By Calum Strathie
Calum Strathie is an ex youth worker in Glasgow, ex Family Support Team Manager in Dundee and currently a part time Senior Family Support Worker in the Intensive Family Support Team in Dundee. He is also an accredited Video Interaction Guidance (VIG) practitioner and advanced supervisor who also works as a freelance VIG trainer.
What difference will a ‘yes’ vote make to Scottish children and a Scottish childhood?
When invited to submit a piece on this theme my first reaction was – in the words of that great Dundonian philosopher, thinker, observer of the human condition, artiste, baritone and ba’ heid, St Andrew (of Woollen Mill fame) – “Dinna ask me Chief – eh dinna ken”.
That’s not a very promising start for a written piece, but I suppose no-one really knows what, if any, difference in becoming an independent nation will make for the experience of childhood in Scotland. So, with absolutely no apologies for the lack of research, evidence or academic rigour, I offer here a very personal view of what a Scottish childhood is, was and might be. The observations that I make are based on my experiences as a Scottish ex-child from some five plus decades ago, as a parent of four Scottish boys, step parent to one girl and two boys, grandparent to a teenage girl and step grandparent to five boys and one girl. Actually, that gives me a pretty impressive list of credentials and qualifications to write on the subject.
So what would define a Scottish childhood? What characteristics make (or have made) a childhood experience particularly Scottish and different from, say, an African or a German, or even an English childhood. I suppose that there are so many elements that make up the experience of childhood in different countries and cultures. The difficulty is in trying to separate out those elements in order to identify the commonalities and the unique characteristics.
My gut feeling is that childhood in this country (the UK) and in the rest of the western so called ‘civilised’ world has become standardised and sterilised with a gradual erosion, over the last few decades, of anything that makes being a child in Scotland different from being a child anywhere else, whether from a wealthy, comfortable or impoverished background. A poor child in Scotland will have the same experience as a poor child in the North West of England or South Wales, but not the same as a poor-child in Sudan for instance, or in Brazil. Likewise a Scottish child from a comfortable background will have similar experiences and expectations as a comfortably off child from other parts of the UK, but maybe not the same as a middle class child in a poorer country. It’s all relative.
But has it always been so? The massive societal, technological and cultural changes that have happened in the last decades have certainly created opportunities that never existed before and which are more widely available across the board. This is probably a good thing, but does it help children and young people have a sense of national identity – a sense of being Scottish? I’ve been trying to think of my own experience of a Scottish childhood in the fifties and sixties without being dewy eyed and nostalgic about it, because it wasn’t all good, and wondering if it really was any different from an Irish, Welsh or English childhood. What did I experience as a child in Scotland that was unique and different from other nationalities, and do those differences still exist?
When I put my mind to it the differences that I can identify seem to be related to culture, language and food. Because I didn’t grow up in a Children’s Home (or an ‘orphanage’ as we had then) I can’t relate to the experience of children who did, and I can’t compare the experience of children in Scottish orphanages with the experience of children who were brought up by Irish priests and nuns. We know now, because we live in a different climate where disclosure is acceptable, that some children in both countries suffered terrible abuse in homes and for them that would have been their predominant childhood experience and may well have skewed their image of a Scottish or an Irish childhood, if that at all mattered to them. I guess that for those children the most important thing was to feel warmth and love and to be free from coldness and harshness rather than any concerns about national identity.
In the fifties there was, I feel, an environment that we grew up in that I would say was quite peculiarly Scottish in that it reflected vestiges of the attitudes of bygone eras due, no doubt, to the influence of the church and the fact that we had relatives who were born at the end of the 19thC in Victorian days. The stentorian atmosphere was quite tangible and the technological marvels and freedoms that we take so much for granted now were not even dreamt about then. I experienced the ignominy of the ‘meenister’ visiting my parents and enquiring as to why I hadn’t been seen at Sunday School for some weeks. Shame and guilt were the stock in trade of the church in order to keep the flock under control, but in my case it was probably justified as I was truanting from Sunday School and spending the thruppence collection money on sweets! I still get a ‘beamer’ just thinking about it.
