Here’s tae us, Wha’s like us
IT has been said there are three types of people in the world – Scots, wannabe Scots and those with no ambition.
- Full feature in Issue No. 4
For a nation of just 5 million residents there are an incredible number of people world-wide who proudly, and justifiably, claim Scottish descent.
But there are also a few who, for reasons of their own, go a step further and invent a whole Scottish persona.
On the outside wall of the library in the main square of Aberfeldy, Perthshire there is plaque to commemorate the life of film star Donald Crisp who, according to the brass memorial, was born in the town in 1880.
The Oscar-winning actor and director enjoyed a career spanning more than 50 years and 400 movies. He was, for a long time, the most famous Scot in Hollywood. Renowned for his distinctive brogue he played a wealth of Scottish characters in popular movies such as The Bonnie Brier Bush (1921), Mary of Scotland (1936), Lassie Come Home (1943), Grey Frier’s Bobby (1961) and many more.
He was clearly a world class actor but his greatest performance was off-screen. Crisp spoke with a soft Scottish burr and maintained throughout his life to have been born in Aberfeldy where he remembered that as a boy his family was so poor they couldn’t afford sugar.
Every so often the actor, who died in 1974, would return to his homeland on holiday and recount his days among the hills of Perthshire.
Such was his popularity the Scottish Film Council honoured Crisp and his reported birthplace with a commemorative plaque as part of the Centenary Of Film celebrations and that was when the truth was uncovered.
Librarian Lorna Mitchell began digging into his past and discovered that far from being a Highland laddie Crisp was actually a Cockney, having been born in Bow, East London on 27 July 1882, two years later than the date in most record books. And his real name was George.
It appears the Londoner with no known Scottish connections deliberately developed a Scottish accent to help his career in the hope that it would appeal to movie moguls.
Whatever the reason for his deception Crisp is not alone in elaborating his Scottish connections.
James Robertson Justice, a big man with a voice to match, was a familiar face in British cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, especially for his portrayal as the grumpy surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt in seven Doctor In The House comedies.For most of a career that spanned 30 years and 87 movies Justice claimed he was born underneath a whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye. Other versions of his birth claim he was born in Wigtown.
Although he often wore the Robertson tartan proudly it appears he had no legitimate claim to the moniker. He only added it as middle name when he was in his mid-30s because he thought it sounded more Scottish.
In reality Justice was born in Lee, South London, and was brought up in Bromley, Kent.
There is no doubt he was fond of the country. He loved hunting with falcons in the Highlands, was Rector of the University of Edinburgh for two terms, and he lived on and off in the country up until his death in 1975.
That’s more than his fellow thespian David Niven did even though he also also appears to have exaggerated his Scottishness.
Several sources report Niven claimed to have been born in Kirriemuir in 1909, because it sounded more romantic. He actually first came into the world at Belgrave Mansions in London in 1910.
However, Niven did serve as an officer in the Highland Light Infantry and he played the Young Pretender in the 1948 movie Bonnie Prince Charlie heroically leading the clans into battle.
Scotland’s warrior image is an attribute eagerly claimed by one of the most recognisable stars of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper.
The kilted wrestler was a major star on the wrestling circuit who was billed as coming from Glasgow. He used to enter the ring to bagpipe music and was given the nickname ‘Rowdy’ supposedly due to his trademark ‘Scottish rage’ .
Credited as being “the most gifted entertainer in the history of professional wrestling” Piper was actually from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada, although he did have Scottish ancestry.
Pretending to be Scottish is not just a showbusiness trait. There are plenty of others who feel the need to top up their tartan credentials.
At first glance Dr Scott Peake was Scottish through and through. Born on the island of Raasay he had a soft lilting accent, spoke Gaelic, wore tartan trews and Harris Tweed jackets at every opportunity and even claimed to have represented his country internationally in the sports of shinty and cricket.
Having graduated from St Andrew’s University he was teaching classics at a leading private
school when, in 2001, he was appointed director of the Saltire Society, promoting Scottish culture to the world.
What should have been a crowning moment for any proud Scot turned out to be his downfall. Publicity surrounding his post revealed cracks in his story, not least the fact that nobody on the tiny island of Raasay had heard of him and neither had the governing bodies of shinty and cricket.
It finally emerged that Peake was actually an ordinary lad from a council estate in Woolwich, east London. He had adopted his false background while studying at St Andrews in 1991, much to the bemusement of his English family.
Peake was forced to resign from the Saltire Society and was last heard of teaching Latin in a school in Hertfordshire.
While it may be understandable that the idea of being Scottish could bring on delusions of grandeur some people take it too far.
Sometime around 1988 the soft spoken Baron of Chirnside arrived in Tomintoul and began buying up large parts of the village.
The Borders aristocrat who claimed his heart belonged in the Highlands was a blessing for the 320 or so inhabitants of the small settlement in the heart of whisky country.
He paid for the police pipe band to play at the Tomintoul Highland games, which he attended in full tartan dress, and he was always happy to give generously to local causes.
Over six years it is estimated that ‘Lord’ Tony Williams sunk up to £2million into the local economy, buying businesses and doing up properties.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t his money. The self-styled Laird of Tomintoul, who bought his Baronetcy at auction, turned out to be an accountant from New Malden in Surrey who had embezzled some £5million from his employer – the London Metropolitan Police.
He was caught only after staff at the Clydesdale Bank in Tomintoul became suspicious of cheques going into the account of Lord and Lady Williams and tipped off the police. He was later jailed for seven years and was last heard of driving a bus in London.
But, perhaps the most famous of wannabe Scots has yet to be born.
The Annet House Museum in Linlithgow already has a blue plaque on its wall celebrating the town as the birthplace of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, even though he is not due to enter this world until 2222.
Canadian actor James Doohan, who immortalised the character in the television series Star Trek, claimed to have come up with the Scottish accent of the Starship Enterprise’s chief engineer during a pub crawl in Aberdeen.
However, fans of the show have claimed scripts from the original series suggest Scotty was (or will be) born in Linlithgow on 28 June, 2222 – and that’s enough for the town which is already cashing in on the Trekkie tourist trail with a plaque to commemorate the occassion.