately, it can remain so in the US too.

Whatever happened to Hogmanay?

uploaded-file-70554Another year over, a new one just begun. And for the first time in years, midnight found me not at home with my nearest and dearest, but as a ticket-paying guest at one of the official events put on by our capital city’s Council. It certainly made me appreciate Auld Lang Syne…

Not many years ago, Hogmanay in Scotland was an authentic celebration of friends and neighbours, where ‘first-footing’ with a dram and more in hand went on through the wee small hours, and everyone’s door was open. (I know, as more than once I’ve stumbled through the wrong one, only to be welcomed into the party regardless!) Here in Edinburgh anyone seeking a larger crowd met by the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile, where for centuries a few thousand folk would find their friends amid the throng, and greet the bells with a genuine outpouring of rare communal friendship.

But of course, this made no one any money (bar a few pubs and offies). And sadly, to the great and good of Edinburgh City Council, that meant it had no value.

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The future of tartan - it's official

frontpage-mrpc.jpgFor such a tiny wee nation (ouch! there I go again…) we are blessed with an incredible wealth of iconic symbols, that say ‘Scotland’ all over the world. And there’s surely none bigger than tartan. But I doubt more than a fraction of people realise just how much history and significance this seemingly simple criss-cross pattern really carries.

You are probably at least vaguely aware that different patterns (“setts”) are named after clans, families, and regiments etc. Think Buchanan, Royal Stewart, or Black Watch. But did you know that every single unique tartan (defined by its ‘thread count’: the sequence of colours woven) is painstakingly recorded for posterity - and any new one is a copyright design unless its designer explicity allows it to be used by anyone? The significance for not just families, but many huge organisations and businesses too, is huge.

scottishtartansauthority_logo.gifSo it’s all the more surprising that it is only in the last few years, with the birth of the industry-sponsored Scottish Tartans Authority, that anyone began to collect the data really systematically. And only now is the government waking up to the massive commercial value of this industry to Scotland (£350m per year, according to a recent study) and is taking steps to safeguard its status for posterity more securely, with a new official tartan records office that is intended to be open for business in 2008…

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Welcome... to "The World's Best Small Country"?!

bestsmallcountry.jpgFirst things first… A hearty welcome to this brand spanking new blog. Come on in. Take your feet off. Put your shoes up. And we hope you have a good time, then haste ye back. (In other words, don’t forget to bookmark us.)

So what’s all this about being the World’s Best Small Country then? Isn’t that just a tad boastful, for a nation famed for its modesty, mutual mockery, and general all-round insistence that we’re rubbish at pretty much everything?

Well, if you haven’t ‘got’ the quotation, you can thank Our Great Leader, Mr Salmond. In one of his first acts on taking the reins of power Alex decided to dump this centuries (well, at least two years) -old greeting at our airports (created by his predecessor, Mr… erm… anyone remember?). He disliked the word ‘small’, we’re told. So now visitors are met with the jaw-droppingly inspired “Welcome to Scotland”. Fabulous.

Anyway, the jury is still out on the political impact this still newish administration is likely to have in years to come. And this blog is non-partisan. So we’ll watch and wait, and hopefully give him a chance to prove himself. But meanwhile we’ll be doing our own wee bit to remind ourselves, and the wider world, that for such a tiny (oops!) place we’ve actually got a lot to be proud of. So read on…
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