The Scottish national street-party

Edinburgh's International Festival starts today. But what does it stand for? By AL Kennedy
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The Independent Culture
The Edinburgh International Festival has always been one of Scotland's subtler jokes. Each August, this sober-sided and austerely attractive capital succumbs to a multicultural hallucination, and the Scottish delight in polarisation is acted out as a three-week pantomime: the dour and the poorly body-painted once again collide. Meanwhile, a queasy variety of Scottish identities are unfurled: pipers pipe, fiddlers play twiddly music with great seriousness in pubs, John Knox's statue gleams with Calvinist indignation from the safety of the Assembly Hall courtyard while, outside, many thoroughfares attempt to seethe with bacchanalian intent and a fair percentage of Edinburgh's population simply ups and leaves.

This year, it has been suggested, things must be different - surely there must be a new separatist sparkle in the air ? After all, Scotland completely reconfigured its political map at the last general election, and is now on the verge of getting its own, almost fully working, Edinburgh-based parliament. The Tartan Army earned Tony Banks's high-profile censure for being repeatedly and offensively pleasant during the World Cup, and Scotland's cultural-literary renaissance shows no signs of pausing for breath. And then, of course, there's that film - the American one, starring the Australian actor and dealing vaguely with something approaching a tiny fragment of Scottish history. The overall implication is that the capital's streets might this year be rippling with kilted patriots, screaming for Sassenach blood and proclaiming intellectual dominance over every other land by reciting the awesome catalogue of prominent Scottish inventors.

In fact, the current Edinburgh Festival is trundling along much as it always does. Tartans are certainly visible, usually swathed across new arrivals anxious to proclaim themselves as persons of Scottish descent. Any disturbances are strictly of the performance-art variety, and our first controversy of the season is awaited with the usual lack of interest. It will probably involve the presentation or discussion of a deviant sexual act: little else would arouse even a twinge of outrage. The days of radical political comment and the possibilities of a language still capable of causing shock seem to have faded. A brief moment of salacious intrigue was offered in recent years by a circus performer whose breasts escaped her costume while being foot-juggled carelessly - did they fall or were they pushed? - but nothing came of it. And, as ever, the Festival welcomes visiting performers and visiting audiences, and all appears to be simply business as usual, and not even especially Scottish - this is, after all, an international event.

Of course, in matters of national identity, nothing is ever as simple as it appears. And Edinburgh, as translated by the Festival, does offer indications of the slow but significant changes which Scotland has been pleased to work upon itself. The city is also eloquently well-provided with the balefully contradictory symbols, irreversibly associated with Scottishness. Just as London is expected to provide a healthy quota of red double deckers and bobbies in Freudian helmets, Edinburgh is duty- bound to peddle cliches of the north. To pick only one example from the whole, haggis-stained selection, let us consider the kilt.

It will play its usual major role in the festival. But the standard modern kilt, as worn by romantically lone pipers and provided in hire shops for weddings, is a military standardisation of an altogether different, more expensive and more useful Highland garment. This smaller, cheaper kilt was forced on Highland troops who fought beyond their borders for the army of another country and another language. These same Highland troops then became one of the strong arms of Britain's Empire. The kilt is both a symbol of the cultural oppression visited upon the Gaels after Culloden, and an emblem of the Union's pride in her Highland regiments. Any individual kilt may well be fashioned from an entirely spurious tartan invented during the Victorian love affair with North Britain, or during the current, alarming, vogue for corporate plaids - the British Airways tartan being a recent and lurid example. In its 1970s manifestation, complete with ruffle-fronted shirt and patent dancing pumps, it was the apotheosis of kitsch - a kind of National Skirt of Shame. In a decade when Scots identity was apparently on the verge of dissolution into a slurry of football violence, melancholia and ballads celebrating accidental death, the kilt was finally and tragically adopted by baton twirlers everywhere, while the nation's hobbled lurch towards devolution crumpled into bitterness.

