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Scots culture: How we maintain distinctiveness within the UK and in a Globalised World.

'Scotland is manifested to some extent in the Kailyard character - to do what’s right in a fair and egalitarian manner for our communities and wider society.'

Friday, October 13, 2023
Read time: 10 mins

Scots culture: How we maintain distinctiveness within the UK and in a Globalised World.

Author: Charles Chevalier

Scottish culture has been described as ‘almost schizophrenic’ by the Scottish political theorist and academic Tom Nairn.

The dichotomous threads of the head and the heart describe Scotland's heart as reaching and even scrambling for purchase on the tangible that confirms a unique identity informed by historical myth that interprets vistas of romantic historical imagery on the one hand. The head stands removed from quixotic notions of the past, positioned in the present and the future holding the understanding and realization of a need to recognize a globalised world on the other. The heart obsessed with a Scottish distinctiveness and unity of culture through traditional ideas and rituals, and the head seeking harmony with the international economic, social, and political reality of a globalised world.

Global forces are creating a tensity on nation states for transformation, not only by the economy but via politics and culture. Capital, markets, goods, and services appear to be ever more enmeshed in interdependence. National market economies are bending to accommodate transnational corporations that scour the planet looking for the cheapest labour and the highest profit margin. Financial capital has become unmoored from national boundaries, allegiances, or identity.

Considering the unleashing of the neo-liberal assault, one of financial deregulation, privatization, and the untethering of the forces of capitalism, it is said that the nation state is functioning on a diluted sovereignty. Some argue that national economies have lost fiscal control, control of the labour market and monetary policies that not only dilute sovereignty but additionally converge on all threads of society including identity, culture, tradition and religion. The extent to which this is true remains in academic flux.

This essay will initially explore how globalisation and its characteristics have, instead of homogenizing cultures, been the catalyst for nations to promote their cultural differences. The body will explore how UK politics is translated through the cultural spectrum of Scotland and how globalisation entrenched Scotland's political landscape. Moreover, how these factors converged creating a determination for distinctiveness within the UK and globally. The latter part of the essay will confirm that Scotland, although disadvantaged and discouraged in pursuance of distinctiveness, does indeed hold a formidable cultural depth. Globalisation and technology have been refined by Scotland’s cultural filter, the best has been integrated and the negative have been rejected.

Although there are claims and counterclaims as to the extent or indeed existence of a global economy and, by extension, globalisation that infiltrates national identities, culture, tradition, and religion, there is a consensus on the emergence of difference.

Politics viewed through the spectrum of culture

For Scotland, a distinct identity and culture within the nation state of the UK is additionally complex. Particularly when we view how culture and identity have framed the politics of Scotland within the UK. 

Politics in Scotland during the postwar period were not wildly divergent from England until the 1970s where (in Scotland) Labour gained the advantage. The Conservatives bore a substantial deficit, and this has continued ever since. The shift may be explained by a realignment or remembering of a Scottish identity. The differential voting patterns are, without much controversy, explained by Scots finding their distinct voice and thinking for themselves.

As much as there was this shift it was equivocal. Although Scots were seeing themselves as more Scottish than British there was no singular or simple explanation, as both Labour and Conservative held deep ties in Scotland. Additionally, unionism and nationalism held equally opposing but similar conditions in that inter alia unionists were noted for their determined endeavor for Scots autonomy as were nationalists campaigning for equal consideration in Scotland. Both, while being opposed, were characterized by similar political flavors and held similar aims and goals for Scotland. It is difficult to find purchase on how culture and identity have a bearing or relationship with or on politics. It is almost ephemeral, however still tangible, where national identity and culture is an interpretive spectrum through which we can view politics. The rise of the Scottish national party and support for independence appears to evidence the relevance of national identity in politics.

The 1950s brought with it the most daring enterprise and, many would say, a confirmation of Scots distinctiveness that was awakened by political apathy to recognise Scotland as a nation although without a state...

The Stone of Destiny

The Stone of Destiny is a historical artifact of Scotland that dates to the beginning of the Abrahamic religions and is said to be the stone that was used by Jacob as a pillar to lay his head whereupon he dreamt the stone was the gateway to heaven.

The stone was transported through historical circumstance via the middle east through Egypt, Spain and then to Ireland. It was then taken to Scotland by Fergus, first King of the Scots. As an interesting sidenote of stone folklore, it is thought Scotland was named after the Egyptian princess Scotta who married the Celtic King Galtheus who transported the stone to Spain. His descendants then moved the stone to Ireland.

The stone was then integrated into Scots culture and, as an ancient relic, used to coronate her Kings. In 1292 King Edward marched to Scone Abbey to steal the Coronation Stone from the Scots. By historical accounts he was successful. Although history documents his incursion into Scotland two years later, no doubt in the knowledge he had in fact taken a replica made by Abbey’s monks who anticipated his motives.

