Good weather and the Scottish character
Calvinism has a lot to answer for. As Scotland’s glorious spell of record-breaking warm weather draws to a close – sleet is forecast for us at the weekend – I have been noticing how many of us are miserable about the sunshine. That is to say, our instinctive reaction to unexpected good fortune is to assume that it will be counter-balanced by worse to come. It’s as if we dare not simply enjoy the moment for fear of being punished for it later, whether by sleet or by hellfire.
I am as guilty as anyone of this national trait.
‘Isn’t it a beautiful day?’ beamed a delivery driver on Monday, as he dropped off my groceries.
‘Wonderful,’ I replied. ‘I just hope that this isn’t all the summer we’ll get this year.’
As I heard what I was saying, I could have kicked myself for being so negative. My husband, a sunny optimist, is driven to distraction by my ability to see the downside in everything. (So at least he proves that not every Scot is a pessimist.) I would love to share his can-do attitude to life, but this native caution is too strong to shake off.
In the play-park yesterday after school, a friend came over to sit in the shade with me as the children played.
‘It’s too hot in the sun!’ she exclaimed. (Yesterday it reached 23.6 degrees C or 74.5 F in Scotland, the hottest day on record for March, I believe.) We laughed about how we each worried that the rest of the year would be a washout, and how that attitude is so typically Scottish. Just then another mum greeted us.
‘Lovely, isn’t it. I just hope this isn’t the only summer we’ll get this year!’ she grimaced as she walked past, while we tried to suppress our chuckles.
All this determined pessimism in the face of good fortune reminds me of a poem which perfectly encapsulates this aspect of the Scottish character. It’s by Alastair Reid, and is perhaps his best known poem. In fact, on awarding Reid an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of St. Andrews last year, Prof. Robert Crawford noted that this poem, “originally entitled ‘St Andrews’ but retitled ‘Scotland’, has been anthologized so often that its restless author…subjected it to a public burning after reading it at the StAnza poetry festival some years ago.”
The author may be fed up with it, but we continue to cherish this poem for its bright beauty and its uncomfortable, but undeniable, truth. Ladies and gentleman, here is Scotland, and the character of the Scots.
‘Scotland’ by Alastair Reid
It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet
when larks rose on long thin strings of singing
and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.
Greenness entered the body. The grasses
shivered with presences and sunlight
stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.
Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,
the woman from the fish-shop. ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it!’