Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 6 (plus a Scottish preamble)


It’s said that all bullies are cowards at heart.  Similarly, I suspect that if you took a serial boaster and bragger and subjected him or her to psycho-analysis, you’d soon discover a host of neuroses, insecurities and inferiority complexes.  I’m afraid this is true about the country I’ve called home for much of my life, Scotland.


You don’t need to live in Scotland for long before you realise that the national character is seriously beset by hang-ups.  Lurking just below the surface is a terrible conviction that Scotland is, well, rubbish.  Rubbish compared with the rest of the world in general and with England in particular.  Rubbish in terms of culture, economy, education, health and – especially – sport.  This lack of self-confidence, so crippling to the national psyche, is well-documented enough for it to have received its own name: the Scottish Cringe.


Many would argue that the cringe manifested itself spectacularly a year ago on September 18th, 2014, when by a ten-percent margin the Scottish electorate voted against Scotland becoming an independent country again.  All right, a lot of Scots voted against independence because they’d considered things rationally and concluded that it was against Scotland’s political, economic and cultural interests.  But there must have been a sizeable number of ‘no’ voters who voted the way they did because they believed that their country was just too crap to be independent.  Too poor, too wee and too stupid.


And yet, going to the other extreme, I’ve found that one unappealing feature of Scotland is the propensity of certain Scots, under certain circumstances, to start bragging about how great their homeland is.  If you’re familiar with Scotland, you’ll know the score.  You go into a pub and without warning you get cornered by some drunken blowhard who spends the next half-hour raving about Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Rabbie Burns, Sean Connery, Billy Connolly, Scottie-from-Star Trek, golf, whisky, the hills, the glens, etc., etc.  Several years ago, while I was trying to have a quiet pint in the Hebrides Bar in Edinburgh, I got stuck in the company of one such havering idiot.  When he wasn’t babbling about Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, etc., and punctuating his discourse with occasional cries of “Freedom!”, he assured me that the Scots were the friendliest people in the world.  Everyone loved them, and they loved everyone else, because if there’s one thing the Scots aren’t, it’s racist.  “No,” he added, “like them racist English bastards.”  After he’d finally shut up, and finally f***ed off out of the pub, the barmaid leaned over the counter and said apologetically, “Och, never mind him.  He’s had a rough time lately.  His wife has just divorced him.”


At the end of such a pro-Scottish bragging session, it’s customary for the braggart to conclude tearfully with an old adage: “Aye, wha’s like us?  Damned few – an’ they’re a’ deid!”  (For those of you unable to cope with anything not worded in precise Standard English, I shall translate: “Yes, who’s like us?  Very few – and they’re all dead!”)


One thing that looms large in any boasting session about Scotland is the claim that the place is so wonderful because of the natives’ inventiveness.  Human civilisation could never have advanced without Scotland because, basically, Scottish people have invented or discovered everything necessary for it to advance.  You name it, some Scottish genius cobbled it together originally in his garden shed.  Tarmac, thanks to which mankind can now drive along the road without being bumped to death?  That was John Louden Macadam.  The mackintosh raincoat, which prevents mankind from getting wet when it rains and dying of hypothermia?  That was Charles Macintosh (without a ‘k’).  The adhesive postage stamp?  James Chalmers.  Criminal fingerprinting?  Henry Faulds.  The ATM?  James Goodfellow.  The kaleidoscope?  Sir David Brewster.  God, can you imagine the horror of living in a barbaric primitive world where an enterprising Scotsman hadn’t invented the kaleidoscope?!


I was reminded of this Scots-invented-everything malarkey a few weeks ago in Colombo, of all places, while I was walking along my neighbourhood stretch of Galle Road.  I came across this large billboard, erected next to the bridge that crosses the Kirillapone Canal.



It’s a joint advertisement for Scotland’s Napier University and Sri Lankan educational specialists BMS, who between them are offering flexible / distance degree-courses to local students.  For this particular advert, Napier University decided to play up the Scottish connection and so it shows the faces of five great Scottish geniuses who’ve invented or discovered something massively important: John Napier (inventor of the calculator); Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin); James Watt (the steam engine); Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone); and John Logie Baird (television).  Undertake a Scottish / Napier University-affiliated degree course, the advertisement tells its target audience, and you too could invent something momentous and make pots of money from the patent.


Now I don’t want to dispute the fact that, for the size of its population, Scotland has produced a remarkable number of inventors and discoverers.  Although I think that with this advert Napier University has exposed itself, slightly, to the risk of prosecution for violating the Trades Description Act.


For one thing, it’s disingenuous to say that John Napier, who died in 1617, invented the calculator – the pocket version of which I don’t remember seeing prior to 1976.  Napier, a mathematician, physicist, astronomer and (as was common for men of learning in his day) reputed occultist, did devise a manually-operated calculating device that was nicknamed ‘Napier’s bones’ (  But if that qualifies as a calculator, then shouldn’t the calculator’s invention be attributed to whichever ancient Babylonian thought up the abacus?  It might have been more honest for the advert to say that John Napier discovered logarithms and popularised the use of the decimal point, but probably logarithms and decimal points look less sexy on a billboard.


Meanwhile, Alexander Graham Bell chose in later life to become an American citizen, so arguably the telephone is an American rather than a Scottish invention.  Besides, there’s controversy over whether or not Bell really invented it.  Some evidence suggests that the true telephone-inventor might have been Elisha Gray, an American, or Antonio Meucci, an Italian.


But what irks me about this advert is not so much its accuracy or inaccuracy.  It’s that grandstanding line about “Scotland’s proven track record of producing great thinkers.”  I find it an uncomfortable reminder of Scotland’s neurotic boastfulness – boastfulness which hides a paralysing lack of confidence, which surfaced very clearly during the referendum last September.


Aye, wha’s like us?  Quite a lot of folk, actually.  And most of them live in independent countries.