Whatever happened to the Scottish Tut?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 13th 2016

Once upon a time there was a thing called the Scottish Tut.

It defined many of our exchanges, stalked our land and policed the boundaries of permissible behaviour. It gave and took away acceptance; and once it was seemingly everywhere and now seems nowhere. Whatever happened to the once powerful tut, can we live without it, and should we lament its apparent demise?

The Scottish Tut involves many different motivations, styles and gradations. It could be used to indicate someone seen as ‘getting above their station’ or pronouncing a view viewed as gauche or inappropriate. Being judged as high-faluting and having an inappropriate attitude could bring forth the tut. But so could wearing a rather loud shirt or trousers, or trying too obviously to look different or alternative.

The tut embodied a passive aggressiveness: the use of pursed lips, staring, glaring, looking shocked, silence and a whole host of body language signals. This had power in a society that had all kinds of hang-ups, no-go areas and numerous unwritten rules. People often associate this with authority and officialdom – from councillors and faceless bureaucrats to the revenge of the local minister or priest. But it had its roots in a deep well of culture, history and traditions.

This is the land of the ‘Sunday Post’ at its peak: when it was supposedly the most popular and read newspaper in the world per head indicating a certain kind of quirky, sentimental literate Scot.

Many would want to locate the origins of the Scottish Tut in Presbyterianism and Calvinism, but as Harry Reid wrote in his study of the Reformation there is ‘a tendency to blame anything that goes wrong in society on Calvin’. Instead, there was a powerful puritanism evident in Scotland which gave birth to a particular expression of Calvinism, Catholicism and most isms – which was judgemental and punitive. This was historically a society which didn’t for a long time like outsiders, incomers, difference or change.

My childhood in Dundee saw my parents imbue me with the value of curiosity and questioning assumptions. This attitude to life met a deep-seated resistance when it clashed with some of the external world. All across the city I encountered at points in my youth, middle class, middle aged, mostly women, who when they passed you in the street, would let out an audible tut, and give a look of disapproval.

Years after the event, I can still visualise one or two of those moments. They are occasions when I went from feeling a vibrant, happy young boy with the world at my feet, to being reduced to feeling a few inches tall. In an instance, you would hope the ground would open up and swallow you because you had stood out and committed some cardinal sin.

There were many things which could produce a tut: being too loud in speech, laughing, being boisterous, having too much obvious fun with friends and family. I remember once in a café called ‘The Pancake Place’ where I was speaking to my mother about going to uni, and the two women at a table nearby tutted and one added, ‘It is university, not uni’. Somehow this was breaking some unwritten code in a part of stuffy Dundee culture.

The tut sewed an element of personal doubt and questioning, of checking yourself in what you said, thought and how you presented yourself. In part, this invoked in the likes of myself as a youngster and many others, a sense of rebellion and wanting to overthrow such attitudes. But it also in many bred a palpable feeling of inferiorism, and even both feelings at the same time, or in the same person.

I remember in my childhood the tangible frustration of lots of young people with the time honoured tradition of doing things a certain way. This expressed itself in all sorts of ways, not all of which I would defend. I can remember myself and friends saying several times to older people, ‘stop going on about the war’.

We wanted to kick against the grain, even annoy people and, do what young people have done for years. The generational revolt we were tapping into was actually not just ours, because in the 1970s Britain still defined itself by the war. Phrases such as ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ were everywhere in relation to the country’s problems, the rise of Germany and Japan invoked fear and jealousy, while John Cleese in ‘Fawlty Towers’ made fun of this wartime obsession.

I asked people on Facebook and twitter what they thought about the tut, and it brought forth a wave of reflections. People remembered the fear, being told off, occasional violence and more. It is revealing that not that long ago society was characterised by much low-level violence, and the all-pervasive threat of violence. Children until a couple of decades ago were regularly hit for all sorts of tiny or imagined misdemeanours. Even more commonplace, children were brought up with the expectation and anxiety that they could be hit at nearly any moment.

