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Book Talk

In Countdown to Scotland’s Independence Vote, Exploring the Country Behind the Clichés

A journalist sets off on a quest for a better understanding of his native land.

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No sunscreen is needed at this pool beside the Clyde estuary, near Glasgow.


Say the word "Scotland" and most of us think of heather-covered Highlands, tartan, and whisky. Peter Ross, a columnist for Scotland on Sunday, takes us behind the clichés to reveal a country full of singular characters and hidden communities outsiders rarely glimpse.

Here he introduces us to an aria-singing fish-and-chip shop owner in Glasgow, takes us inside communities of Benedictine monks and long-distance truck drivers, and explains why next week's referendum on independence is so important.

Daunderlust is not a familiar word to most non-Scots. Why did you choose it as the title of your book?

[Laughs] I'm not sure if it was the most cunning decision I ever made to make up a word that I'd have to explain to readers. It's a compound word—and also a pun. It's a pun on wanderlust, the German word to have a great desire to wander about in the world, combined with a Scots word, daunder, or donner as it's sometime pronounced, which means saunter around in a leisurely way. Because these are journeys within Scotland, and I have a sort of compulsive desire to make them, it's a daunderlust.

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Most of us associate Scotland with kilts and heather-covered Highlands. You intentionally avoid the picturesque.

We do have lots of kilts and heather-covered glens, but I think those aspects of the country are covered within the mainstream, like in tourist brochures. And while it does have a truth to it, I wanted to dig a little deeper and try to portray the country as it really is.

Scotland is a very beautiful place, but it's also quite a dark place. It's a very small country, with a tremendous range of different landscapes, environments, and social groups. There's a very underpopulated rural and mountainous part. There's also an industrial and postindustrial Scotland. And there are massive extremes of wealth and poverty. A few people own a great deal of land. Others barely own the clothes on their backs. I felt it was important to show Scotland in its infinite variety.

Why did you choose to write about the anatomy rooms?

Around the time I was writing the book, John Landis's film of Burke and Hare came out: two guys in Victorian Edinburgh who stole corpses from graveyards to sell to student doctors so they could learn how to dissect. The Body Snatchers, as they became known. Subsequently they started murdering people to provide a greater supply of bodies. It's one of the great Scottish stories.

So I decided to try and find out what happens these days—how student doctors get bodies to learn their craft on. So I got in touch with the Edinburgh University medical school, which is a tremendously grand 19th-century building. And I was able to follow the whole process through. I spoke to people who were planning to donate their bodies to medical science. I even spent time within the anatomy rooms themselves and saw the process of embalming and dissection.

The book is full of wonderful characters. Tell us about Luigi Corvi.

He's an extraordinary guy. He's the owner of the Val-D'Oro chip shop in Glasgow. It's in a part of Glasgow which is between the sophisticated, merchant city and the more rough-and-ready east end. In Glasgow, and Scotland more widely, there has always been a tradition of Italian immigrants opening fish-and-chip shops or ice-cream parlors.

Luigi Corvi, as his name suggests, is of Italian descent. At the time I was writing, he was 25 stone [350 pounds] and a tremendously garrulous gentleman. His greatest quirk is that he's a phenomenally good opera singer. He will sing you "Nessun Dorma," or various other arias while serving your smoked sausage supper or deep-fried pizza, or all these other really unhealthy things that Glasgow specializes in serving to people. Scotland in general, and Glasgow in particular, is full of people like this: ordinary people, who are in actual fact extraordinary.

What's your own Scottish story?

I was born in Stirling, but I moved around quite a lot through my dad's work. He was an accountant, but he also spent quite long periods of time unemployed. So although my background's theoretically middle class, there were long stretches where we didn't have much money. I spent the whole of my teenage years living on a council estate. That background has been helpful in terms of being able to identify with different sorts of social groups in the stories.

Which clan do you come from?

Ross is a clan. But it doesn't really mean too much to me. I think that's often more meaningful to people whose families move away from Scotland. I did this story a few years ago about something called the Homecoming. It was a great gathering of the clans, in Edinburgh. But hardly anyone there was Scottish. They were all Americans or Canadians, walking around covered in tartan with eagle feathers in their bonnets. [Laughs] The few Scots there were just complaining about the price of the drinks.

You say there is an elegiac tone to many of the stories. Why so?

In Scotland, and I think it's the same elsewhere, we're increasingly becoming a homogenous, bland society, a kind of commerce-driven, money-driven society. We're losing some of the things that make us distinct as a people. So I wanted to document the remnants of those things before they pass from the cultural landscape.

Which is why you have a lot of things in the book about Scottish traditions like shipbuilding on the Clyde, which is the river that runs through Glasgow. At one time it built the majority of the world's ships. Now, that's very far from being the case. These things are all the time passing away from the culture. So I think it's important to write about them, almost for posterity.

