Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish by Lesley Riddoch

One vision of a possible future…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

blossomThe run-up to this September’s referendum on Scottish Independence has led to a rash of books on the subject of how Scotland should best be governed, as we all indulge in some intense navel-gazing. Some books attempt to take an unbiased approach, others are arguing strongly for one side or the other. This one is an unashamed polemic, arguing not so much for independence as it’s currently being offered, but for a return to localism in politics – a vision inspired by a damning comparison of Scotland to the similarly sized countries in the Nordic belt.

Lesley Riddoch has been one of Scotland’s leading journalists for decades, both in print and on radio and television. She draws on many of the stories she has covered in her long career in painting a picture of Scotland that is, quite frankly, bleak. Her position is that the root cause of Scotland’s poor showing in any comparisons of health or life expectancy is the people’s lack of control over their own environment. In Riddoch’s view, simply separating Scotland from the UK would merely mean a change in location of an over-centralised state from London to Edinburgh – instead she argues strongly for a return to much smaller local councils with real powers; and for strong community schemes, particularly with regard to housing and health, where residents are able to decide their own priorities and take control of their own surroundings.

Scottish Parliament
Scottish Parliament

To make her point, Riddoch looks in general at the history of housing and land ownership in Scotland, pointing out that still today 60% of the land is owned by 1,000 people – often the same families as controlled it in the days of feudalism. She highlights the emptiness and lack of productivity of much of the land – carefully managed as ‘wilderness’ pleasure grounds for the benefit of the few – and contrasts this with the cabin culture of the Nordic states, where city-dwellers regularly own a small piece of the countryside where they can retreat to nature for weekends and summer breaks. In Scotland, in Riddoch’s view, city-dwellers have almost no contact with the countryside, thus missing out on the health benefits of a more outdoors existence; but perhaps more importantly, feeling that they have no control over how this vast resource is managed and controlled.

Lesley Riddoch in the Hebrides
Lesley Riddoch in the Hebrides

Riddoch offers ideas for solutions to the problems she highlights by giving examples of, in her view, more successful forms of land management and community housing schemes. As a trustee of the Isle of Eigg Trust, she was involved in the successful community buy-out after years of mismanagement by a variety of absentee landlords. She shows the difficulties of bringing the buy-out to fruition, but gives a rosy picture of how community involvement has improved the lives of the islanders and slowed the drift to the cities. She discusses in depth the tradition of tenement-dwelling in Scottish cities, suggesting that with some modernisation this type of shared housing space is a way of keeping community spirit within cities and stopping the spread of housing out into what she clearly sees as soulless suburbs. She suggests that the decline in formal use not just of Gaelic but of the much more broadly based Scots leads to a sense of inferiority and unwillingness to speak publicly on the part of those for whom Scots is still the first language. (She reminds us of one of my own pet hates – that a child speaking Scots will be told to speak ‘properly’ – i.e. speak English.) And she draws on some successful community health schemes to bolster her argument that local involvement works more effectively than national government in improving health outcomes.

Typical road sign in Gaelic and English...but not in Scots.
Typical road sign in Gaelic and English…but not in Scots.

Riddoch states quite clearly at the outset that the book is a polemic and has carefully cherry-picked her examples to back up her arguments. Overall, I found myself in agreement with her more often than not, though I do get somewhat tired of being told how great the Nordic countries are – I read Scandi crime and they seem just as dismally drunken and angst-ridden as your average Scot as far as I can see, and with even worse weather! Riddoch produces statistics to back up her arguments of course and, while I happily believe them, I also believe that statistics can be found to support any argument anyone chooses to make. Sometimes the statistics that are left out are just as revealing. A quick Google search brings up statistics that ‘prove’ Scotland is pretty much in line with the rest of the Nordic belt in terms of crime, access to healthcare etc; just as much as the ones Riddoch quotes ‘prove’ the opposite. So I felt Riddoch over-egged that portion of the pudding, but she’s by no means alone in that – it’s become a Scottish tradition to praise all things Nordic. It’s also a Scottish tradition to run ourselves down and I felt Riddoch did a little too much of that. It seemed to me that, while what she said about the gloomy aspects of Scottish health and welfare were on the whole unarguable, she failed to mention that great strides have been made over recent years, especially since devolution. Still a long, long way to go, of course – but I did feel that a little bit of self-congratulation wouldn’t have gone amiss amidst the overall message of doom and gloom. But maybe I’m just a glass-half-full kind of gal…

