Scratch beneath the surface of the Yes campaign, and you’ll find that it comprises little more than hollow “shortbread tin nationalism”, a two dimensional, twee version of a Scotland that never was. So goes the rhetoric of many within the official No campaign and those who seek to maintain the status quo.
As with so much unionist bombast, the “shortbread tin nationalism” assertion is entirely untrue and founded upon a certain degree of (often wilful) ignorance. Most depressing of all though, this ignorance is not reserved purely for those who oppose a yes vote in 2014, no: it’s much more endemic than that.
Of course, it makes sense for proponents of the anti-independence campaign to paint Scottish culture in terms of those tacky souvenir shops, whose hackneyed pipe muzak and tartan themed paraphernalia blight so much of Edinburgh’s old town. After all, if our cultural heritage comprises little more than a bad Mel Gibson movie and a “see you jimmy” hat, we can’t really be serious contenders for country status, can we?
The traditional arts in Scotland – by which I mean the real ones, not the Tartan tat that sadly springs into most peoples minds – are practically invisible.
Many countries have enjoyed something of a renaissance in terms of traditional culture. Take Ireland for example, whose modern cultural identity owes a great deal to the revival of the 60s and 70s; the Christy Moores and Andy Irvines of this world do not represent some parochial caricature of a bygone age, rather a living, breathing culture that is as contemporary today as it ever was.
This is not, and never really has been the case in Scotland. Whilst much of our traditional music, art and language still lives, it does so in an extremely understated way; thanks more to a handful of dedicated individuals and meagre government subsidies. This is largely explained by the so-called “cultural cringe”, the undoubted legacy of centuries of cultural suppression – we can just about thole something like Big Country or Runrig, they’ve got electric guitars after all, but there we draw the line. Scots seem to have a uniquely instinctive desire to dissociate themselves from any type of culture that is distinctly their own.
We are quick to shun the traditional arts, preferring instead to talk up our younger, trendier credentials. Don’t get me wrong, the likes of Amy MacDonald, KT Tunstall or Paolo Nutini ought indeed to be talked up – but there’s a big difference between a Scottish artist and a Scottish art form; this concept is understood in most every country throughout the world, it is only sniffed at here because of – lets be honest – the political implications of conceding anything which makes Scotland seem like it might have once been (not that long ago), an independent country.
Scotland’s traditional culture is of course, about as far removed from the version depicted by souvenir shops and shortbread tins as it is possible to get, but the cringe factor still tends to leave our tradition bearers somewhat out in the cold.
It has therefore been heartening to see the growing numbers from within the traditional arts community in Scotland visibly getting behind a Yes vote in next year’s referendum, most notably through the TradYES movement within National Collective. Let’s make no bones about it, this community is as important to the campaign as it is to Scotland, that is to say – crucial.
‘Yes Scotland’ and the wider pro-independence community need to embrace this support, it is worth so much more than most of us probably realise. Recall this year’s independence rally on Calton Hill, at which a number of musical acts appeared; few of them were earth-shatteringly well-known or acclaimed (not that I’m saying they shouldn’t have been there of course). TradYES on the other hand, contributed some of the best, and indeed most critically acclaimed musicians in Scotland today. That is massively significant, not least because most of the crowd had probably never heard of them.
The shortbread tin myth is easily dispelled, but the cultural cringe pervades and the No campaign will do all they can to exploit it. It therefore falls to the wider TradYES community not simply to show their own support for a Yes vote in 2014, but to reach out and encourage Scots to re-engage with their collective identity.