Scotland votes on Thursday whether to leave the United Kingdom.
First, I was on vacation with my family in Africa last year. I didn’t have anything to read to my son at night. We were at a supermarket near Mombasa. There were metal detectors at the entrance. Randomly, one item for sale was an unabridged copy of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The same guy wrote Treasure Island. I figured Kidnapped would be a good adventure story.
In fact, it was an impenetrable mass of 18th-century Scottish politics, with just enough adventure tossed in to keep the reader slogging through historical events such as the Jacobite Uprising and the Appin Murder, plus a baffling array of places such as Essendean, Erraid, and Ballachulish.
I was so confused by the various places and clans, I resorted to Wikipedia. Which in turn told me about the independence referendum slated for September 2014.
And here we are. The time has come.
Scotland makes up about one-third of the land mass of Great Britain. Roughly 5 million people live there, compared to the 52 million who live in England. Scotland is already its own country, but has been a member since 1707 of the union of countries known as the United Kingdom. That’s 307 years of partnership. Thursday, it could go kaput.
Current polls show the vote as a dead heat.
The other important thought which floated through my mind this week was … the Scottish rock band Big Country.
What ever happened to those guys?
The song I remember, “In a Big Country,” was a rousing number with soaring guitars, a martial beat, and the occasional shouted interjection, “Shaaa!”
The band performed the song on Saturday Night Live in December 1983. The Smothers Brothers were hosting. I was a 10th-grader sitting in my kitchen in Maryland.
Great band, raucous performance. The singer slammed on his guitar pedal and triggered a huge, careening bagpipe sound which sent the whole edifice careening toward disaster. As Scottish art went, it certainly beat the crap out of Kidnapped.
I am sad to report that the band’s dynamic lead singer Stuart Adamson (a native of Dumferline in the Fife region of Scotland) was later undone by alcohol.
He died alone, by his own hand, at a Best Western hotel in 2001 in Hawaii (itself a former kingdom).
Major bummer about Adamson. And with no direct bearing, I will grant you, on our chosen topic.
I myself am 25-percent Scottish. My late grandfather David Brown was from Glasgow. He arrived in Massachusetts as a child. His dad went to work in the mills around Lowell. Young David turned out to be a talented student and ran away from home at 16 to attend college.
He went on to become an English literature professor, including a stint at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately he died in his late 30s from a bleeding ulcer. It was the fall of 1941. My mom was just seven years old. The family was living in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. The widow and her two young daughters moved back to Nebraska to live with relatives.
The untimely death of my Scottish grandfather still ripples down through the generations.
Several years ago, I realized that my main feeling, upon the respective seventh birthdays of my kids, was relief.
Okay, at least I lived this long. At least they’ll have their dad longer than Mom did.
When combing through family records, I once found a report card from my mother’s grade school. A faded note in lovely cursive said the teacher was really hoping that with the arrival of springtime, Sally’s asthma would subside, and she would feel okay to join the other children at recess.
When I showed the note to my mother, her eyes welled up.
This was after her father died, she said. She remembered her sadness. She remembered a boy from France who was at her school. He was equally miserable that winter. He and my mother would sit inside at recess while the others played.
On the same topic of untimely parent deaths, there is a beautiful song on U2’s new album called “Iris (Hold Me Close).”
U2 and Apple caught flack last week for sort of jamming the album down people’s throats. The music was released for free, which was nice. But it was also automatically uploaded onto many iPhones and iPods whose owners didn’t want it.
Big deal. Delete it.
It’s a wonderful album, and “Iris (Hold Me Close)” is a moving song about the death of Bono’s mom when he was 14 years old. She died of an aneurysm suffered during the funeral of her father (Bono’s grandfather).
Yes, I realize U2 is from Ireland, not Scotland. But no one delivers an anthem like U2. And indeed when Adamson, of Big Country, died, one of the performers at his funeral was the guitarist from U2. (I still can’t bring myself to use the guitarist’s nom de guerre, The Edge. It’s a tribute to U2’s music that it gradually obscured the ridiculousness of their stage names. Bono Vox? A singer ought not name himself ‘good voice,’ even if it’s disguised in Latin. Total non-starter.)
I suppose there is a spectrum of parental absence, from premature death down through divorce or out-of-state residence, to a parent who is physically present but emotionally absent.
The lyrics of “In a Big Country” include several repetitions of the exhortation to ‘stay alive,’ a plea which any child surely understands at his core.
The song also includes the line, Take that look out of here/It doesn’t fit you. It could be the admonition of a flinty Scottish parent.
And this line from “Iris (Hold Me Close):” Iris says that I will be the death of her. A harmless idiom, but one which could get stuck in the psyche of a grieving child, to wit, the child’s helpless rejoinder, It was not me.
The singer recalls a moment years earlier when the burial ritual was played out in reverse on a beach. Iris playing on the Strand/She buries a boy beneath the sand.
The mother’s death shaped the singer. The ache in my heart/Is so much a part/Of who I am.
But her absence is neither complete nor permanent. Something in your eyes/Took a thousand years to get here. More simply, I got your life/Inside of me.
In Kidnapped, the hero David Balfour is just 16 years old when he becomes an orphan and leaves home. He faces the journey stoically, telling the town’s minister:
Essendean is a good place indeed, and I have been very happy there; but then I have never been anywhere else. My father and mother, since they are both dead, I shall be no nearer to in Essendean than in the Kingdom of Hungary.
And with that, he departs. This is the first page of the book — the jumping-off point for David, not the end.
Fun Facts About Scotland Upon the Eve of the Independence Vote
1. The official flower is the thistle.
2. The motto is Nemo me impune lacessit, which means “No one attacks me with impunity.”
3. Scotland won independence from England in 1314 with Robert the Bruce leading the way against superior numbers at the Battle of Bannockburn. The same event is chronicled in the movie Braveheart, which is considered one of the most historically inaccurate movies of all time, but is also a rollicking good time.
4. Scotland has produced philosophers and thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, as well as the writers Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K. Rowling, and okay, fine, Robert Louis Stevenson. Other great Scots include: Alexander Fleming (discovered penicillin); Alexander Graham Bell (invented the precursor to the iPhone); Andy Murray (first native Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years); and the actors Sean Connery and David Niven.
5. Another great tune by Scottish rockers is the 1988 song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” by The Proclaimers. The band (identical twin brothers) are from Auchtermuchty, which is in the same Fife region as Adamson’s Dumferline.