The Culture of The Clan

by Lesley Riddoch

In the first of a specially commissioned series of articles on Scotland, Lesley Riddoch considers the pluses and minuses of the defining characteristic of Scots culture the clan.

It’s more than 300 years after the Treaty of Union. Britain PLC has partly de-merged its acquisitions. Scotland has regained a parliament and feelings of Scottishness abound. No wonder. It would be hard to think of a nation with more visible, durable and internationally accepted calling cards of identity Tartan, Bagpipes, Auld Lang Syne, Haggis, Burns, Whisky, Golf.

And yet.

Do Scots identify with these Balmoralised symbols of nationhood?

Disconnected from the environment that created them, kilt wearing, single-malt quaffing, Pringle wearing, golf-mad Scots seem strangely inauthentic. Like an identikit picture on a Wanted poster each piece may be accurate but the whole face doesn’t look like anyone real.

Nonetheless at some point every Scotsman will have tried to pour himself into the part. Like 90 minute Christians who appear in church for marriages and funerals only, 90 minute Scots  turn out  for Burns Nights, Stag nights, rugby matches, Tartan Army events, weddings, funerals and barmitzvahs. When identity is demanded or ritual is required, the kilt comes out, a few poems or songs are dusted down, bawdy sideways snipes are made at women and serious drinking helps lads focus on the only point of male Scottish identity that seems to matter.

Not being English.

Not indulging in pedantry, moderation, village greens, New Labour, house-price discussions, real ale, cricket or Morris dancing.

It’s easy to sneer. But if this describes the English what does it make the Scots?

Immoderate, excessive, concrete-jungle tolerating, Old Labour, vodka drinking, football-worshipping, hard men? The current working definition of Scottishness is male to the core and ties a nation psychologically and symbiotically to a neighbour it purports to despise.

And if anyone hadn’t noticed, the English are currently on a quest of their own driven to self-discovery by the apparently resurgent Celts. Jeremy Paxman, Kate Fox, David Starkey, Simon Schama the bookshelves are groaning with attempts to scrape together a DNA of the English that does not rely on Empire, Good Queen Bess, 1966, Dunkirk and Eastenders.

If being English is currently a puzzle being not English is an absolute nonsense.

Expressed succinctly in Renton’s speech, by Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting,

“I hate being Scottish. We’re the lowest of the fucking low, the scum of the earth, the most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some people hate the English, but I don’t. They re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent culture to be colonised by. We are ruled by effete arseholes. It’s a shite state of affairs and all the fresh air in the world will not make any fucking difference.”

It’s no wonder young Scots want out into a bigger or smaller world where identity can be defined by sex, drugs, music, shoe size, MSN messenger connection, podcast preference, anything other than the dull, out-dated strait-jacket that accompanies the geographical accident of being Scottish.

And yet.

Try believing Scots are not a distinctive group but just self deluded northern Brits surfing the net and watching MTV in a globalised world devoid of local cultural reference. Andy does. This earnest Scottish TV researcher came over to chat after a BBC discussion show in which I was the only person to think Scottish independence was a perfectly reasonable political choice. The comment seemed to bother him. Like I had otherwise been on or near his wavelength but with one apparent endorsement of Scotland as a meaningful entity, had jumped straight onto another political planet.

The whole exchange that followed could easily have been avoided by adding that I’m not a card-carrying Nationalist. But looking at this well meaning, background-denying, socialised but uneducated product of the British state, it seemed like time for some mischief.


Was Andy watching MTV in a terraced house the traditional unit of  British  housing?

Nope he lived in a tenement.

Did he take A levels like most British students? Nope he took highers.

Did his parents own their house like most Britons?

Nope, and unlike most English students he’d stayed in their council house during university.


After MTV would he be staying in to watch the Ashes followed perhaps by the Vicar of Dibley?

Nope. Unlike anyone south of the Border he’d be listening to a witheringly sarcastic phone-in about the day’s football (Off the Ball) watching a sitcom about two auld geezers on a bleak housing estate (Still Game), and would stay in guzzling lager because he couldn’t afford to buy a round.

Ever thought of going out and just buying a pint for yourself,  Andy?

Don’t be daft.

Alright. Did you vote for Britain’s painting of the year Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar? Or the best British poem Rudyard Kipling’s If?

Nope if asked top marks would go to Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross (a picture Andy knows in great detail because unlike the average British gallery, access to Scottish public galleries has always been free). And on best poem he’d be torn between Tam O Shanter, MacDiarmid’s Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle and McCaig’s lines about his best poem being two fags long.

And yes, before I ask, his dad did die prematurely from lung disease, lived in a council house, refused to buy it on principle, voted Labour until the shipyards closed, switched to the SNP, decided they were Tartan Tories and then supported Tommy Sheridan until the Parliament building costs overran at which point he stopped voting altogether.

Andy, catch a grip.