The Coronation stone lay in Westminster for 700yrs until, in the 1950s, four young Scots students, no doubt motivated by our rich cultural history, decided it was time to repatriate the stone.

Four students of Glasgow university, members of the Scots Covenant Association (a group that supported home rule) decided to bring the ancient artifact back to Scotland. Ian Hamilton, Kay Matheson, Gavin Vernon, and Alan Stuart are to be remembered as historical figures that attempted to return equilibrium of historical culture back to Scotland.

These four students must be remembered in perpetuity as a symbol of Scots innate cultural understanding and our historically driven motives as a nation. Although we are within the British state we are distinct as a nation.

Their bold and some may say foolhardy enterprise was in fact the beginning of the signal that Scotland was remembering our cultural distinctiveness. They retrieved the Stone in an almost kailyard fashion and set the British establishment on fire to re-align the British understanding of Unionism and Empire right.

The stone was broken in two when being retrieved, it was then taken to Cumbernauld and the stone mason Bertie Auld made it one and, as an addition to the controversy by unofficial accounts, it was rumoured the returned stone may have been a replica made by Auld.

The Stone was eventually, after months of fretting by the British establishment, deposited by three Scots at Arbroath Abbey (where the Declaration of Arbroath was made), asserting that in antiquity the independence of The Kingdom of Scotland was legal and denouncing England’s attempts to subjugate her.


Globalisation has by some accounts been ongoing since the Silk Road and by others in the contemporary period the inflection point is the late 1970s-1980. The period of interest here is 1950-2020, deindustrialization in Scotland, new public planning and the resulting economic, technological, social, and political change that accompanied the retreat of the British empire.

The first phase of deindustrialization that marked the beginning of a new era started in the 1950s, envisioning a new economic structure for Scotland, making way for alternative forms of employment. Legacies of deindustrialization are still felt today with an indelible long-lasting social and cultural memory. The loss of industrial work for those of the era created a destabilization of work, class, and culture.

The dismembering of work culture had political and social implications in the shaping of Scotland's national identity. The uprooting of individuals, families, and communities in the restructuring and planning process, to some extent, was in accommodating Multinational-Corporations (MNC’s) and branch plant inward investment enterprises. The moral economy approach to second phase deindustrialization 1955 -1970s went some way to alleviating social and cultural disemboweling although by the 1980s the moral economy discourse was challenged in the final phase, particularly in the coal industry, in lieu of closures resulting in job losses, rampant unemployment and capital and corporate flight by Transnational Corporations. This culminated in the miners' strike of 1984-85.

The Election of the Thatcher government in 1979-90 brought about an attack on social democracy, the Beveridgean social settlement, Keynesian economics, the working classes, the Unions, and the welfare state. Thatcher ushered in Neo-liberalism to accommodate the global economy and initiated the steppingstones program that was to emasculate the unions via anti-union legislation and oversee the dilution of the welfare state. Thatcher's era of top-down ideological fanaticism brought about expanded internationalism in alignment with a global free market economy. British manufacturing was decimated, workers' rights were eroded, public housing was sold off creating a housing shortage and ghettoization of the poorest communities, and inequality widened as substantial subunits within the health and social sector services were sold or contracted to foreign investors.

The Thatcher government's policies devastated Scotland and calls for an Independent Scotland amplified. In addition, the mood in Scotland was tempered with, and could be captured by, the memory and unresolved, political, cultural and social tension created by deindustrialization. As well as the destruction of collective bargaining institutions from shop stewards to unions and the attack on the welfare state, but also of the growing realization of a democratic deficit. Between 1945-2019 Scotland was governed by a UK government it did not vote for 75% of the time.

The term high Englishness was often used to describe Thatcher policies of the era, an attitude characterized by the Conservatives of 1979-97. Neo-liberalism and its tenets emphasize hyper-individualism and deregulated market mechanisms with no state intervention. These tenets challenged two of the intrinsic cultural identity building myths of Scottishness - egalitarianism and radicalism. Meritocracy, transparency, and plurality being features of egalitarianism and radicalism centered on interceding in the market, a skepticism of neo-liberalism and a corporatist leaning to society and state relations are prominent representationally in Scottishness. Therefore, the globalist, neo-liberal assault challenged Scots notion of a distinct identity in a dyadic manner, firstly attacking the social, cultural and identity realm, via employment security, collective bargaining (a fair days' work for a fair day's pay) and reduced health and social services. Secondly via a political economy with an “at arm's length” state with less accountability or responsibility, a democratic deficit and fragmented social solidarity and community cohesion. Via hyper-individualism, society was reduced to a business model reversing the historic commitment to equality, universality and social provision.