Which is to say that the kilt, like many other Scottish icons, represents death, cultural expropriation and profound embarrassment, just as powerfully as it represents a cosy and familiar confirmation of national identity. That death, theft and shame can be cosy is, of course, a characteristic Scottish reality. And if the kilt has lately experienced a peculiar rebirth, it may be taken as a small indication that national self-confidence is returning. In Edinburgh today, there are more than enough traditional kilts to satisfy the most demanding tour operator. But there are also, here and there, young men in kilts and T-shirts, kilts and Timberland boots, young men in Braveheart recreations of the genuine Highland article, and other, smaller signs of a new generation with an interest in exploring, reclaiming, undermining and enjoying the possibilities of being Scottish.

Being Scottish is, naturally, open to many interpretations. Current favourites would include the Scot as needle-sharing, foul-mouthed and sexually incontinent thug, the Scot as vehemently (or duplicitously) left-wing, foul-mouthed and angry thug and the Scot as noble, hairy and Claymore-happy monarch of the glens, or patient, hairy and glassy-eyed lassie of the glens. Other, older interpretations tended to highlight financial prudence, sensual restraint, moral rectitude and the kind of good education which is irritating rather than impressive. There's hardly a nation on earth that couldn't produce a similar gallery of caricatures: the problem for Scotland has been that until recently, these shoddy parodies were often glumly accepted as being something near the truth. Self-doubt was rampant, nourished by the silently received wisdom that to be Scottish was simply to be improperly English. Which in its turn provided the possibility of being Scottish simply by dint of hating the English.

The festival expresses the mixture neatly. This is Stevenson's city, the lair of Jekyll and Hyde: a city of opposites. The cosmopolitan impulse the festival embodies sits beside an energetic, purely Scottish aesthetic which is especially forceful (and necessary) as it relates to language. Scotland - a tiny country, generously supplied with languages and vocabularies - has a history of linguistic oppression and distortion. Gaelic was declared illegal in the aftermath of the 1745 Rising as the language of sedition and popery. Within living memory, Highland children were beaten for speaking Gaelic in school. Within my own memory, the everyday language of many Scots was regarded in the media, in the schoolroom, in the pulpit and in every other sphere of authority as incorrect. If there is one factor uniting the many disparate Scottish experiences, it is the sense of intimate injustice engendered by this imposition of a narrow linguistic orthodoxy.

We live in a world haunted by dead and forgotten languages: which is to say, forgotten ways of hoping, loving, thinking, living. But the 20th century has, miraculously, seen some savagely damaged languages revive as part of an intimate process of personal and communal renaissance. In the face of increasingly meaningless global communications, cultural diversity is occasionally managing to survive and, behind all the hype and the attempts at political spin, Scotland has been among the nations which are speaking and writing their way towards self-definition.

Which heralds in a new examination, and even affection for, the living, developing phenomenon which is Scottish identity. And I mean identity - not Scottish nationalism, not Scotland's aspirations as defined by the Scottish National Party, not a rise in Serbian-style bigotry, not a rejection or detestation of any other part of Britain - but a comfortable, fairly healthy and mature relationship with a particular country of origin. This year, the Festival occupies a city blessed with that best of all parliaments - a parliament in the making, a promise which has not yet disappointed.

Today, it is in no way remarkable that the Festival presents works by both overseas and Scottish playwrights. Only two decades ago, Edinburgh audiences were electrified (and outraged) by work from John Byrne, Tom McGrath, John McGrath, Roddy McMillan and others, who presented Scottish voices and Scottish realities. In this public place, individuals could hear the wonderful, shocking pronunciation of words that had been restricted to the street, to the private mind, to dead textbooks and comedy turns. By 1980, a sea change had finally been set in motion.

In an Edinburgh which is now able to support an annual Book Festival, well-provided with Scottish authors of international note, it's easy to forget that, only a decade ago, writers like Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard and James Kelman were still regarded as alarming exhibits in a passing side-show. Today, in celebrating the rest of the world at Edinburgh, Scotland will also be celebrating itself.