24 July 2012
The simple symbols
Photograph by Islay McLeod
As every Black Bitch knows, the first Tuesday after the second Thursday in June is Linlithgow's Marches. The 19th of June 2012 was a splendid Marches Day. The sun shone, the bands played.
My wife and I saw the morning parades on our way to Glasgow to see Nicholas Parsons, doyen of 'Just a Minute' in conversation with Janice Forsyth at the Royal Concert Halls. He recounted how, as a stage-struck 16-year-old in 1940, he was sent to a Glasgow engineering apprenticeship by his GP father to dampen his theatrical ambitions. It didn't work. Parsons became involved in amateur and later semi-professional dramatics in Glasgow and developed a huge love for Glasgow and for Scotland. He then made a dramatic and quite passionate assertion, warmly received by most of the (fairly elderly) audience, that he was 'British, not English'.
I know that for a generation moulded by the experiences of the world wars, a sense of Britishness remains strong. I understand that generation's, and Parsons', commitment, which I do not share, to the union or to Britain but I do question Parsons' denial of his Englishness. His gentle, word-play based humour and his avoidance of issues such as politics and religion might be seen as essentially English. (His archetypally English avoidance of politics is likely maintained rather than contradicted in his public support for the Liberal Democrats.) There is a wonderful youtube clip of Parsons and Arthur Haynes. The notes are explicit: 'Here's the popular British comedian Arthur Haynes in a classic sketch with England's favourite straight man, Nicholas Parsons'. It's an interesting juxtaposition that: Haynes perceived as 'British' but Parsons as 'English'.
Thoroughly amused at Parsons's humour I returned to Linlithgow, the marches and further thoughts on national identity. Almost all small towns in West Lothian, indeed in much of Scotland, hold their local galas in June. They celebrate the particular culture and traditions of the small towns. They are usually also linked to a celebration of youth, a confidence in the future: the crowning of the gala queen, parades of splendidly coiffured 11-year-olds, pretty five-year-olds in fairy dresses, youth organisations and sports clubs. Linlithgow's marches have all that but the kids' big day is the following Saturday, the children's gala. The marches remain a primarily adult event, once fairly rowdy and alcohol-fuelled. Local bye-laws now forbid public drinking. The marches are more sober but no more restrained.
Linlithgow's marches are also, unusually, on a weekday. To participate requires taking a day off work. Most of Linlithgow does exactly that.
There are the dyers (there haven't been dyers in Linlithgow for a century) in lum hats and morning coats. The deacons (the old trade guilds which the Deacons represented are long defunct) in baillies' gowns and the provost at their head. (There hasn't been a legal provost of Linlithgow since local government reorganisation in 1974.) There's the Rotary Club, the Round Table, the 41 Club and the bands: pipe bands, brass bands, the Linlithgow Reed Band.
I'm not a Black Bitch: I've lived in Linlithgow only 22 years, but I've watched the marches over these years. Amidst all this fun and tradition, some perhaps more modern than its most ardent advocates would admit, there are observable trends. Firstly, the smartly turned-out men are increasingly in kilts. A bit like weddings, the kilt is now de rigueur. Many wearing it are not particularly used to it. It sits on their hips, like modern jeans, rather than at the waist, and consequently hides their knees. My photographs of Scottish weddings in the 1970s are trousered, kilt-less affairs. It might seem a minor sartorial matter but Scotland has changed.
The modern kilt is of course a unionist invention: Walter Scott and George IV and the uniform of Scots in Britain's imperial armies, but it has been transformed. That's clear, whether at Hampden or Murrayfield, weddings, graduations or the marches. It now asserts who we are.
There is also the union jack. The marches are strewn with flags but only one Union Jack – carried by the local scouts. Every other flag which was not particularly local was a saltire or a lion rampant.
One last change, in my life-time rather than at the marches, is the practical demise of the national anthem in Scotland. It's not that its replacement is better. 'Flower of Scotland' is a sentimental mess. As a teenager however I recall being universally expected to stand for 'God Save the Queen' at the cinema, at Hampden on cup final day, at school prize-givings: today it is barely heard. It was heard however in Gdansk and Kiev, the English team's anthem, and lustily bellowed by English fans prior to 'Rule Brittania'.
As we enter the debate on the referendum there are questions we all need to consider. My brief and impressionistic view of one small town's marches does not answer them but national identity is, at least in part, a question of perceptions. Alistair Darling may be right that it's possible to be both British and Scottish. It is also true that symbols of nationhood do not constitute a nation. For all that, and for all Nicholas Parsons' asserted British-ness, increasingly few Scots identify themselves as such. They may still not be willing to vote for independence in 2014.
In the longer-term, however, unionists cannot view with any confidence a union for the symbols of which there is so little warmth. And that most potent symbol of a now dying but once powerful Scottish unionism, Glasgow Rangers, is disintegrating. That would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.
The challenge for the 'Scotland Says Yes' campaign is to transcend the symbolic elements of Scottish-ness and to outline the peculiarities, the national characteristics as well as the pride and confidence which might be encouraged, just as our galas and marches encourage these at a local level, by independence, and to assert the moral purpose of independence rather than dependence.
To date that voice has not been heard.
Alex Wood is a retired head teacher and former political activist