Not long ago I was chatting to a Scottish cartoonist about the possible changes that could come about in a post-devolution Scotland, and suggested that there might be a move to change the Bay City Rollers to the Bay City Reelers. He flew into an unexpected rage and grasped me by both lapels. I thought, reasonably, that he was protesting about the sheer feebleness of the joke. Not so.
‘Why is it that the English simply have no idea of the way the Scots live?’ He stormed at me. ‘When will you get it into your thick heads that 99% of the inhabitants have never danced a reel in anger, have never seen one danced and would be quite happy if they went to the grave without ever having been involved in a reel, foursome, eightsome or otherwise? There is only one kind of foursome the Scots are interested in, and that takes place on the golf course.’
To put it another way, the Scots can get pretty touchy about English attitudes. They hate the stage props with which they have been equipped by Sassenach legend – the knobbly Harry Lauder sticks, the white heather and sporran, the hoots-mon-the-noo imitations, the what-is-worn-under-the-kilt inquiries, the caber and bagpipe jokes. They loathe being typed as haggis-eaters. Most of all, they hate the idea, wherever it came from, that the Scots are a mean penny-pinching race who reach some kind of national peak of parsimony in Aberdeen.
So, as this volume consists largely of English attitudes to the Scots, I shall have to tread very carefully. Let me say from the outset that I know nobody wears the kilt any more except in parts of Edinburgh, Perthshire and New Zealand. That the national dish of Scotland is not haggis but fish supper. That tartan is most often found adorning football supporters’ tammies or the beer cans in their carry-outs. That the Scots, far from always drinking whisky neat, often mix it with lemonade. And that most Scots do not live up glens or on isles, but deep in cities.
The trouble about this stripping away of clichés is that what is left underneath is a declaration that the Scots are not so different from other people, and where’s the humour in that? Luckily, the Scots are different from other people. Ask any Scot. Better still, ask several Scots. They will tell you in great detail what is special about Scotland. Unfortunately, their answers will differ greatly depending on whether they come from Edinburgh or Glasgow, the town or country, the Highlands or Lowlands, depending on whether they are exiles or stay-at-homes, Puritan or liberal, mad or indifferent about football, nationalist or internationalist, drunk or sober.
Leave the Scots alone and they splinter immediately; the only thing that unites them deeply is the auld enemy, England.
So there is this to be said for English attitudes to Scotland, that as soon as you skirt the dafter identikit images you do find general truths about the Scots that the Scots might not admit themselves. (A good many Scots have confessed in confidence to me that they would never dream of returning to live in Scotland, but it took Dr Johnson to say out loud that the best view in Scotland was the high road to England.) And nowhere is this truer than in the pages of Punch. Over the last hundred years Punch has published hundreds of cartoons about Scotland, thereby chronicling changing English attitudes to things Scottish, and you will probably find many unexpected things among them, together with the quite predictable grouse moor and ghillie jokes.
You will find, for example, that many even of the grouse moor jokes are anti-English with the hapless Scottish tyro, not the wily ghillie, being the butt of the cartoon.
You will find a true reflection of the way Scots are capable of both Puritan discipline and complete excess, though usually it comes in reverse order with great drinking on Saturday and a grey silence on Sunday. Statistically it has been shown recently that the Scots do get drunk more often than other Britons, but they were getting drunk more often in Punch cartoons eighty years ago than any other nationality. As indeed they were also going to the kirk more often.
You will find faithfully recorded the way the Scots, though infuriated by the kilt and sporran image, are quite happy to surround themselves, and fill their shops, with Bonnie Prince Charlie driving gloves, thistle-shaped corkscrews, tartan lavatory covers and cuddly Loch Ness monster dolls.
You will also find equally faithfully reflected the Scottish obsession with certain sports (golf, football and English-baiting), their curious ability to joke about death, and the exotic rhythms and vocabulary of their native speech. (It is said, for example, that Charles Keene would never finish a Scottish joke until he had consulted a Scottish expert as to the right phrasing and spelling. And his best known one ‘Bang went Saxpence’ was no invention but a directly recorded piece of conversation.)
Which brings us to the vexed question of Scottish meanness. I say “vexed” for one very curious reason. This is not the first book devoted to Scotland by Punch; it is the fourth. Mr Punch in the Highlands appeared at the end of the last century. It was closely followed by Mr Punch’s Scottish Humour, and rather more leisurely pursued by Mr Punch in Scotland at the end of the 1920s. Now, you might suppose that the first, cruder collection of Scottish jokes was full of cartoons about Aberdeen and meanness. Far from it. There is scarcely a whisper in it to suggest that any Scotsman had ever done a mean act. The second book had a modest share of meanness jokes, but it is not until you reach the third and most modern that you find a real flood of them.
So, as cartoonists are rarely known to avoid milking a common humorous topic, this suggests very strongly that the myth of Scottish meanness had not even taken root eighty or ninety years ago, but that soon afterwards it had already become a familiar stereotype. No-one knows for sure where it came from (several writers in this book advance their own theories, all different) but there was a suggestion in a recent work on Scottish humorists that Punch and Punch alone was responsible for the fashion, and that ‘Bang went Saxpence’ started it. In other words, that this magazine is to blame for one of the worst libels ever committed against an entire nation.
Should I belatedly apologise on behalf of Punch? I think not. Certainly one should apologise for the sheer badness of so many jokes about Aberdonians and other Scots tarred with the same brush. And yet it is true also that while the Scots often display great generosity and openness, they can at the same time in their usual contradictory fashion act with extreme, let us say, carefulness. They are not ashamed either to borrow jokes from the despised English, even about the very same mythical meanness…
Some of the cartoons in this collection represent the first appearance in print of jokes which have become classic gags since, with their origin often forgotten. In the period covered by this book Scotland has tended to attract more artists in the early days, and more writers in modern times, which is no bad thing considering artists drew better then and writers write better nowadays. You won’t find much about Scottish politics in 1900, but otherwise writers and artists have returned to the same general themes over and over again.
Many Scots readers will conclude, no doubt, that English views on Scotland show no development whatever over the last century. That is as it should be. If there is one thing the Scots hate more than being misunderstood by the English, it is being understood by the English. They are a proud people and do not wish to have their true nature guessed at by such a stolid nation as the English I only hope this book contributes a little to the great tradition of misunderstanding which has always bound our two great countries.