Caledonia calling

“It’s shite being Scottish, we’re the lowest of the low, scum of the fucking earth.”

I’ve always struggled with Renton’s bleak assessment of his and my people. It’s an outburst that challenges the commonly held conception that the Scots are, to a man, proud of their nationality. I suppose though it is shite to be Scottish if you’re a heroin addict living in squalor. But no, then it’s just shite to be alive. If I were a heroin addict, I guess I wouldn’t care if I were in Leith or in Lambeth.

Have things changed since Trainspotting? Perhaps, although drug addicts still have a tough time wherever they’re based. The Scots seem to be in a better position than most during this period of universal doom and gloom. We maintain the illusion of our lot as perennial underdogs, receiving concessions from down south while enjoying ever-increasing political freedom up here. We live in one of the world’s most beautiful countries, abounding with natural resources and huge potential. We have a grand history and a distinct culture (despite Renton’s assertion we, “can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by.”) We do have a strong national identity and we love it.

A trashy programme I watched last week gave an interesting insight into today’s Scots. “Scotland’s Greatest Album” was one of those shows I couldn’t be bothered not to watch. It was a simple concept: a panel of “experts” (not quite sure how Pat Nevin got on there) selected a shortlist of tracks from the 1970s, 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, then the public phoned in to vote for their favourites – three from each decade.

It wasn’t the quality of the music I was interested by, more so the choices made by the Scottish public who phoned in. I found them rather affirming.

The final 12 songs selected revealed something about the Scottish psyche. They seemed to reflect the voters’ love for their country as much as their musical taste. People voted for what made them feel proud to be Scottish.

One song making the final 12 epitomised this. “Caledonia,” performed by Frankie Miller is a folk tune written by Dougie MacLean, made famous by Miller when it featured in a hugely sentimental and patriotic Tennents Lager advert of the early 1990s.

It wasn’t the tune that had people phoning in to ensure it made the list; it was the words.

When Jessie (wife) and I lived in London we often used to drive back north to visit our family in friends in Scotland. As we approached Gretna, we used to make sure we had Caledonia teed up in the CD player so we could listen to it as we crossed the border. “Let me tell you that I love you and I think about you all the time, Caledonia’s calling me and now I’m going home.” It would put a lump in my throat every time. I don’t particularly like the song, just the sentiment.

Two songs from The Proclaimers made the final cut – 500 miles and Sunshine on Leith. I do like The Proclaimers’ music although, as with “Caldeonia,” not that much. I’d easily name 12 Scottish acts I prefer to The Proclaimers in a purely musical sense. But, if I had to put together Scotland’s Greatest Album on my own, I’d definitely include the twins from Auchtermuchty.

A few years ago I went to a wedding in Los Angeles – an old school friend was marrying a Californian girl. Towards the end of the party, the American DJ threw on “500 miles” and every Scot in the room got up on the dance floor, joined arms and sang along at the top of their voices. The yanks must have thought we were mental. No, not mental, just proud and slightly homesick.

Also making the cut was “Dignity” by Deacon Blue about a rubbish collector who dreams of escaping his life. Does he think of a desert island or tropical paradise? Nope, he wants to sail a wee boat up the west coast of Scotland through the villages and towns.

Then there was Mike Scott and the Waterboys with “Whole of the Moon…” “I saw the rain dirty valley, you saw Brigadoon.” Even Maggie May’s inclusion said something – sung so brilliantly by Rod Stewart who we (and he,) consider Scottish despite the fact he was brought up in North London and lives in Epping. How many people born and brought up north of the border with one Scottish and one English parent hang resolutely to their Englishness…? Not many I reckon.

Jessie and I discussed what a similar programme to find England’s greatest album would produce. I think it would end up being far more about the music than about England. And can you imagine how amazing the album could be in terms of music, way better than the Scots’. Just consider: 1970s – Zeppelin, Clash, Bowie; 1980s – Smiths, Stone Roses, New Order, 90s – Blur, Massive Attack, Radiohead, 00s – Arctic Monkeys, Elbow, Winehouse…

Some of this stuff would obviously invoke thoughts of England, but perhaps not in the sentimentally fond way that Scots popular music tends to. Think of Joe Strummer’s apocalyptic vision in “London Calling,” for instance, or The Smiths strolling around derelict bits of Manchester singing “Heaven knows I’m miserable now.” Both far more powerful and thought provoking than much of the schmaltzy stuff the Scots have produced but hardly enough to bring a longing tear to your eye when you’re away from your homeland.

Yes, it’s great being Scottish and the principal reason is not just because of free tuition fees or prescriptions. It’s also because we as a people are proud of our country, we can talk about it in a boastful way and not fear being challenged. The mountains and lochs, the vast sprawls of nothingness, the salmon and the eagles, the rivers and the islands; every Scot has a little part of all this in them, it’s theirs. And that is why the words, “If I should become a stranger, you know it would make me more than sad, Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had,” strike such a chord with the Scottish public.

Now finally, I should point out that if I were looking to make Scotland’s greatest album, purely from a personal musical point of view, my choices would have been a bit different. Here’s what I would choose:

1970s

John Martyn – Over the hill

Gerry Rafferty – Baker Street

The Skids – The saints are coming

1980s

Waterboys – Fisherman’s blues

The Jesus and Mary Chain – Just like honey

Lloyd Cole – Rattlesnakes

1990s

Idlewild – Everyone says you’re so fragile

Travis – Writing to Reach You

Mogwai – Cody

2000s

Boards of Canada – Chromakey Dreamcoat

Mylo – Otto’s Journey

Belle & Sebastian – Piazza, New York Catcher

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