The first time I attended a ceilidh I was amazed, flabbergasted and in awe. Was this really happening? Was this something people actually did, and not just at weddings? Were there really guys wearing kilts and chequered knee-socks? This wasn’t just a traditional outfit only worn to please tourists? I had already been able to tell my friends back home that instead of initiation weekends for fraternities or sororities that include harrowing humiliation and forced intake of copious amounts of alcohol for the sake of ‘bonding’, as is prevalent at Dutch universities, here people in different coloured T-shirts just shouted at each other from the balcony of a beautiful room in an even more magnificent university building. And now I could entertain them with this! Yet more than an entertaining story, that first night of trying-to-ceilidh, and those that followed, felt special and supremely Scottish, and made me so glad to be living here.
Scottish poet Don Paterson said that he never felt like he had a Scottish identity, except from when he lived in London, and he felt more Scottish like he ever felt in his home-country. Being away from Amsterdam means I discovered more things, whether food, art, sayings or elements within tradition, that I never realised were so much part of who I am as well as part of Dutch culture. It also made things I already knew very well were ridiculous look even more out-of-this-world ridiculous (just google ‘Zwarte Piet’ and you’ll understand what I mean, I promise not everyone in the Netherlands is a racist). But, more importantly, in addition to these discoveries there was this whole new culture to dive into and explore.
Over the past two and a half years, I have happily done just that. In a similar way to the landscape of Scotland ranging from jagged cliffs in a wild sea to green, rolling hills and endless rocky plateaus, picture-perfect beaches to sandstone and granite cities, so does the language of your poetry and literature dazzle with local charm and difference. Since most people living in the urban areas in the west of the Netherlands speak with little accent, I never got confronted much with them. Now, I love being able to know someone is from Manchester before they’ve told me because I recognize their accent, or hear the difference between Glaswegians and people from Dundee, Edinburgh or Aberdeenshire. The poetry that celebrates these local characteristics is what makes Scottish culture so special, and reading them feels like travelling through the country. This is the case with Hugh MacDiarmid’s lament to the dying of island life in his Island Funeral, or poems that exist only secondly in English as they are written in the Gaelic of the Highlands. Or it is like coming home again, as in Tom Leonard’s Six Glasgow Poems that should be read aloud to be deciphered by non-natives like me (I especially enjoy Good Style: helluva hard tay read theez init /stull /if yi canny unnirston thim jiss clear aff then / gawn / get tay fuck ootma road) and Edwin Morgan’s Glasgow Sonnets, the first one about desolation in and around ‘that black block condemned to stand, not crash’.
Another element of culture that is rooted deep in Glaswegian language and way of life is definitely comedy. From Kevin Bridges and Frankie Boyle, who said ‘In Scotland we have mixed feelings about global warming, because we all get to sit on the mountains and watch the English drown’, to the nation’s favourite Billy Connolly. How suited to our city’s rich cultural heritage and love for street art that Connolly is celebrated in vibrant colours on three enormous walls in the city centre.
There is of course so much more to write about. Like Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife, Margaret Macdonald, Liz Lochhead and Alasdair Gray, the innovative works of the Glasgow Boys as well the group of women now referred to as The Glasgow Girls, pursuing arts careers during the period of Enlightenment between 1885 and 1920 but still too often overlooked now because we live in a patriarchal society that loves men, and of course, the lively music scene that I will hopefully be able to dedicate a whole column on its own to.
Still, I would like to end with a great quote of Billy Connolly: “I hate all those weathermen, too, who tell you that rain is bad weather. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing, so get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.” And in that sexy raincoat, go to a club to see some comedy, find yourself a library to read some poetry, walk the streets to look at art, and live a little.