Musings from The North

We were duped. Sold a pup. The wool was pulled over our eyes. Or to be more specific, the tartan.

That was my reaction this week when, for the first time in many years, I watched the movie Braveheart. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the film in the 24 years since I sat awestruck in the Odeon Cinema on Renfield Street, Glasgow. But for my daughter, it was the first time.

Braveheart was released in 1995

And what a film it is. It has everything: gory battles, not one but two captivating love stories, an evil king, a valiant protagonist who is a cross between a warrior, a poet and a freedom fighter, and of course, the great ideal of Freedom.

I realised watching it this time around just how much the film actually means to me. You see, the story it tells – the real story, not the made up bits – of the battles the Scots of the 13th and 14th centuries had to face in order to claim an identity of their own from an over-reaching English aristocracy, have been interwoven with my life since I was in Primary School.

My life is soaked in this story. I grew up in Renfrewshire, the birth place of the real William Wallace (no more a Highlander than Mel Gibson himself). At both Primary and Secondary School we studied the story of the Scottish Wars of Independence. I read books about this period given to me by my grandparents. And then, as I reached the mid-point of my undergraduate degree at Glasgow University, came the movie and my trip to Renfield Street on more than one occasion in the summer of 1995.

There is no question that the movie was – and some would still say, is – a phenomenon. It took at least $213 million at the Box Office worldwide. It’s the staple fair of the home movie platforms even today, hence why I was watching it. Sitting amongst 1000 Glaswegians as they roared Wallace’s army on at the Battle of Stirling Bridge remains to this day the most ‘interactive’ cinematic experience I’ve ever had.

Yet my personal connection is deeper still. Just before the movie came out, I was a budding journalist, and trying my hand at writing, both for the Glasgow University Guardian and other publications. And so, it came to pass that my best friend – a budding, and now professional, photographer – and I had found ourselves, aged 18, in a press pen on the slopes leading up to Stirling Castle as we covered the World Premiere of Braveheart. That night, I interviewed the actors, celebrities and hangers on, as they made their way to the premiere after-party in the castle itself. Amongst those on the guest list, and who I interviewed that night, were Catherine Zeta Jones, Patsy Kensit, Mel Gibson, a host of lesser stars, and a certain Mr Alex Salmond.

Alex Salmond Braveheart
Alex Salmond at the Braveheart Premiere. I’m just out of shot over his right shoulder (mercifully)

As I watched the movie with my eldest daughter this week all of these memories came flooding back. I still think it’s a great movie. What’s changed however is the feeling it gives me. Don’t get me wrong, it still gives me goosebumps at certain points. In the end, I’m as patriotic as the next Scot. Yet now it leaves me feeling somewhat queasy about just what the movie has represented for many Scots.

For a generation of Scots brought up with the same stories as me, Braveheart was both a climax and a catalyst for what has ultimately become the Yes Movement, and the rejuvenated SNP. Say what you will about Alex Salmond, but he was not at that movie premier by accident.

Almost 6 years ago in December 2013, reflecting on the upcoming Scottish Independence Referendum, I wrote the following in my first blog, Musings from the Island Line:

I believe that many Scots feel like they should vote Yes because they are essentially Patriotic. They are drawn to the grand claims and romantic language which Nationalism uses. But I have a message for my fellow Scots: it’s ok to vote No. You won’t lose your identity, and you’re no less a Scot than those who plan to vote Yes. Moreover, it’s a fundamentally wise decision to choose to maintain our Union with Wales, England and Northern Ireland.

It’s this Nationalism that has been so nourished by the activism of the Braveheart Generation. The potent combination of an historic romanticism and a common, identifiable enemy is an ephemeral phenomenon, but a very real one at work in the Yes Movement, and the SNP which is interwoven with it.

