Robert Somynne: The World Is Your Smokie


“Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?

Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliché corner

To a fool who cries ‘Nothing but heather!’ where in September another

Sitting there and resting and gazing around

Sees not only the heather but blueberries”

Hugh MacDiarmid

BBC2 recently aired a historical drama called 37 days. The programme dramatised the run up to the First World War, demonstrating the numerous blusters and miscalculations of the military and political castes of the European imperial powers. This is not my main target in this feature but it does provide an opening theme, that of the danger of existential paralysis. It is when a nation ceases ‘to be’ in its fullness, whether to itself, history or the rest of the world.

During the opening credits of the three episodes I experienced what is now a frequent spasm of rage on behalf of Scots. For when the nations and their elemental capital scenery were being faded back and forth to dramatic turn of the century Viennese music, Scotland is inevitably left out. Indeed in the whole series the British Empire was referred to (as we know it was regularly) as England. As if the fondly thought of province of Scotlandshire was simply a training ground for brave but tragic lads from poor neighbourhoods who were used for the wars English plutocrats irresistibly desired to fight.

The prospect of an independent Scotland is not only the chance to affirm the fact of national existence. Moreover it is the chance to present this existence to the rest of the world outside the historical and cultural prism of British imperial memory. A new Scotland would not need to work within the confines of ‘punching above one’s weight’. A phrase betraying a language that exposes the nonchalant ease in which imperial misconduct is substituted by jolly cultural adventurism. For an independent Scotland would not live off the cultural proceeds of a time past but acquire a new sense of itself as an active and responsible member of the international community.

Many friends I have spoken to have said and written that they quake with horror when confronted with an outside world that either doesn’t know they exist or can’t really identify the difference between a UK mired in shame and a freakish addiction of pomp and ceremony in place of real cultural and societal progress. But I have also come across many friends from Germany, Hong Kong, Kenya and places far and wide that have such a relentlessly positive view of Scotland that it begs a question. Has any nation had the same positive economic prospects post-independence alongside such global goodwill to supplement it? I would posit none have. And this surely should bode well for the future and give confidence to those in favour of the return of sovereignty to the Scottish people.

But it is also a call not to waste that good will. For a nation whose elites first bartered her sovereignty for ill designed economic and military gain and who benefited indisputably; Scotland enjoys an accurate perception of nation that is warm, welcoming, talented and most importantly, creative.

Already this year I have enjoyed visiting music, food and arts and crafts festivals in numerous cities and towns in Scotland. Events such as Dundee Literary Festival, Inverness Poetry Workshops run by the Gaelic Books Council and groups like Creative Edinburgh, Love Fife and Food From Fife. And like many, I’ll be looking forward to the Tradfest when it gets started on 29 April. These are recent examples of a Scottish civic culture that has always been indomitable, bearing the aspirations and will of local people whom had been deprived of an effective democratic voice for so long. This year has seen an increase in the number of organisations engaging with local people and an emboldening of the sense of what local people in Scotland can do. All that is required are the national institutions with full powers to support, recognise and embody it.

There is also the potential for renewal and bolstering of connections with Europe and Scandinavia. But what about links to the outside world? The world has waited a long time and Scotland is ready to join the family of nations.

Many in favour of union would state that being in blessed captivity has never prevented Scotland and her citizens from expressing themselves or exporting talents and creativity. Yet these objections fail to acknowledge the terms on which its cultural expression takes place. Surely now is the time for Scottish artistic skill to be presented to the world free of the echo or pretensions of empire. A nation and its artists who can say “yes, here we are” – “no, we do not rule the waves” – “but, we can build a boat together.”

It is the chance to detach from the outmoded model of the British state and spread out into the global community. Often it is mooted that 40% of Scotland’s overall trade is with the rest of the UK. But it is never questioned whether this is good because it is the established fact or whether it is bad as it shows being held captive in the union has forced Scotland to limit its ability to reach into diverse markets of its own accord. Why is that 40%, with the artistic capital contained, not spread out amongst the rest of world which is brimming with cultural vigour and excitement?

Where are the photographic exhibits documenting the different approaches to local mobilisation and ownership in a rejuvenated Scotland and Latin American nations? Where is the modernist architecture, with the wisdom of Patrick Geddes inscribed on the side, adorning districts in Malaysia and Johannesburg? The avant-garde Scottish theatre in St Petersburg tackling matching issues of rural isolation in both countries? Or the rhythmic shivers of the Gaelic fiddler and harpist in a Shanghai bar at midnight?

Through cultural dialogue (I make the point of not saying power) a new Scotland can engage with the wider world on ideas of greater democratic accountability, consistency in human rights, promotion of diplomacy and peaceful accord, economic development that is both dynamic and democratic to the local unit, community ownership and enterprise over automated industry and machine-like corporatism. And finally, authentic local culture and an authentic blending of cultures through artistic dialogue which in itself can be a new form of diplomacy.

To conclude we can refer back to the idea that through meetings like the Commonwealth Games, the British State uses clout based on past ‘glory’ to push forward a vision of itself a powerful and an ‘influence’. I am reminded on a visionary of the ‘liberal’ empire. The man was Thomas Babington Macaulay the high prophet of C19th Liberalism whose mantra was free trade, parliamentary legislation (yet not full democratic representation, funnily enough) and free press. On leaving the House of Commons he gave an address to his constituents in Leeds before he popped off to India to make enrich himself and ‘do good’ to the natives. Below is that address he gave.

“May your manufactures flourish; may your trade be extended; may your riches increase! May the works of your skill, and the signs of your prosperity, meet me in the furthest regions of the East, and give me fresh cause to be proud of the intelligence, the industry, and the spirit of my constituents!”

4 February 1834

The message is still fundamentally the same when artists in favour of union, wherever they may hide, speak of our cultural power. On the face of it, the quotes may not show what a ravenous intent clever Tom had for the Raj. What Macaulay envisaged was British manufacturing and crafts would be used as weapons or cultural and economic conquest. Cultural dominance rather than dialogue. If I may humbly turn the words of such men upon themselves we must have a new address with cleaner motives.

May your songs be sung, may your poems be written, may your knowledge and goodwill multiply. May the fires of your art and the signs of your creativity join with others so that they know you exist and exist in dignity and peace. Give your fellow citizens inspiration to work tirelessly not for conquest or silver, but for the prosperity and meaning of all.

Robert Somynne
National Collective


About Robert Somynne

Robert Somynne is a poet and playwright from South London writing with a background in history and politics. He graduated from York University in 2010 and has spent several years travelling Scotland, England, Italy and Hong Kong. His writing explores the complexities of nationhood, ethnicity and childhood memory.