Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Scotland Angus New Year 2011

A gathering arranged at the Hotel Rosely, near Arbroath, for New Year, and we came from far and wide, Brighton, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Skye. Twenty eight people in a wonderful, small hotel that defies description: part Adams Family (ghosts), part Faulty Towers (eccentric owner), a throwback to an age before star ratings. This is the original, unique, boutique hotel

Let me try to describe the Hotel. From the outside it’s a red sandstone, mock-fortified 19th house built by a Jute Baron. In the entrance hall there’s the heads of a Lion, Water Buffalo, Oryx and numerous antelope, as well as the full skins of a Leopard and Tiger, heads at the bottom – they look as though they’re plunging to the earth with startled looks on their faces. The bedrooms are old-school with springy beds and electric blankets.

Spooky dolls
Right at the top of the stairs we found a cot with two rather spooky dolls tucked in under a quilt. Two days later we were to discover what lay beneath that quilt – a fire report from the Local Authority stating that fire safety was unsatisfactory! The owner, Corolla, is fantastic, she smokes cigarillos in the bar and is disarmingly and refreshingly honest in an age of crappy PR. Alison, who serves the food and works in the bar is also an extraordinarily nice person, and as forthright as the owner. Don’t expect platitudes, just good, old-fashioned ‘tell it as it is’ responses.

Now we all felt that the place had a spooky atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong it was warm and inviting. However, on the last day, Corolla, asked if we had seen the ghosts. She said, matter of factly, “Aye, there’s five”. Now that morning Francis had said to us at breakfast that she had heard breathing and whistling in her room at the same time as creaking floorboards. We mentioned this to Corolla and she said, “that would have been room 7”. Guess what room Francis had?

Brechin, Lunan Bay and Arbroath
On entering the county of Angus we were greeted by a sign announcing ‘Angus – the birthplace of Scotland!”. It would appear that it is going through a prolonged period of post-natal depression.

We arrived at midday, dumped our bags and set off for Brechin to see the famous Irish, round tower, built in the 10thC to protect people from the Vikings. The door is set a good six foot up the side and tapered into the thick walls for extra protection. Inside the Cathedral are a few Pictish stones, a cross and a fine black hogback. Having sought advice from a local we had lunch (fish and wine), at The Brown Horse, then drove to Lunan Bay via Montrose, a beautiful, half-mile, deserted beach with a red sandstone castle and a flock of Oyster Catchers. Then back to the Hotel for a doze.

That first night we were the only three guests at the hotel so we headed off to Arborath to eat – well that’s what we thought. This is a town that doesn’t appear to eat out. It was deserted and the three places we did find had all closed their kitchens by 8.30pm. After a pint of 80 shillings, a hideously cold, gassy, chemical concoction, in the The Pageant Pub, we ended up going way out of town to a Chinese, the Jasmine.

Day 2 – Arbroath Abbey, Glen Clova and St Vigeons
Declaration of Arbroath
Up early for a fine, cooked breakfast then off to see Arbroath Abbey, famous for its Declaration of Arbroath. Although ruined by fires, the reformation and quarrying, it’s still an impressive size and design - a transverse, three-isled Gothic basilica with a cloister, Abbey House and Sacristy. This was built by William the Lion after his defeat by Edward in Northumbria. He built it far enough north to escape easy access from the English and in a defiant gesture dedicated it to Thomas Becket. William is buried here but it’s another King, Robert the Bruce, who enters the frame. Having murdered Balliol in a church and refusing to answer communications from the Pope, he was excommunicated and not recognised as King of Scotland, despite his success at Bannockburn. This led to the Abbot writing to the Pope, making the case for Bruce to be King of Scotland. In an excellent exposition at the Abbey you can see that the document is less a cry for freedom by the people of Scotland, than a highly sophisticated piece of political propaganda to establish the legitimacy of Bruce as king.

The Declaration of Arbroath is, even now, being used to prop up political nationalism. We Scots, as ever, are always willing to over-egg the past when it suits us. As the guide told us, they often get visitors who have seen Braveheart once too often. The graveyard was interesting containing lots of obelisk gravestones. These were fashionable in the mid-19th century after Egypt had been opened up. We left, having arranged to see the curator at St Vigeons Museum at 1.30pm, to see the famous collection of Pictish stones.

