22nd August 2019

Scottish Culture

Aboyne Highland Games

Aboyne Highland Games

The Edge of the World, a 1937 black-and-white film by Michael Powell, gave me a feeling of what life should have been, at least at the time of the movie, in remote parts of Scotland.

It was filmed in Foula, one of the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland. It shows a very harsh reality, a real struggle for survival in an isolated and often hostile environment, where steep cliffs plunging into the sea can and do kill and the local economy is dying. The young men leave the place for the opportunities of mainland Scotland.

What is also interesting, though, is how the island community is closely knit, almost like a big family. They all go to the Kirk and listen to the sermon, dance on a clifftop meadow while some of the men, including the parish pastor, play the violin and the sun sets on the sea, and when a baby is born all the women together knit his garments. In this situation sticking together as a community was probably the island inhabitants' greatest strength. And the laird was like a father figure, discreetly participating and giving advice on the community's problems without undue interference.

This kind of environment, weather and isolation may have contributed to tempering the Scottish character, toughening it and maybe being responsible for the quality of being dour associated with it.

"We're a culture that encourages feelings of lack of self-worth. We're a culture that goes out of its way to make sure people don't feel good about themselves."

Some people believe that the forbidding, somewhat repressive nature of Calvinism is also responsible for the dour Scottish psyche. Puritanism, after all, is Calvinist, although it is Presbyterianism, another form of Calvinims, that prevails in Scotland.
"We're a culture that encourages feelings of lack of self-worth. We're a culture that goes out of its way to make sure people don't feel good about themselves," says the Scottish psychologist Dr Carol Craig.

From a young age, Scots are taught humility, modesty and conformity. Scottish humour often derides those who "get above their station". Dr Craig hypothesizes that the high rate of emigration from Scotland has stripped the country of optimists and left too many pessimists behind. Could any of this be linked to the fact that men in one part of Glasgow, Shettleston, have a life expectancy of 64? (Scottish men, on average, live to 73.) And that west Scotland is the unhealthiest region in Europe, with high rates of heart disease, cancer and strokes? There seems to be a causal link between happiness and health.

Scotland seems to be in the grip of an epidemic of pessimism and low self-esteem. There are several indicators of malaise: the Scottish suicide rate is double the English one, and antidepressant prescribing is 40% higher. A new UN report says that Scotland is the most violent country in the developed world. Scottish children are among the least confident anywhere, according to the World Health Organization. Glasgow is a city with a reputation for bad health and diet.



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