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Scotland by the book

For many of us, our ideas about Scotland come from movies like Braveheart, which portray a land of magnificent scenery, romantic past, kilts, bagpipes, etc. But if you've ever been lucky enough to go to Glasgow, you discovered a cosmopolitan city with sophisticated restaurants and upscale shopping. Sort of makes you wonder what Scotland is really like. So we asked a native, Adam Fowler, to see if an American guide book could get it right.

Scotland by the Book
by Adam Fowler

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Scotland is a small country. I can drive through it in a couple of days. In fact, that's what I'm about to do--with a copy of the recently published Lonely Planet guidebook in my backpack. It's the first of their books dedicated just to Scotland. Before, we were allowed a small section at the back of their guide to Britain, with England getting the lion's share of the attention. It's fitting, then, that I'm taking this journey just when Scotland has voted in its first separate parliament in three hundred years.

The book says we're a country on the verge of recovering its nationhood. But I'm cautious about nationhood; there are too many myths at the heart of it. I'm not even sure I know what it means. So I'm taking the guidebook north from my home in Glasgow, up to the Highlands and Islands, to see how the image lives up to reality.

Adam: "Hello there."

Maître d': "Hi."

Adam: "Have you a table for one?"

Maître d': "Certainly, if you'd just like to come this way."

My first port of call is the town of Fort William which the guidebook calls a culinary desert, apart from the Crannog seafood restaurant. The word crannog is Gaelic for an artificial island jutting out from the banks of a loch and that's just what this little wooden restaurant is - a small island on stilts, with the waters of Loch Linnhe lapping against it and a fishing boat tied up to its wall. Food doesn't get much fresher than this.

Adam: "There's a section in here on food, on Scottish food: 'The Scots' high rate of heart disease partly results from their high consumption of alcohol and cigarettes but also from many poorer Scots eating a less than healthy diet, high in fried foods.'"

Waitress: "I mean here in the Crannog we fry very little. Me personally I don't eat a lot of fried food and neither do any of my family."

Well, so much for Scottish food. But what about our cultural diet? According to the book, there's not much artistic life outside Glasgow and Edinburgh. But on the Hebridean Island of Skye, I know that there's one of the best art gelleries in Scotland. The curator is Nora Campbell. She will have something to say about Lonely Planet's assertion that "the arts never seem to have caught the Scottish popular imagination."

Nora Campbell: "Oh, I think the arts in Scotland are extremely vibrant and I think that's really been borne out at the moment by the number of internationally renowned Scottish artists who are remaining in Scotland to work instead of disappearing off abroad."

Adam: "Now another thing I've noticed along the road: an awful lot of election posters. How will Scotland see itself? Say, this Lonely Planet guide with its mountains and its tartans and its haggis and its bagpipes, or will it look to itself as a more cultural and intellectual place, as well?"

Nora: "I think it always has been a cultural and intellectual place and I think that's going to borne out if devolution or independence, whichever, comes about. We've a very strong identity which, of course, is known worldwide on the tartan front. But there is an awful lot more to the culture and I think that's really going to forge its way forward."

Back on the mainland, heading east towards the village of Plockton. This is where television companies come to capture the beauty and romance of Scotland. But they don't film the pegboard on the wall of the village hall with its handwritten requests for work. "Forty-year old man, seeks employment. Anything considered." It seems life isn't always easy in a picture postcard.

First Local: "It's not easy to live in a remote area, is it?"

Adam: "It's not easy to live in Plockton?"

Second Local: "Well, there's not really much work in Plockton. All the young ones all go away 'cause there's no universities or colleges here."

First Local: "We pay the price for living in a lovely place."

Adam: "Does it not annoy you then when you see that guidebook and it's all pretty pictures and 'come and look at how idyllic it is here'?"

Second Local: "Ah, but that's what they want. In fact, there was a young couple just married last week, remember they stayed for a night and wouldn't go away. In the beer garden at eleven o'clock at night and they were there the next morning at half past eight." (Laughter)

One of my favorite things about Scotland is that you can drive all day and then just pull up at the side of the road, book a room in a bed and breakfast and just clamber down from the road and down the bank of a river and stand in silence, apart from the birdcall and the rushing of the water.

Landlady: "Good morning."

Adam: "What do I get for the full breakfast?"

Landlady: "Egg, bacon, sausage, tomato, beans, fried bread."

Adam: "I can't help noticing your accent isn't Scottish."

Landlady: "No, it's Liverpudlian."

Adam: "So, being English, do you encounter any problems?"

Landlady: "I don't personally but there are problems, aye. Between the Scottish and the English. And if you go down towards Callander it's written on the wall, you know, 'go home English'."

Adam: "Yeah, in this book here under racial discrimination: '...although few visitors will be aware there is anti-English feeling'."

Landlady: "When you move into somewhere and you're English you've got to sort of let them accept you and a lot of the English people don't, they come in and start enforcing. But if they accept you, well you're fine."

Adam: "If Scotland was to become independent would you think about moving away?"

Landlady: "Oh no. I wouldn't go back to England. It's a different way of life, anyway. No, I wouldn't go."

Well, that's it. I'm back in Glasgow, but the book has one thing absolutely right and that's about football. Today is when Rangers play Celtic, that's the two big teams, one, broadly speaking is Catholic and one Protestant and the guidebook says, if you're asked about this, as I enter a pub, a good chance to practice your listening skills.

Scotland is proud of itself. It deserves a guidebook to itself, and it deserves a parliament to itself. Nationalism is in the air here. There is a theoretical chance that tourists will one day visit a Scotland which is no longer part of the United Kingdom. I hope that we Scots find something more than romantic myths to base our patriotism on, and something more than a misplaced dislike of the English to bind us together. For nationalism is a close cousin to tribalism,and, just now, there's more than enough of that in Europe.

In Glasgow, I'm Adam Fowler for The Savvy Traveler.


A Language Lesson: Scottish

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Like to know some idioms when you travel in a foreign country? Well, we've compiled a couple to help you in your travels through Scotland.

awa' an bile yer heid (go away and boil your head)
A phrase denoting strong disagreement with an opinion with wider connotations of general distaste for the person concerned.

wha's like us (who is like us)
Uttered when glasses are raised in a toast, to which the reply is, gaye few (not many) then both parties say, an ther a' deid (and they are all dead). We don't know why.


On the Web: Scotland

Lonely Planet Guide to Scotland

North-West Frontiers Walking Tours

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