The images of Scottishness as I grew were formed in my head by lessons at school, particularly history and geography; songs and poems that we were taught; by books read and stories heard on the radio (the BBC Scottish Home Service). Stories about The Wee McGreegor probably enhanced what was a pretty parochial, Scottish centric view of my world. This view was expanded slightly when I read and reread many times The Atom Chasers by Angus McVicar. This was about three boys chasing spies through the heather to protect the atomic power station that was obviously based upon the new Dounreay power station. I started to form pictures in my head and began to form a sense of being Scottish before I had even seen a sprig of heather.
Growing up in Edinburgh before my father had a car and before we had television I had a very narrow experience of Scotland in the flesh let alone the wider world. I thought that Fife was a far off, inaccessible land that I could see but couldn’t get to. When I did eventually get to Fife it was via one of the four old ferries that crisscrossed the Forth at Queensferry. An added thrill was seeing the Hawes Inn that I had read about in Kidnapped. The first ‘real’ family holiday in 1961 involved an eight hour drive in a 1946 Austin 12 to Arisaig via places like Callander, Crianlarrich, Glencoe, Ballachulish Ferry, Fort William, and finally, the thirty mile ‘fish road’ to Arisaig. What an adventure and what a sense of discovery about my own country. This gave my parents an opportunity to give me and my wee brother and wee sister impromptu lessons in the history and geography of the landscape and towns that we trundled through, pointing out mountains, lochs and other landmarks, and feeding our imaginations in the process.
I’m trying hard not to be nostalgic for a bygone age, but I do wonder what now gives children and young people the sense of Scottishness that I experienced; if the feeling of exploration and discovery of the place and its people still exists? What is there now in Scotland that fires up the imagination and helps to create feelings of belonging, identity and difference from other places and people? Is it that important?
The prospect of Scotland becoming an independent country excites and appals people in almost equal measure (depending on what opinion poll you believe), but I wonder, if it is achieved, will it actually make an appreciable difference to the experience of children who will be growing up in a new political landscape? If all the promises of the YES campaign politicians come to fruition then Scotland will be a nation that is a better place to grow, learn, work and be prosperous. That’s great – if it happens. But some things will remain the same.
While young people may feel a patriotic fervour when the Scottish football and rugby teams play I’m not so sure that they have a deep feeling of being Scottish after the whistle blows. Other than supporting national sports teams what else gets the patriotic juices going for young people? Nowadays it is absolutely commonplace across the UK and beyond for young people to be tweeting, face booking and texting while eating KFCs or Big Macs before going home to spend hours on their iPads and computer games. Is this an unfair put down of today’s children and young people? Definitely not, but it’s how things are. There’s no doubt that they are skilled, smart, creative and knowledgeable in ways we weren’t, or could be, fifty years ago or more. The world is now the proverbial ‘global village’ with young people having common and shared experiences, interests and aspirations. Some would argue that this is a good thing as it dispels with the boundaries and frontiers that previously separated people in the pre IT era. The ease of communicating and interacting across borders, cultures and time zones does, I suppose, create a sort of ‘internationalism’, but does it really help young people in Scotland to feel part of something; to feel different and identifiable as Scots with a proud self-image.
What I think an independent Scotland could nurture is a national sense of self-belief and confidence from managing our own affairs, taking risks and making mistakes as well as achieving successes. But can I be so sure that young people will have the same adventurous feelings of exploring and discovering the physical, cultural, architectural and historical environment of Scotland that I experienced fifty years ago when there is a bigger world out there that is capable of seducing children with amazing technology, persuasive advertising and marketing, tasty sugary and salty snacks and drinks, and dreams of ‘celebrity’. Somehow I don’t think that independence, no matter how economically and psychologically beneficial it might be for the nation, will make children and young people feel more Scottish, but I would like to be proven wrong.
Maybe I’m becoming an out of touch, rambling auld curmudgeon, and I’m coming to the definite conclusion that “Eh still dinna ken”!