All of us have our aberrations. All of us do strange things—hopefully only once a year. It would be strange if we did not. Cleans out the inhibitions. Loosens the juices. Everybody to their own outlet. My annual kinkiness is exceedingly strange. Once a year, every year, I go Scottish dancing.
There are, one must quickly add, extenuating circumstances. Everyone thinks that Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded in the Tower of London. (If you want to know the truth, she was never in the Tower.) She was beheaded, in fact, at Fotheringhay Castle. Fotheringhay. You could look it up. This justifies my Scottish dancing—once a year.
The venue is the annual debauch of the St. Andrew’s and Caledonian Society of Vancouver; motto Nemo Me Impune Lacessit (translation: don’t blame me for being lascivious). It is a fine evening. Black tie, spavined calves, shin splints and severely bruised metatarsals. If the Crazy Canucks want some prerace training, they should try three routes of the Gay Gordons, followed by the Eightsome Reel and the Haymaker’s Jig. As to the Dashing White Sergeant, we won’t even mention it.
There is something about the Scots. (Scotch is wot you drink.) Canadians, if they don’t already know, should know there is something about the Scots. Essentially, they have formed this country, being most of the bankers and accountants—and formulators of the liquor laws. The Scots are abstemious hypocrites—save for the annual blast-out at the St. Andrew’s Ball.
We all know that the basic difference (which these insane free-traders are trying to eradicate) between the Excited States of America and Constipated Canada is the difference between the melting pot and the vertical mosaic. The Americans, as a means of building their country, decided that every immigrant must denounce his past and become a
full-pledged card-carrying Amurrican— hand over heart, saluting the flag.
Confused Canada took the opposite path: allowing and encouraging all the ethnics and breeds and clans to retain their arcane tribal customs. In the vertical mosaic, the Scots are the most stubborn. In Vancouver, there is one English society. There are two Welsh societies. There are 18 Scottish societies. These are people who never let go.
There are many manifestations of this. Rites of passage. Symbols and icons. The most obvious—even the
Scots don’t realize this—is apparent at the ball, while one is massaging the mangled lower limbs. It is the similarity, the linkage, between the bag of the bagpipe and the haggis. They are the same shape—and the same taste.
The snotty English say that maize is a crop that in England is fed to cattle and in Scotland is the basic dish. Equally, it could be said that the stomach of the sheep—the container of the haggis—also contains the country’s music. Or, to quote the muse Robbie Burns: “Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care/And dish them out their bill o’ fare/Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware/That jaups in luggies/But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer/Gie her a Haggis!” I wish I’d said it myself.
It is apparent, however, from sober dissection of the St. Andrew’s crowd, that the rationale of the Scottish mystery is the retaining of the skirt as the national (i.e. male) dress. The Germans, in the First Great War, watching in horror as they charged from the
trenches, called them “the Ladies from Hell.” A memorable woman on an American wartime quiz show, asked the definition of a “sporran” had the station cut off the air when the audience exploded at her answer: “I know, it’s that long hairy thing that hangs down between a Scotsman’s legs.” Observing the St. Andrew’s Ball, one sympathizes with her.
Jack Webster, when asked what’s worn beneath a kilt, always replies: “It’s not worn at all. As a matter of fact, it’s in very good shape.” Webster, who has made a million dollars out of his accent, despairs of “professional Scots,” but there is a more than a plenty of the amateur variety at the ball, let me tell you.
This, you see, is the secret of the cult, the Celt, the kilt. It allows quiet men of secret abandon to dress up, to outdo madam, once a year. In the animal world, the male of the species has the fancier garb. Only among humans does the male adopt grey flannel and pinstripe boredom while milady goes berserk in rhineo stoned-hose and dropte dead décolletage, g As a veteran of advancing shin splints due to the Military Two-Step, I note with astonishment the increasing number, every year, of staid Vancouver stockbrokers and lawyers and aluminum-siding salesmen who appear in costumes that would rate applause in a San Francisco bar. Dirks in the stockings, ruffled blouses, velvet jackets all aplume, wild plaids and sashes and capes and my goodness what else.
It confirms the suspicion. The Scots’ mystique has prevailed, not because of the need to keep banking solidarity, not to keep highland dancing alive, not even to keep the myth of the haggis going, but to preserve an outlet.
The outlet is the secret desire of the tight-assed Scottish male—keeper of the flame of accountancy, banker, hospital administrator, deputy minister, morality censor—to flame out once a year in a costume that would have him arrested in any other jurisdiction. This is a repressed race. We must allow them their outlets. Otherwise, it could be trouble.
Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.
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