Although any self-aware Independence activist will frame their rationale within a narrative of civic nationalism and social justice – aspirations for the most part that I do not doubt – the symbolism, heart and emotion of the Scottish Independence movement is as firmly rooted in Scottish history, real and imagined as can be. It’s only necessary to be around one of the many Yes Marches or rallies to catch a glimpse of this reality:

Yes March May 2019

And as we experience the chronic travails of Brexit, it seems to me that a striking parallel has emerged. Although the SNP and the current leadership of the Conservative Party would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment back into what they hold as their primary identity – whether British (by which they mean, English to all intents and purposes) or Scottish. It is in drawing a tighter net around the political identity to match what each regards as The Nation, that they see a way to ‘take back control’. To both camps – the SNP and Conservative leaderships – the unilateral nation-state is the silver bullet. In this reality, each is looking backwards, either to a mytholigised 19th, or even 14th, century.

Neither will admit this. Each will talk about the bright, modern, technological, welcoming, inclusive societies they want to build. And I do not doubt the sincerity on either side. But it nevertheless remains that in order to do so they are going back to the future, so to speak, and building their vision on the concept of the nation. Nations are important: I have confessed that I myself am patriotic. But there is a better way, and it’s closer to home than we realise – a renewed United Kingdom.

You see, the United Kingdom is not a nation. It’s a voluntary arrangement of shared government between multiple nations. There is no such thing as the British Nation, but there is a British State. And this state should serve the people of the UK. It needs massive reform: but within it lies the possibility of a new kind of politics, one which truly unifies beyond borders whilst honouring and retaining the identities which mean so much to us.
If it’s possible to completely deconstruct the Union through Scottish independence and build a harmonious future, then it’s even more achievable to renew and re-build this Union which has made us who we are. Equally, if it’s possible to extract ourselves from the European Union in order to reassert the UK’s ‘place in the world’, it’s just as possible to build a new kind of United Kingdom.

So what we need now is a political vision which can transcend nationalism, authoritarianism, narrow sectionalism and self-interest. We need a political vision which cultivates flourishing, confident communities that cross national boundaries whilst even at the same time recognising them, in order to advance social justice and the common good. What we need, is a truly United Kingdom.

Bright as the Stars

It’s been a challenging week. More than that, with the events in Manchester, it’s been a tragic week. Our thoughts and our prayers have been with those who have lost loved ones, those whose loved ones have been injured, and everyone who has been affected by a senseless act of violence.

On Thursday, people all around the country will stop at 11am for a minute’s silence in response to the Manchester attack. It’s right that we should do this, even as we feel powerless and overwhelmed by the mounting tragedies around us: Manchester, Westminster, Paris, Stockholm, Mosul, Aleppo, Yemen – the list seems endless.

In my work leading a Homelessness charity, I regularly encounter people who have been pulled under by the riptides of tragedy. Indeed the rest of the staff encounter difficult and moving situations that our service users are facing far more than I do, and yet carry on.

And I still have hope. For me, my faith in Jesus reminds me that all things – no matter how dark – can be redeemed.


One of my heroes is Rev Martin Luther King Jr. In 1968, at the height of the struggle for freedom and equality for African-Americans – a struggle for which he had been imprisoned, beaten, humiliated, slandered, and which would ultimately cost him his life – King said the following in a speech in Memphis, Tennessee. He described an imagined conversation that he might have with God in which he could choose any point in history to live;

“…Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

 The world is still messed up. Our circumstances may be difficult. But we can see the stars brighter than ever. And I’m glad I’m living in 2017.

Till a’ the Seas Gang Dry

She was born at 11 o’clock at night, in the Royal Hospital, just off the Falls Road in Belfast. My wee girl. No moment has ever caught my breath so much, been such an overwhelming emotional surge, as when the Nurse passed Eve to me.

A few years later, and I’m standing in another Royal Hospital maternity ward. This time, it’s Sunderland. And this time I’m being passed my gorgeous wee boy. Not a new experience now, but no less breath-taking. Joseph. The wee Mackem with a Scottish daddy, an English mummy and a Norn Irish big sister. The quintessential British family.

