IN the early years of this century I attended the Sydney Festival of the arts in Australia. As part of the programme, the festival was screening the recently made series of films of all 19 plays by the great Irish author Samuel Beckett. To launch the series in Sydney there was a public discussion with Michael Colgan, then artistic director of the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and a co-producer of the project.

It was hosted by one of Australia’s leading theatre critics. I cannot recall the man’s name, but I do remember distinctly my visceral shudder of embarrassment when, in his introductory remarks, he turned to Colgan and said: “Please excuse my halting, Antipodean tongue.”

It was, for me, a shockingly blatant expression of the Australian cultural cringe. Faced with a leading cultural figure from one of the “old countries” of the Anglophone world (albeit one that had been forced to speak English on pain of death), this Australian intellectual was all but tugging his forelock, and literally apologising for a self-perceived, inherent, national weakness in the speaking of the language. To my astonishment, no-one in the predominantly Australian audience seemed perturbed by this ignominious expression of self-asserted inferiority.

The man’s cringe-inducing apology for himself, and, indeed, his country folk, discomfited and revolted me in equal measure. As a Scot, I was all too aware that my national heritage was steeped in embarrassment and a lack of confidence. Like many working-class Scottish people of my generation, I remember being told by relatives and teachers that good Scots words were, in fact, “slang”, and that I should speak “proper English”.

So, it was horrible to hear, in the mouth of a fellow theatre critic, a cowering self-consciousness that spoke to centuries of being denigrated as the descendants of criminals. Here, in the 21st century, was the kind of deferential, colonial mindset that had allowed so many young Australian men to be used as cannon fodder at Gallipoli. A mindset, indeed, that keeps Australia attached to the British Crown and maintains the British flag on Australia’s national standard to this day.

MY sense of discomfort and offence was heightened, I realise now, by events in Scotland in the previous decade. The overwhelming votes, in 1997, both for Scotland’s first democratic parliament and for tax varying powers for that parliament, and the establishment of the legislature two years later, were, in large part, the expression of a growing self-confidence in the country.

That burgeoning self-belief was, in many ways, as much a cultural phenomenon as a political one. Artists had often been at least as prominent as politicians in the numerous campaigns during the 20th century for various forms of Scottish self-rule, up to and including independence.

If we take just one art form, theatre (the one I know best), as an example, it’s clear that cultural self-assertion gained increasing traction as the century went on. In the 1920s and 1930s the socialist coal miner, poet and playwright Joe Corrie was writing plays, such as In Time O’ Strife, below, in his own working-class Scottish dialect.

The National:

He was followed, in the 1940s and 1950s, by Ena Lamont Stewart, whose famous play Men Should Weep raged against the plight of the people living in the slums of the Gorbals in Glasgow. Importantly, like Corrie, Lamont Stewart was writing in a Scots-English tongue that reflected the real language used by people in the streets of Scotland.

Difficult though it might be to believe, such plays were actually pretty path-breaking in their approach to language. Thanks to Scotland’s very thorough Calvinist Reformation – which, as our former Makar (national poet) and leading dramatist Liz Lochhead so accurately puts it, “stamped out all drama and dramatic writing for centuries” – there is very little by way of indigenous Scottish plays between Sir David Lindsay’s 1540 classic Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis and the works of the early-20th century (unless you want to include John Home’s 1756 drama Douglas, which is better remembered for an over-enthusiastic Edinburgh patron’s cry of “Whaur’s yer Wully Shakespeare nou?” than for any of its artistic merits).

However, whilst the likes of the Scottish National Players, Glasgow Unity Theatre and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre were staging new Scottish plays in Scots dialects and accents, the Scottish cultural cringe continued. For many, north as well as south of the Border, Scotland remained – as the names of a famous 19th-century rail company and a recently renamed Edinburgh hotel had it – “North Britain”.

So, whilst it was permissible to perform plays written by Scots and set in Scotland in Scottish voices, classical dramas continued to be played in “proper English”. That is to say that Scotland’s actors were taking to the stage speaking in Received Pronunciation (RP), or “BBC English”, the default, posh, southern English dialect, versions of which the London Establishment had, for centuries, insisted were the highest manifestations of the English language.

In fairness, we cannot, as the Irish unquestionably can regarding their mother tongue, simply blame the big, bad English for the considerable loss of the Scots language (how many Scottish children today know the meaning of the word “stramash”, much less, Heaven forfend, “houghmagandie”?).

It must also be said, where the vicious persecution of the Gaelic is concerned, many a Scot played a shameful role in that xenophobic endeavour.

