What is Scotland?

Rainbow Kiss

a play by Simon Farquhar, directed by Will Frears
at 59E59 Theaters, New York City, March 12–April 13, 2008

Black Watch

a play by Gregory Burke, directed by John Tiffany
at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, October 20–November 11, 2007, and October 9–November 30, 2008


More than any other writer, Shakespeare seems devoted to evoking the spells that human beings and nations may cast over one another. Macbeth is a play about a false king under the spell of his falsifying wife. One can see that mockery is very much the Macbeths’ style, but it is also, most painfully, their substance: they are fictions, after all, in the pageant of fictions that makes Scotland real to itself and others. Yet those of us who are Scots might often recognize something of ourselves in Macbeth’s wide-eyed amazement at the costs of invention. To believe in Scottish nationalism one must set a place for Banquo’s ghost at the end of every table and then feel able to ignore him throughout the ensuing feast.

On July 24, the constituency of Glasgow East fell from Labour to the Scottish National Party (SNP). A working-class area of the city, Glasgow East had been the third-safest Labour seat in Scotland—the previous member of Parliament won by a majority of 13,507—and the 22 percent swing in local opinion was seen to be a harbinger of doom for Gordon Brown’s struggling UK government. The election officer read out the results at a building in Tollcross, two minutes’ walk from the graveyard where my grandparents are buried, and it was hard not to think of my grandmother in particular being stirred by the news.

Glasgow East was once held by John Wheatley, a crucial figure in the founding of the Labour movement and one of its greatest thinkers: a member of the 1924 government, Wheatley was a municipal house-builder and a poverty-blitzer, a Catholic socialist with no time at all for home rule. On July 25, sometime after midnight, the Nationalist candidate, John Mason, entered the hall where the Glasgow East count was taking place and made himself busy with victory salutes. There were already rumors of a large swing away from Labour, but Mason, a former accountant, councillor, Baptist pilgrim to Nepal, and supporter of Clyde football team (for which my great-grandmother was a player), was in no doubt that the unbelievable had occurred. After 3 AM and a recount, Mason stood up to give the winner’s address. “This victory is not just a political earthquake,” he said,

it is off the Richter scale. It is an epic win and the tremors are being felt all the way to Westminster…. It is time for change—a change to the policies that are taking our country and the UK in the wrong direction…. Tonight’s vote is a vote of confidence in Scotland, in the Scottish government and the progress the SNP is making. This is the first by-election which has put a Scottish government against a UK government and the people of Glasgow East have made their voice clear…. Tonight we have removed the dead hand of Labour control.

The room was filled with ambitious cheers and the corridors resounded with the noise of clapping. It is true that Gordon Brown, a son…

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