Scotland’s other national drink

Irn-BruWith the upcoming vote on independence, there have been a good number of stories in the US media about Scotland. Of particular interest seem to be stories about the distinctiveness of Scottish life and culture (especially as differentiated from England). On NPR this week there was a story about Irn-Bru, an orange flavored soft drink very popular in Scotland. The story featured interviews with Scots professing their love the neon orange colored drink, connecting that passion with Scottish patriotism:

As Scots prepare to vote on independence next month, the fizzy fervor for this fluorescent fluid may offer some insights into Scottish nationalistic tendencies. When asked why they’re so crazy for this Scottish soda, people most often reply, “Because it’s Scottish.”… Much of the world treats Scottish icons as kitsch. Kilts. Haggis. Bagpipes. But for Scots, these are potent symbols of national pride. One of Irn Bru’s advertising slogans is “Made in Scotland, from girders.” Girders, as in the steel beams that hold up buildings.

I have to admit that although I have visited Scotland several times, I have never tasted Irn-Bru, although I did liberally partake of Scottish ale, which has its fans as well, although it certainly pales in popularity to Scotland’s true national drink, Scotch whisky.

The NPR story led me to think about other soft drinks associated with specific cultures. The obvious example is Coca-Cola, a US icon, but less well known are some other drinks I have sampled. In Austria, for example, students I have taken on study abroad trips often discover and enjoy Almdudler, a carbonated drink made from apple, grape, and herb flavors. In Germany Spezi is popular – cola mixed with orange soda, as is Apfelshorle, apple juice mixed with minteral water. On hot summer days in Bavaria, I have enjoyed drinking a Radler or two, a mix of beer with lemon soda.

Particularly memorable for me was drinking cold Kvass in Moscow a few summers ago, when there were massive fires in the region, covering the capital in smoke, with the temperature the hottest it had been in years. Kvass is a slightly alcoholic drink (at most 1.5%) made from fermenting black or rye bread and one of the few drinks in Russia consistently served ice cold. In the summer there are Kvass stands all around, similar to root beer stands in the US at state fairs.

A drink I have heard about but never tasted is Inca Kola, a widely enjoyed soft drink in Peru. I would guess, given its popularity, that the Peruvian cola must be much better than the worst cola I have ever had, which was in East Berlin before German reunification. Coca-Cola, as a symbol of capitalism, was not available in the German Democratic Republic, instead a home-brewed version was made, Vita-Cola. To me it tasted like soap, but maybe it was just a bad batch, because with the nostalgia for things East German (“Ostalgie”), Vita-Cola has enjoyed a comeback.

Secession fever

Demonstrating for Catalan independenceThe current difficulties in the EU to pass a new budget highlight the very different perspectives of the givers and takers among EU members in the flow of EU funds.  There’s a sense of injustice on the part of the countries who are net contributors:  why is our hard-earned money going to folks who aren’t as responsible or hard-working?  In northern countries such as Germany one can easily hear this point of view in reference to Greece.  In southern countries there is resentment over criticism of their way of life and cultural practices; they are proud of the more balanced approach to work and life they have achieved. The 27 countries that make up the EU do not only speak different languages, they have in many cases dramatically different cultures.

It doesn’t seem likely that the EU will be splitting anytime in the near future or that some Euro countries will leave the currency – there is too much at stake for all the countries in the EU for them to allow that to happen. However, within several EU members there is an internal struggle going on that is some ways parallels what’s happening in the EU, culturally distinct and prosperous regions who are dissatisfied with their relationship with the rest of the country.  Today elections in Spain appear to be heading for victory by pro-independence parties for Catalonia, the area in northern Spain with Barcelona as its capital.  Catalonia is overall better-off than the rest of Spain and has a distinctive language (Catalan) and culture.  In fact, the Catalan culture overflows into parts of southern France and Catalan is the official language of the small independent country of Andorra, between Spain and France.  In addition to the Catalans, the Basques, also a group represented on both sides of the Pyrenees, have been agitating for independence, sometimes violently.

Spain is not alone.  There is also an active movement for independence in Scotland, with a referendum vote scheduled for 2014.  Welsh nationalists have not been as active lately; Wales also lacks the economic strength that North Sea oil brings to Scotland.  Separatist sentiments are strong among many in Belgian Flanders as well as in South Tyrol in Italy.  With the economic problems today across Europe, it will be interesting to see how the separatist movements progress.

It’s not just a north-south divide – sometimes its culture, language, and politics that can lead to separatist sentiments. Quebec’s French-speaking population continues to agitate for more ability to guide their own affairs.  With the re-election of Obama several U.S. states such as Texas are making noises about secession. Those efforts are not likely to succeed and they are mostly not all that serious, more of a way to let off steam.

A Scots Loss

Bobby Hogg, last speaker of Cromarty Scots

What’s lost when languages and dialects die out? It’s of course a sad loss for the local community – part of the cultural identity of the place is gone.  In the news recently (also: NPR) was the death of the last speaker of a Scottish dialect, spoken in a fishing village.  Bobby Hogg lived in Cromarty and spoke all his life the Scots dialect spoken there.  Scotland has a complicated linguistic heritage, with the many Scots dialects, Scottish English variants, and Scottish Gaelic  (a Celtic language).  Scots Gaelic has seen a revival of interest in recent years, witness the popularity of Julie Fowlis, who sings almost exclusively in her native Gaelic.  Her Gaelic version of the Beatles Blackbird was a surprise hit in England and she was chosen to contribute songs to the recent Disney/Pixar’s Brave.  Many English speakers find Scottish accents to be very pleasant, even though sometimes difficult for non-Scots to understand.  In an interview with Glaswegian singer Amy MacDonald, NPR’s Scott Simon told her that he found her English “utterly charming” but was “only understanding every third or fourth word”.  Scots dealing with non-Scots listeners, like Craig Ferguson or Sean Connery, have learned to “tone it down”.

How much would the typical English speaker understand of the Cromarty dialect?  Some would be understandable but sound archaic, such as the use of thou and thee.  One might figure out as well that beginning consonants were sometimes dropped, what becoming ‘at and where ‘ere.  But one might still have trouble understanding “At wid be scekan tiln ken?” (“What do you want to know?”).

What’s lost when language dies is more than just local color. Language is culture, and the Scottish culture, like that of Ireland, is so strong in its linguistic and literary creativity that we all lose something with the disappearance of Cromarty Scots, whether we’d understand Bobby Hogg or not.