Go to Scotland, learn about Canada

Ms Soapbox and her eldest daughter “Missy” just returned from a 10 day trip to Scotland.  We explored Edinburgh (refined and dignified), Glasgow (gritty and boisterous) and the Highlands (majestic and dangerous).


Urquhart Castle, Loch Ness

Along the way something magical happened.  We learned about Scotland, but we learned even more about Canada.

Cherish your history

The Scottish are understandably proud of their history, having survived invasion after invasion since the first century.  Consequently, we expected our tour of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh to be heavy on ancient Scottish artifacts and light on everything else.  However, the first exhibit we saw was a magnificent First Nations Thunderbird costume.  Our guide started the tour with the Thunderbird because it was an exceptional object that had been created by one of the oldest cultures on earth.

This reverence for Canada’s First Nations was echoed by exhibits in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

It was not lost on Ms Soapbox that the Scottish show more respect for Canada’s First Nations than many Canadians.     

Be honest about your past

Scotland recently recognized its role in the slave trade–Scottish tobacco merchants became incredibly wealthy by participating in the triangle of trade that carried consumer goods and human cargo back and forth between Britain and Europe, the Caribbean and America.

Canada is only now coming to terms with its treatment of First Nations, Metis and Inuit.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is but a baby step toward addressing the consequences of decades of mistreatment and neglect.

Change is inevitable

Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland.  It was once the centre of the world’s shipbuilding industry, having over 150 shipyards.  After WW2 the industry could no longer compete in a changing market place and Glasgow gradually transformed itself from a dying city to a dynamic one focused on financial services and tourism.

Canada’s dependence on natural resources, particularly oil, will become problematic as the world shifts to renewable energy.   Politicians who insist that the path forward is to go backward have not learned that change is inevitable and it’s better to be prepared than left behind.

The arts

In addition to remarkable architecture, Edinburgh and Glasgow are packed with museums, art galleries, science centres, and public art.  This gives them a vibrancy that attracts tourists and charms the locals despite the gloomy weather.

The Scots cherish their artists, writers, and poets.  The tallest statue in Glasgow’s George Square isn’t a member of royalty, a politician, or an industrialist; it’s the poet and writer Sir Walter Scott.  Scott is credited with softening the harsh view Britain had of Scotland (in Scott’s day Britain outlawed the wearing of tartan and playing bag pipes) by creating an extravaganza to honour King George IV on his first visit to Scotland.  The highlight of Scott’s program was the King dressed in tartan being greeted by a crowd of tartan clad admirers.  That was the end of Britain’s ban on tartan and the start of the tartan fashion fad.

The Scottish admire all forms of art.  The street artist Sam Bates (a.k.a. SMUG) created a spray can mural of St Mungo, Glasgow’s patron saint, on the side of a building.  St Mungo is depicted in contemporary dress and could easily be mistaken for a homeless person.

Since the 1980s the statue of the Duke of Wellington has worn a traffic cone hat.  City staff remove the cone and pranksters put it back.  A few years ago, the City decided to elevate the statue so the pranksters couldn’t replace the cone.  When Glaswegians learned about the plan they signed petitions and staged protests until the City backed down.


Duke of Wellington with traffic cone hat

Canadians, like the Scots, believe the arts and culture are important, however Albertans are less whimsical and more grumpy about what qualifies as “art” and whether their hard earned tax dollars should be spent (wasted) on it.

Being Canadian

Ms Soapbox and Missy were constantly asked where we were from.  When we said we were Canadians we were greeted with warm smiles and stories about “a certain American president” who doesn’t understand that climate change is real and “bloody Americans” who have a melt down when a tour bus is delayed due to roadworks.

We learned many things.  Scotland and Canada share the same ancient geology (Scotland was a part of Canada before continental drift), and that the reason we can’t understand the people of Cape Breton is because they speak Gaelic, and that John A MacDonald, our first prime minister, and James McGill, the founder of McGill University, were born in Glasgow.

Oh, and they love Clark’s Canadian maple syrup.


It’s not every day that the people of a foreign country can show you how to improve your own country while at the same time make you feel good about who you are.

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29 Responses to Go to Scotland, learn about Canada

  1. tom mcpherson says:

    Hi Susan: what was the danger lurking in the highlands?

