11 Scottish Books To Read For Tartan Day

Read my latest piece on Bustle here!

Today will be known to many as Easter Monday. But the date, April 6th, is home to another celebration: Tartan Day, which marks the signing of the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320. It’s commemorated in Arbroath here in Scotland with loads of themed events, and has also sparked a huge parade in New York City that brings together Scots Americans in celebration of their heritage.

I’m immensely proud of my own Scottish identity, but like I say in this piece, there is no one standard experience of a country, or one way to live a nationality. Even a small country like Scotland has space for more than 5 million different life stories to play out in the hills, by the sea, in the country and the city. These 11 Scottish books exemplify that. 

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Journey to… St Monans Sea Queen Day

A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip around the East Neuk to St Monans to watch the annual crowning of the Sea Queen. It’s a tradition I first came across in Mike Hildrey’s documentary, Sunrise to Sunset: East Neuk Fishing, and a prime example of the role of women in a fishing community. Since this is exactly the topic I’m examining in my own documentary, I seized the chance to see the ceremony first hand.

 

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Once a place where the fishing industry thrived, St Monans Harbour still berths a smattering of boats, though nowadays these are mostly for leisure instead of work. It’s this historic connection to the sea that gave rise to the practice of selecting a Sea Queen. Every year for over half a century, a St Monans girl has been selected to assist with the organisation and smooth running of community events. She is chosen by her peers on the merit of her existing dedication to the community. This year it is Caitlan Duncan’s turn, the latest in a long line of Sea Queens to serve her community, and there is an entire day built around honouring the new ‘monarch’.
 
Brightly striped stalls lined the harbour front, offering refreshments, raffles – typical gala fare. Over the course of the afternoon, locals performed music on the stage, and of course ran the aforementioned stalls. The seafront remained busy the entire afternoon, so the appeal clearly reaches more than just a keen handful of organisers. The fact that the practice of crowning a Sea Queen has remained while fishing’s presence has fizzled is testament to the locals’ respect for and pride in the heritage of their village. I was struck by a strong sense of community, something that obviously hasn’t been lost with time.
 
In keeping with the historical precedent of the day itself, the ceremony was steeped in tradition. Caitlan and her party sailed from Anstruther on board the Reaper, a Fifie lovingly restored with support from the Scottish Fisheries Museum and crewed by experienced volunteers. They paraded to the stage, led by a piper, and the party were introduced one by one: a fisher lass, page boy, two attendants, then, of course, Sea Queen Caitlan herself. She and her attendants wore ceremonial cloaks, handmade in the 1980s by Maureen Lishman. A slightly newer tradition, then, but the design seemed informed by how previous cloaks might have looked. The fisher lass wore a traditional striped dress and carried a basket, a more contemporary nod to fisher fashion.
 
Once on stage, the party seated themselves on antique chairs reserved especially for the occasion. Caitlan traded her short cloak for a full length one, and was crowned by her predecessor. The use of a crown in the ceremony, made by local Yvonne Sutherland, is a new tradition going forward.
 
I will need to do some more research, but among the roles available to women in fishing communities, this is one of the more unique ones I’ve come across. Admittedly, though, when I first saw the ceremony and heard of its history, I couldn’t help but compare it to the very similar contest held at home in Peterhead. Each summer, during the annual Scottish Week, we crown a Buchan Queen and two Princesses. While the principle is generally the same, and the practices arose at roughly the same time, the Buchan Queen is more of a gala queen, where the Sea Queen is more specifically tied to the traditions – and perhaps superstitions – of fisher people.
 
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As well as taking in the festivities, I took the opportunity to wander along the coastal path to the 18th century windmill that sits atop a hill overlooking St Monans. It’s been restored and turned into a viewing platform, offering panoramic views that take in Pittenweem, the Firth of Forth and the Fife countryside.
 
Why a windmill in a village known for fishing? It’s thought that it was used to draw up water to be used in salt processing. St Monans was just one of many places salt processing was conducted along the Forth estuary. Only after I found the door firmly bolted and padlocked and returned to the harbour did I discover that the key can be borrowed from the local Spar (in exchange for a small deposit, of course). All that means, though, is that it’s definitely something to revisit in future.
 
