Will Self: What We'd Miss About Scotland

Esquire's Editor-At-Large Will Self on how the nation may change if the Scots vote for independence

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Try visualising the Union Jack without the Saltire, which is just a fancy way of saying imagine the British flag without its Scottish component. It looks pretty weird: just a bunch of red lines radiating across a white field like a burst blood vessel. But if, by some caprice of the old gods, the Scots vote on 18 September to leave the Union, that's what the rest of us will have flying over us. If the metaphoric implications are disturbing enough, what about the symbolic ones? For that red-legged-spider-for-a-flag will also be relaying a chilling fact – with Scotland gone it'll be just us… and the Welsh.

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It's my belief that as an individual correlate of the collective imperial drive, every Englishman either chooses or is allocated a Celtic nation. Left to my own devices, I would've gone for Ireland: its people are poetic, fey and hard-drinking with a vicious streak when roused and a fine 20th-century modernist literary tradition, so you can see the suitability of the match. But it was not to be – my brother nabbed Hibernia very effectively by moving there in the early Nineties, so faute de mieux I took Scotland instead. Granted, I got the better deal when it comes to landscape – but when we consider the human factor, things are a little more problematic. Over the past 20 years, I've spent a fair amount of time in Scotland. I should say an average of at least a month a year – which is probably more than Sean Connery, the Greatest Living Scotsman, has managed (of whom, more later) – and on that basis I'd like to offer you my view of what exactly it is we'll be losing should the Scots opt to pack up their sporrans and go. 

It was David Bowie who got me thinking this way. Back in February, speaking through his bizarre – but easy on the hand – Kate Moss glove puppet at the Brits, the Greatest Living Englishman issued a cryptic cri de brave-coeur: "Scotland stay with us!" It was the first time I'd heard anyone on either side of the debate allude to the loss some 54 million English would experience should the five million-odd (some very odd) Scots go their own way.

Mostly, the media has banged on about how the poor independent wee nation will suffer a terrible buffeting as it tries to plot a course in the vicious currents of international capital flows; how the dosh will be sucked out of its economy faster than oil gushing from a North Sea field; and how its sheepish folk will be wandering in the fiscal wilderness once they've been deprived of our sterling currency. I want to redress that balance, but I won't be cataloguing all the obvious Scottishery. There's no place in this article – and arguably in the world – for kilts, claymores, the Krankies and bigoted Australians with blue-painted faces.

No, I want to give you the authentic Scotland, and to that end I want you to picture me as I was on the first day of June this year, driving at some speed along the B871 through the desolate moonscape of Sutherland, one of the northernmost counties of this hyperborean realm, en route for the Garvault Hotel, an establishment that styles itself "Britain's most remote hotel". This is the true Highlands, a vast and empty realm, devoid of population since the early 19th century, when in pursuit of woolly profits, the so-called Red Duke of Sutherland and his duchess slung their tenants off the land. All that goes on here now is toffs stalking deer, men of a certain age trout fishing and huge semi-trailers roaring along the patchy roads hauling southerners' fresh-cut tax breaks – sorry, I mean "timber". There's nothing picturesque about central Sutherland unless, that is, your favourite paintings are the mineralised landscapes of the surrealist Max Ernst.

And fortunately mine are. As I drove and drove and drove some more, my spirits rose. In our right, tightly-populated little island, it's heartening to realise that these extensive wastes still exist; you could release thousands of cracked-up southern ne'er-do-wells and conniving wanker-bankers into these bleakly peaty hills and never see any of them ever again.

Packed into our urban battery farms, we need at least a background awareness of this free-ranging opportunity – even if we never avail ourselves of it. Pulling up at the turning to Garvault, I read on the hotel sign "non-residents welcome" and burst into laughter. The very idea of it! As if anyone would undertake a minimum two-hour-round drive in order to eat and drink at what must – Scotland being the country it indubitably is – be an establishment typified by madly surly service and tinned soup.