Glen Clova
Meanwhile, we drove off to Glen Clova, a lovely drive into a Glen on the southern flank of the Cairngorms. As we climbed, the snow lay thicker on the ground and pheasants, partridges and birds of prey crossed our path. At the head of the glen, the sun came out and the snow looked even whiter. Magnificent.

Back to St Vigeons, where we met our friends Tony, Ruth and Francis, and stepped into a tiny cottage crammed full of Pictish stones. The stones are a mixture of pre-Christian and post-Christian, after the Picts were converted by Irish evangelists from the west. The symbols are intriguing, especially the Z-rod and V-rod. They appear on the stones in pairs and have yet to be fully interpreted, as there’s no Rosetta Stone. A fascinating example is the image of St Antony, the founder of monasticism, that matches an early image found in Egypt.

The Picts (painted people) were first mentioned by Roman writers in the 3rd C AD then by their neighbours well into the Dark Ages. This site was a Pictish settlement and there’s more stones to be found embedded in the church walls atop the conical hill.

Party time…
Scotland’s pagan past is best reflected in the importance they attach to New Year, as opposed to Christmas. This was New Year’s night and we brought in the bells with a party, copious amounts of alcohol, and Tony giving is Auld Lang Syne on his guitar.

Then the fun started, Corolla was smoking  a cigarillo and in the bar a party of around fifteen locals were kicking up a storm. Before long there was dancing on the table, then higher still on the mantelpiece, then higher still on top of the bar, and I don’t mean the bar top, I mean on the top of the wooden structure above the bar! Not to be outdone, Mark, one of our party, decided to have a go. As he began his striptease, the locals wanted him down, as he wasn’t on top of the pillars and was in danger of plunging through the structure. At one point, a man in a kilt threated to get his shotgun to get him down, while another pointed a fire extinguisher. After a solid standoff, Mark was brought down by Malcolm, a mountaineer from Skye (the island not TV company).

Day 3 – Lunan Bay, mystery dookers, movies and dinner
A good night was had by all and we woke for bacon and egg rolls at around 10 am. It’s traditional to have a bit of a New Year’s walk, so off we all went to Lunan’s bay, where the wind blew but sun shone. Then to Arbroath Harbour to see the Loony-dook, where locals swim in the North Sea. Unfortunately, they chose another slipway; leaving a disappointed crowd. Organisation is clearly not a strong point in Arbroath.

Ron had rigged up a cinema room where some of us watched Some Like It Hot, predicting the lines ‘That’s the bridge where we get from one side of the ship to the other’ and singing along with Marylyn Monroe. After a dinner of lentil soup, steak pie and trifle, we retired for games – dirty scrabble (triple points for filthy words) and poker. This is the sort of New Year’s day I like. No television, just a walk and some social entertainment.

Day 4 – Departure and some thoughts on Scotland
Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a book called The Invention of Scotland, where he researched and uncovered the relatively, recent invention of Scottish literature, kings and costume. The Scots are Celts and, like the Irish, have a love of myth that trips over into a love of myth making. Since I left Scotland, many years ago, there’s been ‘The Reinvention of Scotland’, that is literally a resurrection of these old myths. The Declaration of Arbroath, the Gaelic road signs, the Gaelic TV channel, kilts a plenty and the rise of crude nationalism.

One of my sons was punched on two separate nights for simply being English, and those awful trappings of Nationalism, flags and national dress are everywhere. In the paper today I read that Alex Salmond has chosen the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn for a referendum on the separation of Scotland from England. He may well win, and by that time, many in the UK will not be sad to see Scotland go its own way. I’m not in the nationalist camp.

The Declaration of Arbroath did little other than strengthen the power of a King and Scotland’s subsequent history from 1320 to 1707 was one of poverty and attrition. The Reformation was  European movement that gave Scotland much of its present character – predominantly Calvinist. The Scottish Enlightenment was part of a UK and European exchange of ideas, giving us the genius of Hume, Hutton and Smith. Scottish inventiveness, rooted in a the wider push towards science and engineering, gave us the fathers of the telephone, television and numerous other innovations, that thrived on trade across the British Empire.