It's also to do with my personality, I guess. There's something about that mood of loss, the melancholy of it, that I find quite attractive. But the Scottish sense of humor, which can be quite dark and tough and resilient, is always a counterbalance to the sadness that you sometimes get in the stories. That and the great warmth of the people.

You intentionally quote people in Scots rather than standard English. Why?

That's a completely normal thing within Scottish literature. If you were to pick up a Scottish novel, or short story collection, it's quite commonplace to see Scots used. Trainspotting is a famous example. But it's not common at all in journalism. If I'd been writing for the news pages, I'd have written in standard English for clarity and for that sense of objectivity. But to quote people in standard English when they're talking to you in Scots is to translate what they're saying. I want to express things as truthfully as I can. I'm using all my senses: what I see and smell and taste and hear.

And what I hear is people speaking in these incredibly rich local dialects. So I want to get that down on paper, because it represents the way they speak. If you were to translate them into standard English, you'd lose a tremendous amount of energy and humor and individuality. I don't think the language is impenetrable. I'm quite careful to give a flavor of the dialect, without making the stories unreadable. But I want readers to be able to hear what I heard.

What does "thole" mean?

Thole is a good one, because it means to endure. And I think one of the defining characteristics of the Scots is that we're a resilient people. Scotland's gone through its fair share of difficult times and hardship and poverty—like the Highland clearances, where people were forcibly moved off their lands to make room for sheep. A lot of them immigrated to America and Canada. But we're a very enduring people. We're able to thole. It's a poetic and beautiful word that expresses something key about the Scottish character.

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A house with a view: Bla Behinn, on Skye, is one of Scotland's most dramatic ranges.


You describe a sunny day spent on Arthur's Seat, in Edinburgh, as a "perfect expression of that rare phenomenon—Scottish happiness." Is it really that bad?

[Laughs] It's a wee joke, really. Part of our self-image and the way we laugh about ourselves is that we're a bit miserable. There's a gem of truth in it. We like to complain, and we do have a melancholy streak in us. Then there's the weather. People that don't live here need to know that the weather is awful for a good part of the year. And I think that contributes to the national mood. You spend a lot of time being, to use another Scots word, scunnered. A bit annoyed about things. A bit fed up.

The weather is also why we're all so pale. There's even a theory that the weather  explains why Scots drink so much alcohol. Those ideas of misery and alcohol and bad weather are a sort of perfect storm of Scottishness. [Laughs] The counter side to that is when the sun does shine, it really does lift the mood of the country. I went and spent the whole day on Arthur's Seat, from sunrise to sunset, just to celebrate the fact that we'd had a week of unusually fine weather in March. You could sense Scottish happiness rising up off the day like a haze.

Another theme in the stories is community—people doing things that connect them and their past. Can you give us some examples?

I think there's an inherent community feeling in Scotland, which possibly goes back to the ancient clan system, where people in the Highlands would be arranged according to family loyalty and work and fight together. It's a kind of lingering race memory.

There is, for example, a community of Benedictine monks I write about who live and work in the last medieval monastery in Britain still in use. Or you might find a different sort of community in the Waterloo Bar, Scotland's oldest gay bar; or a community of nudists on a small island in Loch Lomond; or a community of long-distance truck drivers, who gather at a particular transport café.

I'm attracted to that idea of community because I myself am quite an insular, introverted person. So I am drawn to seeing the way that others interact. Scotland has also always been a more left wing and socialist country than its English neighbor. And that's another expression of community. We're having our independence referendum at the moment, and I think that idea of Scotland as a country that values others and wants to look out for the welfare of others is one that's frequently talked about within the debate.

Scotland is only a few days away from the referendum. What's the atmosphere like?

I travel around quite a lot within the country, and I've been talking to people about this, and there's a lot of excitement now about the referendum. People feel tremendously engaged in politics in a way that they haven't been for general elections, and I think there will be a lot of people voting in the referendum who have perhaps not voted for a long time, or have never voted, because they were too young to vote or because they've always felt entirely disillusioned by politics and that it wouldn't make any difference to their lives.

But because what's being offered here is such a radical change, I think people are absolutely engaged. All the way through, the polls have been showing a significant lead for the people who want Scotland to stay part of the United Kingdom. But I think as you go out on the streets and talk to people, most people feel it's actually going to be quite close.

You say that the book offers no view or answer on independence. Which side do you think most of your characters will come down on?

I would find it very difficult to answer that question. They're all very independent-spirited people. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they'd want to seek independence. It would be a mistake to think that people who don't want independence are any less patriotic than Scots who do.

The idea of Scottish identity and your views on the referendum are quite complex. You can feel very proud to be Scottish. But many of us also feel a strong connection with England, either through our work or our families. My wife is English. My favorite writers, George Orwell and Charles Dickens, are English. A band I love, the Smiths, epitomize a certain kind of Englishness. And I find the William Blake anthem "Jerusalem" as moving as "Flower of Scotland." I think a lot of people will feel the same way. The whole idea of Scottish and British identity is like a Venn diagram. It's a complicated thing.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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