The Scots are not just what happens when you vary England’s default settings less winter daylight, more poverty, more hills, less warmth, fewer people, less ethnic diversity. Though these basic physical truths have certainly helped shape identity and behaviour.

Scots are not just intemperate versions of our more measured southern cousins. We don’t live in the same houses, laugh at the same jokes, read the same books, or share the same life expectancy. We don’t have the same capacity to commercialise ideas. We don’t have the same informal rules about collective behaviour. We don’t speak quite the same language and we don’t (publicly) aspire to the same social goals. We don’t have the same history, the same weather, geology, bank notes, education system, legal system or levels of home ownership. We don’t vote the same way, we don’t die the same way.

Scots are no more just northern variants of the English than the Irish are just western ones. Indeed, our mission may be to offer the English a new (if currently undesired) identity as southern Celts.

Despite its contradictions the Scottish identity is not just a bundle of remnants a set of random behaviours by mindless contrarians welded together into a dangerously unstable and unpredictable personality. Although on a bad day it can feel that way.

Scots are quite obviously different from the neighbours English, Irish or Norwegian. But different enough?

Scots are (characteristically) in two minds.

Many believe national differences that matter must be as strong as primary colours, as absolute as gender, as non-negotiable as the Iron Curtain.

In practice, this high bar of distinction is not louped by many neighbouring European states. And yet, the Scots demand it and instead of lowering the bar, exaggerate difference to justify separation.


The Nordic nations differ by only a few shades of grey. The Low Countries have pastel coloured borders. And yet try suggesting Spain and Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium, Norway and Sweden should all just merge. Try it and stand well back.

Slight but important points of cultural distinction have been embodied as cornerstones of each nation state.

Tension reigns in Scotland because cultural difference doesn’t at least not fully.

Scotland is as distinct from England as many neighbouring European states are from one another a fact masked by the accident of speaking (roughly) the same language and the policy of difference-denying to keep the United Kingdom united.

In a world where cultural difference is usually measured linguistically, the institutional bulwarks which reinforce Scottishness are not equally dramatic.

Take Wales as a contrast. Gubbed by the English in 1283, they’ve been forced to dance to their neighbour’s tune ever since in education, health, local government, housing and outlook. Welshness has been kept alive by culture male-voice choirs, Welsh language schools, S4C, the Methodist Chapel and campaigns against incomers and their holiday homes.

Like defiant prisoners whistling Land of my Fathers as the firing squad takes aim, the Welsh have had no structural way to defend their identity (until devolution) except their culture. The Scots have always had more.

No offence to speakers of Gaelic and Scots but neither language can fully define nor resurrect the Scottish nation. We are defined by our institutions not our language. By an education system that seeks breadth not specialism. By a legal system based on statute not precedent. By a Kirk that is not led by the Head of State. By housing policy which provided council flats and homes for rent instead of terraced houses for sale. By our economic reliance on the public sector itself. Even by our two public holidays at Hogmanay.

We do things differently north of the border but we don’t ask why.

As a result we prop up what doesn’t matter and ignore what does.

Any day the family silver could be gone for good we no longer know what it looks like or where it was buried. No wonder.

Scots have spent too many years trying to look modern, trying to deny a peasant past, forget the cruelty of industrialisation, ignore the underclass it created and escape (into the ever-accessible world of alcohol rather than the distant and exclusive world of nature).

Occasionally we catch the scent of a blossom that has been taken from the room like Hugh MacDiarmid’s little white rose of Scotland that  smells so sweet and breaks the heart.

What is it?

It isn’t the Scottish football team however convenient a repository that is for outpourings of emotion.

It isn’t sadly radical thought or communitarian endeavour.

Scots don’t do co-operatives, credit unions, local energy companies, community trusts or local asset ownership (at least not on the scale of our neighbours). We don’t do genuinely local. We don’t do trust.

It isn’t a tradition of healthy living.

We don’t do the body as a temple, exercise, eating vegetables or getting outdoors.

We don’t live in nature. We don’t build in wood.

Our national dish is Chicken Tikka Masala washed down with Irn Bru or super lager.

We reassert our collective proletarian identity with every curry we order, every sun-bed we occupy, every triple voddie we demolish in the name of a good time, every year of life expectancy we lose.

All to prove we are not posh and therefore not English.

This pointless behaviour is self harming on a national scale.

If Scots have different values we should defend them. If we have distinctive ideals we should articulate them. If we have important customs we should maintain them. Every other nation does whether subsumed within a larger whole or independently governed.

Instead we struggle to appear modern, ambitious and go-getting like Jack McConnell with his bold pin-striped kilt.

We cling to a tough-talking, self-mocking, cynical world outlook instead of recognising such gallows humour for what it is a coping mechanism from days of appalling poverty and unfairness (which many still endure). We ignore the paradox of an empty rural landscape in which there is apparently no room for expansion. The resulting sky-high property prices are blamed on wealthy incomers seeking second homes instead of the underlying land scarcity which has kept city and country divided with no intermediate hut or cabin culture unlike every other country at our latitude, east or west.