Television began transmitting in Scotland in 1952 with the installation of the Kirk o’ Shotts television transmitter. The television, invention of Scot John Logie Baird, was then initially populated by films and programs that represented Scots in almost if not fully fledged forms of Kailyardism in films, for example Whiskey galore (1949) The Maggie (1954) and Brigadoon (1954). Small town Scotland defeats the corporate monster with the canniness of everyone in the town from crofter to doctor working together in a common goal were the general themes. The themes were populated by characters with a quaint childish innocence with Old Man wisdom and a once-upon-a-time happy ending was standard.

It is then ironic that a Scots invention, a technological device, was used to broadcast an incomplete and shallow understanding of Scots culture around the world. Images of tartan biscuit tins and haggis among the clusters of hill heather with a piper atop the biscuit tin blaring the bagpipes were the stereotypical imagery presented. The irony did not end there as it was often Scots that constructed this imagery. The reality is the imagery is in large part rooted in romanticism and Scots allow outsiders and themselves to be self-indulgent and bathe in the sentimental moments. Or as the likes of writer Douglas Brown describe it, “sentimental slop”. In addition, Tom Nairn is noted for his vicious criticism of the Kailyard genre. The Kailyard genre was not only limited to television but also favoured by some authors, for example Sir James Barrie and his Auld Licht Idylls (1888) and A Window in Thrums (1889).

Kailyardism is still alive in the media and the Arts to this day although certainly there is a less parochial notion of Scots culture represented in film and television contemporarily. The cultural image of Scotland viewed through the prism of kailyardism and tartanry is being accentuated by a more gritty media representation of Scots culture via the Arts. For example, Irvine Welsh, author and playwright having adapted some of his books to the big screen showing his flair for capturing Scots miserabilism with films for example Trainspotting, Acid House and Marabou Stork Nightmares, presenting a lived-in accurate portrayal of subcultures in Scots society. Some may say his films point to an equally dubious but apparent cultural feature of Scots described as miserabilism, denoting a leniency to dark or nihilistic themes. Some would argue this miserabilism was created by the societal damage of neoliberal economics and a global economy. Other notable Scots films include The Crow Road based on Ian Banks dark novel, as well as Shallow Grave, and My Name is Joe. Welsh’s film Trainspotting, set in the 1980s, describes the brutal life of council scheme living with high unemployment and drug addiction at a time Scots cultural understandings were under sustained attack by Thatcher’s neoliberalism.


Scotland has a deep and rich multi-layered culture that can be said to have been discouraged at some points in the past 70yrs. However, its depth and breadth have allowed it to take advantage, in the face of adversity, by showing our distinctiveness through a quiet and at times loud determination within the UK and the world. If cultural difference is said by some to be erroneous, then the Scots prove otherwise. 

While England has been willing to eject some of the institutions and ideologies of the post war social reform settlement, Scotland has been less willing to do so. These reforms align with our cultural myth builders. 

Scots culture is a symphony of characteristics that are heard through the orchestra of the norms and values created within our nation's culture. These norms and values make us distinctive, with historical romance that plays to our sentimentality and ‘heart of Scotland’ and by our political elites' conceptions that are directed by ‘the head of Scotland’. The collective of Scots society brings equilibrium to both. 

Although Scotland has cultural distinctiveness it is made of many parts that not all Scots will adopt. Some may claim the bagpipes, tartan biscuit tins and heather, some claim the Braveheart spirit and others will claim the Arts and music. In UK political terms the distinctiveness of Scotland is apparent and if culture is the spectrum through which we view politics, then the divergence in policies go some way to backing this claim.

Globalisation by default has been a driver for Scots to stubbornly claim and promote our cultural distinctiveness, making advantage of disadvantage. The 1980s via neoliberalism (arguably ushered in to facilitate the global economy) caused misery and mass inequality for the Scots. Alongside the NRC, the Thatcher government's policies managed to firmly lodge a wedge between Westminster and Scotland, particularly the attack on the welfare state and the emasculation of the unions - these two institutions align with Scotland's deeply embedded cultural myths of egalitarianism and radicalism. Scotland has a long social and cultural memory that tends not to forget historical adversity. 

Technology has additionally been a driver of distinctiveness. Whereas initially it presented a shallow view of Scots culture, latterly it has been used in advantage to show a richer description. The kailyard is not to be dismissed - although it is insular it picks up on older cultural notions of Scottishness that we carry with us. Tom Nairn may be vociferous in his dismissal of the kailyard character, although the irony is the heart of Scotland is manifested to some extent in the Kailyard character i.e. to do what’s right in a fair and egalitarian manner for our communities and wider society. Scotland ‘heart and head’ will guide her culture, constantly evolving, carrying the old and adopting the best of the new as she makes her way to a promising future.


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