“Here’s tae us; Wha’s like us? Damn few, and they’re a’ deid!”
Traditional Scottish toast
It happens every time I go there. As I walk into the Great Scots Bar at Cameron House on Loch Lomond, I am immediately struck by the wall-to-wall array of black and white portraits showing great Scots through the ages. The first feeling is awe, bordering on disbelief. That so many familiar faces, so many household names, so many lasting achievements, could be all associated with not just one country, one people, but with my country, with my people. These are faces and names not just famous to me or to Scots, they’re famous the world over. The second feeling is genuine, spine-tingling, cheek warming pride. Forget the world’s local bank: this is what they should put on the sky bridges when you arrive at the airports or on the railway platforms in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. Like visiting the Coliseum in ancient Rome, it’s a home advantage both terrifying and awe-spiring. You can’t help but be impressed.
Travel the world and test what the term “Scottish” means and you’ll get a stramash of responses ranging from Braveheart to haggis, from kilts to Nessie, from tartan to shortbread. But there’s so much more to us than that.
Scots created much of the modern world. If you’re not Scottish, you might think I’m exaggerating but I assure you that there is barely an element of modern life that Scots were not responsible for inventing, developing or distributing. Not being so predictable as to even dwell on golf or Scotch whisky, Scots invented the TV, the bicycle, the ATM, radar, the pneumatic tyre, the permanent light bulb, and the telephone. The scientists who developed insulin, discovered penicillin and cloned Dolly the Sheep were born and raised in Scotland. And these are just the biggies, the trophy deals.
In fact, Scots have had a hand in almost every field of human development over the last four centuries.
As nation builders, our record stands next to anyone’s. Lachlan Macquairie, of Argyll, did much to shape and mould early Australia. Two Scots-born men signed the US Declaration of Independence in 1776. John Law, of Edinburgh, was the first de facto prime minister of France and founded New Orleans. It was a Scotsman who more or less invented modern, industrialised Japan. And in Africa, explorer and missionary, David Livingston, of Blantyre in Lanarkshire, walked Africa from coast to coast and discovered the source of the Nile, subsequently know as the Victoria Falls.
Closer to home, it was a Scotsman who was responsible for founding the Bank of England. A different Scotsman founded the Bank of France. Significant enough as feats in themselves but more so when you consider that at the time, the mid eighteenth century, the United Kingdom and France were the two biggest economies in the world and these central banks were the Scots-built financial engine rooms at the centre. Adam Smith, of Kirkcaldy, wrote the book on economics, quite literally. A Scotsman founded the Labour party, another was the first Labour prime minister (another, the most recent), and whilst Eton may be renowned for having produced 7 of the last 10 British prime ministers, Scotland itself has also produced 7. In recent decades, Scots including David Steel, Charles Kennedy, Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, Gordon Brown, Alastair Darling, Malcolm Rifkind, Liam Fox, and Tony Blair have all represented Scotland on political stages across the world, whilst political and economic commentators such as Andrew Marr, Sir Tom Devine, Magnus Linklater, Kirsty Wark, Andrew Neil, and Niall Ferguson have recorded their progress.
In commerce, Dunfermline-born Andrew Carnegie was the Bill Gates of his day, both in terms of wealth and philanthropy, bequeathing to the world, amongst other things, countless public libraries and New York’s Carnegie Hall. Glasgow-born David Ogilvy more or less invented the concept of Madison Avenue marketing and advertising men, or Mad Men, when he opened his agency there in the 1950s. The New York Herald was established by a Scottish ex-patriot. David Buick moved from Scotland to America and produced a line of cars which still bear his name to this day. Thomas Lipton left Glasgow to start a new enterprise in the US which today sees his family name printed on millions of iced tea drinks globally. And in heavy industry, in the era when to be a military power abroad was to rule the waves, we built the biggest and most famous ships in the world. Nowadays, the likes of Michelle Mone, Duncan Bannatyne, Tom Farmer, Tom Hunter and Ann Boag blaze a trail for Scots in business. In fact, if you were to scan the Forbes list of the world’s most influential people, you’d find a ribbon of Scottish DNA running through many of those listed. Forbes, itself, an American magazine that was created by B. C. Forbes who was, yes, you guessed it, Scottish.
