What is your story? Should you not tell it?

What is your story? Should you not tell it?

by Victor Clements
article from Wednesday 15, July, 2020

JUST RECENTLY, those in favour of independence in Scotland have been encouraged to “tell stories”. The implication of this is that stories are necessary because the facts in this debate favour the other side. There is no doubt who has the stronger arguments on the economy, and the stronger your economy, the more choices and options you have going forwards, whether you are on the right of politics or on the left. 

The pro-Union side hold all the best cards on this aspect of the debate. Indeed, this is the single best argument for retaining the arrangements that we already have. Many people see the economics of the debate as pretty tedious and  boring, but should those on the pro-Union side of the debate be telling stories as well to allow people to see where they are coming from a bit better ? Not made-up fairy stories, but real stories about us?

Back in early March this year, just before the current pandemic overtook us, there was an extremely interesting conference organised in Newcastle-upon-Tyne by the pro-union group These Islands. The conference was spread over two days, and had a huge number of speakers and panel members. There were contributions and accents evident from across the four home nations and from the Republic of Ireland as well. Many of those speaking where highly recognisable to those with an interest in politics or current affairs. The discussion was not focused on Scotland but on the history and institutions that we all share, an analysis of the ties that bind. It was all the better for this, allowing people to break out of the tedious and circular arguments we typically encounter north of the border and which people seem unable to be able to escape from. 

Where have we come from and where are we going? 

Newcastle itself was a melting point for people from all directions, and was an excellent choice of venue. The Scottish situation dominated at times, but others wanted to tell their story as well. There was a balance about the event. The debate about the United Kingdom and how we function is of interest to many people, although it was clear that not many people had analysed it too much. That is not a very British thing to do. Navel gazing is not our style.

One of the interesting features of the discussion was when people were introducing themselves, they said a little bit about their own personal story, where they came from and how they got to where they were. Many of those speaking described a “home” or part of these islands that their current accent did not suggest. It was all unscripted, but everyone contributed, and everyone found it interesting. 

Those whose ancestors may have moved here from elsewhere enjoyed the same process. We have all came on different boats at different times but to the same destination. Within these islands we have long moved around, looking for opportunities to better ourselves. For some, it worked out, for others, perhaps not, but for all those of us who are around today, the choices of our forebears have made their mark, and they are evident in the people who we now are. Our individual history is rich and diverse and never ending, and the more we look at it, the more we realize what we have in common, at least at some point along the journey.

All of this stands in stark comparison to the binary choices people would have us make in the politics of today, where there is little room for negotiation or compromise, and everyone is classified and put in a box. The arguments about nationality are a perfect example.

As was emphasized in Newcastle, in everyday life, people do not ask us what nationality we are. They ask us, “Where do you come from?” People do not ask what nationality we are for two obvious reasons. The first is that for most people, their nationality is easily determined from their accent. Everyone with a Scottish accent that I have ever met has been happy to call themselves a Scot. You don’t do your credibility any good by asking people a statement of the obvious. But, there is a second reason as well. Asking someone their nationality is very obviously a political question. I grew up in Northern Ireland. If someone asked me if I regarded myself as British or Irish, that was very obviously a politically motivated question. 

The person asking was not interested in me, they were interested in my politics. They wanted to know if I was one of them, or one of the other sort. So too in Scotland in 2020. In the context of our politics today, asking whether you are Scottish or British is a politically motivated question, only it is slightly more complicated here is that many people feel both. The pressure is to make a binary choice, but if anyone with a Scottish accent considers themselves Scottish, then the binary choice is meaningless. Asking a Scot where they come from is much more interesting. They will tell you about their town or village, what they do, who they are related to, what their history is, and there is no ambiguity about any of this. Their identity is defined much more accurately. For all of us, our primary identity is our local identity. If we have moved from A to B, then that is part of our story too. Classifying people as Yes or No voters loses most of the important detail about them.

In terms of where we come from, we come from multiple directions. We all have two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents and so on. If any one of these people had not existed, or died before they had children, then we would either not be here, or we would be somebody else. Our ancestors double with every generation, which begs the question, should we be interested in all of our history, or only a part of it?


Many Scots define our history through our historic battles, and they are pretty sure which side they were on at the time. If you look at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 as an example, most people will favour one side over the other. It is increasingly presented as an England vs Scotland battle, although more Scots fought against the Bonnie Prince than for him. If you take a generation as 25 years, there will have been ten generations going back to this time, and any one of us living in Scotland today could potentially have over 2000 ancestors around at that point or in the time since. In practice, many people will have married relatives and the number will be many less than this, but there will still be a lot of people. If any one of these had not existed, then we would not exist. In a country where so many people have moved around in the past, can any of us say that our ancestors will have fought on one side or the other? The numbers suggest that we will have had our ancestors on both sides. 

If we go back to Mr Wallace at Stirling Bridge, that was 30 generations ago, giving us potentially over 100 million ancestors in the time since then. If you do not believe this, do the maths. They were all necessary links in our chain. So, when we think of whether we were the cunning Scots waiting for the trap to be sprung, pike at the ready, or the English drowning in the river, the chances are that for many of us we are actually both. We probably have a bit of DNA from all of them, and if we are interested at all in history, then we should be interested in all of it, not just a part of it.

This thought was put in my mind by an edition of Who do you think you are? featuring Billy Connelly. Billy knew that his ancestors on his maternal site came from Ireland. He was surprised to learn that some of them were born in India, children of British soldiers of Irish stock. He was flabbergasted to find out that one of his ancestors was Indian herself. So, he took an interest in that country and its people, and felt more rounded and rewarded for having done so. He had a little bit of Indian in him.

If we look at the news today, and see the statues of various types being torn down, we realize we are a product of our history. Our ancestors may or may not have been involved in these old controversies, and could well have been on both sides of the issue, not just one. It is for this reason that history should be taught at local, national and international scales, with perhaps a bit more insight than we have been taught in the past. We should all try to see where the other person is coming from, because if different choices had been made in our pasts, then that could have been us. Our complex and contradictory individual stories are what really throw light on the world around us. Any discussion of nationality loses this interesting and important detail in the binary choices it asks us to make.

A discussion of the issues, not the politics of the issues, would be so much more useful and interesting to all of us. Stories are important, and stories that take in a wider number of countries and experiences are so much more rewarding than those that repeat the same old narrative from home over and over again. Decisions made in the past to work together have given us the opportunities that we have today. Those decisions have given us a width of experience, and our stories should ultimately be better if only we had the confidence to start telling them again. We should be telling stories too, and would be all the better for it if we did so

Victor Clements lives in Aberfeldy in Highland Perthshire and runs a woodland advisory business. By Greg2600 -

Photo of Billy Connolly, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80355217

ThinkScotland exists thanks to readers' support - please donate in any currency and often

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter & like and share this article
To comment on this article please go to our facebook page