What’s left is just populist Nationalism, that always flourishes on the back of foreign enemies, real or imagined, given extra impetus by the downturn in the economy. Whenever we start to look inwards, things go to pot. Our Calvinist dispositions towards frugality helped build competence in finance, but nationalist megalomania (RBS supported the SNP) shifted this to overoptimistic acquisitions. We gambled it away and lost, Scottiah finance is now a busted flush. Would Scotland have been better off if RBS and HBOS had collapsed in an independent Scotland? It was Scottish Boards, and CEOs, of limited competence, who started to believe in this crude ‘wha’s like us’ approach to banking.

Scotland’s problems; deep-seated poverty, poor diet, high alcohol consumption, unacceptable levels of violence, high reliance on public sector employment, weak economy, sectarianism, and inward looking disposition, will not be best served by separation. Take just one example, the high incidence of MS in Scotland. What’s needed is some large medical trial work, but as Scotland’s NHS is separate from the NHS as a whole this is difficult, if not impossible, to fund and implement. By replicating many of the institutions that already exist in England, the cost base is too high.

Scotland’s small-mindedness is also visible in its highly fragmented health, police, fire services and an absurdly small local authorities. This has led to a land of expensive chiefs and poorly paid Indians. At the very time Scotland should be thinking big, it’s thinking small.

It’s a non-communal culture that is grasping at nationalism as a uniting force. You won’t find a Scottish ghetto in New York or London or anywhere else for that matter, unlike the Irish and other ethnic minorities. We don’t work well together and tend to flourish when we’re lone wolves, managing others. Compare the number of successful Scottish football managers in England, compared to the number of footballers.

Most of what counts as popular nationalism is 19th century Victorian invention, once confined to a few tacky gift shops, now seen everywhere. The kilt (invented by an Englishman) and all its accompanying paraphernalia, invented by Walter Scott for the visit of George IV, has become the swaggering uniform of the accountant and lawyer, complete, for some reason, with Timberland boots. Flags fly in gardens and politicians blame England for all its woes. Yet much of this is funded by an advantageous Barnett Formula that sees Scottish people benefit hugely from a British subsidy.

What a referendum must make clear, is what the economic consequences of separation will mean. Does Scotland join the Eurozone (not looking so good for small nations now)? Will it have a separate defence force and drop Trident (advantages and disadvantages here)? Will social services and state benefits be separate (the bill will be enormous)? When you cut off the Barnett Formula grant and rely on taxable income, can you fund what you spend? Tricky questions.


At 2:23 PM, Anonymous Hilary McCusker said...

Good to read your comments about Arbroath Donald! Did you see the item on the news yesterday saying Warner Brothers have invested £10 million adapting the Harry Potter sets into a tourist attraction in London? Wish I'd thought of it earlier! Have emailed my MSP anyway to say we should do something bigger and better in the highlands......

Hilary x

At 5:36 PM, Blogger Donald Clark said...

Go for it Hilary.

At 4:24 PM, Blogger Ian said...

There's a lot of stuff here, and much of it is valid (the narrow-minded hooligan nationalism) but there is a fundamental difference between the attitudes and beliefs of the Scots, who are more social-democratic than the English, who are more christian-democratic. The Scots are more comfortable with the northern European model of society typical of Scandanavia - a more equal, egalitarian society - than the English, who are happier to pursue the 'red in tooth and claw' capitalism, with all its inequalities, as exemplified in the USA. Scotland will consequently show different funding priorities and to avoid increased tension between the two countries it makes sense for Scotland to raise and spend as many of its own taxes as possible - the so called 'devo max'. Scotland would then have to make the difficult choices that it doesn't currently have to face, and have to find the tac base to fund these choices.
A couple of other things - the Scottish Finance community is actually in pretty rude health, with over $800Bn under management and a leading position in Life Insurance and Pension management. It's (just) the banks that went bust!

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