Mebbes no' the brawest yet but aye the bonniest...
Mebbe no’ the best yet but aye the bonniest…

The very fact that Riddoch got me agreeing and arguing with her in turn shows that I found this a thought-provoking and provocative read – not one that’s directly related to the independence debate, though definitely on the Vote Yes side, but one that argues beyond that for one kind of society we might aspire to if we’re willing to make fundamental reforms to our system of government. Recommended as an interesting addition to our current obsession – but one for Scots only, I would think.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

52 thoughts on “Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish by Lesley Riddoch

  1. As a South of the borderer, I feel, as the vote gets (so they tell us) closer and closer, that if Scotland separates we on the Southside are DOOMED. Expect an influx of applications from the liberal/progressive side of the political divide, terrified that the Southern rump will lurch us all rightwards, doomed to an even more class ridden, unequal society.

    Save Our Southern Souls, don’t go!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I think there have been some abysmal own goals scored by the ‘Better Togetherers’ reeking of the paternalistic, patronising attitudes that undoubtedly made the idea of separating attractive.

    Most importantly, IF you go, we still won’t have had a Wimbledon champ since nineteen hundred and frozen to death!

    Anyway, the book looks interested, but i really musn’t…….2 books requested from NetGalley and one bought today.

    • I’m awfully sorry, m’dear, but I’ve swung completely across the divide and have turned into a Yes-woman! But if it’s any compensation I suspect England will realign and head for the political centre – we really thought the devolved govt would be very left-wing up here but it hasn’t turned out that way. It’s lefter than Westminster (where isn’t?) but generally it’s pretty centre-ground.

      Project Fear has been fantastic! Every time one of these bumbling Eton buffoons comes up here and tells us how we’re too thick/lazy/poor/stupid to survive without our English overlords, another 1000 people don a kilt and sign up for the Yes campaign. I’m thinking of inviting David Cameron, Wee Oick Osbourne and Kelvin MacKenzie up for the whole month of August….sorted!

      You might lose Andy…but I would lose Wimbledon! We’d have to set up a new tennis tournament up here. And the Davis Cup is a big worry…just when it’s all beginning to go better too!

  2. FictionFan – Oh, this does sound like a fascinating read! And I don’t know enough about the contemporary perspective journalists have on Scotland. I’m glad too that you shared the differences you had with her arguments. That gives me a broader look at the issues, and I like that. Clearly there is a lot to think about…

    • There is a lot to think about, and I’m determined to at least have some idea of what I’m voting for when the time comes! But we are all getting just a little obsessed with the whole debate now… 😉

  3. There’s something south of the Scottish border Lady F???????!!!!!!!
    Boringly, I still haven’t decided how to vote but the more Mr Cameron and his party open their mouths with another scare story as to how Scotland will fail without the rest of Britain, makes me want to vote YES just as a protest vote.
    FF not sure about Scots on road-signs as the next step would be to add signs in Glaswegian, Aberdonian, Dundonian etc. Can you imagine the size of the signs.
    having been born in England I wonder if Ms Riddoch would describe herself as Scottish, English or British.

    • I started as a No and have become a Yes over the last couple of years. Project Fear is doing wonders for the whole campaign! In fact, I suspect they must want us to vote yes – they can’t possibly think telling us we’re too stupid to survive without them is endearing… 😉

      I know, but that’s because Scots hasn’t been allowed to develop properly as a language. There is a standard formal English language as well as all the regional variations – why shouldn’t there be a standard Scots one…

      I think she would consider herself very firmly Scottish on the basis of what she says in the book. I think she’s lived here since she was a child and before that in Northern Ireland. It was an interesting read, even on those occasions when I was disagreeing with her a bit…

    • Now that’s one of those questions that should be easy to answer but isn’t (see Chris’s comment above). Scots has been so held back as a language since the Union with England that there isn’t really a standard form of it. I’d say Glesca but someone from elsewhere in Scotland might say something different – Glesga, Glescae… And there’s the problem… (Bet you’re sorry you asked now! *winks apologetically*)

      Yes, this is the castle I thought I’d get for you. It’s in pretty good condition really – it’s got a roof, which is more than can be said for lots of them! No moat, but Nessie would have that great loch to swim in. (Bonniest means prettiest or most beautiful…)

      • Not at all! I’m actually extremely interested by this. Never knew there was such a thing as Scots… *hides somewhere* So, there’s like a whole language?

        I love it, truly. I think I see my room. How far is it from Nessie’s lake? I hope she’ll make the trek. And I think I might need to get a sailboat out there. (Oh…that’s a coolio word. Any more like that?)

