“If you two are going to spend all afternoon pretending to be Scottish,” said a friend as we made our way to meet a man called Angus, “I’m leaving.”
He had a point. Like me, Angus was born, raised and lived in England. And like me, he had a penchant for recounting family tales from north of the border. I could see why, to the outsider, it looked as though we were trying to out-Celt each other.
But our apparent plastic tartanry was nothing but genuine. In my case, I had never even been to Scotland until I visited St Andrews, which to my eternal gratitude had offered me a place to study at its university.
It was more a homecoming than a visit. Although a stranger, the bones of my mother’s family lay buried only six miles away in Dunino. Her grandfather had been brought up in a house called Grangemuir, just outside Pittenweem. The cottage hospital in St Andrews itself had been founded in memory of her great-great grandmother.
I knew all this, and took pride in it, long before I set foot in Scotland. In my family, our Scottish lineage was woven into the fabric of our daily lives. As a child at my grandfather’s house I would spend hours reading books about the ’45, or Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather. On the walls were paintings that had been exhibited by my great-great aunt at the Royal Scottish Academy. The shelves were stocked with novels by her sister, Helen Douglas-Irvine, one of the earliest female students at St Andrews. Even the ashtrays at my grandfather’s house were crested with the winged, crowned heart that reminded us of our shared ancestor, James Douglas, who had travelled to the Holy Land with the heart of Robert Bruce – and was cut down in battle as he travelled via Spain.
It gave me a rooted sense of Scottishness at the heart of my identity. An identity that jostled with an awareness that I was a mosaic of many people, traditions and stories. I was part Irish – one great-great grandfather was a doctor at the hospital in Roscommon during the Famine. I was part Belgian – descended from a composer of 19th century music hall songs. I was English – an offshoot of boat builders and shopkeepers in Northumberland and the Tyne.
And what I liked was the way in which generations of my family had been made welcome wherever they had settled. Whether they were accepted by Fenlanders, Londoners, Scots or Irish.
It was a welcome I enjoyed in St Andrews, from my cleaning lady to my lecturers. It was a welcome I enjoyed when I spent a summer working as a forester in Dalkeith, nightly propping up Smith’s bar. It was a welcome I hoped I gave to Scots and others who made their homes in England.
I was not a Scot, but at the same time I was not simply a guest. I shared too much with the people I was among for them to regard me fully as a stranger. I had an open invitation to make a life in Scotland, based on something more complex and more special than a one-size-fits-all ‘British’ identity.
The only bum note I encountered, bar the frequent drunken ripples of ‘the fucking English’ (translation: ‘fucking students’) was when a young woman from Edinburgh said to me in all sincerity: “I regard you as being foreign”.
Foreign. In a country which has attracted huge numbers of settlers from Ireland, Italy, England – and latterly the world – and who have shaped the Scottish outlook and identity for centuries. An identity that, above bloodline and race, is built on shared, shifting stories that are interwoven with those of people across what is still the UK.
It’s these shared stories that, in my opinion, run deeper than any artificial flag-waving notion of Britishness. And why I’ll be sad, if not wholly surprised, if Scotland turns her back on the narrative we share and decides to write future chapters on her own.