Some did wonder if this was uniquely Scottish, or part of Western habits. One Swiss woman living in Scotland said ‘I thought this was a predominantly Swiss thing’. Another view was whether the tut was articulated all over Scotland, or just smalltown and rural areas. Perhaps it was different in Glasgow or Edinburgh, and omnipotent and all-powerful in the Western Isles.

Then there is the class dimension: was the tut more commonly used by the middle class to hold the working classes in their place? And did as some contend women use it more than men to have some stake in what was a very male society?

It does seem reflecting on it that the Scottish Tut was a transition and holding operation from one system of authority, dominance and making people small to another. In many respects, it could actually be seen as a loosening up from what came before.

Scottish society in the past was a place where the word and authority of the Kirk carried all before it: a land of fear and foreboding. The Kirk was in the independent Scotland pre-1707 the most powerful force in the land, and post-1707, with the absence of a Parliament, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland was the nearest thing to a representative chamber of the nation.

The Church shaped much of our nation: law, local parishes, our education system, and was itself one of the three pillars of ‘the holy trinity’ (with law and education) which embodied autonomy. The Church was one of the main manifestations of Scottishness, even at the height of the union, and it gave expression to a very particular, suffocating version of that identity.

This was a world where you could be ostracised for saying the wrong thing, or marrying outside your community or religion (a fate for example which befell Jock Stein in Burnbank). It was a culture where women were meant to know their place, only changing in living memory. The General Assembly of the Church had not one woman speaker between 1921 and 1960: a pattern broken by Wendy Wood addressing it in 1961.

This kind of authority wasn’t just about the Church, just as it wasn’t just about Calvinism. It was rooted in a Scottish expression of power, from the minister, to the local teacher, businessman and councillor. Part must be located in the scale of hardship and poverty which defined our nation for centuries. Most people, until the last century, did not have the wherewithal to challenge their elders, and were conditioned to see them as their betters.

The tut has lost its power and place today. Scotland has become like everywhere else in the West, and because of this wants to express its difference. The apparent demise of the tut leaves more freedom, but also uncharted waters. How do you challenge inappropriate behaviour such as loud talking on the phone in public? After the tut, maybe all that is left is anarchy?

The King Tut: the all-powerful tut which carried all before it has thankfully gone. But can a Little Tut be rediscovered and reclaimed? At the moment, the tut has become too internalised and ineffective: a symbol of the widespread impotence many feel in public or exchanges with others.

There are going to be times when we need a little soft policing in public, from politics to all sorts of social situations. The society where every opinion can be expressed no matter how ignorant or offensive it is isn’t a happy place. We could already see in the generally positive experience of the indyref, the problems which can emerge when the boundaries of debate become more porous. This produced a kaleidoscope of views, many worthwhile, but it also allowed intolerance and verbal abuse. An anything goes culture allows platforms to people who revel in hurting others such as columnists Katie Hopkins and Rod Liddle.

Every society and age likes to think it has changed and is more unique than it really is. Scotland has undergone dramatic change, but there are still some common threads and connections with the society of old which seems to have passed. There is still too much of a propensity to embrace groupthink and monoculture and not recognise it, denying the validity of others’ opinions, and excluding and marginalising those who are heretics or dissenters to prevailing wisdom.

There is a significant missing dimension to Scottish public life, and that is understanding the personal, relationships and private lives and mores. There are few serious cultural studies: Catriona Macdonald’s recent ‘Whaur Extremes Meet’ being a worthy exception. The anecdotal account of Moray McLaren’s ‘Understanding the Scots’, published in 1956, with its study of manners, language, culture and ‘Scottish delights’, has yet to be matched in modern times.

After the Scottish tut, we need to study in numerous ways, frivolous and not so frivolous, how we have and haven’t changed, and do so beyond politics and public life. Maybe time for a serious examination of the rise and fall of the Scottish Tut? Or setting the tut to music or theatre? Whatever its time to give it its place and moment in the sun again.