9 September 2014

Scottishness and me: Coming home without going back

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Scottish and UK flags. Photo: The Laird of Oldham
Scottish and UK flags. Photo: The Laird of Oldham

I spent the first 40 years of my life in England before coming to live in Scotland in 2003, writes Chris Creegan. It was a coming home, strange perhaps for someone born in Sussex. But I’m adopted. I was born out of wedlock to Scottish parents in the early 1960s and given up for adoption as a baby. Mine was a story typical of its time, sad maybe but not uncommon. My mother had left Scotland to give birth.

I knew little of my birth heritage growing up. There was no life story book, just the odd reminder that I was two things, Scottish and Catholic. When it came to Scottishness, there were occasional and tantalising snippets of what I might have been. In adoption the term ‘forever family’ is used to describe the family of destination. Yet sometimes it’s the family of origin, often a family that never was, that remains the ‘forever’ family. And so it was for me.

On my 11th birthday my adoptive parents gave me an LP of the Argyll and Sutherland Fusiliers. Around the same time my adoptive dad took me to Scotland in our old Humber estate. We drove through the Gorbals and slept in the back of the car on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond. We were to go to Skye, but the clutch broke and we ended up on Mull instead. A twist of luck as it turned out, not least a trip to a Highland Show in Oban with men in kilts everywhere. Extraordinary glimpses of a foreign, somehow exotic world, one that I knew I had some connection to even if making sense of that was difficult.

I grew up down south, but up north. From the age of five until I left home I lived fifteen miles from Manchester on the edge of the Peak District. So my formative years were spent in England, but as I grew up my allegiance was decidedly northern. Manchester still passes the top deck of the bus test. Close my eyes and the accents are familiar. They take me back. Strange really because I don’t have a northern accent beyond some flat vowels which get flatter when I’m drunk. My adoptive mum was keen that we should speak properly. And so I was denied an accent. Twice.

Growing up, Scotland was another country where we went on holiday. It was as far away as it got in the 60s and 70s. But it was a reminder that at least a part of me belonged elsewhere. And that sense of otherness was enthralling. On one holiday, to my adoptive mum’s annoyance I wanted a Scottish accent, though in my head it was more Fraser in Dad’s Army than anything I hear on the bus today. I wonder, if I’d been allowed to talk northern whether the idea of a Scottish accent would have been so alluring.

My first trip to Edinburgh, where I now live, was as a student. It was the first of a number of visits where the ‘what if?’ question started to reel me in. Eventually in my 40s, after 20 years in London, I relented. I came home, without going back. That would have been to a different place, to the north of England.

But by then I’d delved further into my birth heritage and Scotland was where I wanted to be. Fast forward 10 years and I find myself spending weekends in a village in Fife, just a few miles from my other home city of Dundee, the place where both my birth parents came from. Yet until I was 35, it was a place I’d never been.

Did coming home make me feel Scottish? I’d always known growing up that I wasn’t English by birth even though I was born there. But I’d never claimed to be Scottish or even talked about it much. And while Britishness wasn’t something I rejected, it somehow never offered the rootedness I yearned for.

When I moved here I was pulled hither and thither. For sure it was reclaiming the home I’d never had. But it was also a reminder of what I hadn’t become. It reinforced a new sense of difference, of loss. When you’re adopted you can retrace your steps, but you can’t go back.

When I’ve been asked what brought me here, I’ve told an edited version of my story, to colleagues and friends, even to taxi drivers. More often than not the response has been welcoming, perhaps because it reaffirmed their sense of self. There was a certain pride that someone might make my choice. It’s certainly not a choice I’ve been denied, even in Glasgow where I now work and where an English accent stands out a lot more than in Edinburgh.

Can I claim to be Scottish? Data from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey offers some interesting clues about what Scots might think. Where I was born, whether my parents are Scottish and whether I have an accent all matter. But inevitably none of the research categories quite fits my profile. So the data only takes me so far. Which leaves me with how I feel.

Like many of us I’ve often been asked where I’m from. For years my response was, ‘I’m not really from anywhere’ or ‘it’s complicated’. Now, in middle age, the two things that matter most to me are my birth roots in Scotland and my formative years in the north of England. I loved my time in London, but I was always a migrant there. If I’m anything English, it’s northern.

What of Britishness? That’s a moot point and to say too much here would risk my publicly neutral stance on the referendum.

Does any of this affect how I’ll vote in the referendum? Of course. How could it not? Do I think identity means I, or anyone else, should vote a certain way? Absolutely not. And I don’t think Scottishness and Britishness are mutually exclusive. As each of us heads on our own personal journey to the ballot box there are many other things to contemplate which will take heads and hearts in different directions.

Another term used in adoption is ‘permanence’. It’s meant to refer to the security of the adoptive family. For me though the most permanent thing about my identity, the thing that really endures, is Scotland. Does that make me Scottish? I don’t know. But I’m glad I came home and I won’t be leaving again, whatever happens on September 18th.

Chris Creegan is the Chief Executive of the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability and chairs the board of Scottish Adoption, a voluntary adoption agency based in Edinburgh. He blogs at www.chriscreegan.com and Tweets from @Chris_Creegan.

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