I must start by coming clean: I had been slightly avoiding reading Barbara Henderson’s book on New Scots (will explain why in a moment). Then when our paths recently crossed at a ceilidh in Badenoch and Barbara produced a fistful of them, I thought that perhaps this time it was meant to be.
Why the initial hesitation? Well, the explanation is both personal and political. The double tragedy of the Independence referendum and Brexit votes have weighed heavily on my heart and mind in recent times. I sat in bed sobbing on waking to the Brexit bombshell and will carry that scar for the rest of my days. Like Barbara, I studied at Edinburgh University, but Modern Languages rather than English (and like Barbara I met my husband there). I have lived in France, thought Europe was forever and still identify as European. That terrible morning I felt like my whole world had been dismantled in the name of democracy following a corrupt political campaign.
I therefore thought – quite wrongly as it turns out – that Scottish by Inclination might turn out to be one long wail of grief for a lost Europe – and I wasn’t sure I could take it. While much regret is expressed within its pages there is also however great resilience, adaptability and optimism. I finished the read feeling more positive about Scotland’s future than I had anticipated, precisely because this extraordinary range of European interviewees are part of Scotland’s future.
The greatest (and best) surprise – and it is a surprise, as there is no hint of this on the cover, which is a shame – is that this book is not just an account of choosing to become Scottish, but a modest autobiography of its remarkable Scots-German author. Every individual account is prefaced by a chronological episode in Barbara’s eventful life to date. I found myself enjoying these just as much, if not more, than the other accounts of ‘becoming Scottish’ within it.
I myself am Scots through my mother’s inclination and now by self-identification: my schooling was Scottish from the age of six but I was born in England. It was the era of ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ and growing hostility towards all things English. I was bullied in my first primary school for having a posh name and English accent, and like many in this book I became something of a chameleon to survive: I made sure my name and my accent changed at my next primary and I brought my Scots family roots to the fore. Being English then was far worse than being European! There is no English interviewee within Scottish by Inclination: there could have been, as many English people now identify as Scots, and the journey to acceptance back then for English settlers in the late 1960s was much the same.
The word most people summon to describe the Inverness-based author, Barbara Henderson, is energy. She has shedloads of vivacious energy and a blessedly sunny personality with it: a prolific author, she teaches, has a column in a local paper and also juggles a busy community and family life, not least in helping to found Ness Book Festival.
Scottish by Inclination is Barbara’s first work of non-fiction aimed at an adult audience. It began as a pitch to a publisher to collate different accounts from Europeans who choose to live and work here. It was the publisher who (quite rightly) encouraged Barbara to use her own experience as the backbone to the narrative.
I have many German friends who live elsewhere in Europe and the term Vergangenheitsbewältigung – facing up to one’s past – was familiar to me. All German citizens have an unavoidable and unenviable historio-political back story as the defeated instigators of two world wars. Barbara grew up during an era where German history lessons enforced a study of the Third Reich. This aversion therapy caused many of my German friends to move abroad in a conscious attempt to slough off some of their German identity.
With Barbara’s account however I felt she was running towards an alternative destiny rather than running away from her German identity. She has become a true Scot, giving so much to those around her: her family, her pupils, her readers, her community. How ignominious then that anyone who does this with such warmth and generosity of spirit should be forced to apply for ‘settled status’, as though all this giving counts for nothing.
The same is the case for all Barbara’s interviewees, who are people of all ages and of almost every possible European nationality. All have been forced to register to stay in Scotland as part of Great Britain, irrespective of the value of their roles or the depth of their roots here. They expresss anger and resignation and humour and, yes, grief – Portuguese artist WG Saraband describes how on the morning of the result, even though he had expected Leave to win, he ‘felt like he had been punched in the stomach at someone’s funeral.’
The contribution to Scottish society of this selection of interviewees is breathtaking: the fields of academia, science, teaching, medicine, engineering, entrepreneurship, art, craft and music are all represented in these pages. These courageous people who have at one point in their lives chosen to combine their birth nationality with a future as a New Scot come both from Western and Eastern European Countries. All emphasise how welcome they feel in Scotland, albeit not necessarily within the United Kingdom.
Their presence here enriches all our lives. As Scotland looks to its own future, the comment from politician Christian Allard sums up the note of optimism on which this remarkable book ends: ‘It’s not where we came from that’s important, it’s where we are going together.’ Everyone should read this book, and then pass it on to any New Scot who looks in need of reassurance.
I hope Barbara continues her writing for adults with another non-fiction work, or even a novel for an adult audience. We need more of her smiling literary talents as we march onwards into a brave new future for our nation.