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19 March 1999

From Braveheart to Cosmo-Scotia

Young Scots are leaving traditional notions of Scottishness behind, reports Pat Kane

By Pat Kane

They’re dreaming Caledonia all over the new Scotland – but it’s not the dream you’d imagine. Forget the usual angst about Trainspotting v Braveheart, stylish nihilism against bloodthirsty patriotism, that stamps most cultural discourse about Scotland. While the political parties tool up for an all-too-predictable stramash of ideology and invective, the country’s artistic creators (and their consumers) are much more chilled out. Cool Caledonia exists – but it’s typified precisely by a strangely muted passion.

The signs of these post-nationalist times are everywhere. Take the hottest theatre company in Scotland, Glasgow’s Suspect Culture, and its new show Mainstream. Never was Scottish theatre in a more querulous, private mode: young men and women opaquely talking among themselves after one night of passion, the country a very distant backdrop to a very modern psycho-drama. And look at Belle and Sebastian, Scottish winners of the Brits best new band award two weeks ago: introverted shoe-gazers and bedroom obsessives each one of them, achieving chart hits from their low-key Glasgow base.

Glasgow itself is in one of its more poseurish moments, prosecuting its status as the UK’s City of Architecture and Design with a smoothly finished gloss, its director Deyan Sudjic suffusing his own poise and restraint throughout every exhibition. Not that this is just a Central Belt thing; the new centre for contemporary art in Dundee, built in the best drop-dead international gallery style, is opening its glassy doors on an exhibition from no less an art-star than Anish Kapoor.

Before the postmodernist curves of the Catalan Enric Miralles’ design for the new Holyrood parliament are even faintly visible, Cosmo-Scotia is heaving into view. In advance of Scotland taking its place politically in the world, mainstream Scots are already out there, epicurean and eclectic. And not seemingly all that bothered about “national tradition” or “cultural colonisation”.

If Scots-as-citizens could vote for a new polity, then Scots-as-consumers might want to conduct a new range of lifestyles within that framework. But what would they be?

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Particularly among the younger age groups in Scotland, it’s obvious that there’s a decided lack of Braveheart-ish passion about Scottish identity: potential readers will be just as interested in international stories as local (Scottish) or national (UK) ones. These are Scots who travel compulsively, who consume omnivorously, who enjoy Scottish traditions but also like to mix them up with others from a global menu.

Other commercial hard noses in Scotland have come to the same conclusions. The successful bidders for the new radio franchise in central Scotland, Beat FM, run by two Scottish leisure entrepreneurs, Ron McCulloch and Stuart Clumpas, were surprised by their research. Beat FM expected to find a younger generation committed to a “pro-Scottish” arts agenda. Instead, they found their target 18-30 age group much more relaxed and wide-ranging in their cultural and musical tastes. Meaning Radiohead and Orbital just as much, if not more, than Wet Wet Wet or Runrig.

And looking over to North Bridge in Edinburgh, the Scotsman‘s new Saturday section launched last weekend – named, appropriately enough, “I-magazine” – has clearly been informed by the same focus groups as Beat FM. The editorial there mixes together computer games and Edinburgh theatre, Holyrood and Hollywood, the local and the global, with impunity.

The Newsnight journalist Gordon Brewer, Stirling-born but long exiled, confirmed all this in a recent BBC2 Scrutiny documentary on his homeland. Expecting a nation tortuously writhing with the agonies of self-definition and cultural identity, he found a “who cares?” mentality. Tartan can be worn without hand-wringing over the “poisonous legacy” of Sir Walter Scott: it’s just cool stuff. And, as Brewer personally witnessed, bangra wedding bands from London can easily follow burning Viking longboats down a Hogmanay procession in Edinburgh.

Some people are very uncomfortable with the bright new Cosmo-Scotia. And it’s particularly unsettling for an earlier Scottish generation – post-35, relics of the 1970s and 1980s, and now acutely realising their age. For them – all right, for me – Scottish cultural identity was like a protective blanket against the Thatcherite storm. Yet now that’s been weathered, and old activists have become aspiring technocrats, it seems that culture is racing ahead of politics again in Scotland.

How can young Scots be so secure in their national identity that their tastes can seem almost indistinguishable from their lifestyle counterparts in other areas of the developed west? Yet those who think this bodes well for a reunited, cosmopolitan Britain should think again. Perhaps the confidence to play fast and loose with Scottish culture comes from an even deeper shift yet. Those SNP polls just won’t go down, especially among the younger age-group of Holyrood voters. Cool Caledonia’s state of mind might well be explained by its having a state in mind. And there’s nothing cooler than that, some would say.

Pat Kane is associate editor of the “Sunday Herald”

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