    • Nancy Smith says:

      Perhaps the wet sheep out of view around the corner of the road, looking as though tossed there straight out of the washer? Or the roads that narrow to one lane at every bridge, also out of view until you are upon it?

      • Nancy, we can add Nessie and Kelpies to the list. Our tour guide said parents would use the Kelpie myth to keep their children from getting too close to the edge of the Loch. The children were told that if they saw a beautiful horse standing at the water’s edge they should run as fast as their little legs could carry them because if they got up on to the horse’s back that beautiful horse would turn into a vicious monster that would drag them into the Loch and devour them.

    • Tom, our tour guide said many experienced mountain climbers have been killed in Glencoe. The mountains are small compared to our Rockies, but they’re a real challenge especially given the weather which can be unpredictable.

  2. Brilliant piece amiga; and in these times, an essential conversation as well … I have been in this country long enough to have gone through a few identity review, in a manner of speaking – given what we know now regarding our indigenous brothers & sisters, we have a duty to re-examine with the utmost honesty our contemporary history, deepen our understanding/empathy, atone as we must, and start writing a new and healthier chapter, together … Abrazos gentiles | LCA

    • Leo, I agree. To add to your comment about the need to undergo an “identity review”, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, recently said it was time for Scotland to consider what kind of society it wants to be. She referred specifically to the need to stand for better values than Trump’s racism, misogyny and intolerance. Another “better value” I’d add to the list is greater equity, with less focus in the economic gain of a few and more focus on the equitably treatment of all.

  3. mikepriaro says:

    Susan’s otherwise entertaining, informative, and perceptive piece contains one major slip. She writes “Canada’s dependence on natural resources, particularly oil, will become problematic as the world shifts to renewable energy. ”

    In fact, both the International Energy Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Agency forecast increasing demand for hydrocarbon liquids well past 2040. See https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/ieo/ and https://www.iea.org/oilmarketreport/

    Renewable energy makes inroads against coal, not against demand for hydrocarbon liquids and not against demand for natural gas.

    The only way Canada and Alberta are going to be left behind is by phasing out the oil sands and not developing shale resources.

    • You’re right Mike, the IEA and US EIA together with Chevron and ExxonMobil forecast increasing demand well past 2040. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that other oil majors don’t share their confidence. BP and Total say peak demand will hit in the mid 2040s, Statoil says it could be as early as 2030. The WSJ says when we hit the tipping point and swing from growth to decline the impact “will reverberate through the energy world.” If the companies calling for peak demand in 2040 are correct, that gives us 17 years to get ready for the new world. Glasgow lost its position as a world leading industrial centre after WW2, by the 1960s it was in serious economic decline. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that it began to recover. It would be prudent for Canada, especially Alberta, to be ready to make the transition to natural gas and renewables if and when that day comes.
      Here’s the link to the WSJ article https://www.wsj.com/articles/get-ready-for-peak-oil-demand-1495419061

      • mikepriaro says:

        Peak Oil Demand sounds very much like Peak Oil Supply – the prediction of the end of cheap and readily available oil a number of years ago.
        Today the world is awash in cheap oil and natural gas supplies and will continue so for decades.
        Peak Oil Demand is just as flawed a prediction as Peak OIl Supply was.

    • Anonymous, Ewan Mcgregor’s views on the futility of being a British “colony” may be put to rest as a result of Brexit. We heard many people express the opinion that “The Catastrophic Brexit” was the impetus Scotland needed for a second referendum on independence. In 2014 referendum 55.3% voted against independence and 44.7% voted in favour. I suspect the independence vote will go up the second time around.

  4. There’s a statue in Exeter that suffers a similar fate as students put traffic cones on it. When I was watching Rick Steve’s Best of Europe, I learned about how the miners in Cornwall lost their jobs in the tin mines so scattered all around the world teaching people how to mine better and more safely and how to cook pasties, including in Canada.

  5. Nancy Smith says:

    We took my Mom to Scotland on a roots trip when she was 86 – visiting Creif where her Dad left from in 1914.So sorry we missed the traffic cone hat! She would have loved it! My Mom and I were mistaken for locals near Dundee – Scottish on both sides, 300 yrs back, has left unmistakable freckles, reddish hair, and round faces in much of my Nova Scotia family!

