“People will laugh at you if you sound like that”

When A L Kennedy was growing up in Dundee, she was taught to sound English. It was only in exile that she embraced her Scottishness

“People will laugh at you if you sound like that”
An 1890's view of the Tay Rail Bridge, which spans the Firth of Tay to Dundee. Credit: Getty Images

I am a Scot. The statement may not have ­become more meaningful in the past few months, but it’s certainly grown more topical, as the Kingdom debates whether it will stay United. Any identity – national or personal – is a work in progress, moulded by experience, circumstance, emotion and belief. Of those, belief may currently be the most important for Scotland, because the debate on Scottish independence is a contest between beliefs.

Against independence are those who believe Scottishness is a variation on an English theme, an alternative to the default. There are many quite convincing arguments against independence – economic, military, constitutional – but they seem always to be based on an assumption that, to many Scots, is patronising at best. For independence are those who believe Scottishness is something authentic and valuable. Scots may not trust their politicians, may worry about the future, may not care that much about in­dependence – nevertheless, they find it hard to ­believe they and their country don’t exist and will not warm to arguments (however well supported) that accept these absences as facts. 
 
I dislike the media’s tendency to pick a voice from a minority and assume it speaks for all, but I will say that I have found part of the non-default experience to be one of absences and non-existence. Although I am one of a relatively cosseted and familiar minority, during my lifetime I have still radically changed my understanding of what I am a Scot can mean, and what understanding and owning that part of my identity allows me to say. 
 
I grew up in the country of the Bay City Rollers, Jimmy Krankie and Benny Lynch. I live in that of Annie Lennox, Peter Mullan and Andy Murray. In only a few decades the self-doubt, self-immolating success and degraded tartanry have receded and Scotland has given itself permission to be somewhere more con­fident and complex. Scotland is still a small, relatively poor country with a troubled history, but it seems to believe it can be more. Not for the first time in our history, we have the gift of desperation. We can comfort ourselves with sectarian myths, new racisms, lazy political clichés and cronyism. Or we can embrace what is less known but also ours: a tradition of fierce education and enlightenment, invention and co-operation. The acknowledgement and rejection of sectarianism, the saga of SuBo, the electorate’s canny use of proportional representation, may all be little signs that Scotland is trying to make the best of itself. Absences are becoming presences.
 
I began in a place of absences – Dundee, a city still haunted by a railway disaster and the space no longer occupied by a collapsed Victorian bridge. The city had long been blighted by local government corruption, vandalism disguised as planning and a feudal division of wealth. My parents lived in the middle-class west end enclave where soup should be spooned away from you and peas balanced on the back of your fork. It was important to read the Booker Prize shortlist, attend the Art Society exhibitions and have tea at the Queens Hotel, looking out over the Tay Estuary and the stumps of the missing bridge. And it was important to sound English – sounding Scottish would define you, syllable by syllable, as a failure. 
 
My parents actually were English, but not the right sort. Like most of the adults I knew, my parents had educated themselves out of the working classes. For their generation, social mo­bility wasn’t just an X Factor pipe dream, but it did demand adjustments, sacrifices. My mother was brought up by her Welsh grandparents and had to jettison her North Walian accent during teacher training – people will laugh at you if you sound like that. My father, a lecturer, never quite shook his Brummy whine. But at least they weren’t cursed by Scottish vocabulary – dreich, scunner, bam – or still worse, regional Scottish vocabulary – plettie, cribby, pullashie. They had succeeded by being partly not themselves.
 
Beyond the west end and before Broughty Ferry, was another Dundee. It was a city of adults as short as children and children with old faces, of drunks in men-only bars, poverty and powerlessness. I was taught – by my school, my parents, my radio, my television – that nobody wise should sound as if they came from there. Get a vowel wrong and somewhere harsh might come to claim you. I learned what so many children in non-dominant cultures learn – that the inside of your head was wrong. There was one way of speaking indoors, another in school and another for the street, while well-meaning attempts to save children from the prejudices of others left me feeling inwardly deformed in a muddle of competing languages. 
 
So often, what could allow individuals to be polyglot, adaptable, as linguistically experimen­tal and joyful as Shakespeare’s many-voiced London, simply leads to silence and insecurity. Even with all the advantages I had – good schooling, a book-filled house, comfort, received pronunciation piped in anxiously from birth – I still felt my own voice wasn’t mine. When I read Stevenson, should he sound like the BBC, because he was successful, or like the people I knew from Edinburgh, because he was from Edinburgh ? When I read Oor Wullie, should I be ashamed of revelling in the cartoon’s confident presentation of landscapes I recognised, words that were from my home and only my little, ugly home?
 
And the history of my little ugly home was closed to me. Beyond a gruelling course of study in the early saints who saved Scots from themselves, I was taught no Scottish history at school and was kept from most Scottish literature and art. I didn’t really live in Dundee, because I ­didn’t understand what it was. Just before I left for university in England I spent a summer in my local library, reading and reading and feeling increasingly as if I had been robbed. Here was so much that had been kept from me: Dundee’s monolithic industries – whaling, flax processing, jute processing – the city fathers’ hatred of the poor, the revolutionary fervour in 1789, Dundee’s writers, painters and folk songs, and its gloriously bad reputation and sense of humour. Here were its sharp working women and fey housekeeping men – that in itself explained so much of me. Here was a real life.
 
I was heading south partly because Warwick University offered the course I wanted and partly because leaving home would be softened by staying relatively near my grandparents. I thought I understood England, because I understood them. In fact, I was entering a country of other customs, habits, foods, landscapes, hatreds, loves and arts. Despite what my teachers and broadcasters had led me to believe, I was entering a foreign country – pleasant but not mine.
 
For the next three years – in its absence – I studied Scotland. I became obsessed with what else I’d missed. I read John Prebble’s remarkable, groundbreaking histories. I read The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, an explosive play by the Liverpudlian John McGrath which redefined how I looked at Scotland’s distribution of wealth, land and the complexity of its injustices. This was nothing like the weird, dead Scottishness I’d been peddled, which involved men ­being manly, women being invisible, losing at football, singing kitsch songs, asexual dancing and everything being England’s fault.
 
I adored Ray Carver’s America, I worshipped Chekhov’s Russia and Calvino’s Italy, Ribeiro’s Brazil, Orwell’s England, but I could also enjoy a new flowering of Scottish literature. Unlike Buchan, Conan Doyle, Barrie and the rest, there were now Scots authors who could be Scots. Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Tom Leonard all transcended nationality, as good writers should, but were also clearly from somewhere that I knew, loved and missed. They were male, working class, older and yet were so committed to writing as a free, strong and inviolable expression of individual life that they allowed me to write as myself.
 
In the 1980s, I found my voice. It became my profession to make up for all that early silence, absence and confusion. Meanwhile, Thatcher­ism redefined what it was to be British: no to sex, regions, disabilities, women, industries, (non-public school) homosexuals, public services, mi­norities. The UK became a few hundred blokes in Westminster and Maggie, the Iron Maiden in an M&S frock. She gave Scotland ­despair but we took it. Like being proudly from Toxteth, or Handsworth, simply being Scottish suddenly became a transgressive joy and, yes, we did ­literally dance in the street when she went.
 
The UK faces new pressures to conform, shut up, hate ourselves if we don’t earn enough or sound as if we’re the right sort. I would be only delighted if the Union debate allowed citizens on both sides of the border to loudly, variously and happily discover how very much they can be themselves. I hope it can allow us to enjoy each other and to believe we all have a right, fully and usefully, to exist.
 
A L Kennedy is a novelist and comedian