Scottish Small-mindedness Syndrome

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Scottish Small-mindedness Syndrome

Abstract / Executive Summary

Scotland has suffered a catastrophic loss of influence over the last century which seems to have led to a wide-spread cultural phenomenon of small-mindedness which promises to drag this formerly-proud nation ever downward. It corrupts family life, education, society at large and the ‘national church’.


In recent centuries there have been several times when the Scottish nation punched well above its weight. While the English universities languished academically, in the 18th & 19th Centuries, Scottish academia, industry and entrepreneurship reigned and Scots found themselves ruling a worldwide empire. At the very forefront of the greatest expansions of the British empire you would find Scots. Battling slave-trading and disease, inventing and engineering, Scots led the way. But then, the World Wars took their toll and precipitated the collapse of many empires, including the British one. And as the new nations around the world blinked in the bright light of independence in the 1950s and 1960s, Scotland and Scots faced a crisis; a crisis of confidence and of identity. Their empire was gone; what place now for these disinherited princes?

Nowhere was that more evident than in Glasgow. Once the second city (and industrial capital) of the empire, the city sank into a profound depression as shipbuilding, coal, steel, international trade, finance and merchant life faded to a distant memory. By the 1980s as I grew up, the city was clearly a dishevelled shadow of its formerly glorious self. Faced with such a calamity, what was the modern Scot to do? How would a new identity emerge?

Would new medical pioneers like Lister and others emerge and forge a renaissance? Would new Bairds and Bells arise? Would new artists and architects follow Charles Rennie Mackintosh? Would Godly bold theologians emerge to take up the mantle of Rutherford, Knox and others?

As I’ve been reflecting recently, it seems that the nation as a whole has developed a response which I’m going to call SSMS, or Scottish Small-mindedness Syndrome.

The Syndrome

When faced with a massive loss of influence on the world stage, we have turned in upon ourselves as a nation and blamed outsiders for our own demise. I faced this full-on when as an 8-year-old I returned from some years living in Uganda to Scotland and discovered my peers had mind-blowingly small horizons; their world was pretty much just their corner of Scotland. So, we end up teaching ‘Scottish history’ as if nothing else really existed or mattered. We teach Braveheart as true, moan about the tyranny of English oppression, promote anti-English prejudice and wring our hands at our own helplessness. If a school leaver has the temerity to consider a university in England they’re considered treacherous: “Don’t we have good universities here too?” Nationalists would even lead Scotland further into self-enforced obscurity by leaving the United Kingdom which Scotland so used to further its growth in the boom years.

This is not just a matter at the top of society, but it has spread throughout the nation. We see the outside world as a threat, and especially our nearest neighbour. In local government we would rather be parochial than accept any ideas from south of the border. Ministers of religion or businessmen who get ideas from England, Canada or America or elsewhere are told “that wouldn’t work here” and held in suspicion for even suggesting it.

This sort of small-minded attitude turned the once-great civilisation of China into a backwater for centuries and it is doing the same thing in Scotland today. China seems to have turned itself around by embracing the outside world without forgetting its former glory. But Scotland and Scots would rather wallow in self-pity and cut off our nose to spite our face: “Ha! That will show it!”

No, that’s a miserable way to end up. Could we think of a better way forward perhaps? Forget silly flag-waving gestures like independence. Leave the chippie-on-our-shoulder behind. Let’s just do great stuff, and not just in Scotland. Let’s use the machinery of other nations to make them great too, just as Scots used the machinery of the British empire, even being happy (like David Livingstone) to be called English (shock, horror)!

Some outworking and examples

Here’s a word for Scottish Christians: let’s reject this small-mindedness that cuts us off from brothers and sisters in Christ in other nations. Let’s reject the small-mindedness that makes us suspicious of people who studied or gained experience outside Scotland, the sort of attitude that shakes the head saying, “She’s not really one of us.” On the contrary let’s embrace any idea or model we can from elsewhere if it will help us be more faithful to the gospel and more fruitful for Christ.

As an aside, the ‘Church of Scotland’ is a complete anachronism. Just as ‘Scotland’s Fastest Growing Airport’ is slick spindoctoring to cover small ambitions and a depressing reality, the church of Christ was never to be aligned with political or social boundaries and to limit it is to undermine the international nature of God’s people. As far as God’s purposes are concerned it doesn’t really matter, but those who suffer SSMS are needlessly painting themselves into a very tight and obscure corner.

Apple went through the same kind of crisis in the 1990s as inward-focussed employees remembered how cutting edge the company was, imagined that no-one else could have good ideas and rejected anything that was ‘Not Invented Here’. Such small-mindedness would have killed the company had not Steve Jobs and others come (back) and brought with them a completely different mindset. Instead, Apple haven’t really invented anything much, but they’ve done it with style and real confidence, just as the Japanese perfected so many things Brits invented!

Comments and criticisms invited! (I must be crazy)


About the author:

David Rowbory lived in Glasgow for about 1.5 years, then England for 3, then Glasgow for 1 then Uganda for 2.5, then Scotland for 10 then went to Uni in England for 3, then Nigeria for 1 year, worked in England for 1.5 years, studied and worked in Glasgow for 4 years, then studied in Kenya for 2, worked in Glasgow for 1.5 years, then Nigeria for 1.5… you get the picture. Prizes to any who can work out how old I am.

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