        • Yes, you do – it’s just that we like to confuse you. It’s just the language that Burns uses or like the quotes in my review of Thrawn Janet? It’s mainly English but with some words from Gaelic and Norse thrown in and different spelling and pronunciation. It’s sometimes known as Lallans, which I think comes from Lowland Scots.

          Not too far – 50 miles? But she travels via underground tunnels to all different lochs (NOT lakes!) so I’m sure she’ll come. (Zillions! How about…drookit, for when you get soaked in the eternal rain – ‘Ach, ah’m fair drookit!’ *giggles at the thought of the Professor saying that with his American accent*)

  4. Fascinating from afar. We expect to be traveling in England in September so I imagine we will suddenly find this an intriguing story to follow in the daily papers.

  5. It’s so interesting to hear about these issues from your (and your readers’) perspectives. I think we need to subscribe to The Economist again to find out what’s going on in the world. We gave it up when we couldn’t keep up with the reading, but we do miss it. Perhaps I need to look into subscribing to the digital format…

    • I find trying to keep on top of world news an almost impossible task these days, but the Scottish debate is in full swing over here now. Even a hermit would be hard put to it not to know about it…and even the English, many of whom for ages had the attitude that it was nothing to do with them really, have finally started to think about the fact that actually it might just affect them too…

      It’s odd (she said a little bitterly) that finally Scotland is getting news coverage over here, and only because we’re thinking of leaving. The BBC has finally realised that the first word of its name is British, not London!

  6. Interesting. Although I know virtually nothing of Scottish history or politics (not a huge part of the curriculum in Ohio), I’ve always been a proponent of more localized government, which can be more in tune with local needs, as well as easier to hold accountable (perhaps you think twice about how you vote at that town council meeting when you’re going to be running into your constituents at the grocery store the next day??). Sounds like a good read – I always appreciate an author who states at the beginning that she’s prejudiced and goes from there – far preferable to those who pretend to be completely objective whilst trying to sneak in their personal views!

    • Yes, me too! I’ve read a couple of books in the lead up to the referendum where the author’s been pretending to be neutral and it destroys any credibility their arguments might have. I’d rather read two books – one for, one against – and make up my own mind. I can’t imagine how anyone in Scotland could possibly be neutral so near to the vote anyway – I can see that some folk will still be undecided but that’s different from being neutral.

      The arguments she made were interesting and I agreed with a lot of what she said about localism and also about land ownership which has always been an issue over here. Whether we go for independence or not, there’s no doubt the campaign has raised political awareness of some of the issues…

  7. Re: Blossom—I wasn’t aware of the upcoming vote, and apologize for my ignorance of
    the matter. But I found your review very stirring. What an important time for you. Of
    course, I have no background knowledge to form an opinion at all, but I astound myself
    by being in such favor of letting Scots speak Scot–! Even here in the US, the southern
    drawl, the inner city rap, the flat A of Pittsburgh and the like are all denounced as not
    speaking “good English”. But I think the reason I would encourage you to vote Yes, is
    influenced by an innocent tin that sits on my worktable and which I take for granted to
    hold some of my sewing things. It’s a Joseph Walker Aberlour-On-Spey Scotland tin
    of Walkers shortbreads—(even my spellcheck–English no doubt–is objecting to
    the spelling of these words!—eaten long ago, but kept for the tin–photo of “Flora Macdonald’s
    farewell to Bonnie Prince Charlie”. Sentimental, trite perhaps? but–vote Yes! there
    will always be a Scotland! And only a Scotland.

    • I’d be surprised if many people outside Britain were aware of the vote – in fact, lots of people inside Britain are only just becoming aware of it themselves now. But yes, I think this is probably the single most important ballot I’ll ever cast – especially if we vote to go independent, since it won’t be reversible. It’s made those of us with an interest in politics very aware of what being Scottish means, and revived lots of buried questions about language, and what history should be taught in schools etc (I was taught almost entirely English history and all the authors on the set reading lists for literature were English or American – no Scots at all.) As a well-educated Scot of the late twentieth century, it’s a sad reflection that I know Wordsworth better than Burns, and Dickens better than Scott, and Henry VIII (of England) better than James IV (of Scotland). So I’ll be voting Yes for independence…but I suspect the country will vote No in the end. But even so, the debate may have raised awareness of some of the problems that exist in this last outpost of the British Empire and colonialism…

      Oops, sorry! I’ll get off my soapbox now… 😉

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