And as for the Sea Queen, I’ve seen what the tradition is today, but its origins remain as mystical as the fantastical connotations of the title itself. More digging will need to be done…
 

The school of Mean Girls

Mean Girls is nine years old (technically, its birthday was yesterday, but I’m going to blame the transatlantic time difference for putting me behind).

Like many of my generation, and those after me, the film’s been a huge influence on my life. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, a film whose meaning resonates even after leaving school and as my teens draw to a close.

Here are just a handful of things that Mean Girls has taught me:

‘Whore’ is a bad word
Innocent me, having just seen the film, had a friend visiting my house. In the course of conversation, I saw fit to reply ‘boo, you whore’ to something she said, just as my mum walked in to the room. Needless to say, both were shocked, and I was embarrassed. I had never heard the word before and thought it was spelt ‘hoar’ and meant something like ‘pig’. Its true meaning wasn’t revealed to me until a good few years later.

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Mini Plastics are a thing
Still in primary school, and oh-so-self-conscious of our social standing, my friends and I decided one dress down day to assert our perceived authority at the top of the pecking order by dressing like the Plastics. Even in their ‘villainy’ there was still something twistedly desirable about them. Though I didn’t think it at the time, kudos to my mother for vetoing my outfit choice.

Don’t take lunch tables literally
In many ways, the cafeteria map of cliques prepared me for the social hierarchy of secondary school. Group mentality and culture is something particularly strong in that environment, but being young, I think I read too much into it. Janice’s cafeteria map shows a group to suit everyone, but I was never really in one – by the time I found a solid, normal-sized group of friends, we were over the concept of cliquishness. As a teen, I spent way too much time worrying where I fitted in, not realising I did fit in already, I just didn’t need an entire table for my crew.

There’s always a Regina
No group is free of politics. While the film idealises the process of overthrowing established order, it also shows there are ways to make room for yourself, depending on the price you’re willing to pay.

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It’s possible to quote an entire movie
Stick Mean Girls on, and I can pretty much follow it through word for word. I’m sure this isn’t exactly a unique skill, let alone a marketable one, but something I pride myself on nonetheless.

Finally:
It makes the best mash-up memes

lesmeangirls.tumblr.com

lesmeangirls.tumblr.com

Happy Birthday, Mean Girls!

Guiding girls to awareness

This article features on The Huffington Post.

In a true display of girl power, Girlguiding UK now officially backs the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign, a testament to an adaptable, forward-thinking youth organisation. Despite my own short fling with Guiding, I think this demonstrates the enduring potential for the group to give a solid grounding for young women in the UK.

A quick skim of their website proves that they’re not stuck in 1910. They offer peer education schemescovering issues like alcohol and sexual health, and have developed ‘Give Yourself a Chance’, an interactive tool confronting the pressure girls feel to look good. They also conduct the Girls’ Attitude Survey, and this coupled with signing up to No More Page 3 only emphasises the wish to stay in touch with girls growing up in the 21st century. As ‘Give Yourself a Chance’ says, ‘If an issue worries girls, it worries us’.

In engaging with issues like No More Page 3, they’re not becoming ‘politicised’. In this context, endorsement should not equal indiscriminate endorsement: it should, however, encourage discussion and debate amongst Guides UK-wide, leading them to form their own opinions on the issue, something which surely falls under their rubric:

We give the girls the confidence, skills and information to make informed decisions. We show girls how they can speak out and take positive action to improve their lives and the lives of others.

Girlguiding UK is simply remaining aware of the issues of the day, rightly trying to cater to girls in a Britain worlds apart from when the Guiding movement first began. The group can provide an ideal space for young women to discuss with their peers and adults the issues they face in everyday life, alongside maintaining the more ‘traditional’ obtaining of badges, community work and outdoor activities (which remain important).

They provide the chance for personal and social education in a real-life, extra-curricular environment, in a more comfortable space than a classroom, learning alongside peers and guided by adults not viewed with the same contemptuous label of authority teachers often are.

When you’re dealing with young people there can be a fine line between discussion and indoctrination, but endorsing ‘No More Page 3’ is in no way a slippery slope. ‘Experiencing the great outdoors’ will not become ‘harrassing old ladies in the town centre to sign a petition’ (at least, not on the organisation’s watch). The aim of the Guide movement – at least, by my understanding – is to provide girls with the skills and experience to become active, engaged members of society, and as long as it continues to do this, then it’s doing its job.