Perhaps the best contemporary debunking of Scotland's pretensions to be a premium holiday destination has to've been the Scots hotel sketch on Little Britain. Like all its sketches, it follows a tight formula: in this case, Matt Lucas plays the gullible English guest and David Walliams the gurning, flute-playing, off-with-the-fairies proprietor of a godforsaken hostelry. Welcoming Lucas in with nods, winks and mad insinuations, Walliams then introduces the unusual menu delights enquiring: "Have you heard of such a thing as… soup?" or bread, or tomatoes, or indeed any other food staple, the point being that in the straitened culinary atmosphere of Scotland, such things are indeed astonishing exotica.

Of course, I've stayed in some Scots hotels that are baronial and imposing and others that are boutiqued to the max, but there's a certain kind of Scots establishment that for sheer, dreek, Tupperware-plated gloominess is unsurpassed: the windowsills are covered in dead bluebottles, the nylon sheets hook on to your hangnails and the barman has been in an alcoholic blackout since Rod Stewart was sporting tartan loons on Top of the Pops. (It was an innocent era – he was born in north London.)

Indeed, I'd argue that it's precisely this aspect of Scotland that we English will miss the most. For without the dark shadow of the inhospitable Scots' hotels looming in back of our own ones, they'll be shown up for what they truly are: gloomy, frowsty gaffs, where the windowsills are covered in dead bluebottles and tinned soup is accorded a great delicacy. As it is to the hospitality industry, so it is to a lot of other aspects of England and the English – we have depended now for 307 years on the Scots to be our necessary shadow. We English may be many things, but we are incontrovertibly gentlemen, and as such we never sully our fine hands with any of the following: serious graft; any occupation too boringly technical such as engineering or medicine; and the scummy world of politics. We may have had the biggest empire the world has ever seen, but we never so much as slapped an indigenous face in order to obtain it. This, like so much else, we left to hatchet-faced former tribesmen from north of the border wearing boldly-patterned skirts and no pants while wielding fucking big knives.

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Yes, we outsourced violence to the Scots regiments of the British Army, and we got clever Scots to be our doctors and engineers, and tough ones to dig our coal, forge our steel and sail our ships. In due course, we even gave over the wielding of political power to them as well, and for the past half-century or more we've been content to have largely Scots cabinet ministers. The Scots, we English are fond of observing, are a strange people. On the one hand, there's your romantic, passionate, heavily intoxicated Scot, mercurial and quick to rouse (it's a scientific fact that there is nothing more dangerous on the face of this Earth than a Glaswegian male under 5ft 5in); while on the other there's your dour, judgmental, sober Scot who's impossible to rouse – especially sexually. The problem is that both natures are often to be found confusingly united in the same Caledonian breast. Moreover, this divided soul is actually possessed by us English in spades; the truth is we avoid any possible insight into ourselves by outsourcing the bits of our national character we don't like to our northern brethren, while stealing from them any expertise they may possess. (And the oil.)

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It gets a lot worse when we consider what might happen if certain attributes we prize as English – but which in fact are Scots – were to be magically removed from us. Take empiricism, for example. Yes, empiricism: the doctrine that holds all we can know of the world is the testimony of our senses. We English like to think of ourselves as such solid, down-to-earth folk philosophically. We have no truck with fancy French or German system-building, let alone wacky mysticism, oh no. Unfortunately, this simply isn't true: empiricism – and the great scientific advances that flowed from it in terms of the applied experimental method – was the revelation of a Scots philosopher, David Hume, one of the key thinkers of the 18th-century Scots Enlightenment. (Please note, there is no such thing as the "English Enlightenment".)

Almost all of the key scientific and technological advances of that era and the subsequent ones were made by Scots: James Watt, John Boyd Dunlop, Alexander Graham Bell, John Logie Baird, Alexander Fleming – these are the men that made the modern nation we're so proud of. Hell's bells, when you're grafting hard, trying to contribute to your own pitiful – and the nation's gross – product, it's worth reflecting on the fact that economics itself is pretty much a Scots invention. Step forward Adam Smith, who was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, and died like so many other of these savants in Edinburgh.

