How Scotland could save civilization

I’m an American living in Scotland, writing books for children – about alien worlds and parallel worlds and hidden worlds so tiny we overlook them. My stories have something in common: the characters come to find they were wrong about people they thought they understood, and everyone ends up a little wiser, and more respectful of each other.

So what am I doing at my keyboard, writing about the bigot who was somehow elected to sit in a seat that has historically commanded such respect?

Because I’m an American living in Scotland. I’m also a former reporter for USA Today and covered the Northern Ireland peace process. In the run-up to the November election I pitched (sadly, unsuccessfully) a Scottish-angle story to my old paper, hoping in particular to give voters in Pennsylvania (a region settled in large part by great swathes of emigrating Scotsmen and women) an insight into what the Republican candidate had done to the people and land of Scotland.

Spoiler: none of it’s good.

I think incomers to a society, as I have been, see things a little differently. I am immensely happy living in Scotland, a country Elizabeth Wein has said is one of the best in the world to be a writer. It’s where I’ve made a family, discovered my fiction-writing mojo and daily take inspiration from what’s around me. I write this piece hoping that you can take inspiration from Scotland, too, in case you’re despairing of what one individual can possibly do to fight back as we all head into the darkness of a presidency that should never have been.

Beautiful to look at

I live in a small village a half-hour from Edinburgh, a capital city which is architecturally breathtaking: half the city boasts stately Georgian buildings while the other features near-medieval stone constructions that look like they were handcrafted by trolls and fairies. It’s where Hogwarts architecture got its genesis: the writer looked out at these same buildings as she built Harry Potter’s world in her mind. Edinburgh’s architecture is enough to make you fall instantly in love, as I did on my first sight of it in August 2000. That trip to the theatre festival clinched my and my then-fiancé’s decision to relocate from Ireland to Scotland. If you’ve never been to Edinburgh, plan a trip; you won’t be disappointed.

Beautiful place to be a lover of literature

Did you know Edinburgh is also UNESCO’s first official city of literature? It’s an honor that recognizes the deep regard Scotland has for writing and writers. The world’s tallest monument to a writer – it’s 200 feet high – sits in the middle of the greatest thoroughfare in Scotland, Princes Street. Bill Bryson called the Scott Monument a filthy rocketship, but it’s a gorgeous, Gothic confection that shows a pensive Sir Walter Scott and his adored dog: Scott looks like he’s thinking up some killer phrasing, and the dog looks like she wants a walk. I grabbed this pic from the top tier of my bus, going into town one rainy day: see how the rocketship-like Monument, in the distance, dominates the street. Scots love stories the way other people love breathable air: Scott’s death threw the entire country into mourning, and today, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of the world’s best. There’s also huge support for writers in the form of the Scottish Book Trust, Live Literature funding for author visits to schools, and so much more.

Beautiful to explore

My Scottish fiancé eventually became my Scottish husband – not least because I love how he says words like “mobile phone” – and we were engaged standing on a beach on the Isle of Mull, looking across to the old abbey at Iona. That trip was the first of what have become many into the Highlands and Islands; its wild, restorative landscape makes you feel you can nearly touch the ancient things, magic included, which lie just beneath the surface.

Across to the north east of Scotland, there’s one stretch of wild Aberdeenshire coast which harbors a fragile but protected dune landscape. A decade ago, an apparently successful American property developer was able to convince the then-government to loosen its standards and allow the wholesale destruction of a segment of this ecological site, because the developer vowed to deliver 6,000 jobs via new golf, housing and hotel developments. These jobs were desperately desired by the government as an antidote to declining oil and gas industry work (Scotland has rich deposits of energy off its coast, but output has fallen severely in recent years).

Beautiful spirit

Can you guess who the apparently successful American property developer was? At the time he was fêted by the then first Minister of Scotland and even granted an honorary degree by Robert Gordon University. Local media loved him, too: the local paper helped pressure officials into allowing the developer to do as he liked rather than protect the land and its people. To his shame, the developer publicly vilified locals like the farmer Michael Forbes, who refused to sell land for the development of a golf course.

Forbes and his elderly mother were harassed, followed and even denied access to water by the then-in-full-swing golf course development, a story told in the You’ve Been Trumped documentary. Forbes became something of a folk hero – his barn displayed a now famous “STOP” mural by a Scottish artist, which has now become a T-shirt and a blossoming meme. Forbes’ stalwart stance was especially valued here in Scotland when the developer turned nasty, trying to force the Scottish government to cancel an offshore windfarm he said would spoil the enjoyment of his golfers. For standing his ground, the farmer was even named Top Scot in 2012 by popular vote, winning out over tennis star Andy Murray.

