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Postcards from Scotland

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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 27/05/2005

One of the things I argue in my book which is slightly at odds with the mainstream cultural analysis of Scotland is that the problem with Scottish identity isn’t that it is too weak but that it is too strong. In other words, we Scots have a strong sense of Scottishness but the price for this strong national identity is a weak sense of ourselves as individuals. The novelist Willie McIlvanney, admirably sums this aspect of Scottishness in his book the Kiln when he writes: “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who the hell am I at all?” I’ve often had discussions with mature, intelligent Scots when they have bemoaned the fact that they really have very little idea of their own strengths and weaknesses.

In some sessions I’ve held recently with various people at work I’ve found unexpected confirmation of this point. I asked people to go into groups and discuss what they see as the barriers in Scotland to the development of individual self-confidence. (I even underline the word individual.) But when I take the feedback from them they barely mention individuals at all as they spend their time talking about matters which are much more relevant to the topic of national self-confidence. So, for example, they spend time discussing sport, the relationship with England, the way that politics is covered in the media, the standing of the Parliament but virtually nothing about the types of things which relate to the prevailing environment in which we live our individual lives. And I’m thinking here about the kind of things that parents or teachers say to children, how success is viewed by friends and colleagues and so forth. When I go on and talk about the impact of Scotland’s egalitarian values and the way they level down, not up, the obsession with how you are viewed by others, and the fear of mistakes and drawing attention to yourself, Scots readily identify with the picture I paint but somehow they often find it difficult to get into the discussion themselves. The emphasis on the collective rather than the individual is part of the reason for this. But I’ve also little doubt that it is also due in part to the fact we are not a very self-aware people. Self-reflection is discouraged and so it is common for people to see it as self-centred, individualistic and potentially dangerous.

But self-awareness is a great asset and this understanding goes back to Greek times. On the walls of the temple at Delphi were the words “know thyself”. So too was another piece of wisdom which is a good counterbalance to our material age – “Nothing in Excess”. Such thought also tunes in with my own belief in the need for balance. An excessive emphasis on the collective, at the expense of the individual, has become a significant aspect of contemporary Scottish culture and does not serve us well. But neither would the rampant individualism of American or consumer culture. What we need is a balance between the collective and the individual. In Aristotle’s terms - “the Golden Mean”.

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