Many of us who strive for Scottish independence (as I, dear reader, certainly do) are well aware that we owe our place in the tattered, disreputable state that calls itself the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland not so much to “the English” as to what our national Bard Robert Burns called, with unerring precision, “a parcel of rogues in a nation”. Having bankrupted the country in their mind-bogglingly venal and stupid colonial adventure in Darien, Panama in the 1690s, the “great and good” of Scotland left themselves no choice but to throw themselves on the dubious mercy of the English ruling class in London.

The results, of course, were the Acts of Union of 1707 passed in London and Edinburgh, the latter parliament dissolving itself. Culturally, that led the aforementioned spineless “rogues” of Scotland’s ruling class to fall over themselves in the unedifying spectacle of throwing off their own language in a ludicrous and desperate rush to speak what they imagined to be “proper English”; a process satirised deliciously in Robert McLellan’s hilarious 1948 play The Flouers o Edinburgh.

Scotland’s disastrous excuse for “rulers” effectively invented the Scottish cultural cringe in 1707. It’s a measure of just how tenaciously that cringe endured that acting students at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) were fighting for the right to speak on stage in their own voice, rather than affect an RP accent, as late as the 1970s.

Of course, the likes of Corrie, Lamont Stewart and McLellan were followed, in the 1970s and 1980s, by a string of fine dramatists who wrote for Scottish audiences in Scottish voices.

To talk of John Byrne (The Slab Boys), Chris Hannan (Shining Souls), Iain Heggie (The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer), Liz Lochhead (Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off) and Linda McLean (Riddance) is to mention but a few.

These writers were followed by a generation of outstanding playwrights – David Greig (Europe), Zinnie Harris (Further Than the Furthest Thing), David Harrower (Knives in Hens), Anthony Neilson (The Wonderful World of Dissocia) – who tended to write in something closer to standard English.

This was evidence, not of a return to the cultural cringe, but of the next stage in Scottish theatre’s journey of self-discovery.

The generation of playwrights who emerged in the 1990s, more, arguably, than any other previous generation of Scottish dramatists, were strident Europeans and internationalists who were writing almost as much for audiences abroad as they were for theatre lovers here at home. The success of that effort is attested by the regular productions of their plays in dozens of languages, from Turkish to Slovene (on a recent visit to Portugal, I came across a new Portuguese-language production of Scottish dramatist Gregory Burke’s 2001 comedy Gagarin Way at the Municipal Theatre in the little city of Barreiro).

Which is not to say that we’re out of the woods yet. Even now, as Scottish culture proudly asserts its place on the global stage, examples of the cultural cringe pop up, often in unexpected places.

ON December 8 of last year I had the pleasure and privilege of attending the inaugural Cameron Lecture, in honour of the late, celebrated drama lecturer Dr Alasdair Cameron, at the University of Glasgow. The lecture was initiated by award-winning stage director John Tiffany (a former student of Cameron’s). It was delivered, memorably, by the inimitable star of stage and screen Alan Cumming.

The evening was, as one might expect, about as far from the cultural cringe as one could imagine. Cumming spoke fascinatingly about how his Scottish brogue, whilst never an impediment to his successful work in the United States, had been problematic during his time on the London stage.

The actor, singer and activist showed us a particularly egregious Scotophobic cartoon which appeared in one London newspaper alongside a review of one of his classical performances.

Lest we comfort ourselves with the idea that such prejudice has since disappeared, Cumming reminded us of the anti-Scottish bigotry (“whining Scottish accents”, if you please) splurted over the pages of the Sunday Times by right-wing Tory sketch writer, turned supposed “theatre critic”, and archetypal wee nyaff, Quentin Letts in his review of last year’s Peer Gynt at the National Theatre in London.

However, in the programme for the event, I noticed that, whilst the numerous London and New York awards picked up by both Cumming and Tiffany over the years were detailed and celebrated, not a word was written about the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS) which both had received. This struck me immediately as the sub-conscious working of our old friend the Scottish cultural cringe.

Even here, at a celebration of an academic who championed Scottish theatre, at which the speaker was an acclaimed actor whose cultural and political pride in his Scottishness are well known, there was an expression of the old cultural inferiority complex.

The measure of the success of a Scottish artist (Cumming) or an artist who made his name in Scotland (Tiffany) was their ability to make it in London or New York. The Scottish recognition didn’t even merit a mention.

We will know that we are, finally, close to consigning the cultural cringe to the dustbin of history when the acclaim of our compatriots here in Scotland is considered at least as valuable as that of critics in the metropolises of England and the United States.