Symbols, bloody symbols!

both flags

Many years ago I worked for a regional council when there was an almighty stooshy – about a flagpole. A village primary school had inherited one of them in its playground, the long-forgotten gift of some laird or local worthy. A new headteacher decided it should be used and after a lick of paint and a new lanyard (one for aficionados of Scottish politics there) the saltire/union flag was duly run up the pole.

Immediately, half the village (or at least the parent body) was up in arms. It was outrageous that the union flag/saltire should be flown at the expense of the saltire/union flag. Weren’t we part of Scotland/the UK? Or the UK/Scotland?

Do you get my point? At this distance of time I genuinely can’t remember which flag went up first. But it certainly raised the hackles of the bit of the village that didn’t buy into that way of thinking. Just as the original part became outraged when the second part objected. Somehow both sides forgot that a school is there to educate children. Perhaps they thought the main purpose of their school was to produce good little nats/Brits. Or Brits/nats if you prefer.

I can’t remember how the dispute was resolved. I think someone in the education department had a quiet word with the heidie, congratulated him on his initiative in restoring said pole and suggested that its use be reserved for a balanced menu of highdays and holidays. On the rare occasions I see a primary school flying a flag these days it’s usually proclaiming nothing more disputatious than the school’s green credentials.

The incident was a powerful reminder to me of the importance of symbols – and how they can be abused.

Where there is harmony and consensus symbols can be a comforting expression of togetherness. Anyone who travelled through the Danish countryside in summer a few years ago as I did and saw all the holiday chalets flying the Danish flag would know this was a nation at peace with itself and not a strident assertion of difference.

My anonymous village on the other hand was not, I think, at peace with itself.

It seems now that I live in a large village of five million people, definitely not at peace with itself. Which is why symbols assume a different importance than they do in more harmonious societies. And why we should, perhaps, be careful how we use them.

The saltire has become the symbol of, indeed appropriated by, Scottish nationalism. Meanwhile over in Lanarkshire other flags have been the cause of recent dissent. First, in Hamilton there was a bit of a brouhaha because a hotel that had previously flown both the union flag and saltire (as does the Scottish parliament – so far) suddenly ‘lost’ its union flag. There seems to have been a small protest and the red-white-and-blue was restored after a few days. Second, and only the other day, North Lanarkshire council agreed to fly the Irish tricolour on the anniversary this year of the 1916 Easter Uprising. This may have given comfort to some republicans and Scots of Irish ancestry but will be distasteful for many and a red – sorry, orange, white and green – rag to many Scots.

Although I’ve often been called a ‘yoon’ online and even (my favourite) an ‘ultra Britnat fanatic’ you’ll struggle to find any flags on this blog except as illustrations to posts about Scottish and other nationalists who use/abuse them as symbols (here and here for example). You certainly won’t find a union flag. No willy waving here thank you, life is too complicated and my identity too diverse. If only more people could accept their own complexity and diversity identities …

Where nationalism is concerned, symbols of course are supremely important. And if flags are to be waved literally, so language is to be waved metaphorically, and uncritically. Gaelic, rightly in my view, receives support as an original and natural language of a small minority of Scots. But many, including me, would consider the support it is being given outside its heartland disproportionate. Gaelic names for railways stations down the East coast and in the Borders either hark back to words long unused in the areas concerned or are mere invented fictions. Ireland should hold a lesson for over-enthusiastic proponents of Gaelic. Irish has been compulsory in schools in the republic since the 1920s but in 2011 only 77,000 people, less than 1.7% of the population, spoke Irish daily outside the school system (2011 census).

Now of course nationalist, and SNP government, attention is turning to the Scots tongue. It must also be promoted in schools and more widely. Academics can argue whether and how much Scots is an accent, a distinct vocabulary, a dialect or a language. But it too is in danger of becoming a political football, not helped when the mainly government-funded charity promoting it, the Scots Language Centre, turns out to be staffed mainly by … yes, you’ve guessed, nationalists.

