Why I wear a kilt to weddings is entirely my own business, but let me tell you something about it, anyway. Apart from the fact that it’s distractingly flattering, it is the only meagre show of patriotism I have ever been able to muster. And I am not, technically, Scottish. Half my grandparents were, but most would concur that gives me no quarter to parade around in a chequered skirt. I’ve spent summers on Arran, but the same deal applies – tourists shouldn’t flaunt the traditional dress of a proud, generally patriotic people. I have always loved the film ‘Braveheart’ – that’s God’s honest truth. It’s a masterpiece.
My other grandparents were from Somerset and never seemed all that pleased about it. Their tight-knit farming origins were a curse and not openly discussed. They were stiff-upper-lipped about everything, Britishness included. By contrast, the Glaswegian contingent used to send Christmas gifts reminding me of my heritage: a tea towel depicting ‘Scottish inventions’ that the “bloody English are using every day, the tarmac-thieving shits;” key rings with our clan name cryptically explained; a fetching pair of tweed socks. Later, I realised they had been grooming me for the kilt, buttering me up with shortbread selection boxes to fly the flag for them south of the border when I reached adulthood.
I was happy to oblige. People in England gravitate towards a man swishing bright fabric around his arse, masking his crotch with a furry leather pouch. A kilt is an icebreaker. It distinguishes its wearer from a besuited crowd. But approach me and ask what I made of the Yes/No referendum, how I feel about Nicola Sturgeon’s education policies, or if I can name a single member of this year’s Six Nations line-up and my tartan bravado disintegrates. For I will, in an accent that instantly betrays me, apologetically tell you that my dad came from Milngavie (pronounced ‘mul-guy’) near the Campsies, but left aged 18 and has never been back. In fact, to his parents’ dismay, he has become resolutely English and is disturbed that friends of mine have relocated to his hometown; “do they not just find it depressingly grey and shit?” As far as I know, they do not. Dad reckons the ‘No’ vote was the right decision for reasons he isn’t inclined to explain, but given his 38 years as a southerner – a period most Scots would agree strips him of the right to have an opinion – he’s better off keeping his mouth shut. Yet he, like me, goes kilted to weddings.
So, I expose my paltry patriotism as the self-serving act it is, as well as an unwitting ‘fuck you’ to whatever ideals Scotland’s collective consciousness bestows upon its tartan. Every time I wear the kilt, I’m superficially proclaiming a love for a nation whose virtues I’m ill-equipped to espouse; culturally appropriating it for the sake of vanity, in lieu of pride. I love the way it looks, revealing just the right amount of leg between hem and patterned sock. In my defence, I’m inclined to argue that my sham national pride is, in many instances, better than the real thing; that orthodox patriotism often masks nationalism and the odious opinions of those intolerant of others. I’m in decent company in this assessment. Bertrand Russell reckoned patriotism was “the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons”, George Bernard Shaw that it “is a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy.” Which makes how frequently it is trumpeted as a motivating factor for policy-making more disconcerting still, no matter which way you attempt to dress it up.
An example: capital-‘P’ Patriotism will allegedly make America great again, as long as the walls are built high enough so that Mexicans can’t get in and screw it up. Donald Trump’s slogans behave similarly to my kilt, by which I mean they tell us nothing about his real motivations, but make for a strong look. His beef with the Mexicans is predicated on tired tropes; the lazy, drug-taking rapists he’s so ready to paint them as belong to the world of cynical television shows and dated Hollywood films – where it’s easier to stylise than humanise – not national debate. His Patriotism exists to feed his raging greed. And while he spews derision on a fictional archetype in the name of reinstating America’s greatness, the real Hispanic community is grafting hard, doing that very thing.
There are, of course, plenty of patriotic problems closer to home – making things great again isn’t a policy that’s limited to ‘The Donald’. In the wake of the budget, it’s plain to see our own government’s disdain for large sections of the population, while it attempts to use patriotic proclamations as smoke and mirrors. In the same speech where the chancellor claims to “believe we should not put at risk all the hard work that the British people have done to make our country strong again”, he’s slashing benefits for the disabled by £4.4bn, and delivering “a low tax regime that will attract the multinational businesses we want to see in Britain.”
