They have produced some of the finest minds in the planet. They are resourceful, inventive, and hardy. Their capacity for absorbing the most severe and trying challenges is legendary. They are noted for their strong family bonds and are extremely proud of their hospitality. They were first to successfully fight a formidable imperial power who wanted to rule their region. Limited opportunities and hard conditions in their homeland forced them to go around the world to seek a better life.
Am I describing the Filipinos? No, I am not. I am describing the Scots.
The telephone was invented by Alexander Graham-Bell, the television by John Logie Braid, the adhesive stamp by John Chalmers, the bicycle by Kirkpatrick MacMillan, the penicillin by Alexander Fleming, the anesthetic by Sir James Young Simpson. All of them were Scots. The capitalist economy was founded on the laissez faire doctrine of Adam Smith, a Scot. The fathers of the US and Russian navies were Scotsmen John Paul Jones and Samuel Grieg. Literature is richer because of the creative minds and contributions of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, George Bernard Shaw, Robert Burns – all Scots. James Bond was created by Ian Fleming and Sean Connery first starred as the top spy; both creator and star – Scots.
At the peak of the expansion of the Roman Empire, the Scots successfully resisted Roman conquest. Two Roman legions that were sent as an advance column to Scotland vanished without a trace – no bones, no armor, no signs of battle to suggest what became of them. The mighty Romans lost their nerve and zest for conquering Scotland and instead built Hadrian’s Wall; running 73 miles of open country "to separate Romans from the barbarians."
At the peak of the British Empire, Scottish regiments were considered elite forces. Napoleon regarded these kilted warriors in high esteem, calling them "Amazons." During World War I, the similarly awestruck Germans called them "Ladies from Hell."
The logical question to ask is how come the English, this so-called nation of shopkeepers, ended up becoming the dominant nation in UK rather than the Scots? The reason is simple. Scots were not united and were badly led for the most part of their history.
William Wallace (whose life inspired "Braveheart" the movie) stoked Scottish patriotism. After his death, King Robert the Bruce built on that patriotism to lead the Scots to win their independence from England in the battlefield of Bannockburn. However, before and after Wallace and Bruce, Scotland was plagued by a succession of bad kings.
Scots were not only badly led – they also fought among themselves most of the time. Clan allegiance overrode national interest during wars with England. Feuding clans, like the MacGregors versus the Campbells, MacDonalds versus MacLeods, Douglases versus Leslies easily found an opposing clan tactically siding with the English. The sharp distinction between the Highland and Lowland in Scotland was more a mental, rather than a geographic divide.
Now this comes very close to home doesn’t it?
Like the Scots, we have our own fair share of inventors and some of the best literary minds of Asia. Jose Rizal is regarded as the first towering hero of the Malay race. Filipinos were the first Asians to win a war of independence against a colonial power but their victory was stolen by the Americans who had started to spread its imperial wings in the late 19th century. We too have one of the closest family bonds in the world and the poorest Filipino will offer his last chicken in the yard, as generations before had done, as an expression of warmth and hospitality.
Until 1965 we were proud to be the showcase of democracy in Asia and economically we were second only to Japan in Asia. Contrary to what many may now say about us, greatness is not an elusive dream of this country. It is a legacy of a proud past, a legacy that bad leaders and national discord had badly impaired and disabled.
Today, we have descended to the rank of laggard while our neighbors in Asia track phenomenal growth. This erstwhile showcase of economic promise and democracy now sits precariously at the mouth of a seething social volcano cavorting with options extreme and dangerously undemocratic.
Like the Scots, our family and clan are our sources of great strength and weakness. We draw strength, support and solace from our family relations, making it possible to weather the most difficult economic crisis. But the very same sense of strong family and clan can bring harm when it chooses to rebuff the greater national interest – exactly what has been happening to our society for the past five decades.
Filipinos are now running the homes and industries of the world through its main export, Filipino overseas workers (OFWs). Scots who have migrated all over the world have provided some of the finest leaders in the countries they have chosen to call home. This is true of the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
I thought I’d write about these significant historical parallels on this day when Scots all over the world celebrate the natal day of Scotland’s national bard – Robert Burns – who was born on January 25, 1759. Robert Burns is so important to the Scottish identity because his writings best capture the essence of the Scottish character, mind, history and culture.
Burns’ Scots Wha Hae fuels the fires of Scottish nationalism, the poem that immortalizes the saga of William Wallace and King Robert the Bruce. His "My love is like a red, red rose" is the love poem and song by which Scottish generations have been procreated. "A man’s a man for a’ that" underscores the value system that makes the Scot an honorable person. Auld lang syne not only marks the fellowship of the Scots but has also been adopted by many races as their own anthem of friendship and kinship.
Scots celebrate the Burns Supper – not just to find an occasion to drink malt whiskey, eat haggis, wear the kilt or listen to the bagpipes – but because Burns is such a vital link to the Scottish past and identity. Burns is a culture medium of sorts to Scots. His poetry is like a fabric that welds together the Scottish identity.
We could use a Robert Burns to reinforce our Filipino identity and reconcile us with our past. With hardly a notion of his past, the Filipino continues to grope for his future.