On the right scent

Brian Morton

Scotsman Brian Morton follows a writer who bicycled around the country in a search to discover its true character.

There is a man on Eriskay who makes perfume. He doesn't waste his time with flowers, but goes the modern course with chemical base, fixer and top notes. "It's like music. Yer given the notes but ye've to make the melody."

It's also, I reflected, a little like that now well-trodden travel genre, the search for the real Scotland. The base themes and the political fixer always seem just about constant. What's attractive about Native Stranger is that Alastair Scott, instinctively drawn to the B-road, has made the effort to pursue his own minor accents.

Not flowers, but chemicals. It is almost a requirement of Scottish travel books that they make a rude smell to counter the heather and the tangle (or the Eriskay man's other test-tube creations: Legend, Moonglow, Mylady, Dark Glen, Plaid, and inevitably, Love Lilt). Few countries betray such a bizarre division between "base" (in the economic sense this time) and mythic "superstructure". The Celtic diaspora means that there are more ethnic Scots and more pipers and caber-tossers in the United States than between Gretna and Wick. Unfortunately, most of the economic infrastructure is registered abroad as well. Visitors, and some Lowland Scots, find it shocking, but the reality of modern Scotland can be more accurately sampled at Sullom Voe than on the slopes of Schiehallion, among the Slavic klondykers who throng Ullapool and Loch Broom rather than at the Balmoral Highland Gathering, and at high-tech, chip-controlled fish farms rather than on ghillied trout streams.

Scott duly interviews a latter-day Jacobite, and points again to the more nonsensical aspects of the Charles Edward Stewart cult. So much, so familiar. His real point is made elsewhere. Published 60 years after Edwin Muir's Scottish Journey, Native Stranger is a similar essay in estrangement, if not alienation. Like Muir, Scott is unwilling to go as far as Hugh MacDiarmid and say "This Scotland is not Scotland". His persistent base note is "This Scotland is also Scotland". That applies to his outsider's perspective on the Scottish lowlands. As for Muir, Glasgow and Edinburgh seem as exotic as Stornoway (albeit with its Pakistani warehouses and discotheques) and Scrabster are to the southron. While MacDiarmid thought of Glasgow as an unrelieved howl of deprivation and violence, Muir recognised the mediations, the interim processes, that had brought it to that pass.

Two generations on, Scott can afford to be wry. He takes in the obligatory Rangers v Celtic match (how the hell did he get a ticket?) and recounts yet another in-field (or on this occasion off-field) conversation which prompts further wonder about his methodology; a hidden wire? a big woolly mike? or just very rapid shorthand? Perhaps too rapid in this case, for he has a Rangers fan introduce the home side's taller striker as "Keith" Hateley, when a glance at the back page of any Scottish paper around that time would have confirmed that it's Mark Hateley. It's certainly the same guy - "tall with thinning black hair dropping to his shoulders, and a long gaunt face like an Easter Island statue" - but as on a couple of previous occasions you feel the facts are being subordinated to a rhetorical point, or just to fine writing.

Bicycling round Scotland was itself a heroic undertaking (even with a seamless edit around a winter break mid-journey) and there is a breathless quality to Scott's ultra-brief chapters, all 88 of them. But like the notes on a piano - also 88 - they come together to make a convincing melody, if not quite a harmonious consonance. The physical dimensions of the journey are more significant than any pre-determined political line. Scotland's greatest problem is still, in every sense, transport. The man on Eriskay was thinking of abandoning scent and going into taxis.

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