It’s pouring rain. I’m dressed in green army-themed “fancy dress” (that’s British for costume, go figure) and military face paint is streaking down my face. I’m trudging up a hill through muddy puddles that my California-girl sandals are clearly not designed for. I have three companions. One is wearing a kilt and singing the Scottish national anthem.
Just to clarify, I did not drop out of school and enlist in the Scottish army. In fact, this didn’t even occur in Scotland. I was with the running club on a short weekend trip to Manchester, England, where we participated in a two-mile relay during the day, and a number of “boat racing” relays that night (ironically the latter was the race taken more seriously by the club).
Waking up at 5:30 a.m. for the six-hour ride to Manchester, which was followed by a race in the rain and a long night of boat racing and other shenanigans (“banter” as they call it here) explains why I momentarily forgot what country we were in. And that momentary lapse, in turn, explains why my kilted friend was performing a beautiful, but nearly incomprehensible (thanks to accent and beer), rendition of Scotland’s national anthem.
In forgetting that when he said he was from just across the border he meant Scotland, not England, I had inadvertently accused him of being … English.
If I had mixed up England and Scotland a month ago, it wouldn’t have been a big deal. In terms of international relations, they are actually regarded as the same sovereignty — the United Kingdom. But I learned quickly after arriving here, the one surefire way to piss off a Scottish person is pretend the two nationalities are one in the same.
At first, it was an adjustment. When I said something to my flatmates about “scotch whisky” and was met with the correction “WHISKY!” I thought to myself, really? At least I knew that there was a difference between Irish, Scottish and American whiskeys (and that there is a difference between whiskey spelled with an “e” and without). It’s not like they are the only ones who produce it.
I also failed to understand the distinct pride they seemed to have in Scottish cuisine. Anywhere else, the idea of haggis (sheep’s stomach filled with pieces of its heart, lungs, liver, oats, onion and spices), neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) induces grimaces. Yet, no matter how unappealing it seems to outsiders, it’s Scotland’s distinct national flavor that makes it such a vibrant place, even in sunshine’s absence for 90 percent of the year.
Scotland really is nothing like England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Just a month in Scotland has allowed me to see the source of national pride that keeps its citizens screaming for autonomy — if not legally, at least culturally.
Image source: Alex Matthews/Staff