All being well, tomorrow evening I shall celebrate Burns Night with haggis, neeps and tatties at our local Wetherspoons pub. Although when I lived in Scotland as a child we always had a Burns supper at school on 25 January, complete with a recitation of ‘Address to a haggis’, it’s only recently that I have started making a point of celebrating Burns Night.
It’s a case of reasserting my sense of Scottishness. It’s now nearly 30 years since my family moved down to England when I was 10 years old. I speak with a Watford accent and nobody meeting me would pick me out as a Scot. In addition, I begin to realise that I am unlikely ever to return to Scotland to live. And although I spent the formative years of 3–10 years old in Kincardineshire and have a father from Dundee, I have an English mother and was born a good way south of Hadrian’s Wall.
Yet I still consider myself a Scot and make a point of correcting anyone who describes me as English. Doubtless not all Scots would regard me as one of their fellow countrymen. My sister, who lives in Fife and was born in Montrose, but who speaks with the same sort of accent as mine, occasionally finds people unwilling to accept her bona fides as a Scotswoman.
In this the Scots are quite unlike the Irish, who seem to retain a sense of Irishness generations after their families emigrated. I suspect that this is a question of national self-image. The Catholic Irish will see their ancestors as having been forced into exile as a result of Saxon oppression. Being part of the Irish diaspora is a badge of honour. By contrast the Scots regard themselves as punching above their weight within the United Kingdom and therefore will be slightly suspicious of those who have left. That’s my theory anyway. Leave Ireland and your grandchildren’s grandchildren will remain Irish. Move from Edinburgh to London and within months you can cease to be Scottish.
Perhaps as a way of over-compensating for my slightly suspect Scottishness, I do support all teams who play against England at sport. This isn't a question of being hostile to English people. It’s just that if you are a Scotland supporter in a sense every game is against England. If Scotland beat a team that England have lost to, that shows we are better than them. It’s part of Scottish folklore that six months after England won the 1966 World Cup, Scotland beat them at Wembley, thus making us the real world champions.
Despite this, I don’t regard myself as in any sense a nationalist. My politics are liberal, cosmopolitan, internationalist and I regard a sense of national identity as being very different from political nationalism. Yet when I went on a tour of the Scottish parliament earlier this year I did feel some stirrings of patriotic pride. Perhaps it’s a question of being happier as part of a race of plucky underdogs than top dogs. Or maybe my insistence on not being English is just a fear and hatred of morris dancing.
Whichever way, tomorrow evening I shall tuck into my haggis, wash it down with a nice single malt and perhaps even later on torment my poor wife by insisting on dusting down from the shelf my volume of Burns’ complete works and reading aloud from it. For I am a Scotsman!