For me, a Londoner, Scotland is a magical place where I can breathe more deeply, every inch of the country is beautiful, and people are fairer, more concerned about each other, less materialistic, more romantic, musical, and poetic, and infused with a Scottishness that has a reality and intensity that Englishness lacks. My wife, a Scot, is not convinced.
My first visit to Scotland lasted half a day. I was 16 in 1968 and had finished walking a corrupted version of the Pennine Way. We finished at Riccarton Junction (not Kirk Yetholm where we should have ended) and took the train to Hawick, where, perhaps because we were wearing shorts, somebody shouted “bloody Germans” at us. That railway closed a year or two later, but, as somebody who always prefers trains to planes, I was excited to travel a few months ago on the new Border railway from Tweedbank to Edinburgh. This illustrated for me how Scotland, the home of the Enlightenment, has a continuing capacity to reinvent itself.
My next visit to Scotland was in 1970 to start at medical school in Edinburgh. I can remember now walking from Waverley Station to the University halls of residence at the foot of Arthur’s Seat and being slightly shocked by the black buildings but intoxicated with the thought of what might be. Edinburgh is the city of my youth. I know it better than I know London, where I’ve lived most of my life, and every street carries a memory of an encounter, an insight, a party, a tryst, or an awakening. I arrived at 18 and left at 25; I’ve been back many times since, almost every year, but those seven years remain as a sealed repository of the sweetest years when life was newer and more intense than now.
In Edinburgh I was surrounded by poets. Many friends–Brian McCabe, Ron Butlin, Dilys Rose, Liz Lockhead, and Andrew Greig–were and still are poets, and as president of the University Poetry Society (nothing grand, I can assure you) I met Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Garioch, Norman MacCaig, and Sorley MacLean, poets I read now in 20th century anthologies. I remember Sorley MacLean reading in Gaelic as if in pain and then reading English versions translated by others.
As a boy with two bothers and no sisters who went to an all-male school, it was in Scotland that I began in earnest my lifelong attempt to understand women. Despite meeting many wonderful women in Scotland and around the world, I’ve never succeeded, but, as my wife reminds me, what matters is “the quality of the search.”
During my first four summers as a student I cycled to Vienna, picked tobacco in Canada, took the Hippy Trail to India, and travelled overland from Nairobi to Lusaka to do an elective, but the fifth summer was the most exciting–when I abandoned neurosurgery as a lost cause for me (a correct judgement) and immersed myself for a week in the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. I still love the hurricane of creativity that is Edinburgh in August, and it was in 1977 that I saw my brother, Arthur Smith, when he first performed on the Fringe. There were four of us in the audience (my future wife, two friends of my brother, and me) and five onstage, and as the show included audience participation there were soon nine of us onstage and nobody in the audience. But the National Review Company (as they were pretentiously and possible illegally called) became one of the most popular acts on the Fringe, and my brother, who has been almost every year since 1977, has become a Fringe Legend and a National Treasure.
But perhaps the mountains were the most special thing. My first Hogmanay I travelled to Inverness to stay with friends, first-footed all night, and fell asleep on a concrete floor. They were train enthusiasts, and we took the train to the Kyle of Lochalsh, from where I saw Skye for the first time. We stopped and drank whisky in Achnasheen, or was it Achnashellach? One February I travelled to Ben Nevis with the mountaineering club and marvelled at the two leaders whistling Haydn sonatas to each other all the way from Edinburgh and then leaving the coach to bivouac on the mountain. The next day we climbed the North Face of Ben Nevis with ice axes, and one of our party, an American, fell to his death. Another time I travelled to Caithness and felt further away from London than any place I have been since, including New Zealand, China, Chile, Zambia, and some 50 other countries.
And then there was the medicine. I applied to Edinburgh because in 1969 people would tell you it was “the best medical school.” But it wasn’t. I loved Professor Romanes producing exquisite chalk drawings to show fetal development, and I remember the first cut on our corpse–when I pressed too hard and put the scalpel into the dead woman’s heart. The course felt “anti-intellectual” to me, and we had an aborted revolution in my fifth year. Some of my teachers had a great influence on me, but my defining moment was listening to Ivan Illich argue that “modern medicine is the major threat to health in the world today.” That experience in an Edinburgh January blew me of course medically, and it always strikes me as ironic that it should have led to me becoming editor of the BMJ, a position in the medical establishment whatever I may have thought.
I tell these tales to try and illustrate why Scotland has come to have such a special place in my heart and to feel so different, so much more magical, than England. Once while staying in Edinburgh one summer I had to attend a funeral in Hertfordshire. I took the train down and back, and as I came close to Edinburgh with the Firth of Forth lit by the last of the day’s light I was sure that I was living at the end of the East Coast Line.
In the May before the referendum on Scottish independence I walked the South West Coastal Path with friends from Edinburgh and the Borders. They were divided on what to vote. I had no vote, but I feel sure–for emotional not political–reasons that one day Scotland will again be independent. It is a different and better country than the rest of the UK. My only hope is that I won’t need a passport to visit.
Richard Smith is a doctor, writer and businessman. he is a former editor of the BMJ.