Recently I realised that this wasn’t a first for my family. True, on my mum’s side, we can trace our Scottish ancestry back through Henderson’s and Mackintosh’s, through Glasgow and Renfrewshire, all the way back to a little village on the northern tip of Harris in the 1700s.
But my dad was born in Birkenhead. His mammy was a wee lassie from Dumfries, and his daddy a Scouser. It was only a couple of months ago I learned for the first time that the Grandad I never met (he died when my dad was two) was also born in Belfast, to Scottish parents. Incredible.

Why should we fight for Scotland to remain part of this United Kingdom? Sure, we can talk about the risks to independence – the implications of Currency Union, the costs and uncertainties to establishing a new country, the long-term prospects for oil etc – but that’s not why I’m fighting to save the Union. I’ve no doubt that, in the long-term, Scotland could do just fine as an independent country, even if social justice would be the casualty in the short-term.

I’m fighting for the Union because we’re family. Sometimes, granted, we’re a bit of a dysfunctional family. But which family isn’t from time to time? I’m fighting for the Union because this wee island that we live on in the North Atlantic means we’re stuck with each other anyway. I’m fighting for the Union because for over 300 years it’s been a glorious experiment in the removal of national borders, and yet somehow managed to enable all of us to retain our distinctiveness. I’m fighting for this Union because I don’t want a trip back to a 19th Century past in which the Nation-State is the paradigm for how we live in community. I’m fighting for the Union because without it Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland would have been competing with each other for centuries, and not co-operating.

Please Stay Scotland

There aren’t many of us who don’t have family from another part of the UK. And that’s not a product of globalisation or upward social mobility: it’s been the case for generations. The Union has broken down barriers between us, and still enabled us to be who we are. It’s Union that is the future, not division.

But we do need a different kind of Union. The shared spaces which have knitted us together – particularly the political ones – need to be reformed and refreshed. We need more subsidiarity: decision-making at a local level. We need an elected second chamber in Westminster. We need a written Constitution. We need a new electoral system, a version of proportional representation that removes the binary choices of First Past the Post. We need greater autonomy for the nations and regions, including in England. In short, we need a Federal state.

And, so long as there is a No vote on Thursday, I will be forever grateful for the Independence Referendum debate for the new energy and engagement it has injected into the democratic coma which all of us had slipped into. It’s true to say that the UK will never be the same again. Let’s take this energy and invest it in reforming our political system, renewing our bonds, getting to know each other again. But let’s do it working from a principle of Unity, not one of each to their own. Let’s remember that we really can be greater than the sum of our parts.

Because, like a lot of families, even although we don’t say it that often, we really do love each other. And I love you Scotland. You gave me birth, gave me education, gave me that stubborn streak that’s served me so well, helped me not to take myself too seriously, and gave me that accent that is a conversation starter the world over.

And I’m not ashamed to say that I love the rest of the Union too. Every part. You’ve nurtured my kids, given me work, taught me who I am as a man. I’m so thankful that I’ve been privileged to spend my life all over the UK – Glasgow, Belfast, Sunderland, London and more.

One of my favourite poets, Robert Burns, sums up my feelings in so many ways. In To a Mouse, Burns, speaking as the Ploughman who’s just turned a mouse out of its nest says:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, Earth-born companion,
An fellow mortal!

It’s a stanza which for me sums up our need to live well with all, to build a world that bestows honour upon the vulnerable, and reminds us of both our shared humanity and our capacity to mess things up. We would do well to remember the words of Burns, whatever the result on Thursday.

Lets Stay Together Trafalgar Sq

In a classic track, the band Faithless capture the feeling when a relationship has gone sour. On Monday night I stood with thousands of other people from all around the Union at the Let’s Stay Together rally in Trafalgar Square as we sought to demonstrate our love for Scotland. If I may be permitted to speak for them, as well as myself, these are the words I would send to my fellow Scots, and in particular those planning to vote Yes:

You’re packing your bags like people in the movies do, all severe, not saying a word.
And I’m sitting down here just watching you and I’m thinking, where has all the love gone, where’s it all gone to? Don’t leave.
You know it’s never been easy to love someone like me.
Trying to find who am I, and what you need me to do? Don’t leave.
Where did all the love go? Where’s the love gone to? Don’t leave.
You got me hurting. Don’t leave.
You know it’s never been easy to love someone like me. Don’t leave.
Don’t know how to write a love song. Don’t leave.
You know it’s never been easy to love someone like me. Don’t leave.

