One day in a French cafe, a Scotsman reckoned the waiter was treating him dismissively because he thought him to be English. It was, for the Scotsman at any rate, a simple fact that all foreigners love the Scots and hate the English. Consequently, he informed the waiter, in English, that he was Scottish, not English. The waiter shrugged: 'Ecossais, Anglais – c'est tout la merde'.
A version of this phenomenon is also apparent in those Scots who hold forth
about Scottish inventions as if they personally had had a hand in them. I was on a bus in Hull one day when a drunk man with a Scottish accent began loudly to do just that. During a lull, one of the passengers daringly proposed 'Whisky?' There was a pause while the befuddled man pondered this before slumping forward and throwing-up over the seat in front of him. As the police hauled him away, a woman caught my eye: 'Pathetic,' she said shaking her head. I nodded in sympathetic agreement, though wordlessly in order to conceal my own Scottish accent.
It would be nice if what the man on the bus had to say were true. But it is not that simple. Nothing, not even the works of the greats like Einstein or Clerk-Maxwell or Newton, ever emerged fully formed from one person in one place at one time. All great advances are the result of long-running developmental processes involving many actors in many places making many little steps over time.
There are, for example, several equal or better claims to the telephone than that of Alexander Graham Bell. The matter was much disputed at the time, and much litigated. The final step that made Bell win through may have been no more than that he was the first to get himself along to the patent office, albeit with stuff which may not all have been indisputably his. John Logie Baird was not of such questionable character but he did not invent the television that we were to watch. That breakthrough – the electronic television – was made by Philo Farnsworth, an American, and came along one year after Logie Baird had first demonstrated his mechanical television. The mechanical television never caught on, not least because the scenes it relayed needed to be very brightly lit and the picture was so dim it was best watched in the dark.
Then there is the minefield of how the nationality of an inventor might be determined. Other than being an emotional concept, nationality can only ever be where you live and have the papers to prove it. It should be no surprise that Americans regard Alexander Graham Bell as an American, and that that is how the Library of Congress and the Encyclopaedia Britannica
Within the United Kingdom, nationality is even more fraught. Take the example of Alexander Fleming. He lived in England from his teens, and that is where he came upon possibly medicine's greatest ever breakthrough. (It had been a long-running process – even the ancient Egyptians put bread on wounds.) Was Fleming Scottish or English? And what if a great breakthrough is made in Scotland by people from England? Is Dolly the Sheep a Scottish wonder, an English wonder or a British wonder? For those of us who have better things to agonise over, the answer to such questions is easy: It really doesn't matter.
But there is yet another consideration. It was 250 years ago when James Watt made his critical improvement to Newcomen's steam engine. The man on the Hull bus was in effect seeking personal approval for a uniquely Scottish identity of which Watt is a component. In doing so, he was excluding from being Scottish the family down the road whose grandparents came from India. That may not have occurred to him, but I have met other braggers to whom it has more than just occurred.
But fear not, for we still have bragging rights to do with another achievement that all people living in Scotland can be part of. That is, the hugely disproportionate number of Scottish actors who have hit the big-time. What's more, they are good actors. Unlike their English counterparts, none has ever received a knighthood or a peerage for overacting. All have mastered the trick of never looking as if they are acting. And none has fallen for the fashion of whispery acting, all seemingly having noticed that speaking clearly is acting too.
Their range is remarkable. Two of them were even Doctor Who. Finlay Currie was one of the Three Wise Men and introduced Judah Ben Hur to the teachings of Jesus. Gerard Butler gave Xerxes and his Persian hordes a doing and then saved America from the North Koreans before moving to London and saving all the world's leaders. Robbie Coltrane and Robert Carlyle very nearly got the better of James Bond, himself a Scot. (Incidentally, Ian Fleming's grandfather was born in Dundee.)
When he wasn't trying to kill Jason Bourne, Brian Cox, also born in Dundee, was Herman Goering as well as Winston Churchill. Kelly MacDonald married Steve Buscemi and facilitated the rise of Al Capone. Tilda Swinton was two Hollywood gossip columnists who threatened to reveal George Clooney's indiscretions. Ewan McGregor saved the universe from Darth Vader. Maurice Roëves, taking a day off from arguing with Eddie Clockerty and Miss Toner, had Hawkeye arrested and imprisoned. James McAvoy kept Idi Amin fit and well. Factory owner Ken Stott and his daughter Chloe Pirrie were ruthlessly shamed by Inspector Goole. And Nicol Williamson very nearly bested Lieutenant Columbo.
Now I am feeling quite bad for not mentioning all the others – Ian Bannen, Rose Leslie and Bill Paterson to name but a few. Mary Ure too. If it hadn't been for her, Richard Burton would not have been able to expose a German spy ring at the heart of the British war effort.
But there remains room for an observation about Gregor Fisher, once the quintessential Glaswegian. The scene in Love Actually
where he responds to Bill Nighy's expression of affection is an acting masterpiece, and pure Glasgow, even though he isn't from there.