My second full day in Scotland and I’m starting to realize that Scotland may be the most misunderstood country that Americans think they know all about. With so many Americans of English and Scottish descent and with the history and literature in our schools, until fairly recently, so Euro- and especially Anglo-centric, we think we know Scotland as if it were a 51st US state. We don’t and it isn’t. First of all, most of us, if asked to name three famous living Scots would have a hard time getting past Sean Connery and Ewan MacGregor. This is particularly hard for me to admit, as an English Literature major with a particular interest in British history. Now, my English husband is just as misinformed about the Scots as I am, but it bothers him less. Because the English don’t really bother learning much about Americans, Irish, Welsh and Scots because, well, they aren’t English, are they? (And this is also the man who assured me, as we landed at the airport, that all Scotsmen carry a spare haggis in their coat pockets.) But I’m concerned enough about my misconceptions that I feel I should correct them right now — because, if you are an American reader, they are probably your misperceptions as well.
1. All of Scotland is NOT the Highlands. The last time I was in Scotland, I was a 19 year old backpacker with a rail pass. But did I fall asleep on the train journey from England, wake up and tour Edinburgh, then fall asleep on the train until I hit the Highlands? Because I seem to remember that all of Scotland featured wild, rocky, craggy mountains, lochs everywhere and a feeling that a screaming, red-haired, kilt-wearing blue faced man could come bursting out of every gorse bush.
Just like the manicured, tamed landscape above doesn’t conform to my misconceptions about Scotland, I’m just as misinformed about Sir Walter Scott and quite a few other “typical Scots”.
2. Sir Walter Scott and William Wallace aren’t the Scots you think they are.
As my other gracious host, Helen, toured me around what’s called The Borders, we kept bumping into Sir Walter Scott. Like George Washington in our country, he seems to have eaten in every tavern, slept in every Georgian house and stopped at every waypoint around here. Which shocked me as I never imagined he’d be this far south. But then I can’t claim to have read much Scott. Helen informs me that Scottish school children don’t either. I’m not surprised. He’s heavy going. Charles Dickens cited him as an influence, but luckily Dickens’ writing is nothing like his. I once remember a literary critic saying that, if one of Scott’s characters were to pass you on the street wearing exactly the same clothes he was wearing in the novel, you’d recognize him. But you’d know a Dickens character in a dark alley even if you only heard his voice. And it turns out Sir Walter wasn’t much of a Scot either. He just played one in literary circles. He was a city boy who spent a lot of time in England, married a French girl and dined with the Prince Regent in London. I can only find one instance of him getting much further north than Edinburgh. He was kind of like the James Fenimore Cooper of Scotland. As Cooper sat on his back porch in New York City imagining the American wilderness of his Last of the Mohicans, so Scott sat around upper class Presbyterian parlors churning out novels of wild Catholic Highlanders in areas of Scotland he never visited.
Then there’s William Wallace. (And just try to imagine him NOT as Mel Gibson.) But he’s even less like Braveheart than you can imagine. As we toured around the ruins of Dryburgh Abbey, I heard one of the staff tell another American, “Of course, Wallace wasn’t wearing a kilt like in the movie. He would have worn armor.” Well, it turns out, he was a minor nobleman and he wasn’t a Highlander either. He hailed from just a bit North and East of where we were touring. So when Helen took me down a lovely manicured path that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Jane Austen novel, and we happened upon a large statue to William Wallace, it suddenly didn’t seem so incongruous that he would be depicted staring out at the River Tweed instead of gazing off toward the direction of a northern loch.
3. And forget what you think you know about Hadrian’s Wall.
You know what we’ve been told: the Romans conquered their way all through Europe until they came up against a people they couldn’t defeat. Instead of trying to fight the ancient Scottish tribes, they just built a big wall along what is now the English-Scottish border and hoped no Pict could scale it. Well, apparently, there are Roman hill forts all through this area quite north of Hadrian’s Wall. Turns out the Lowland Scots were as civilized and well-mannered as they are today. Lots of farming and raising of sheep and cows. No running around and painting their faces with woad and beating back all invaders. That sense of being more in tune with the English of the Northern counties than the Highlanders continued through the ages. I saw that today with a visit to the ruins of an abbey and monastery complex that was every bit as large and sophisticated as anything I’ve seen in France or around southern England. That continued through the ages with lovely stately homes, tidy Victorian villages and industrious weaving towns that had more in common with the British Midlands than with any post-Pict or Gaelic tribal lands.
So granted The Highlands, as I remember them, really DO look like what you think Scotland is all about. Remember there is a lot of Scotland that is NOT the Highlands. However, some stereotypes still apply. As we were touring the Abbey ruins, we watched a wedding party out on the lawn of the nearby manor house. Every male from five to eighty-five was wearing a kilt. But, from the distance, I couldn’t tell if they were all carrying spare haggis in their pockets.
And by the way, Andy didn’t join us. He was off in Melrose watching Rugby and drinking in pubs. The English, you see, are exactly as you think they are.
Find more pictures of my outing in the Borders and Dryburgh Abbey here.
Here’s an introduction to visiting the Borders area of Scotland.