Patriotism rears its ugly head whenever our leaders grow misty eyed over the ‘hard-working families’ on which our ‘hard-working nation’ was founded. Do they include the slaves that laid the groundwork for this labouring idyll? It’s there too in London’s development policies; the ones that relocate council tenants to the outer reaches of the capital, so their housing blocks can be razed and rebuilt to a standard the city ‘deserves’. Seems British patriotism means having a giant shit left in your living room, while you’re patted on the head and told it’s a reward for being so good. And it’s hard to feel particularly jazzed about that.
In the current media frenzy around a word I can’t even bring myself to type, Britain’s exit from Europe is touted by the ‘leave’ camp as patriotic. Why? Because Europe prevents us from being the best Britain we can be, from governing ourselves as we have done since the signing of the Magna Carta, from living up to our ancient and established system of British Values. Which are?
The naturalisation test for would-be UK residents suggests that our value system is tied to our feudal past. That’s not to say our social structure follows the model of medieval serfdom (although we might head back that way), but that applicants are required to know great chunks of Britain’s distant history. Example questions: Which of these two forts were part of Hadrian’s Wall? What year was King Richard III killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field? Sir Francis Drake’s ship the Golden Hind was one of the first to circumnavigate which land mass? Then, the one that’ll catch you out: “there is no place in British society for extremism or intolerance, true or false?” I don’t know anymore mate, you tell me.
With a score of 30% I stand to be deported on the next Golden Hind out of here. I’m disgruntled to discover my scant historical knowledge has undermined my right to feel that I belong in my country. I’m disturbed that it’s deemed an acceptable method by which to judge anyone else. There’s plenty about my homeland that I am quite fond of, but I’m buggered if that’ll be revealed through this multiple-choice questionnaire.
I finally realised I liked some of my Britishness while living abroad last year. Having spent my entire life in the south east and close to the capital, I’d assumed myself to be part of some multicultural milieu. Britishness was a face smeared with the St George cross, jeering at a World Cup fixture, and that ale-swilling UKIP everyman Farage taking a crack at Europe – how do I relate to that? I chose France because I had to leave London and had no idea where else in the UK to go, having become one of those navel-gazing arseholes convinced that only the capital had anything going for it. What could Manchester offer me, after eight years in London? Albeit a London that felt misguided and broken, with messed-up priorities and inhabitants that pretended not to notice. France seemed like a good place to work things out.
Then the landscape got to me. I was living in the mountains overlooking a national park, surrounded by scenery as expansive as anything you’d get in the USA. I’d drive through dense, dark forests, then round a corner and find a vista across hundreds of miles. It was impressive, breathtaking, eye-wateringly perfect, but I couldn’t shake the feeling it belonged to someone else. I missed the sweet green fields of the West Country, lying sheltered and low in the palm of the earth; narrow tracks of public footpaths meandering beside old waterways. Not a feeling I’d experienced before, but one that remains.
So when I moved back, I went straight to Somerset – my second ancestral home – in an attempt to strengthen my sense of heritage and thus, inadvertently my national pride. I went to Silbury Hill and Stonehenge to find some link to an ancient past, read up on old chivalric orders and twentieth-century woodcraft revivalists, who all attempted to progress their nation by methods that honoured its history. I lost myself for days exploring the world of the Kibbo Kift, a dedicated socialist order with passionate views on national unity and a love for hiking over and camping upon the hills around my new home. But their legacy is gone and with it my shot at finding patriotism (with a little ‘p’) in the past.
In Somerset, my neighbours are old and UKIP-voting, a touch racist, but open to new ideas. When I tell them they should stop using bigoted language, they concede that I’m probably right. When I tell them not to vote UKIP again, they’re visibly embarrassed but attempt to explain. They’ve lived in a white hinterland for as long as they can remember and are understandably paranoid about the threat of its destruction by the ‘others’ they read about in the papers each day. Do they know any immigrants personally? Heavens no! Not apart from that lovely Eastern European girl who works in the local café. They don’t make the connection between her and their fears. We eat dinner together once a fortnight and talk about how their lives used to be. They built garages for each others’ homes in new-build towns in the ’70s, went on annual holidays together with their extended families, worked jobs they enjoyed for 40 solid years before retiring – they were, and are still, entrenched in a community.
I do not have anywhere to build a garage, cannot find anyone with the free time or spare cash to take a holiday, have neither a long-term job nor a community. Which might just be why patriotism keeps evading me. Without a community, I have nothing to feel proud about or protective of, because there’s nothing to be damaged. If I can’t relate to the people around me, for whom should I invoke my pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy? So, for now, if you catch me at a wedding, just tell me how good that kilt looks on me.
Photograph by James Cartwright