Scotland has lost its sense of humour - by Daniel Kalder for Unherd

Updated: Mar 29


In other news, Covid is not the only pandemic to have swept across Western Europe. Like its viral counterpart, Woke puritanism has also ripped through society in ways we are still struggling to come to terms with. From Arizona to Arbroath there is scarcely an institution which is safe from contamination.


Glasgow-born author Daniel Kalder provides his own take on this new Calvinistic strain running rife through Scotland, a very different place to the one he left pre-pandemic.


“Growing up in pre-devolution Scotland, I found that deference towards authority was in short supply. The loathing directed at those in power was visceral, the tone caustic and funny. I knew that pursed-lipped, finger-wagging Calvinists were supposed to exist, but such people were hard to come by in the wild.


Yet on my first visit home from Texas since pandemic chaos destabilised the world, I detected a very different mood in the air.


This was the first time I had been in Scotland since the government at Holyrood had passed a law making it illegal to utter wicked words in the home, the enforcement of which will necessarily involve family members denouncing the sinners among them to the authorities.”


It didn’t stop there:


"I found myself receiving regular moral instruction from the government in the form of signs admonishing me against uttering wicked words on the train, letting my dog shit in the street, or conversely, letting my dog hunt hares; minimal unit pricing for alcohol had also been in place for three years.


That finger wagging from the pulpit energy was back: it was as if the Scottish government feared that an irredeemably sinful people might at any moment erupt in spasms of hatred aimed at both humans and speedy animals with long ears.”


In his search for a ‘rebel hero’ to fight the suffocating conformity of present-day Scotland, the author draws on its national poet for inspiration:


“A deep disdain for authoritarian piety runs through Robbie Burns’ poetry, informed not only by his rebellious temperament but also his direct experience of being denounced from the pulpit by the moral guardians of his day. Most famously, in Holy Willie’s Prayer he satirised a self-satisfied Calvinist believer who thanks God for making him one of the elect and justifies his lustful nature as a “fleshly thorn” intended by God to prevent him from becoming too perfect.”


We can only imagine Burns’ likely reaction to the hate speech laws now going through Holyrood and the response of those in charge:


"Would the religious authorities of Burns’s day have accused him of “stirring up hatred” had such a vaguely worded law existed at the time? It seems likely. And would Burns, so aware of the lines he crossed in his own verse that he circulated some of it secretly, have felt at ease in a country where friends and family are encouraged to inform on each other for things said in their own homes? It seems unlikely.”


The peculiar quiescence of Scottish public opinion towards the current legislation however can be easily explained: it is no longer being imposed on them from outside.


“The more I thought about it,” the author argues, “the more my experience growing up in Scotland in the 80s and 90s seemed anomalous.


Perhaps the virulently anti-authority strain in the national character was especially pronounced back then not because of some innate aspect of the Scottish soul but rather because the country was ruled by an indifferent Conservative government in London that had very little support north of the border.”


That said, Burns remains vital to Scotland's sense of itself, the ultimate rebel who takes on


overbearing Calvinist types, and who doesn’t pander to self-satisfied elites, even when it’s in his best interest to do so. It is those qualities that make him a poet not only of his time, or more generally of ‘all times’, but specifically for our times.”


The full article can be read here with a link to the original beneath it:


Article for Unherd by Daniel Kalder - Scotland has lost its sense of humour - May 2021
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The feel when you're living in a neo-calvinist hellhole. (Photo by Ross Gilmore/Getty Images)

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