ABERDEENSHIRE, Scotland -- Here I am, traveling in the Highlands of Scotland, where life seems to move at a snail’s pace, history is apparent all around you, and the place looks rock solid.
Literally, since nearly every structure is made of granite blocks or stone and their longevity morphs from one century to the next with little apparent difference.
Yet all the newspapers are dwelling heavily on only three topics:
1. How silly British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is being made to look because of a tell-all book from ex-PM Tony Blair’s outspoken wife, Cherie, who (shock and awe!) doesn't care for Gordon.
2. How rocky the financial situation is “north of the border,” which means Scotland itself where housing prices are skyrocketing, inflation is rising at a faster rate (3.5%) than anywhere else in the United Kingdom (which includes England, Wales and Northern Ireland), and unemployment is on the rise.
3. How bad the alcohol abuse is getting, a particular problem in a country where more than 40,000 people out of a total population of barely 5 million rely on the whisky industry for jobs — and that is not including people in the retail business of selling the stuff. (This problem really interested me, since I am here as a guest of both the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., or DISCUS, and the Scotch Whisky Association, both of which take great pains to push a "drink responsibly" campaign.)
Some of the solutions that are being suggested from various corners are as hysterical as the incessant reporting on them, except for the Gordon Brown thing which is great theater for the masses who love seeing the balloons of the high and mighty pricked sharply.
For the alcohol problem, the suggestions range from raising the drinking age beyond 21 to raising prices (even though Scotch whisky costs much more in Scotland than it does abroad, due to the regressive taxing policies) or even making public intoxication a higher crime.
As to the financial situation, the ideas range from strict price controls to more restrictive bank loan policies (they have the same problem with sub-prime mortgages we in the U.S. have), although no one wants to officially put forth a comprehensive plan for fear of commiting political suicide.
Oh, there has been one other item in the news. The idea of Scottish independence.
Of course, that one has been rattling around since the 18th Century, when the anti-English rebellion in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie fizzled out after a hideous defeat at Culloden on April 16, 1746. A battle that lasted less than an hour killed 1,500 Highlanders vs. a mere 50 or so English regulars. It effectively broke the back of the Jacobite movement, leading to the banning of such ethnic staples as the playing of the bagpipes and the wearing of the kilts and tartans.
Now there are calls from Sean Connery from the comfort of his homes abroad and other nationalists still residing in Scotland to push forward with a vote on splitting off from the U.K.
As an outsider, I have perhaps a more measured reaction to the idea than someone who is emotionally invested. I think it’s ridiculous. Given all the hoo-haw of financial woes and a bleak outlook for years to come, the last thing that would be needed is trying to establish a truly independent country.
Evidence? Take Scotland’s currency. The Scottish pound is issued by the government, but it also is issued by two different banks. Money from all three sources can be spent anywhere in Scotland, but only money issued by the government is worth anything outside the country's borders.
If they can’t get their act together on a simplified, unified currency recognized worldwide, imagine the problems of being a soveriegn nation with financial woes trying to be trusted financially in a global economy.
ON THE WEB
• Scottish Tourist Board
• Alba Na Gaidhlig (Gaelic Scotland)
• Dowd's Guides