Homecoming Scotland: Salmond Swims Home
In 2009, people descended from Scots who left the country generations ago are being encouraged to come home and rediscover their roots. To mark this historic occasion, Alex Salmond, Scotland's first minister, shares his thoughts on the year with Jasper Hamill.
Compared with the Scottish rebel leaders of old, Alex Salmond is a pussycat. William Wallace carried a sword the size of a man; Robert the Bruce was so tough that he wanted his heart cut out after his death, to be taken on a crusade, but Big 'Eck, as the new first minister is affectionately known, prefers to do his battling at the ballot box. Ironically, the level of public support he commands has made the idea of an independent Scotland - at least before the financial crisis - a serious prospect for the first time in centuries.
He agreed to meet The Midgie to discuss the Homecoming, a year-long celebration of Scottishness on the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns’ birth. In his Glasgow office, he strikes a friendly pose, radiating down-at-home charm. Confident to the point of arrogance, but charming with it, he carries himself with the cocksure swagger of a sportsman. He hopes the Homecoming year will be an irresistible pull for the 80 million people around the world who can trace their ancestry to Scotland – a group that includes Barack Obama, if you believe the hype. The new president has been claimed as a Scot. after his family was traced to the Isle of Lewis. He is one of the millions whom the organisers hope will come 'home' next year.
'Anyone who has Scottish ancestry will want to see what sort of celebrations we will put on for the 250th anniversary of our greatest poet,' he says. 'But we also want anyone who has an interest in Scottish culture and history to come and visit too. Yes, there is a global financial crisis, but we have an occasion next year whereby anyone with Scottish roots almost has to come and experience Homecoming. So, in a way, attendance will almost be compulsory.'
The celebrations are not just for people with Scottish ancestry, he insists. Salmond wants people whom he calls 'affinity Scots', which basically means anyone inquisitive about Scotland, to visit too.
He's certainly been doing a lot of work to get them here, motivated by the enormous impact a successful Homecoming could have on the tourist industry. Keenly aware of his role as Scotland's representative on the world stage, he's been jetting around the planet in a kilt, accompanied by musicians such as the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, to fly the flag for Scotland. When he brought the band to the Congressional Library in America, the audience was blown away. 'Of course they had seen piping before,' says the first minister, 'but not like that!'
New Yorkers were met with an even more unexpected sight when the pipe band played just above a subway vent. All clad in kilts, with a breeze blowing right up from beneath them, the band treated the city to a virtuoso piping performance and, much to Salmond's amusement, the sight of several Scotsmen's naughty bits. It practically brought traffic to a stand-still, but even so, the police didn't stop proceedings. The boys in blue know underwear is not part of Scottish tradition and turned a blind eye.
The Homecoming year has drawn a fair amount of criticism from Scots, who say its focus on four areas – golf, whisky, ancestry and great minds – ignores the modern Scotland of Franz Ferdinand, Glasvegas and James McAvoy. They say the country needs to escape the twee, tartan and haggis cliché that has dogged it for years. The first minister disagrees. There will be 'funky rock, cultural bands' playing throughout the year, he jokes, but as his taste leans towards modern takes on old traditions, he's more excited about gigs by bands such as the Peatbog Faeries, who play a genre they call 'Celtic fusion'. He doesn't see hackneyed aspects of Scottishness – disparagingly referred to as 'shortbread tin' images of the country – as a hindrance. 'I don't agree that these are clichés', he says. 'Instead I see them as a valuable part of the brand image of Scotland and they are aspects of our country that people recognise around the world. They can be an advantage.'
He too has met with a mixed reception. His critics accuse him of being smug. After his success at the national and local elections, he was often pictured with a huge grin on his face, thoroughly pleased that the Scottish people had chosen him and not Labour, the party that, under Tony Blair, led the country to war. But in person, he's affable, witty, passionate and hugely well-informed, tossing out stories about how Scotland invented mosquito repellent or slyly digging at Nicola Sturgeon, his notoriously fierce deputy, for her love of musician Paulo Nutini. 'He's playing at Hogmanay, isn't he?’ he laughs. ‘I hear he really loves Nicola – or is it her that loves him?'
He describes Groove Armada, another band playing at Hogmanay, as 'that shaking your ass band'. He's even got a story about this magazine's namesake. 'The male midgie is harmless. Actually, it's the pregnant female midgie that bites. That's a great metaphor for Scotland. The females are wild, whereas the men are harmless.'
With his baby face, he looks young for his 54 years, which is fitting because getting down with the weans (kids) has been high on his agenda. On his recent appearance on the charity television appeal Children in Need, he played his favourite character, a 'scunnered' (which means downcast or depressed) priest called Reverend IM Jolly that was created by the comedian Rikki Fulton. In doing this, he was following in the footsteps of Tony Blair, who appeared on the same appeal a few years ago with Catherine Tate, but the first minister urges us not to make too much of the connection. 'I didn't see it,’ he says. ‘I don't watch Tony Blair and the embargo continues.'
Behind all this media hoo-hah though, his primary focus remains making Scotland an independent country. Asked to explain to Midgie readers why Scotland should break away from the UK, he claims Scotland is 'a real country, not a region' and is best governing itself. 'Independence', he says authoritatively, 'is based upon three things: hope, equality and history.'
But pushed to explain what these things mean, he gives a disarming reply. 'I've just made them up actually. There is no “heh” explanation for independence.'
I can't help thinking Gordon Brown, one of the many other famous Scots in politics, would rather say nothing than appear so unguarded. Yet this is the charm of Alex Salmond, who appears convinced his joviality, which adorns a razor sharp intellect, reflects the 'positivity' of Scotland as it rediscovers its national identity. He thinks that maybe all politicians could do with a little cheering up. Perhaps they could.