10 facts you don’t know about Scotland

10 facts you don’t know about Scotland


1-     The end of World War II saw Scotland, like the rest of Britain, having to tackle on-going problems back on their home turf. The emergence of the National Health Service proved an effective instrument against such plagues as infant mortality, tuberculosis, rickets and scarlet fever, while housing conditions improved in leaps and bounds as the worst of the city slums were pulled down and replaced by roomy (although often badly built) council houses. Semi-rural new towns like East Kilbride, Glenrothes, Cumbernauld, Irvine and Livingston were established throughout central Scotland.


2-     What went largely unnoticed in the post-war euphoria was that the Labour Government’s policy of nationalising the coal mines and the railways was stripping Scotland of many of its decision-making powers, and therefore management jobs. The process continued into the 1970s with the steel, shipbuilding and aerospace industries also being ‘taken into public ownership’. This haemorrhage of economic power and influence was compounded by Scottish companies being sold to English and foreign predators. In 1988 British Caledonian, originally a Scotland-based airline, was swallowed up by British Airways. To an alarming extent, Scotland’s economy now assumed a ‘branch factory’ status.


3-     When the English social scientist Havelock Ellis produced his Study of British Genius (based on an analysis of the Dictionary of National Biography) he came up with the fact that there were far more Scots on his list than there should have been. With only 10 percent of the British population, the Scots had produced 15.4 percent of Britain’s geniuses. And when he delved deeper into the ‘men of Science’ category he discovered that the Scots made up almost 20 percent of Britain’s eminent scientists and engineers.


4-     Not only that, but the Scots-born geniuses tended to be peculiarly influential. Many of them were great original scientists like Black, Hutton, Kelvin, Ramsay and Clerk Maxwell, whose work ramified in every direction. Others were important philosophers like the sceptic David Hume or the economist Adam Smith, whose words, according to one biographer, have been ‘proclaimed by the agitator, conned by the statesmen and printed in a thousand statutes’.


5-     In spite of its puritanism and thunderings from the Kirk against ‘vain outer show’, Scotland is unique among the British provinces in having a distinctive painterly tradition. The art of Protestant Northern Europe tends to be tormented and morbid and, given a Calvinist shadow of guilt and sin, one would expect Scottish painting to be gloomy and angst-ridden. Instead, as if in defiance of all that the kirk represents, it is extroverted, joyful, flamboyant, robust – much more sensuous (even if less complex) than English art with its inhibiting deference to the rules of good taste.


6-     It is significant that young Scottish artists have mostly bypassed the Sassenach (English) capital to study abroad; those from Edinburgh in Rome, the Glaswegians a century later in pleasure-loving Paris. Growth of the arts in Scotland is linked to the relative importance of its two major cities, and the rivalry between them (culture versus commerce) has resulted in aesthetic dualism: where Edinburgh’s painters are rational and decorous, raw but dynamic Glasgow has produced exuberant rebels.


7-     Visit the 19th hole at any of Scotland’s 400 golf courses and you’re likely to hear a heated argument as to where the game of golf originated. The discussion doesn’t involve geography but rather topography: the ‘where’ refers to which part of Scotland. All involved will know that, in spite of the Dutch boasting about a few old paintings that depict the game, it began in Scotland centuries ago, when a shepherd swinging with his stick at round stones hit one into a rabbit hole.

8-     Not for nothing was that great parable of the divided self, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, written by an Edinburgh man, Robert Louis Stevenson. He may have set the story in London, but he conjured it out of the bizarre life of a respectable Edinburgh tradesman. More than one critic has taken the Jekyll and Hyde story as a handy metaphor for the city of Edinburgh itself: something at once universal yet characteristically Scottish. Where else does a semi-ramshackle late medieval town glower down on such Georgian elegance? What other urban centre contains such huge chunks of sheer wilderness within its boundaries? Does any other city in Europe have so many solid Victorian suburbs surrounded by such bleak housing estates? Stevenson himself was inclined to agree. ‘Few places, if any,’ he wrote, ‘offer a more barbaric display of contrasts to the eye.’


9-     Just as Mr Hyde ‘gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation’, so the meaner side of Edinburgh tends to lurk unnoticed in the beauty of its topography and the splendour of its architecture. Even the weather seems to play its part. ‘The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and downright meteorological purgatory in spring,’ Stevenson wrote of his home town. But the Jekyll and Hyde metaphor can be stretched too far. For all its sly duality and shifty ways, Edinburgh remains one of Europe’s most beautiful and amenable cities.


10- To the south, the city is hemmed in by the Pentland Hills – some of which are almost 2,000ft (600 metres) high – and to the north by the island-studded waters of the Firth of Forth. In 1878 Stevenson declared himself baffled that ‘this profusion of eccentricities, this dream in masonry and living rock is not a drop-scene in a theatre, but a city in the world of everyday reality’. Which, of course, it is. At the last count, Edinburgh contained just under half a million people rattling around in 100 sq miles (40 sq km) on the south bank of the Firth of Forth. While the city’s traditional economy of ‘books, beer and biscuits’ has been whittled away by the ravages of recession and change, there is a powerful underpinning of banking, insurance, shipping, the professions (especially the law), universities, hospitals, and, of course, government bureaucracies (local and central). By and large, the North Sea oil boom passed Edinburgh by, although some of the city’s financiers did well enough by shuffling investment funds around, and for a while Leith Docks was used as an onshore supply base, to coat pipes and to build steel deck modules.

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