‘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.
‘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.’
Read the rest of this article at Esquire magazine.