Moreover, suppose the Scots didn't just take what is incontrovertibly the most beautiful city in Britain with them when they quit the Union, but also deprived us of mechanical power, the pneumatic tyre, the telephone, the TV and antibiotics, before abstracting from our foggy minds the very steely matter-of-factness we thought was our own. Yes, devoid of Scots empiricism we English would be off with the fairies – prancing through our green and pleasant land alongside nutters like William Blake, who believed that Stonehenge was built by angels. I tell you, it's only all that Scots' Calvinist repression that prevents us from floating away like dandelion seeds blown willy-nilly across a golf course… Except that if the Scots secede, they might well take their fairways and greens with them, given it's their national game.

Which I for one would regret. Not, you understand, that I play golf much myself, it's just that it's part of the family silverware. Indeed, pretty much all of the silver I saw as a child were the various golf trophies my father, uncle and grandfather had won. When I was first married – and did I mention that my wife is Scottish? – my late father-in-law took me for a round at his club at Shotts in Lanarkshire. John had been a lathe operator in a metal-bashing outfit peripheral to the great steel works at Ravenscraig. These were loud, dirty and dangerous environments. When he was at the Craig itself, John saw a man burnt to buggery by molten steel. It's understandable that after he retired in his early sixties, he chose to spend his time swinging his arms freely in the cool, quiet, outdoors. Anyway, if you'll forgive a golfing metaphor, what I'm driving at here is that this isn't the touristic Scotland, full of tartan glens jumbled up with antlers, but the Scots rust belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where empty Buckfast Tonic Wine bottles litter the verges, and former open-cast mines appear as great blank patches on the Ordnance Survey map.

There we were out on the course, when observing me digging ineffectually at the ball, John suddenly delivered this homily: golf, he told me, was the only game known to man in which you play not against a human opponent, but against the land itself, so that land should be reverenced rather than having great divots hacked out of it. It was an astonishing Zen insight – and I confess, not knowing him well at the time, I was somewhat taken aback to hear it coming from the lips of this grizzled ex-steel worker. But on consideration it occurred to me not only that he was right – and obviously so – but that the simulacrum of Scots moorland and coastal dunes we were chipping across was probably one of the nation's greatest feats of territorial expansion, for was it not the case that entire tracts of the US, Japan, and of course England, had been given over to miniature idealised Scotlands? Were not hundreds of thousands of golfers playing against these scaled-down versions of the nation, even as I hacked my way round the course at Shotts?

All of which brings me, fairly logically, to the 19th hole. My late father-in-law was not the cashmere-sporting type – I recalled this as I drove south from the Garvault Hotel on a blazing early June morning and through the coastal town of Brora – either on the links or off them. Nor, it has to be said, was he a typically bibulous Scot, favouring a small glass of Malibu from time to time, rather than a large tumbler full of the uisge beatha, or "water of life". Along with golf, the British constitution (of which, more later) and most of Western learning, the Scots most celebrated export is undoubtedly whisky. I once asked my wife what the precise moment was when she realised I had a serious drinking problem, and she said it occurred one evening, about a year after we were married: "We were going to a party where you knew there would be a free bar. I was waiting in a cab and I saw you standing by the front door downing an entire glass full of neat whisky because you couldn't bear to leave it unfinished."

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It was one of thousands of whiskies I couldn't bear to leave unfinished. Despite having been separated from the uisge beatha for many years now, I cannot help reasserting here what every right-thinking person knows to be the truth: when it comes to intoxicating liquors, a good single-malt Scotch is the finest example known to man, woman or beast (which is what both men and women often become under its influence). Twenty miles south of the cashmere town of Brora, still powering along the A9, I passed the Glenmorangie distillery at Tain. This is, in fact, one of only two whisky distilleries I've ever visited (the other being on the island of Jura, where Orwell wrote 1984), and the memory of its strangely religious atmosphere remains with me: the fat casks like the pillars of a Romanesque cathedral nave, drawing the eye ineluctably towards the odd brass crucible into which dripped a steady, pellucid trickle of the holy fluid. Actually, Glenmorangie is by no means my favourite single malt – that distinction belongs to Highland Park, which is distilled in Orkney.

