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The truth behind the drunken Scot

02 November 2006


Joyce McMillan sees in Charles Kennedy's drink problem an alarming national trend

"IF YOU'RE a red-headed Highlander from the north of Scotland, that's one caricature that can apply. . ." That was Charles Kennedy, on Desert Island Discs in 2003, protesting to Sue Lawley about his image as a heavy drinker.

But the problem, for Mr Kennedy and for other Scots, is that, once again, the caricature of the drunken Scot has proved to contain a grain of truth. Charles Kennedy has been forced to resign the Liberal Democrat leadership, after publicly admitting to the severe drink problem that he had denied for so long.

On the day before his resignation, by bitter coincidence, figures emerged suggesting that Mr Kennedy's alcohol abuse is shared by a soaring number of his fellow Scots: a study, published in The Lancet, has shown that Scotland now has one of the highest death-rates from liver cirrhosis in Western Europe, more than twice the rate in England and Wales.

When it comes to disentangling the reasons for that destructive pattern of alcohol abuse, the picture soon becomes dauntingly complex. In this area, as in many others, Scottish culture displays strong signs of what the great writer Edwin Muir once called "the Caledonian antisyzygy", or split personality: that contrast between the romantic and the dour, the expansive and the repressive, the Highlander and the Lowlander, the Catholic and the Presbyterian - or, if you like, between Charles Kennedy and Gordon Brown - which seems to have run through all of Scottish life since the Union of the Crowns 400 years ago.

In the kind of Scottish home where I was brought up in the 1950s, for example, drink was regarded with a mixture of dread and distaste, and only ever consumed at New Year. Scottish pubs, in those days, had their windows frosted over by law up to a height of six feet, so that people passing in the street could not be tempted by the sinful goings-on inside. The pubs closed at 9 p.m., never opened on Sundays, and were frequented, many respectable Scots believed, only by the lowest of the low.

Yet, at the same time, a huge alternative drinking culture always existed in Scotland. Even back in 1950, when all parts of Britain drank little by Continental standards, Scotland's rates of cirrhosis and alcoholism were almost three times those of England.

There were rebels against the dominant Presbyterian tradition, who drank as a mark of personal freedom: "whisky and freedom gang thegither," said Robert Burns, a natural rebel against the joyless faith into which he had been born. There were Scots Roman Catholics - in parts of the Highlands and Islands where Charles Kennedy was born, and increasingly in the cities, after the mass migration from Ireland that marked Scotland's rapid and brutal industrial revolution - who saw a relatively relaxed attitude to alcohol as part of their cultural heritage.

There were those who drank to dull their awareness of some of the more painful aspects of Scotland's history, not least the destruction of Highland culture and language after 1745. And in recent years, since the radical relaxation of Scotland's drinking laws in the 1970s, there are those who drink because they can, far into the night; and those who drink because, increasingly, the global culture expects it of us. We are, after all, supposed to be poetic and convivial "Celts", although most modern Scots are nothing of the sort.

Somewhere behind all this there is a special Scottish case - a sharper and more extreme case - of an untold story that has unfolded across the United Kingdom since the 1950s, the story of a lost tradition of temperance and abstinence - Presbyterian, Methodist, or just plain puritanical - which once dominated British life among the respectable working and lower-middle classes. It has now largely disappeared, along with most other public manifestations of Protestant culture.

With those restraints removed, overall alcohol consumption and public binge-drinking is rocketing across the UK, with cirrhosis rates in England and Wales rising almost as fast as in Scotland, though from a much lower base.

Yet, at the same time, we seem to retain enough of a legacy of inhibition, and of emotional repression, to fuel an unhealthily needy relationship with alcohol, a sense that without large quantities of it we can't relax, can't initiate sexual relationships, and can't really imagine what a good time would look like.

The Scottish Executive knows - or seems to know - that Scotland has a significant problem with drink. Since devolution in 1999, it has mounted a few imaginative public-education campaigns. But the bigger picture suggests that the UK society and economy as a whole is increasingly addicted to high levels of alcohol consumption.

Breaking that habit will require, first, a change in the fiscal policy that has gradually made alcohol cheaper, in real terms, than at any time in modern British history. More radically, it will need the kind of revolution in attitudes first staged by our great-great-grandparents, when they founded the temperance movements of the 19th century - even if, today, it's more likely to be fear for our health and looks rather than dread of divine judgement and social disgrace which finally heaves us on to the wagon, and into the path of virtue.

Joyce McMillan is a columnist for The Scotsman.

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