And it’s not too late for this Union of ours. We can start again. If it’s possible to completely deconstruct the Union through Scottish independence and build a harmonious future, then it’s even more achievable to renew and re-build this Union which has made us who we are.

Perhaps I’ll leave my last words on my feelings for both Scotland and the Union to Burns:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like a melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry

The Scottish Football Report Card

2013 probably won’t be remembered as a signature year for Scottish football. Following a poor start in their qualifying group, the national team – and therefore the Tartan Army – were consigned to yet another big tournament absence, this time missing the holiest of holies: a World Cup in Brazil.

Meanwhile, at club level, all four of Scotland’s representatives in European cup competitions had been eliminated by Christmas, three of them by early October. There were a few hidings on the way too, with Hibernian’s 0-7 home defeat to Malmo a particular stand out.

To pick another low-light, the on-going Board merry-go-round surrounding who controls Glasgow Rangers continues to bring disrepute to a club which is still, after all, a genuine British football institution. So, all in all, not a vintage year.

And yet if there’s one thing in world history that Scotland can claim to have made a significant contribution to – and in truth there are many – it’s the most popular sport on earth. As we draw near to a new footballing year, here are ten reasons why Scottish football fans should be both proud and excited about our contribution to the beautiful game in 2013.

  1. We still have the best elite Managers in the British game. Until early December over a quarter of all the Managers in the English Premiership, Championship and Scottish Premiership were Scottish. It says a lot that this is actually a decrease in the ratios of recent seasons. Even still – again until December – the most common country of origin for an English Premiership Manager was held equally by England and Scotland (four each). In fact, it took the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager in world club football, to make it a tie. With the sackings of Steve Clark at West Brom and Malky Mackay at Cardiff (which most commentators think was the harshly ironic denouement of their earlier success), the number has dropped. But who’s to say that – with the conveyor belt of managerial career progression from Scottish Premiership to Championship and beyond – that these vacancies won’t be filled by Scotsmen?

2.    We’re probably the most football daft country in the world (at least in the Northern Hemisphere).

In season 2012/13, Scotland had the 12th highest average attendance at live football matches out of 49 UEFA countries. However, every one of the countries above us has a significantly higher population, making us the European country with the highest attendance of live football matches per head of population. Our national broadcast and print media are as likely to lead with a football story as anything else and, should we qualify for an international tournament, it’s likely that half the country will empty. When it comes to fitba’, wha’s like us?

3.    Our game is genuinely home-grown. In days gone by, even the smaller clubs sought to keep up with the joneses by importing talent from across the world – not all of it any better than what was on offer in Scotland. But now, 57% of the players plying their trade in the Scottish Premiership are eligible to play in the dark blue. To put that in perspective, only 46% of players in the English Premier League can hope for a call up to Roy Hodgson’s squad. The ratio is brought down by Celtic, but most other clubs start each game with about eight players who are eligible to play for Scotland. This leads me to the next reason to be happy:

4.    We’re starting to produce quality young players again. The Scottish media and footballing establishment have been guilty over the years of regularly proclaiming an up and coming young Scottish footballer to be the new Baggio, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho or Messi.  All too often these tags have either acted like millstones around the neck of the player in question or have just been wildly inaccurate. But I sense the lack of hype around the current crop of emerging Scottish players is a good thing: the abundance of young, expressive and technically-competent players at Scottish clubs is no longer an exception worth a hyperbolic newspaper headline. Players like Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Andrew Robertson at Dundee United, Stevie May at St Johnstone, Peter Pawlett at Aberdeen, James Forrest at Celtic, Alex Harris at Hibernian, Jason Naismith at St Mirren and at least half of the Hearts squad are, amongst many others, evidence of young, talented Scottish footballers getting a chance to shine. Not all of them will make it, but at last they’re getting the chance to try.