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Let's backtrack a little: we're still in early June, but the previous day, when I arrived at the Garvault Hotel, I'd in fact driven from still further north – from Scrabster near Thurso on the Caithness coast, which is where the ferry from Orkney docks.

I first went to Orkney in the early Nineties, ended up living there in the winter of 1993–'94, and continued going back, twice-annually, for about the next decade. Nowadays, I return infrequently but every time I do, I find myself subjected to the same strange psychic bouleversement: from the perspective of this tiny archipelago off the northernmost coast of Britain, things appear very differently. "Down south" becomes the dangerously warm and licentious city of Edinburgh, while London seems a distant and exotic Rio of a place. Indeed, since I settled on Rousay, one of the northern isles of Orkney, even the Orcadian capital of Kirkwall (population approximately 8,500), began to seem like an overwhelming Gomorrah of a metropolis – it was enough to make you reach for a drink.And I did, often. In Orkney, a "wee dram" (usually three fat fingers of neat Highland Park) is commonly offered to you if you drop round to someone's house to borrow a cup of sugar at 11am, with the result that you can pass most of your days happily – or self-piteously, guiltily and morosely – fuddled. Although not fuddled enough to imagine you're in Scotland, because Orkney was only gifted to Scotland by the Danes as part of a royal dowry in the 15th century; the accent on the islands is like a slushy, Scandinavian-inflected Tyneside one, rather than the Trainspotting glottals of urban Scots, or the misty syllables of the Western Isles. When I lived on Rousay, a Scotsman pitched up who insisted on wearing a kilt, and he was derisively referred to by the locals as "Jock the Frock".

I mention all of this, because when I was on Orkney in June and talk turned to the referendum, the opinion was often expressed that should the mainland Scots opt for independence, the Orkneys (and the Shetlands for that matter) might very well immediately secede from the newly resurgent nation, taking their unparalleled whisky with them. What I'm trying to draw to your attention here is the latently fissiparous nature of this allegedly rock-solid nation of ours – once bits of it start hiving themselves off, there's no knowing where it might stop. If there's to be an independent Scotland, why not an independent Yorkshire, or London for that matter?

The only documents that actually established the sovereignty of Westminster are the 1707 Acts of Union between the English and Scottish crowns, so if the Scots fuck off we're left without a constitution to speak of at all. My whisky-drinking days being long past I'm lucid enough to know that without the rule of law the English could get very ugly indeed… not to mention the Welsh.

Sitting in the bar of the Garvault, I caressed the Union-Jack-without-the-Saltire burst blood vessels in my nose – the legacy of all that whisky drinking – and bearded Mine Host. He wasn't played by David Walliams, but the establishment thus far had amply conformed to the Little Britain stereotype, what with its china zebras on windowsills, plastic-covered furniture, and antlers nailed to the Artex.

At dinner, Mine Host had announced there would be cream of mushroom soup for starters, in tones of reverence at such culinary daring. I'd got it down me then struggled with my main course: smoked haddock – topped with a fried egg! – cabbage and two big, white boiled potatoes. But the four middle-aged men who shared the dining room with me powered through their dinners, while talking volubly in thickly-accented Spanish. Communicating in our only mutual language, French (suitably enough, since it was spoken at the Royal Court of Scotland) they told me they were Basques, and that they'd been coming to Garvault every summer for 18 years in order to fish for trout in the surrounding lochs. It seemed that some Celts were allocated other Celtic nations.

Mine Host told me about his remoteness: the nearest neighbour in one direction was seven miles away, in the other a mere five. His establishment was surrounded by the giant estates of nobs with names like Binkie Thorpe-Nuttal (one I made up), who only pitched up once a year to slay the monarch of the glen and model tweed suits. I asked him about the independence referendum, and he said he'd be voting against it himself: "I don't believe the polls give a true picture," he said. "When it comes to the crunch, I don't think more than 10 per cent of the electorate will say yes." Sipping my glass of sparkling Highland Spring mineral water, I considered his opinion soberly – before dismissing it. After all, what else would the proprietor of the most remote hotel in mainland Scotland say, given he was from Sheffield originally?


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