WHEN the new golden age of television kicked off at the beginning of this century, it sometimes seemed as if Scotland was left out in the cold as every other country spawned its own epoch-defining drama series.

This week, at last, delivered a sign that with the right support this country can produce television drama to match any. Over two episodes an adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies had audiences in stitches and then in tears and then set social media alight It’s been a long time coming.

The drug-infested ghettoes and political machinations of Baltimore have been laid bare in The Wire, the price of the addiction fuelled by amphetamine sulphate cartels was explored in Breaking Bad, the dark side of Denmark revealed by The Killing, the corruption at the heart of the Swedish establishment exposed in Wallander.

Even South Korea got in on the act with the shockingly original Squid Game first shown on Netflix in 2021.

READ MORE: Hypothermia and getting set on fire: Scots stars on making The Rig

Yet, with one or two notable exceptions, Scottish drama seemed to be punching well below its weight, particularly when it came to BBC Scotland’s output.

There have been some successes in relatively recent years. The isolation of the setting and strong central performance of Douglas Henshall carved out a place in our hearts for Shetland. The black comedy of the quirky Guilt was interesting enough to rack up three wry series.

But these seemed to pale into insignificance when compared to the BBC drama department’s obsession with period dramatisations of Dickens classics interspersed with Downton Abbey, Poldark, Call The Midwife and Lark Rise To Candleford.

It might seem churlish to complain when all of these were hits but it’s not as if Scotland did not have novels crying out for TV adaptations with stories which would resonate with wider audiences. Most of these were ignored as BBC Scotland’s drama output atrophied after the end of the popular series in October 2005.

It was left to America to realise the potential of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series of novels based on the adventures of a nurse who travels back in time to the days of the Jacobite uprising. It has been a massive hit in America since it premiered on the small screen there on the Starz network in 2014.

Production has started on series seven and the show has been recognised as a major driver for tourism to Scotland. According to the VisitScotland website, Sony had distributed Outlander to 87 territories, from China to America.

Lots to celebrate there you’d think but in fact, Outlander’s success in 2014 made the Westminster government distinctly jittery in the run-up to the first independence referendum in September that year. So jittery that then prime minister David Cameron met senior Sony executives before the referendum to discuss the release date for Outlander’s first series.

Proof as if any were needed that Scotland cannot enjoy any successes without Unionist politicians seeing it as a threat to the inferiority complex which keeps us from realising our full potential – in cultural matters as much as economic.

Mayflies may not pose as many issues as the recreation of the Jacobite rebellion but its exploration of friendship, loss, the dangers of toxic masculinity and the joys of music and youth was steeped in Scottish characteristics.

Martin Compston and Tony Curran head a cast full of the cream of Scottish acting, from Ashley Jensen – soon to take over the lead in Shetland following Henshall’s departure – to Taggart’s Colin McCredie to Elaine C Smith’s heartbreaking cameo as Curran’s mother.

Based on O’Hagan’s remarkable autobiographical 2021 novel, which won the Christopher Isherwod Prize, Mayflies focuses on the relationship between Jimmy Collins (Compston) and Tully (Curran), childhood friends who both escaped their lives in a working-class Ayrshire town through education, Compston as a successful writer, Tully as a teacher.

When Tully is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he recruits Collins as his “campaign manager” for his last days on earth, putting him in charge of his wedding to his partner (Jensen) and of making the secret arrangements for his last journey to Switzerland, where he plans to end his life in a clinic to avoid “dying like a prick”.

THE two-parter has so many references which particularly resonate with Scottish men of a certain age, notably in the flashback scenes which depict the adventures of a tight-knit group of post-adolescent boys in thrall to the music of Joy Division and The Smiths in the aftermath of punk.

The depiction of the group’s hedonistic last stand on a trip to Manchester perfectly captures the elation of being on the edge of a new life starting as childhood slips away. Each member faces a different choice, whether to grow up and move on or give in to self-destructive habits. Collins and Tully escape, driven by their difficult relationship with their fathers, other members of the group are not so lucky.

The adult relationship between the two men seems to reflect so much about modern Scotland, forged by working-class experience but aspiring for more, sentimental and cynical at the same time. Theirs is a friendship which embraces love while simultaneously undercutting emotion with sly digs and criticisms born from years of brutal mutual slagging. Theirs is a generation still bearing the scars from fathers who did not easily express emotion.

Collins and Tully’s changed lives are symbolised by the contrast between the earlier scenes of hard drinking and squalid drug taking and an adult, sophisticated dinner at an up-market Swiss restaurant on the night both men know will be Tully’s last. Both have grown up and away from the days of their youth. Collins in particular has taken to heart the advice from his secondary school teacher to never go back.

Mayflies is new territory for Scottish drama, which in the past has concentrated more on our darker side. Years before the rise to prominence of Nordic noir, our drama showed violent hard men grappling with alcoholism in post-industrial cities. Our heroes were conflicted and destructive, shot through with self-loathing and protected by dark humour. They lived in a man’s world and suffered the consequences.

By contrast. Collins and Tully have one foot in the past and the other – ironically in Tully’s case – in the future; still stuck in what Tully’s wife called the mysteries and codes of male behaviour which by their nature excluded the women in their lives while struggling to establish relationships which recognised the equal role of their partners. On the face of it, Christmas seemed an odd time to programme Mayflies, in effect an exploration of death and the havoc it wreaks on those it leaves behind. It should have been a grim experience, a depressing journey to its inevitable, unavoidable conclusions. The antithesis of a festive feel-good watch.

READ MORE: 'When I feel lost I come back home': Douglas Stuart on Scots, class and Shuggie Bain

IN reality, it was an uplifting, life-affirming story of the triumph of humanity over despair, with my home town Troon providing some spectacular settings.

Of course, not everyone will agree with its obvious support for “end of life” clinics – hell, not even all the main characters agreed with that – but it posed all sorts of moral dilemmas with which we all grapple in days like these: Is it ever acceptable to pay for private health treatment? Can a man ever be worthy of a woman’s love? Should we all have “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie/ Out, Out, Out” carved on our headstones?

Mayflies signals a turning away from the dramatic trope of organised crime – ironically led by the star preparing to bring the curtain down on the UK’s most successful police procedural with Line of Duty’s final episodes – in favour of the landscape in which we all live.

In this landscape, it is relationships rather than physical conflicts which provide the battleground on which we are tested.

If this is a foretaste of a new era for Scottish drama, we need to see more of it.