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A Journey in Familiar and Foreign Scotland
Scotland. The word is not so much weighed down by luggage as by the entire contents of the cargo hold of an Airbus.
To millions of people ‘Scotland’ is tartan, bagpipes, haggis, Robert Burns, tartan and Bonnie Prince Charlie – randomly interspersed with castles, tartan and hairy men in kilts.
Alastair Scott – journalist, author, photographer and travel writer – had been to nearly 70 countries before he decided to ”redress the balance of being one of Scotland’s cultural and political waifs” by travelling the length and breadth of his native land, on a bicycle.
The result, Native Stranger, is by turns shrewd, witty, well-observed and in places snortingly funny. It’s a warm-hearted and good-natured book on the whole, but shot through with a thread of real anger: at those who turn a blind eye to the grinding poverty that exists cheek by jowl with rampant excess, at incomers who drag their own culture with them and make no attempt at assimilation but instead set about turning their corner of Scotland into a miniature version of the land they left behind and, particularly, at landowners who care little or nothing for their tenants or even their land but view both as resources to be exploited.
Originally published in 1995, some of what he found as he travelled the highlands, islands, lowlands and borders of Scotland has been overtaken by events: Alex Salmond now presides over the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, the islanders of Eigg have freed themselves from the oppressive weight of absentee landlords by buying the island, the game-changing North Sea oil boom is faltering and Rangers FC is bankrupt and fighting its way back up from the Third Division: but much of the book remains as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.
Written as a series of vignettes and character studies, it makes no real attempt at narrative flow, but instead offers snapshots of each area he passed through and lingered in. Often, they are dramatically contrasting images – ordinary but remarkable people like the Assynt Crofters rub shoulders with wealthy landlords (not all of whom are hell bent on exploitation, to be fair), eccentrics and recluses with tour guides.
He visited places as diverse as Aberdeen crematorium, Ardtoe Fish Research Unit, Samye Ling monastery and Harris Superquarry, finding and mining in all of them a vein of (usually) gentle humour. Often he came away with a very different opinion from the one he arrived with: finding much to admire where he expected to find eccentricity, as at Samye Ling, and discovering claustrophobia and confusion in wide open spaces like Scalpay – a successful and thriving community on a tiny island, but one hemmed in by religion and a rigid social structure.
Along the way, Scott debunks some of Scotland’s most persistent myths like that of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ and the history of tartan, provides a clear-eyed account of the human tragedy of the Highland Clearances and looks at the sometimes startling true stories behind some of Scotland’s most famous literary sons – Walter Scott, Robert Burns and J M Barrie.
Native Stranger is not an entirely cosy read. At times, in fact, it’s a remarkably uncomfortable one. Scott offers his honest reactions to what he found and what he saw as he travelled. I didn’t always agree with his observations, but he never failed to entertain me and make me think, and occasionally he even managed to astonish me – and really, you can’t ask for much more than that from a book.
Edition shown: Little, Brown and Company. 1999 reprint. ISBN: 0-7515-0604-4. 442pp.