Mean, drunk and dour - it's time to Scotch the myths

HAVE YOU heard of the Golden Fleece Award? It was begun in 1975 by a US Senator from Wisconsin called William Proxmire, who gave the accolade each month for the most self-evidently wasteful piece of government-funded spending. For example, in 1978 he gave one to the Office of Education for spending $219,592 to develop a curriculum to teach college students how to watch television. Many went to pointless research projects, such as a Golden Fleece Award to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a $25,000 grant to study why people cheat and act rudely on Virginia tennis courts.

Last week's announcement that the Leverhulme Trust is putting up pounds 1m for some researchers at Edinburgh University to "study the nature of the Scottish identity" could well be a winner, or at least make the long short- list.

We all know the stereotypes of the Scottish character, from the tight- fisted to the gross drunk. One is a 19th-century musical hall creation and the other the TV character Rab C Nesbitt. Both true, but both meaningless, because all countries have such characters.

I'm only a pretend Scot, but I like to think I have often been both, tight in each sense. Sometimes even at the same time.

"Pretend" because although I was born in Scotland, of Scottish parents, we moved to the Deep South, ie Carlisle, when I was four. Then we moved over the border to Dumfries for a few years, then back to Carlisle again, which played hell with my accent. They're only a few miles apart, but each time I arrived I was mocked in the playground for my accent. For sounding Scottish in England; then, even worse, for sounding English in Scotland, and for which I was beaten up. Hold on. If that's true, perhaps there is a Scottish identity - even if its main trait is anti-Englishness.

Two of Scotland's national heroes, whom I learned all about at school in Scotland, displayed totally different characters. David Livingstone, to whose centre at Blantyre I was always being dragged, was indeed parsimonious, dour, puritanical, fairly humourless, though he wrote good letters. In the best known photograph of him, you see him wearing a jaunty naval cap, which could make you think he was a jaunty Jock, but it was purely utilitarian. He looked everywhere for a cap with a peak to keep the sun out of his eyes. If baseball caps had been invented, he would have worn one of those. People didn't like Livingstone much personally. He rarely got on with his fellow men, Scots or English - though the Africans liked him.

Robert Louis Stevenson was totally the opposite - threw his money around, even if in the early days it was his dad's, liked a drink, a smoke, ran off with a woman 10 years older, still married, who had three kids. What a Bohemian, eh?

One of the best known images of RLS shows him wearing his velvet smoking- jacket. No need for it, of course. That was RLS the poseur. As for Stevenson the man, he was one of the most warmly loved people ever, well at least in the history of literature, Scottish division.

The present Cabinet is full of Scots, some of them not talking to each other. But they are all different characters. Robin Cook, we now know, is a raver, while Gordon Brown is the archetypal canny, prudent, dour Scot - or so he seems. Next time I meet my dear friend Sarah Macaulay, I'll ask her if this is true.

One of the modern urban myths about Scots is that they eat deep-fried Mars Bars. Scots maintain they have never seen or eaten such a thing. It's an English myth, used by the English to wind up the Scots. Mention it and you'll get shoals of letters. So worth mentioning, I suppose.

But is it true or not? That's what the pounds 1m Leverhulme money should be spent on. Tracking down the first deep-fried Mars Bar. Be well worth it.

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