Seeing the honor go to the farmer enraged the developer, who incidentally never did deliver 6,000 jobs; he attacked and alienated the Scottish politicians who’d been his allies, and he punished neighbors of his golf course by blocking their view of the sea with an earthen wall. He’s since been stripped of his honorary degree and his role as a business ambassador for Scotland, and after his comments during the election about banning Muslims from US entry, almost 600,000 people signed the petition “Block Donald J Trump from UK entry.” Today the loss-making golf course employs fewer than 100 people, hardly more than the country hunting & shooting estate that stood on the same site before the development. It, together with a second Scottish course owned by the developer, is an unprofitable business with total losses of almost £26,000,000.

Beautiful protest

Forbes continues to be a name of protest in Scotland. Michael Forbes – no relation to the farmer – is also the name of the man who created the famous barn mural. Forbes is an acclaimed pop artist in his own right, with exhibitions at locations like Pop International Galleries in New York. His searing portraits (like this one, recently tweeted by Madonna) are introspective, devastating commentaries on the abyss of an individual about to take America’s top seat. As a children’s writer, I dislike calling the individual a child, because it dishonors young people. But the way Forbes described his thinking to me when we talked about his work The Donald’s Wall is compelling.

You’ll notice Forbes below mentions a Christmas cracker crown: these appear inside popping toys traditionally used as table decorations during the holidays, with Cracker-Jack style toys inside and, always, a paper crown.

“The Donald’s Wall is a painting of Trump surrounded by a wall,” Forbes told me. “I thought instead of his plan to wall off Mexico, perhaps we could just wall off Trump instead. He sits naked surrounded by a little tiny wall trying to feel safe from the scary foreign boogey man, the son of immigrants fearing those who only ask what his parents were given: safety and a chance of a better life.

“I painted him naked as did artist Illma Gore, who painted Trump nude with very small genitalia as did the art group Indecline. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we all painted him nude; I believe we share the same feeling about him. He is an emperor with no clothes, like the children’s story,” Forbes says. “Only a child points out the truth…he is naked…and the crowd starts to laugh.

“This IS Trump…he is wrapped in lies and his supporters refuse to see anything other than he lies because they want to believe it. He tells them all complex problems can be fixed by ‘his people, top people the best people.’ So I painted him naked, like a little chubby child, as he is a child not yet grown up. He has spent his life in a bubble of wealth, having his whim made real by buying it. He has no understanding of the real world or how the everyday American lives. He has no care for the steel worker or the blue collar workers on a production line; his social circle are millionaires and billionaires on manicured greens of exclusive golf courses. He says he wants to make America great, but he isn’t mentioning who for. His circle of wealthy friends no doubt will enjoy having him cut their taxes or avoid paying them altogether.

“He wears a little yellow Christmas cracker crown, like the pretend king he is, his ‘yellow’ hat reflecting his draft dodging behaviour. He marched at military school but in reality didn’t want to take part in anything military unless it was someone else standing on the front line. So he wears his little cowardly crown, made of paper…thin, thin, thin tissue paper pretending to be gold.”

Beautiful hope

I believe in the America that raised me, that made me. I believe in the American women and men who are standing up to protest the threats to civil liberties, women’s health and healthcare in general posed by the new administration. I believe in the magic we can make when we stand up, and when we stand together. Those are my children you see above, in the picture of the Edinburgh alleyway; and writer though I am, I’ve struggled to find words to explain to them what (some) US voters chose to do.

To artists, I say, if you think you can’t make a difference, or make a noise, you’re wrong; pop artist Michael Forbes is, and you can.

To children’s writers, I say, please keep writing those stories of hope, discovery and mutual understanding. Gene Roddenberry said we will advance as a civilization only when we move beyond ‘tolerance’ to truly relish our differences, as he intrepidly did with a wonky TV scifi pilot that brazenly featured a multi-ethnic, male-and-female crew while America was on fire in the 1960s. “The worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mold, where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike,” Roddenberry said. “If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”

To Americans, I say, don’t lose hope. When you see bigotry and prejudice – when you feel pressured to give in, or to go along with what you know to be wrong – say ‘STOP,’ like the Scottish farmer did. And consider paying us a visit. I know of a struggling golf course or two that would be grateful for your patronage.

Maybe Scotland can’t save civilization. But I think it offers an air supply to soulful people everywhere, and to artists especially, who feel choked, and almost unable to go on, as the incoming administration closes its fist.

Come see us, breathe in Scotland, and revive, ready to fight the good fight.

Sheila M. Averbuch is an American writer living and working in Scotland.  For more on Scotland’s history with the President elect, see this by reporter Andy Philips, who followed the story for years. 

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