The hall erupted in a thunderous applause that boomed across its imposing 19th century dome. This set the tone of a very inclusive speech delivered by a faculty member of the University of Edinburgh. In the backdrop of the contentious Brexit chatter, the speech was heart-warming.
She expressed a deep sense of pride in the university's student diversity. I scanned the hall that was built in the Italian Renaissance style with magnificent mural paintings of philosophers and artists. My husband and I were among the thousands of parents from more than 150 countries, whose hearts were pounding just a little. Our son was about to start his university life. But we were reassured by the warm Scottish welcome on a chilly rainy day.
We had already spent a week in Scotland and were charmed by the local hospitality. As we traveled across the city of Edinburgh, the Scottish Lowlands and Highlands, we picked up valuable life lessons from the Scots.
We drove up north through the enchanting Highlands. As the fog descended on the rugged hills and swept through the moorlands, I could easily see why magical realism formed the rich subtext of Scottish life; why stories of druids, trows, and selkies swirled around the countryside; why entire villages sat around visiting bards to listen to folk tales that elegantly wove giants and fairies into Celtic life.
A friendly waiter at a restaurant smiled and spoke mysteriously, "It's not the buildings that are haunted. But the ground itself is haunted."
This rich culture of myths and tales is why the Scottish children's imagination was fired up; why shepherds could turn poets; why a J. K. Rowling could dream up a Harry Potter who could live alongside Muggles; or why Hogwarts School could resemble a stately school building in Edinburgh. Anything could be a reality here. The Scots teach us to believe in the impossible - the kind that enriches our lives.
Medieval castles and churches sit effortlessly near a Starbucks and a dog cemetery. Buildings from three different centuries could be jostling for space on any given street. There is a certain practicality about how the Scots have woven their history into the present, much like their kilts. They have not rejected their past in their spirited quest for the new, nor have they turned their backs on the new. Their spirit of inclusiveness spans many dimensions of their lives. "Does Nessie really exist?" I asked the impeccably dressed hotel manager about the fabled Loch Ness Monster.
"There are plenty of stories about her. She brings £40 Million annually to the Loch Ness area. So, people here would like to believe that she does live in the Loch." he replied.
The Scots are proud of their history and identity, but they are not steeped in that feverish chest thumping nationalism that is gripping parts of the world. When we take pride in our past or our present, why indulge in the us versus them discourse? Why put blinders on our thinking? Somehow the recent flavours of nationalism is limiting our ability to appreciate 'the other'.
But theirs is a quiet, understated yet deep pride in their Scottish heritage that focuses on what matters. In the myriad towns we visited, which started with 'Inver' or ended with 'Loch', the restaurants supported local farmers and food producers. The menu proudly mentioned the local source, down to the farmer from whom they bought their meat or fish. It brought so much context to the salmon or the sausage we ate.
The Scots pretty much forged the modern world with their inventions. Underlying these inventions was a spirit of inclusiveness, one that is not just of new ideas but also of people. Is there any wonder that we as tourists felt so much at home in this distant land?
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies
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