5.    We’re the holders of the Victory Shield for the first time in 15 years. Perhaps it’s not the most obvious reason to be cheerful. But when Calvin Miller scored the winner against England at Starks Park in November he became the first Scotland under-16 player to score the tournament winning goal since 1998. Having not won the Victory Shield since then, this is surely a sign of progress. The fact that 1998 was the last time the senior Scotland team appeared in an international tournament is surely worth noting too.

6.    We’re a football-exporting nation again. So far this season, fifteen Scotland-eligible players have played in the English Premiership, the world’s top league. This may not seem a lot, until you compare it to about six seasons ago when Darren Fletcher was the only Scotland player who was playing in the EPL. The scouts are coming back to take a look at what our league is producing. The path may more often be from Scottish Premiership to English Championship (there are 45 Scottish players currently playing there) and then up to the EPL, but the point is the river is flowing again. This could be viewed as a good or a bad thing for the game in Scotland, but it does show that our game has improved.

7.    Celtic will win the league, but everything else is unpredictable. We all know that Celtic will win the league. And when Rangers return to the top flight it will be a two horse race once again. But then that’s the case in Spain, Holland and Germany too. In England – although this year’s title race is as open as it’s been for a while – only four teams have won the league since the turn of the century, and that’s in a league which is twice the size of the Scottish league. So, low odds on the likely Championship Winners are not limited to Scottish bookies. But everything else in Scottish football is competitive. When St Mirren won the league cup in March (I had to mention that), they became the sixth different club to win it in the last ten years. In the Scottish Cup, there have been four different winners (and eight different finalists) in the last five years. Second and third places in the league have included eight different clubs since season 2000-2001. In the second tier, absolutely any team can win it each year. So, there’s excitement in the old terrier yet.

8.    Our woman’s national team are a sensation. The Scotland Women’s team has won all four of its World Cup qualifiers to date, scoring twenty goals and conceding only two in reply. They sit top of their group and are in the top twenty ranked nations for women’s football for the first time. Additionally, the under-17 team have qualified for the European Championships. Enough said.

9.    Our men’s national team is on the up. Sure, we’ve not qualified. Again. Sure, we were glorious failures in qualifying. Again. But something new is happening since Gordon Strachan took over. It’s not just special wins home and away to Croatia (who are going to the World Cup), and away to Macedonia. It’s the style and confidence we’ve shown, including in the narrow loss to England, a game much of which we dominated. We’re now ranked 34th in the world by FIFA and, although they’re an imperfect gauge of success, they do indicate an upwards trend from our ignominious lows of the past. It may have been said before, but it really does seem like a new dawn is slowly breaking.

10.   No-one can take away our outstanding football heritage. Of the 207 national teams who are affiliated to FIFA, Scotland is 22nd on the all-time World Cup appearances list. Not bad, and even better if you consider that again our population is smaller than every team above us on the list bar one (Uruguay). On one of our appearances, according to FIFA, Archie Gemmill (a Paisley Buddie by the way) scored the second-best goal in World Cup history. More importantly we’re jointly responsible (with England) for inventing international football, the first such international fixture having been played in Partick on 30th November 1872. The following year, the Scottish Cup kicked off, and remains the oldest national football trophy in the world. Plus, any nation that could come up with club teams with names like Hamilton Academical, Inverness Caledonian Thistle, Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian, Raith Rovers, St Mirren, Celtic, Rangers, Airdrieonians, and of course, Queen of the South, has automatically qualified for a special place in the football pantheon.

So, as you head into 2014 as a supporter of one of these teams or another, be sure to hold your head high in the knowledge that there are few footballing nations to match us.

P.S. Did you know that 47 of the players to be capped for the U.S.A. national team were born in Scotland? Exactly.