Peter Pan. Sherlock Holmes. Jekyll and Hyde. Long John Silver. All characters regularly revisited by Hollywood. All characters born of authors born in Scotland. We gave the world the first, authentic, on-screen James Bond. The author, Ian Fleming, was famously so impressed with Sean Connery that he went back to his books to give James Bond a Scottish back-story. We adopted J K Rowling and she has adopted us in return, giving back many, many times over. In architecture, William and Robert Adam, Alexander “Greek” Thomson and Charles Rennie Mackintosh each evolved a style of architecture as recognisable and evocative as any that Haussmann or Wright or Turner were to do in later eras. Sir Walter Scott. Ewan McGregor. Tilda Swinton. Dame Maggie Smith. Iain Banks. John Buchan. Simple Minds. Billy Connolly. James Boswell. The Corries. Andy Stewart. Irvine Welsh. James McAvoy. Robert Burns. I’m forgetting more than I’m naming. Omission on this scale is grand and is not intended to offend anyone. Many auld acquaintances may be forgotten but they’re often brought to mind when you’re constantly confronted with the scale of Scotland’s contribution to the culture and the arts in everyday life.
In sport, we’ve given the world Chris Hoy, Alex Ferguson, Jim Clark, Dario Franchitti, Andy Murray, Jamie Murray, Jackie Stewart, Kenny Dalglish, Colin McRae, Bill Shankly and Rhona Martin. Scottish Olympians won more gold medals than the Australians at the Olympics in 2012. Hoy is the most decorated British Olympian ever. Scottish riders and drivers have frequently dominated motor sport. In football, despite the comically implausible optimism of Ally’s army in the late 70s, we may never have been past the first round of a major international tournament but the Scots played the first ever international, hold the world record for attendance at a football match (a mind-boggling 149,000 people all crammed into one stadium on the south side of Glasgow), produced the first British club side to win a European Cup and have given birth to a production line of legendary players and, especially, managers. Oh, and in tennis, not a sport for which Scots have been renowned over the years, our boy from Dunblane ended not only Britain’s interminable wait for a male grand slam champion, for a male singles champion at Wimbledon, but then capped it, just this week, when he led the line magnificently in the team that brought home tennis’s Davis Cup after a gap of 79 years.
Yes, Scots are a unique breed. In the prize-giving at the Crufts of nations, we’re not as big or as awesome as the Great Dane. We’re not as fancy as the French poodle. And we’re not as foreboding as the German Shepherd. No, by luck or design, we are the Scots terrier personified. Brave, plucky, tenacious, fiercely loyal, hardy, rugged, tough, treading a fine line between pugnacious and cute. Loved by all, but certainly nobody’s pushover.
And yet, at no time has Scotland been the largest, the most populous or the richest of nations. At no point in time were the casino chips of all the races ever stacked more favourably towards the Scots than any other. Quite the reverse. Scotland’s population today is at it’s all-time zenith: five million. That’s less than half the population of London. And that’s us at our peak, numerically speaking. It’s only ever been lower until now thanks in large part to a combination of huge losses to war, disease, famine and, generally, a chronically low life expectancy. On that front, we’re also at our best ever standing – 74 years for men, 76 for women – and yet, that’s still the worst in the western world. In short, the odds have only ever been stacked against the success of Scottish people. But somehow, by force of collective will or nature, the Scots have not only overcome their challenges but done so whilst making a pretty sizeable contribution to things overall.
But there are aspects of today’s Scotland – largely beyond the control of the Scottish people – that threaten to dilute the future impact to society achieved by generations of the great Scots of our romantic past. In the field of invention, for example, it seems impossible to imagine us producing another Fleming, Logie Baird or Bell. For one thing, modern inventions today are churned out by mega corporations in far flung industrial facilities, not by leading scientists in small insular laboratories. But even if that were not the case, the scale of Scotland’s public health issues, the decline of most industries, and the relative reduction in standards of education have all come at a time when other nations have not only caught up with the highs previously reached by Scots (with the help of Scots) but themselves become so competitive that they have opened a gap which, if left untended, will not be bridgeable in the future. With such a gap, more and more young Scots talent will move abroad, less and less funding will be made available to Scots and the great social issues (health, education, employment) will be left unresolved.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
John F. Kennedy
With this in mind, in 2016, I want to start a charity: the Great Scots Foundation. The intention of this initiative is to make a contribution towards ensuring that future generations of Scots are able to deliver on the same spectacular scale that their predecessors achieved.
This is not a prescription for every social and economic ill facing Scotland today. No such prescription exists and I’m not qualified to dispense it. I want to be very specific about the small number of initiatives that I believe will make the lion rampant on a global stage once again.
From the tactical to the strategic, from granular minutiae to the grand scale, such initiatives could take many forms. Mentally, the key hurdle to overcome is incrementalism, resisting the urge to think in small steps in the tired but misbegotten belief that every new idea has been tried and failed already. That said, an equal and equivalent challenge is to balance an agenda big enough to bring change and measurable improvement with one which doesn’t get so big that it gets choked by an excess of analysis, planning and engineering.