Ludicrously, part of the teaching technique for primary schoolchildren turns out to be scrambled lists of English and ‘Scots’ words the kids have to match, thus bahookie and … bum. Forget the language/dialect/vocabulary or whatever it is, whoever heard of a school teaching children the word ‘bum’? That’s slang five year olds pick up in the playground or at home to laugh at along with other naughty words. It doesn’t need the combined might of the government, the curriculum for excellence and highly-trained teachers to explain. Incidentally, many of the ‘Scots’ words I’ve seen on these lists posted online are actually local, for example Glaswegian or Doric or, shock horror, also common in regions of England.

Finally, let’s consider the use by many online of another symbol – the SNP logo. Of course, I would expect party members whose online persona is focussed on politics to use it. But, if my interactions are anything to go by, there is a substantial minority who are not party members. Or so they claim when challenged – ‘What makes you think I belong to the SNP?’ Well, why on earth would you use approvingly the symbol of any political party if you can’t even be bothered to join it?

So, just off down the apples and pears to clip my Tory/Labour badges on (I use both – they are the same aren’t they?), then it’s on with the union jack titfer and I’m away for a pig’s ear at the old rub a dub dub. What’s it called? Of course, the Yes Bar. I’m sure I’ll get a right royal civic welcome there.

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3 Responses to Symbols, bloody symbols!

  1. Sam Duncan says:

    I went to an independent school in the ’80s. We had a flagpole, and the Union Jack was run up it on official flag days. There’s a list. I expect you can get it from the Palace website these days. It’s quite wide-ranging – The Duke of Kent’s birthday is one, I think – but it’s a recognised thing. I don’t ever recall any complaints.

    On the other hand, my BB company, like every company in Britain, had two colours: the Union Jack and the saltire. In England, of course, it’s the St. George cross; Wales, the dragon flag, and so on, and I assume in other countries they have state or regional flags. That seems sensible. (Of course, should the Nats ever get their way, the Union Jack will no doubt be exchanged for the Ring of Stars. They won’t appreciate the irony.)

    But how can anyone have thought that flying the Irish flag in the west of Scotland wouldn’t be controversial or provocative? I mean, this is a country with laws against singing sectarian songs, for heaven’s sake. It beggars belief. (I’m reminded of the Glasgow council flying the red flag from the city chambers during the Cold War. Ultimately, no, it didn’t really do any harm, but it was a silly nose-thumbing gesture that demeaned the would-be City Fathers.)

    I can’t help thinking of Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit’s ironic refrain: “What I like about the Obama administration is all the racial healing that’s going on”. What I like about the SNP administration is the way it’s bringing Scotland together. “One Scotland”, eh?

    The “Scots” thing is ridiculous. Nationalists – anywhere – love to fixate on language as a differentiatior. In fact, nationalism has its origins in the 19th Century idea that language groups are somehow lessened if they don’t have their own states. (There was, to be fair, some merit in that back then, when smaller cultural groups were often genuinely oppressed by the dominant ones.) In that sense, there can be no Scottish nationalism without a language. But “Scots” is English. The Highlanders know it; we lowlanders are as Sassenach as Geordies or Brummies. (And countless wars were fought over that before 1707.) Most “Scots” words can also be found in dialects in England. (My favourite is “oxter”, which derives from the Old English “oxta”, meaning “wing”.) It’s nonsense. Anyone could take a local dialect and claim it to be a distinct language, but that’s not how linguistics works. There is, and has never been, a standard, accepted, “Scots“ across the whole country; Glaswegian dialect is as distinct from Aberdonian as it is from Liverpudlian. When most of these “Scots language” fans start speaking, I haven’t the faintest idea what they’re saying, and I’m far from an RP speaker myself. It’s just another case of manufacturing difference to drive a wedge into this Kingdom.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Have the Gaelic road signs reached East Lothian yet? It will be interesting to see the Gaelic for Athelstaneford.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Forget the Railway station signs, we’ll soo be getting this for the Gaelic Ambulance Service … and this for ScotsPoliceScotland

    Liked by 1 person

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