It took hundreds of years to trap the unicorn. There was the hammer of the Scots that broke on the anvil of Bannockburn, there wis the flooers o the forest that wede awaa, there was the queen who lost her head and the tongue tied son who fled south to the riches of London and thought he’d been appointed by God. There was the king killer who killed Christmas and the disputes about bishops and the number of angels who could dance on the head of the pin that was stuck into the wart of a witch. But the unicorn still ran free in the hills. The forests rang to its cry, and it galloped along the shores of the sealochs.
Then what couldn’t happen by force happened by stealth, and the trap of Union was baited with golden bribes. The auld sang fell silent. The people wept, the townspeople rioted, but the unicorn was catched and would be held fast. Rebellions rose, rebellions fell, pretenders came and pretenders fled, but the unicorn was snared in the chains of empire. The promise of a partnership became the aggression of assimilation. Speak English, become civilised, reject all that you were born to in the name of modernity. Embrace the cringe of inferiority.
Don’t listen to the stories of imaginary creatures, the unicorns and kelpies, the banshees and selkies. Listen to the hammers and the steam, listen to the pickaxe digging the coalseam. Listen to the forging of steel, listen to the shipyards and looms. Listen to the voices of your betters. Welcome to North Britain, where all you can dream of is a narrow horizon, an aspiration to emigrate, a marginal improvement. And if you’re really really lucky your team might win a cup at the fitba. There are no big skies in this land, just small voices and constrained hopes. There is no such thing as a unicorn.
The dream of a land that stood for itself became a myth. It was put away in the treasure chest of memory, and there it lay lost and still while the chiefs turned into lairds and evicted the caretakers of the land who were washed away and over the seas. The unicorn was quiet in the dark while the ancient tongues grew still. It watched as the cities grew and the slums sucked in the people and crowded them together in poverty and hopelessness. The only spirits that the people knew were the ones that came in a bottle to self-medicate the pain. As the empire on which the sun never set conquered the world, the sun set on the unicorn and it dreamed its dream of the hills and the forests in the long North British night as nightmares assailed it from every side.
You don’t exist, said the voice in the dark, you can never exist. There is only the grey sky and the hopeless certainty that nothing will ever get better. There is no poetry in your soul, there is no soul, there is no poetry. You have to be practical, you have to get on, you have to play the North British game. The very best you can hope for is that things might not be just as shitty as they have been. There is no place for dreaming in North Britain. All there is is work, if you’re lucky. And when there is no work as there so often isn’t, then you can leave. It’s a Union benefit. And in return all you have to do is to speak English, speak proper, stand up straight and salute the Queen, and kill your imagination. Wheesht, your betters are telling you how it is. Listen in silence and bow your head. Dae whit yer telt. Don’t dream, don’t hope, don’t imagine that there can be a better way.
The unicorn lived in dreams, and that meant it could never die. It only slept, and as it slept it flew on the wings of imagination carried high by the updraught of dreams. The dream leapt from head to head, and the realisation grew that independence starts in the imagination, that self-determination begins with the self, that the personal is political. That’s the dream of the unicorn. Believe in yourself and you can make your own dreams come true, believe in the dream of the unicorn.
A people weighted down with the baggage of centuries realised that the only thing holding them back was their own fear and the sense of inferiority that they’d been taught for generations. Dream of a unicorn and you can cast off the shackles you’ve locked on your own wrists and ankles. Dream of a unicorn and a different Scotland becomes possible. Dream of a unicorn and you can change the world. Dream the dream of the unicorn and you can learn how to hope, and once you’ve learned how to hope you can never forget the lesson. The flame dances within you and lights up the darkness. You’ll always dream of the unicorn because you’ve realised that there is a better way. It’s the path we choose for ourselves, the path we make for ourselves, the path that leads to self-determination.
A better country is possible. A better country is within our grasp, and if we stand on one another shoulders we can reach for the unicorn. When you dream of the unicorn you’ve never been more awake. Reality begins with the imagination. Imagine a better country. Imagine hope for your children. Imagine the confidence to go your own way. Imagine the strength that comes from self-awareness. Tell the world that Scotland is back on the back of a unicorn. And we’re not going back to sleep.
The unicorn runs free on the hills. It gallops through the towns and villages. The imagination of a people has been unleashed, a people who’ve learned how to dream and hope. There’s no going back to the dark, the fear cannot catch us, the cringe is gone, and hope is alive. Let’s make it real. Let’s dream of unicorns and sing again.
Tomorrow, let’s vote for a Scotland that dreams its own dreams.
BARKING UP THE RIGHT TREE Barking Up the Right Tree has now been published and is an anthology of my articles for The National newspaper. You can submit an advance order for the book on the Vagabond Voices website at http://vagabondvoices.co.uk/?page_id=1993
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