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Good weather and the Scottish character

March 28, 2012

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.

the horse chestnut this morning

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.

Forsythia against the bluest sky


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!’



You might enjoy this post with a poem on trees by Philip Larkin, or another post which touches on the Scottish character, Hogmanay and after.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. March 28, 2012 7:54 pm

    To true! As a cheerful, carefree Canadian, I always marveled at how bitterly you Scots could complain about any form of weather. As an Ontarian, as climatically bitter as we get by way of passing the time of day is the standard phrase, “It isn’t the heat, eh? It’s the humidity.” It takes a hockey game to get us truly riled.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 28, 2012 8:42 pm

      Ah well, it takes all sorts! To an outsider, the Canadian attitude to hockey is frankly a wee bit frightening! The truth is, I think we Scots (maybe all Brits) secretly enjoy complaining about the weather. There’s so much of it that we’re never short of a topic of conversation. 😉

  2. March 28, 2012 9:08 pm

    This is funny! My cousin (near Glasgow) once commented to me, in an astonished, and I thought at the time almost exasperated, way that I was surprisingly optimistic. I guess I do tend to take each lovely, sunny day as it comes and revel in it – just in case it doesn’t happen again! My mother would have fit in perfectly with those you met in the park. Drove me insane.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 28, 2012 10:49 pm

      Your attitude is so much healthier than ours. Really – hasn’t it been proven that optimists live longer, recover quicker from cancer etc. etc.? I must work on daring to be optimistic!

  3. March 28, 2012 10:01 pm

    So true. It must be a self-protective mechanism, so that we don’t get too used to balmy weather. Lots of angry red sunburn in Edinburgh today on people who obviously think this is the last sunny day ever.
    My daughter is hoping St Andrews has many of these shimmering days.
    Talking of young people, I laughed at the way my cake photo transformed you into an 18 year old on Facebook.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 28, 2012 11:02 pm

      Well, I ‘LOL-ed’ at your description of Embra sunbathers! 🙂 Yes, cake can reduce me to a squealing teenager with embarrassing ease. Oh, don’t get me started on the Mountain Cafe again….

      So it’s St. Andrews, then? That’s great news. For me, St. Andrews managed both to inspire intellectually and to allow me the space to find my self-confidence. I never felt pressurised there, yet was never ever bored either. And long walks along West Sands are the best therapy for all the troubles of one’s early adulthood. (By comparison, Oxford, where I went next, seemed stuffed with people with mental health problems, which I put down to the lack of beach.) Oh – and St. Andrews is the sunniest place I know: ancient brown stone against intense blue skies. Perishingly cold, of course, but sunny! I hope that your daughter is very happy there.

  4. March 29, 2012 1:44 am

    Love this! Just can’t stop giggling – that Scottish attitude hasn’t faded in families even after all these years across the pond! Thanks for the great poem – hadn’t seen that one.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 29, 2012 7:24 pm

      Really? How funny that the emigrants to America should have taken their dour attitudes to the brave New World!

  5. March 29, 2012 4:59 am

    We spent the afternoon raking debris [dead leaves, small sticks and stones] in our yard. We are hoping to revitalize our lawn this weekend. I believe I received a bit of sunburn. It was a beautiful sunny and windy afternoon.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 29, 2012 7:24 pm

      Sunburn in March – that has to be another record!

  6. March 29, 2012 5:06 pm

    As a Scot, I understand the thinking! And having lived for a while on Skye, I know what you mean about the Calvinist culture. Interesting blog, will follow whenever. Best, Iain

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      March 29, 2012 7:32 pm

      Thanks for visiting, Iain. I am amused to discover that Scots have taken this attitude around the world with them. Skye is one of my favourite places (despite the Calvinism) and we visit as often as we can. Weirdly, the Waternish peninsula in the north seems to be hoaching with settlers from Yorkshire these days: perhaps the dour Yorkshire character feels at home there! 🙂

  7. March 29, 2012 8:29 pm

    I was discussing the glorious weather with my father today, and his final words on the subject (just as the poem has it) were “of course, we’ll pay for it”! I had a quiet smile.

  8. deb permalink
    March 29, 2012 9:33 pm

    The Scottish character must be related to the New England character. The same thing has been happening here – temperatures near 80 degrees F., and we have been saying the similar things as well. I guess we just can’t believe that we can be given too much of a good thing. Our temperatures have gone back down, and the flowers on the magnolias have all turned brown, so maybe the pessimists aren’t all wrong.

  9. dancingbeastie permalink*
    March 29, 2012 11:36 pm

    Oh, no, your poor magnolias! The thing is, wouldn’t we all be happier if we enjoyed them while they were looking beautiful, rather than anticipating their turning brown?!

  10. April 1, 2012 6:05 am

    Lovely post. I had to laugh at your hot temperature of 23 degrees. If that was summer in Melbourne, I’d be perfectly happy! I’m not a fan of summer but then, we don’t have your truly cold winters to get through. The clocks went back last night & autumn is on the way so I’m very pleased with the weather at the moment.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 1, 2012 6:09 pm

      Thanks, Lyn. Autumn is one of my favourite times of year here: crisp mornings and the feeling of renewed energy as the summer heat fades. But yes, my cousin in Queensland shares your amusement at the Scottish idea of ‘hot’! To give you an idea of how odd these temperatures are in spring, though, it’s usually more like 8-10 degrees in March. Looks like normality is returning now: we are forecast snow for tomorrow.

  11. April 2, 2012 3:08 pm

    This post made me grin, DB, as I’m guilty of this attitude to unseasonably good weather myself and there isn’t a drop of Scottish blood in my veins to my knowledge. 🙂 I’m a northerner by birth and we get rather similar weather much of the time. Mind you, sometimes our weather pessimism is thoroughly justified, as last year summer definitely came in April. It’s odd, though -in other ways I’m an incurable optimist, which can drive my half-Scots husband distracted. 🙂

  12. April 4, 2012 9:27 pm

    a wonderful and funny poem indeed!
    I remember when we visited Australia and got out of our air conditioned camper somewhere around the town of “Lightning Ridge” (how is that for a town’s name!).
    The 50 degrees Celsius hit me in the face, and burned my feet (in slippers!).
    I do like my (spring) sun but as a NW European I seem to feel most comfortable when it’s about 15 degrees and there is a bit of fresh humidity around, and we can happily revel in our “Didn’t -I-say-so” weather conversations ;)…

  13. April 5, 2012 10:53 pm

    Sorry to disappoint, but it’s not just the Scots with that attitude, it’s the Welsh and the English, too. Certainly here in Wales, when the T-shirt weather of a few days ago gave way to snow and bitterly cold winds… our pessimism was answered!

    Thank you for posting the photo of the Horse Chestnuts. There were several very large, old ones, in my parents garden and I’ve missed them for decades. It’s one of my most favourite trees, particularly when the ‘Candles’ come with their pop-corn like blooms.

  14. Jo Woolf permalink
    April 24, 2012 5:39 pm

    I have to admit that I made a few similar comments about the fine weather in March. Thanks for following my blog, The Hazel Tree. Hope that you enjoy it!

  15. dancingbeastie permalink*
    April 25, 2012 12:06 pm

    Thank you for all your comments, which I enjoyed reading as always despite being distracted by being abroad over Easter.

    Jo, thanks for visiting. ‘The Hazel Tree’ is a delight, just stuffed with treasures, and I look forward to exploring it!

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