I used to hate the idea of going to Scotland. It was great to see family and friends, to be around the Edinburgh Festival and have a few pints in the Wee Howff. It was everything in between that put me off. It would be sitting in the train while some shell suit-wearing teenager played his music too loud and seemed to enjoy the fact that his bad taste annoyed so many people. It would be standing at the bar and being asked what my surname was, what school I went to or which of the two Glasgow football teams I supported – an attempt to find out if I was Catholic or Protestant. It was that always present threat of aggression and violence (whether it was real or my perception) that disturbed me. I’d been to other places and had seen that all this hassle was unnecessary. And I have to say that most of what I didn’t like was only really in the urban areas. Rural Scotland was always different, but I hardly ever went there. Most of my family and friends lived in the more populated central belt.
In the last couple of years though, I’ve really enjoyed being in Scotland. And I wonder whether it’s the country that has changed or is it me.
Scots seem to be so much friendlier than before, for one. I had always told friends from other countries that Scottish people were friendly, as long as you’re not Scottish. They’d never be quizzed about their religion, at least, although I have to say that nobody has asked me about that for a long time. Bigotry seems to have become far less important in the 18 years since I last lived in Scotland. Young people especially are less concerned by all that nonsense. Even the old anti-England sentiment is less prevalent, despite what the media say in their anti-independence propaganda.
For that small minority of people who still find differences in religion important, I’m no longer such an interesting target anyway. A middle-aged man isn’t so interesting to them. I’m no longer seen as a threat or useful as a potential ally, so I suppose their attitude to me has changed.
On this last visit especially, I found Scots generous and courteous. They’re happy to ask for and give help. They’ll smile as they hold the door open, and not just for women but for anyone who needs it: people with heavy shopping, pushing prams and even for those too busy with their phones to notice there was a door there anyway.
As I sat in the sun (yes, the climate’s changed a little bit too), drinking a coffee in Sauchiehall Street, the woman next to me even apologised for chatting so much. ‘Maybe you just want to sit there quietly,’ she said. ‘Too bad if I did,’ I told her, ‘it’s Glasgow, and I was never going to get much chance to sit quietly.’ ‘That’s true,’ she said, and laughed. And I really enjoyed how true that was.
That might not always have been the case. I can imagine a time when that constant chatter and uninvited interruption would’ve bugged me, when I would be overly defensive and even aggressive when I thought someone was getting a little too inquisitive, but that was mainly due to my own perception, my idea of what their motives were.
And Scotland hasn’t suddenly turned into some perfect paradise. The country still has its problems. I heard people complain about the poor service in the pharmacy as priority is given to the queues of junkies waiting for their methadone hits and of abusive parents at the child care centre. But at least the junkies are getting methadone these days and there are some excellent child care facilities in the less well-off parts of the country.
So, I think it’s a bit of both, Scotland has changed and I’ve changed. These days, even if I find myself starting to get into those old ways of thinking, I try to recognise it and stop myself from getting caught up in it. The openness of the people around me makes that much easier. Their friendliness influences me and I hope my improved attitude is easier on those I meet.
Having lived elsewhere for so long, I now see Scotland from a distance, more objectively. As a tourist even. Or, to paraphrase Robert Burns, my favourite Scottish poet, I now see us Scots as others see us. And I like what I see, and I now look forward to my visits. If it wasn’t for the weather, I could even consider living there again. But ach, without all that rain, the scenery wouldn’t be quite so stunning.