I was, unusually, lost for words. Over toast, my Glaswegian hosts and I were discussing Scottish independence. Young, Green, and angry, they were furious with Nicola Sturgeon for delaying plans to hold another referendum. I said that in their place I’d feel the same, “But please don’t leave us,” I added. “We don’t want you to leave.”
“Why not?” they asked.
I looked at my plate, muttering sappily about togetherness. My hosts turned away, unmoved.
It was my first visit to Glasgow. I was there for five intense days of teaching creative writing. As I headed into the city centre, past BBC Scotland’s shiny shoebox and over the Clyde, I fretted. Why did I mind so much about Scotland breaking from the UK? I have no Scottish blood nor particular reason to be sentimental — no residual trauma from a childhood camping in the Glens, no fond memory of acting in a student mime interpretation of The Winter’s Tale at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There is almost certainly no Mendelson clan tartan. So, given my ignorance about oil and nuclear warheads, what was troubling me? Was it merely separation anxiety, neediness, the birthright of the first child? Was I still traumatised by Brexit, or swayed by my devotion to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or Dorothy Sayers’s Galloway novel The Five Red Herrings, a tale of irascible artists and incidents in trout-streams? Why did I care?
My Glasgow crush was waiting to happen — rusting industrial architecture; wit; cheese: this city has it all. But I was working, with too little time for my many nascent Scottish passions: squat lobsters and razor-clams; the private life of the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh; fantasy house-hunting in Glasgow’s Southside, for that New York feel, without border control . . . yet. Damn.
Every time I discovered something else to love, there was a whiff of further loss: the municipal car park planted not with London’s favourite repugnant Portuguese spotted laurel but with banks of raspberries; the violently stimulating Glasgow School of Art, its post-fire restoration some way from completion — even its shop closed five minutes before my arrival.
There was just time to rush down the hill to Sauchiehall Street and the Mackintosh-inspired Willow Tearooms, every detail designed, as my fantasy Southside house would be, for elegant utility. It was closed for renovation.
Mine is not a hard-drinking race; only once ever have I drunk Scotch alone, so convinced am I that with one swig of the spirit I’ll be heading for an outreach programme. But, in Glasgow, whisky is a perfectly reasonable choice. On Argyle Street at the Ben Nevis, or in the disconcertingly beautiful Old Toll Bar on Paisley Road West, an orgy of gilt and ebony, whisky suits everyone: the grandfather buying his family 10 doubles with Coke (easy on the Coke); the Iranian biochemical engineering student about to meet her boyfriend’s parents; the red-haired roadie, lightly hungover at 5pm.
Words do it for me; they always did. The self-aggrandising guff of wine bores always reminds me of James Thurber’s New Yorker cartoon sending up a wine snob: “It’s a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption”. But whisky descriptions are works of genius: “minty dark chocolate”; “seaweed-led, with a hint of vanilla and more than a whiff of the First Aid box”. Their devisers speak of coffee cake, mace, autumn bracken; of mussels, sweet peas and pineapple chunks. Who knows if they’ve even really tried all those single malts, let alone detected notes of pepper? Why did I mind so much about Scotland breaking from the UK? I have no Scottish blood nor particular reason to be sentimental.
That’s far from the point. Just as watching episodes of The Good Wife has given me a law degree, thanks to Mad Men I am also quite the advertising expert and, believe me, those dark masters of description could sell Bunnahabhain 12 to a nun. Peaty, smoky, malty, unpronounceable; I wanted them all. Their origins, tiny distilleries on Mull, Islay, Skye, added to the romance. As I sipped, happily unable to distinguish a single flavour, I found myself humming under my breath: “Carry the lad, that’s born to be king, oooover the sea to Skye.”
Then I realised: there was the clue to my seemingly inexplicable nostalgia. Even in my utterly un-Caledonian Oxford primary school in the 1970s, the folklore of the British Isles mattered. We did, in the broadest possible sense, “country dancing” — Strip the Willow, the Gay Gordons — and sang in terrible high-pitched accents about Taking The High Road. We learnt about canal boats, Greyfriars Bobby the faithful Skye terrier, Mary Queen of Scots in her tower and, naturally, Bonnie Prince Charlie, deprived of his birthright, rowed over the sea by the pretty and impressively muscular Flora MacDonald. Scotland was in my blood, I just hadn’t realised it.
One last morning in Glasgow, my hosts were again despondent. They had been adorable to me: a small bottle of Irn-Bru and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer on my pillow every night. To cheer them up, or out of English politeness, I said: “I know. You need a trip. Come to London!”
“Why?” they replied.