The Big Yin got it right: there’s more than one way to cherish Scotland

My mum has never forgiven me for the time I stopped her meeting Billy Connolly.

It was early 2000s and my parents had gone for a run in the car to Ballater, stroppy teenager in tow. It was a difficult time for me because I knew everything and it was my burden to explain the world to people who had been in it several decades longer.

As we strolled through the Deeside village’s cluster of gift shops and countrywear stores, past the handsome spire of Glenmuick Kirk, my mum spotted the comedian ambling towards us. As a lifelong fan, she wanted to say hello and tell him how much she enjoyed his work.

‘OH MY GOD DON’T EMBARRASS ME,’ came my hushed shriek, followed by some disingenuous prattling about respecting his privacy. By the time she was done trying to reason with me — pointless with a teenager — the crinite comic had passed and so had her chance to meet him. I’m still paying for it with regular rose bouquets to this day.

The Big Yin’s risqué routine won the hearts of people like my mum, who thinks the watershed should start at 9am, because he vividly captured a time and place in working-class Scottish life.

Class is something we don’t like to talk about these days but it’s the first thing that came to mind when I read his comments on patriotism. He told the Radio Times: ‘I’m the least patriotic man in the world. I do love Scotland, but if love for your country is all you have, you’re in a desperate state.’

Needless to say, he was swiftly monstered by the cybernats as a ‘quisling’ and a ‘sell out’ who had been ‘bought and sold for English gold’. To nationalist ears ‘I love Scotland, but…’ is not a reflection of nuance but an admission of disloyalty. Far from self-loathing, the funnyman’s philosophy originates in the Linthouse shipyard where he worked as an apprentice boilermaker.

There he toiled alongside brilliant men, intellectuals of the hands, who built ocean-conquering ships and he did so knowing that in Tyneside, Portsmouth and Belfast there were men of equal skill and worth turning out vessels no less awe-inspiring.

They were not divided by lines on a map but united as men and as workers. They loved their respective countries but their work was a daily reminder of the great wide world out there.

People from different backgrounds experience this in their own way. Why were so many business owners against independence? They were protecting their bottom line, of course, but they also bought and sold across borders, headquartered themselves here and located their distribution centre there. They recognised the folly of nationalism not through dockers’ solidarity but from the immutable facts of the market.

It’s easy to dismiss Connolly as a wealthy man who pontificates on his homeland from the dreamy opulence of Los Angeles, a town not known as an incubator of deep insight. But isn’t that the point? A boy from an Anderston tenement now rubs shoulders with Hollywood film stars.

He forged a career from his wry observations of Scottish life and yet it was the leaving of the place that made him. In this he embodies the quintessential Scottish success story: the lad o’ pairts done well.

Our wee country has produced some of the most celebrated inventors, industrialists, thinkers and artists and sent them out into the world. This is not the tragedy some think it is, a function of cultural inferiority or economic despair. It is a recognition that while we cherish Scotland, we see the world beyond it too.

Where I think Connolly is wrong is in failing to distinguish between chauvinism and a more benign affection for your country. George Orwell, one of the last unashamed patriots of the Left, warned that ‘nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism’.

Patriotism he distinguished as ‘devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people’. Whereas nationalism was ‘inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.’

Doesn’t that sound familiar? There is a political party in this country dedicated to demanding more power and prestige for the parliament which they dominate. Yet when their demands are met, they don’t use their enhanced abilities to make life better for their fellow Scots. They allow the nation to stall, even to stumble backwards, because their aim is more power still, and more after that too. They want Scotland to succeed but on their terms.

These are people who have more than love for their country — they have disdain for everyone who sees the country differently. It’s not English gold that’s been our bane but those who think there’s only one way to be Scottish and it requires having two flags in each hand and animus in your heart.

‘I love Scotland but I hate the way nationalists think they own the place,’ as Connolly remarked back in 2007, the year the SNP was swept to power at Holyrood.

One of the grimmest afflictions of our age is the undue elevation of politics. Politics is the humdrum ordering of society, a functional and frustrating business that should be no more exciting than drawing up the family budget for the week. When we raise it up, imbue it with special significance, politics displaces the things that really matter.

Some have found meaning for their life in Scottish nationalism (or Corbynism or Trumpism) but these are hollow surrogates for family, community, success and personal happiness. Billy Connolly reminds us that fulfilment comes not from a flag or an ideology but from life and the opportunities that await you at home or abroad.


Those wondering if there was anything that could spur Labour’s bold moderates to action finally have an answer.

After Bashar al-Assad launched chlorine attacks on Syrian civilians, killing more than 40 including children, Jeremy Corbyn condemned air strikes against the sadistic dictator’s chemical weapons factories. It was a dark day in Labour’s history.

‘Bombs won’t save lives or bring about peace,’ Corbyn prated. I wonder if he ever shared that folk wisdom with Gerry Adams.

And our intrepid centrist friends? They did what they always do: Fired off a few cross tweets then sat on their hands. They will stay put. They will line up behind him at PMQs. They will campaign to deliver him victory in May’s elections. They are not ‘staying to fight’. They are putting tribal sentiment before human decency.

Anyone who genuinely believed in Labour values would have nothing to do with Corbyn’s party. If the gassing of babies isn’t a red line, nothing ever will be.


Bute House has been refurbished at a cost £500,000. Key upgrades include a press release generator that automatically distances the First Minister from whatever Alex Salmond has just said, a drone programmed to snatch John Mason’s phone every time he opens Twitter, and a button-operated trapdoor for whenever Patrick Harvie pays a visit.

Have your say on these issues by emailing

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at image © Eva Rinaldi by Creative Commons 2.0 (cropped).

One thought on “The Big Yin got it right: there’s more than one way to cherish Scotland

  1. Another good article. I remember Billy Connolly judging that the Scottish Parliament was just another layer of administrators and time wasters on the public payroll.


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