Kathleen Stock: I barely even know what Scottishness is
Commentators these days tend to observe that modern Britain is divided up into “somewheres” and “anywheres”. Anywheres are people like me – shifting peripatetic types, wandering around the country to study or work, attempting to put down shallow roots wherever they eventually fetch up. Somewheres stay loyal to a particular place.
Though I didn’t stay there past my 18th birthday, I grew up in a town of somewheres: in Montrose, on the Angus coast. Many of my schoolmates stayed past adulthood, just as their parents did before them. They send their children to the same schools we went to. When I’m back there for Christmas and out in the pub, friends point out their second and third cousins to me.
The High Street in Montrose | Credit: Alamy
As a child, most Scottish TV programmes seemed to feature chatty flamboyant Glaswegians. To me, these seemed as if creatures from another planet. Montrosians are a fairly poker-faced people, unleavened by Irish influence, with a quiet glitter in the eye and a version of Doric on their tongue.
The town is shaped by its proximity to the sea, with a long history of trading, smuggling, and fishing behind it – along with flax manufacturing, wartime air support, farming and oil. Names like America Street, California Street, India Street and Baltic Street remind inhabitants of a world beyond immediate sight.
The town’s rich history has produced an eclectic and particular atmosphere, in which prosaically modern things arrange themselves around structures left over from a grander past. One of the widest high streets in Scotland is host to a variety of shops, whose names for some reason often involve heroically terrible puns. The unusually tall Auld Kirk steeple, designed by James Gillespie Graham in 1832, looms solemnly above “A Cup Above”, “Goody2Shooz”, “Next To You Lingerie”, “Cake Me Away” and the “Coolinary Café”.
In residential streets, graciously proportioned merchant houses rub up against stoic bungalows. The comprehensive school I went to, Montrose Academy – otherwise architecturally undistinguished – is fronted by neoclassical columns and audaciously topped by a dome covered in gold leaf.
At the edge of the town, the beach stretches for miles, punctuated by rotting salmon net posts or pieces of driftwood. Coastal erosion means the dunes are slowly falling into the sea, along with bits of the golf course.
If you live in Montrose, you’re constantly aware of the tide; of what it washes into the town, then washes out. Seals cruise up the estuary. The tide fills and then empties the basin next to the town, attracting thousands of migratory birds on the way to somewhere else. It brings big ships into the harbour, and sailors from all over the world on shore leave, looking for a good night out. The rhythms of the oil industry also mark time in the town – two weeks offshore, two weeks on.
To this singular place, my Anywhere English parents arrived in 1973 and started to make the friends there that they have kept for life. In their old age, these same friends now check in on them, bring them shopping and food, and ferry them places when they need it.
I don’t have a grand vision for Scotland’s future – I barely even know what “Scottishness” is. But I know what a place like Montrose is, where the tide and the light and the weather change every day; where modern life brings new people, new fashions, new anxieties, and takes others away; and yet where some important things stay exactly the same.