At a high level, there are three key strands or headings which capture the key areas that befit the venture whilst delivering the greatest and broadest benefit, namely: Rebooting the Scottish economy; Putting information in the hands of everyone; and Improving well-being.
- Rebooting the Scottish economy: For over four hundred years, Scottish industrial and economic output has cycled through majoring in farming and agriculture, to heavy industry, to, latterly, banking and the service economy. Call centres are the fastest growing economic sector in Scotland today. There’s nothing wrong with building an economy around call centres if yours is the fastest growing economy on the planet. With regret, that is not the case with Scotland. The purpose of this strand is to reconcile the long-since recognised creativity, drive and intelligence of Scottish people with the emerging business norms and practices of a twenty-first century global economy, where billion dollar businesses can be built by individuals on their devices and information shared at the speed of thought. Such an economy poses no disadvantage to Scotland today barring the physical requirements for infrastructure and the commercial absolutes of capital and human resources, which are covered in the second strand. This first strand would aspire to establish an economy which leverages modern working practices to provide work for all, which recycles existing physical spaces to provide workspace and facilities for all, which raises new capital and new routes to market for Scottish entrepreneurs and producers, which harnesses the power of the Scottish network to support the incubation of new businesses, and which looks at the opportunity to underpin this new economy with the creation of a not-for-profit Scottish challenger bank and a bespoke crypto-currency.
- Putting information in the hands of everyone: At the heart of this new information economy is, self-evidently, the free flow of knowledge and information for Scottish people. This strand would therefore focus on delivering a range of benefits from free high-speed internet access and basic computing facilities which are free for all at the point of use, to looking at the repurposing and re-establishment of public libraries in an information technology economy, to establishing a world-class technology education and research facility for Scottish people, to creating new classes of educational certification, to, ultimately, giving rise to a modern, barrier-free commercial and social infrastructure that empowers Scots to make their mark on the global economy.
- Improving well-being: Well-being in this case exists on two levels, physical and social. On the physical side, Scots need to exude and promote the health and vigour of the man on the front of every box of Scotts Porridge Oats when I was a kid or the chap from the original Irn Bru logo, and less like more recent stereotypes of Scottish health such as Rab C Nesbitt or the corpulent Scottish character from the Austin Powers movies. Achieving this would involve exploring at the tactical level, the creation of free-to-use public sports facilities in every open space, the rollout of a national “On yer bike” initiative including free bikes for all and cycle lanes in all major cities, an American style bursary and draft scheme to encourage young people into both sport and education, the creation of one or more Scottish Sports Academies, and, ultimately, the foundation of a national institute of sport not dissimilar to that established, with great success, in Australia. The social side is less easy. Great progress has been made since the dark days of the Sixties and Seventies when Scotland was synonymous with a level of social decay and neglect, accelerated by the parallel decline in Scottish industry, that was amongst the worst of any Western economy. Great improvements have been made since the Eighties. Building on those improvements would include additional funding for public sporting and leisure facilities, the funding of free tickets for young people to attend sport and cultural events, and, to address the particular stigma of anti-social behaviour in Scottish inner-cities, the establishment of a series of certificate-earning schemes and initiatives, based around skills training, to engage young people during evenings, weekends and holiday periods.
This is not a political manifesto. Yes, many ideas put forward here have historically fallen to the political classes to resolve but this is Scotland and we don’t do waiting about. Nor is this an argument in favour of Scottish independence or in any way anti-English or anti-British. It is, by definition, not elitist or exclusive. It is not a valedictory paean to the great Scots of the past or a eulogy for the passing of a time when Scots made a disproportionately large contribution in the world. That age, thankfully, still hasn’t passed. No, it fits none of those labels. Scots are a marvellous, industrious, prodigious people of immense achievement. The chapters of our past are glorious. The chapters of our future need be no less so given a collective helping hand.
I will close here with a humble ask. At some point in the future, if all goes to plan, I will come back to you to seek your support for fund-raising or to help me beat the drum for the fundraising of others. For now though, as I hatch my scheme, I need your help in spreading the word and generating interest. If you are Scots yourself, or even just a keen admirer of Scotland, and you recognise and agree with something that I’ve described here, I’d be very grateful if you could Like and Share as much as possible via every means of doing so. If nothing else, you’ll be reminding folk of our great Scots foundations. And, in doing so, we may yet put a few more famous mug shots in the bar of that hotel by those bonnie, bonnie banks.
30th November 2015 (St Andrew’s Day)
You can follow the Great Scots Foundation on Twitter at @scotsfoundation.