‘COUNTRY: Scotland. Whit like is it?” asks Liz Lochhead in the opening verses of Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. The play had its 30th birthday last year. So did I.

Lochhead’s answer is pure Caledonian antisyzygy. Her ragbag crow of a narrator’s Scotland is no halfway house, but a land where extremes meet. It binds the spare wilderness with the noisy tenement. It is rational and sentimental, bawdy and stiff, regal and plump and beggared skelfish. “It depends,” Lochhead wrote. “It depends.”

But most, I’ve always been struck by Lochhead’s diagnosis of what she described as the “national pastime”. In 1987, it was, she said – nostalgia.

Since I first read the play as a schoolboy, this final piece of the Corbie’s monologue always seemed a little curious. Nostalgia? Really? Perhaps it is a feature of being raised in late-1990s Scotland rather than living through Thatcher in her pomp which seemed to make Liz Lochhead’s nostalgia clunk.

My childhood, in retrospect, was suffused with front-facing optimism. Maggie fell. Major followed. Mired through his reputation has now rightly become, even in my Natty household, the arrival of Tony Blair in No 10 presaged significant political change. Holyrood pulled itself up from nothing, and got to work.

There was history, yes, but it was quietly incorporated into everyday life. In mid-Argyll, the roots of the past push up through the soil. My playgrounds were littered with standing stones and worn gravestones, with castles with broken backs and the rib-cages of crofts, bared to the sky for generations, their families dispersed across the face of the earth. It was a place of old oaks and new bluebells.

There was none of the post-industrial melancholy which seems to dominate so much of Scotland’s peculiarly urban nostalgic moods. You know the stories. The sea of bunnets bobbing out of the ship yard gates as the work day ended. Tales of hard men in drink but not in work. Women worn to a whisper by the emotional labour of keeping their families knitted together. The inter-generational aftermath.

Its telling that even Scotland’s nostalgia has tended towards bleakness. But re-reading Lochhead’s play this week, I caught myself wondering – if the former makar was pulling together her ballad today, if Mary Queen of Scots was getting her head chopped off for the first time in 2018 rather than 1987, whit like would Lochhead’s Scotland be now? Somehow, I doubt nostalgia would be the obvious candidate for the national pastime.

This week, the BBC published the findings of a mass survey on perceptions of nationality and optimism. England, it would be fair to say, does not emerge from the study with its reputation as a land of hope and glory unblemished.

A wash of English voters only seem to see the dark satanic mills – closed, the workforce transferred to a more tax-efficient jurisdiction – in the brownfield sites now dominating their green and pleasant land.

Scots, by contrast, took a more uncharacteristically sunny perspective. Just 29% told YouGov that Scotland was a finer place in days gone by, while 36% felt our best years are yet to come. Unsurprisingly, the findings are strongly correlated to age.

Amongst 18- to 24-year-olds, just 20% mourned the demise of an apparently brighter past, while 49% saved their happy thoughts for the future. Among the crumbliest contingent of Scots, just 28% thought the future was bright, with 39% of over 65s longing for lost afternoons. Unsurprisingly, 47% of Tory voters are peering into the abyss of Scots modernity and are balking.

That’s the sunshine, but there’s also the shadow. In Holyrood this week, MSPs united to pass the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) Bill.

It’s about reckoning with the past too. As Justice Sectary Michael Matheson outlined, the Bill provides for an “automatic and symbolic” pardon for men convicted of historical homosexual offences in this country before 1980, while erecting a legal apparatus for survivors who live on with the stigma of these convictions to apply to have their convictions for consensual sex disregarded.

There was little dissent in Holyrood, but in correspondence with a constituent on this measure, eccentric Glasgow MSP John Mason wrote: “I do not see that we can go round pardoning and apologising for everything that other people did that does not conform to modern customs. Will the Italians be apologising for the Roman occupation?”

Mason’s response hardly smacks of moral seriousness, but the academic in me says we should at least take a moment to consider maverick voices, disrupting the unison of the choir, if only to see clearly why they’ve got it wrong.

Patrick Harvie “tore a strip off” Mr Mason for his comments, on the legitimate basis that “many of the people whose lives were subject to untold harm by their own Government are living still, and they do not deserve to be dismissed”. Harvie is surely right here – but Mason’s unease about the kind of measures adopted by Holyrood is hardly unique to him and can’t reasonably be seen as a catspaw for homophobia.

Philosophically, why should a parliament of the living apologise for the actions of a parliament of the dead and mostly-dead? But why should I be held responsible for the actions of other people, who died before I was born, whose actions I have no control over, and whose decisions I now condemn? Isn’t that enough? We can’t turn back time, even if we wanted to. Why bother?

The debate reminded me of a passage in A Common Humanity by Lebanese-Australian philosopher, Raimond Gaita. Reflecting of the injustices worked by his own country – its land grabs and its massacres, its racism and its coercion, the aboriginal children taken from their parents, the aboriginal land, declared terra nullius by marines at the barrel of a musket under a fluttering Union flag – Gaita argued that “pride and shame” are “fundamental to the kind of fellowship that makes community possible.”

But if we are right to be proud of national achievements, he says, “then sometimes we are obliged to be shamed. To wish for national pride without the possibility of national shame is an expression of that corrupt attachment to a collective whose name is jingoism”, he wrote.

This seems like wisdom to me. Put it another way. If you want to celebrate the good of your country and your community, if you want to synthesise the black and the white of your history, then you’ve got to avow the bad as well as the good.

You’ve got to reckon with it like Holyrood has done. Avoid it if you like, deny it if you imagine it will make you dream easier. The bad we do and have done lives after us too. It takes a brave soul to admit it. But as young Scots see so clearly, nostalgia is a dead end, a different kind of failure.

This is the challenge: heft the albatross, but keep a bounce in your step.