    • Nancy, how nice that you were able to take your Mom to Scotland and that your Scottish roots shone through! The Scottish women we met were wonderfully calm and efficient. It didn’t matter whether they were managing the till in a gift shop, collecting tickets on a tour bus or running a busy tea room, when a horde of confused tourists showed up at the door these ladies patiently took us in hand. We were so impressed with the manager of the Willow Tea Room in Glasgow that we actually posted a glowing comment on Trip Advisor.

  6. ronmac says:

    I too have Scottish roots, on both sides of the ancestrial ailse. But they left in less than ceremonial circumstances. They were part of the “Hightland clearances” and were deported to the “new world,” arriving on the ship “Hector” in 1789.

    In fact, I had an ancestor who died in the Battle of Colluden in 1748 leading a charge against a British line. There’s even a small monument on the spot where he fell. After this the name was mud and those associated in that clan were slated as “undesirables” and eventual deportation. So I have roots in the Scottish independence movement.

    If Scotland does gain its independence there should be a “reconcialiation” of sorts towards those who’s ancestors made the supreme sacrifice in the original fight for Scottish freedom. Maybe an honorary title like “Senator” (with a small pension). Is there a legal precendent for this? Can you help make this happen? Please.

    I always wanted to have the title “Senator” attached to the front of my name.

    • Ronmac what an interesting and tragic story. Glasgow has a number of landmarks commemorating the Highland Clearances, including the Highlandman’s Umbrella, which is the colloquial name given to the bridge at Glasgow Central rail station. It was where displaced highlanders would gather to catch up with their countrymen.

  7. GoinFawr says:

    A piece on Scotland and not one mention of Robert Burns?!
    Beware the Glasgow Kiss! 🙂

    I’ve never been, are the streets as intensely ‘surveilled’ as the rest of the UK?

    The only place I have ever had a streetlamp seem to yell at me because I transgressed the letter of a law (not the spirit: the roadway was clear for miles) by J-walking was on an empty street in Fishguard.

    • Goinfawr, it seems to me there were fewer CCTV cameras on the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh than there were in London. We certainly weren’t yelled at by streetlamps! We learned to J-walk with the herd. The locals don’t wait for the lights to go green, they cross against the light all of the time. We figured as long as we were in the middle of the herd we wouldn’t get flattened.
      PS I googled the Glasgow Kiss. Very accurate. There is no love lost between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Glaswegians says the best thing about Edinburgh is the train coming back to Glasgow…and they MEAN IT!

  8. Lovely to hear about your trip! I certainly learned a lot about Scotland from you … and about being Canadian. Canada is much younger, perhaps when it grows up it will be as wise as Scotland? (I love being Canadian!)

  9. Carlos Beca says:

    Susan I am happy to know that you had a great time and that you learned about Canada during your stay.
    Somehow when we are abroad we open up to other possibilities. I learn for example that our prime minister is progressive when he goes to Europe.
    I would also congratulate Norway this week – their Oil Fund (our Heritage fund) reached a trillion dollars this week despite the dramatic fall in prices. The people that the UCP likes to call communists have managed to save 1 trillion dollars for their future. Amazing how smart these communists are. In comparison the UCP ancestors managed to get us 17 Billion dollars in 30 years and a deficit of 10 Billion a year. God save the market fundamentalists as they seriously do not understand that obsession and religious fervor does not take us very far. Instead we donated our 1 trillion dollar find to the companies that are seriously in need like Exon, Mobil, …etc
    It is the greatest missed opportunity in our history. I think that Jason Kenney and his friend Brian should head to Norway on public tax money to give them the same market and capitalist propaganda they are so keen to deliver here. I am sure the Norwegians will extend the red carpet.

    • Carlos, that is an excellent suggestion! Imagine how well Alberta would be doing if our politicians “acted like owners” rather than sold out to the oil companies. Alberta set up the Heritage Trust Fund in 1976. Norway established its fund in 1990, 1990!!! and yet Alberta’s fund is practically broke and the Norwegian fund exceeds $1 trillion. As you point out, Jean and Kenney continue to spout the same rhetoric which boils down to subsidize big business and be satisfied with the crumbs they throw us. Unbelievable!

    • Very good article Carlos. I like the way The Guardian reports on these issues. Not only is it intelligent (North Korea is not an existential threat to the US) but it’s also entertaining (Trump’s UN speech was “dangerous not for the testosterone tub-thumping and infantile imagery” but because it’s based on a lie).
      Thanks for sharing!

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