first degree burns
Tonight is Burns Night, the main annual cultural celebration in Scotland. Though I am Scots, and enjoyed most of the Burns that I read, I am not convinced he would have been so prolific had he foreseen the long-term effects of his work. His style, language, and thinking have dominated Scottish culture since his time, shaping everyone’s perceptions of Scotland. Echoes of Burns, and reactions against his work, can be found everywhere today, from Iain Banks, to Billy Connolly, to Trainspotting.
Edinburgh is the popular seat of Scottish culture today, the first stop for American tourists searching for their Scottish roots. It’s no accident that the film Trainspotting starts with an American tourist, visiting Edinburgh, getting mugged by a local junkie – it symbolizes Irvine Welsh’s reaction to the Yankee invasion. I took a day trip there last year, but spent only two hours looking around before jumping on the train back to Glasgow.
Edinburgh is also the world capital of Hogmanay, with several hundred thousand people converging on the place last month to get drunk and stupid, and sing Auld Lang Syne without understanding the words. The Encyclopaedia Britannica has “Scottish Cuisine” in its index, but with only one related entry: haggis.
On the topic of Scotland and my culture, the following words are more meaningful to me. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to describe Stuart Adamson as another great Scots poet and songwriter, worthy of a place up there alongside MacDiarmid and Burns. These words came from his liner notes to the reissue of The Seer, the 1986 album by Big Country:
I came to one day in 1985 and found I had been around the world several times in a chaos of bagpipe guitars and cold small beer. I had been translated and subtitled from the sack to the mill and came home to a place that didn’t look like the press kit.
I was aware that I was carrying more than just some cheap luggage around with me, especially when I spoke in an accent deemed everything from cute to impenetrable, depending on who was doing the listening. It seemed that all I did was defined by my being Scots, and all of it someone else’s definition.
So I opened my eyes, I looked, I listened, I read, and made tangible for myself what had been instinctive. Somewhere between Alex Harvey and Hugh McDiarmid, Glencoe and Hampden Park was a culture, and it was mine. It too had been packaged and marketed, but it was there, tucked away in a corner below the whisky and shortbread crates.
So I took it out and dusted it off, and there it was. It wanted to be outward looking and forward thinking, freed of the misty sentimentality of nationalism, but aware of its continuity. Where have we been, where are we going, what can we give, what can we learn?
Me? I just brought it to the party.
© 1996 Stuart Adamson
Stuart died just over a year ago, a victim of both his failures and his successes. Tonight I will raise a glass of something “dry” to the memories of Adamson and Burns. Cheers.