We replicate the landowners  aesthetic of the empty glen through  democratic  planning procedures. We validate the industrialist s degradation of landless labour by walling up the underclass in vast, disempowered housing estates.

We hobble our democracy and we shame ourselves.

What we cannot accept is what we already know.

Scottishness springs from one four letter word Clan.

Who you are, who you know, what family you come from and where they live still matters more than anything else at every level of Scottish society.

On the plus side it’s levelling. For Scots what you earn, what you own and even what you do are not necessarily more interesting than who you know and where you were brought up.

See you later  is exchanged every waking moment of the day by people who will almost certainly never meet again. Even in a corner shop 300 miles from home, the illusion of inclusion in a never-ending conversation or relationship must be maintained. We are all kin. We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns. It can feel good.

My husband brought up in Canada, born on the Isle of Wight often felt uncomfortable when Glasgow taxi drivers asked where he was from. Fearing anti-English remarks if he told the truth he usually changed the subject. Mistake.

Taxi drivers pride themselves on having The Knowledge. Scots pride themselves on having a connection with any place you can mention north, south, east or west of the border. Thus a talkative Scottish taxi-driver will feel driven to make a place-based connection so his passengers can be temporarily added to the clan.

Conversation is the goal. Exchange is the means. Place or family detail is the missing ingredient. Once it’s in place and an Aunty Jeannie or a friend of a friend who once worked down there for a week has been identified, all sorts of fascinating conversations can begin.

But not until the connection has been made.

This quest for belonging and connectedness underpins almost every aspect of Scottish language and behaviour.

On the minus side it’s conformist. Individual success is frowned on as a threat to group cohesion. Tall poppies must be scythed. All things collective must be supported. And all things which sit in the middle (co-operatives, social entrepreneurs, community assets) are viewed as odd, wafty and even a disguised rival clan attack.

It’s no joke.

The status given by the clan to violent male behaviour has created a destructive macho urban environment copied by young women who can see no other values at work in their world.

Scotland s cities are clan based

and territorial.

What is the urban gang if not the reincarnation of the modern clan young men bound together by loyalty whose acceptance, approval and identity depends on violent defence of territory?

In Scotland s huge housing estates public servants keep the peace by day.

By night they are urban battlefields.

It’s not a pretty sight.

Clannish behaviour justifies nepotism, supports the status quo and undermines equality. It means Scots can openly prefer family, kin, long-held allegiances and local fiefdoms to anything newer, bigger or more diverse.

It creates a social conservatism and easily trumps common sense, fairness and even basic democracy.

Teams are generally more versatile than clans more inclusive, less macho, more rational and less defensive.

But Scotland doesn’t do teams. It does clans.

And that is our guilty secret.

Look at Scotland as a connected, community centred and family focussed country compared to England and you can source that behaviour back past Victoria, past Culloden to the informal rules of the Gaelic-speaking Scottish clans. Look also at Scots as a suspicious bunch with myriad defensive groupings based on kin not logic and you are back at the same point of origin. Look at Scots as masters of anecdote in the release of drink and private company but servants of silence in the formality of public speaking and you hear the centuries long echo of the banned Mother Tongue. Look at the self destructive nature of unemployed male Scots and you see a culture of masculinity modelled on the Clan warrior s ability to withstand damage adapted now in the absence of clan or even class conflict to a masochistic culture of withstanding self harm. Look at the proudest moment in the opening of the Scottish parliament when “A Man s a Man for a’ That” rang out from the temporary premises in the Kirk s Assembly Hall.  The rank is but the guinea s stamp, the man s the gowd for a’ that.

Where did such deep seated notions of equality and fraternity arise? Burns spoke French and supported the Jacobin values of the Republicans in France and America. He spoke no Gaelic. And yet his lowland culture like the US Declaration of Independence itself was based on the expectation of equality that arose not from feudal England with its hierarchies, vassals and serfs but from the non-feudal culture of the clan.

Millions of Scots are unwittingly acting out values created centuries ago by Gaelic speaking Scots with whom they believe they have no connection.

But as products of this culture, most Scottish politicians cannot identify the forces of the clan at work.

We need to face ourselves we are worth the effort. Instead we stumble on.

Time and again, I’ve marvelled at the massive social and emotional burdens Scots will neither fully embrace nor abandon. Increasingly, the prospect of living elsewhere seems attractive. Time and again the beauty of the country, the power of its musical culture and the survivor cheek of its people have brought me back.

So Riddoch s Scotland is a series of sketches about places which lie at the centre of my Scotland Glasgow, Eigg, Edinburgh, Aberdeenshire, Caithness and Dundee.

The mission is to produce vivid and controversial writing, provoke reader response and finally publish a book. I have no intention to offend but I’m sure I will.

As my husband often says, nobody kicks a dead dog.

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