Whatever Happened to ‘the Scottish Tut’?
The Scotsman, August 22nd 2009
Many years ago growing up in Dundee I felt the tangible sense of stuffiness and stodginess.
This was caused by the pervasiveness of ‘the Scottish tut’ by which complete strangers felt that they had the right to go around telling others off, looking at them as if they were beneath them, and uttering that stellar rebuke, ‘the tut’.
Growing up you could almost sense this attitude in the air; it seemed to linger about in the ether and give the atmosphere a heavy, thick feel which almost hemmed you in. The power of ‘the tut’ was all the more for the fact that it could be either quietly said or whispered, or reduced to a look and glance of disapproval.
A whole host of heinous crimes could produce ‘the tut’, from obstreperous youth being noisy and enthusiastic, to the sin of wearing something not in keeping with Calvinist Scotland such as a loud, flowery shirt or unusually coloured trousers. Or even worse getting above your station and coming over all high-falutin!
This was a generational cultural war. And sometimes a gender one. For the people who tutted were either middle-aged or elderly, and frequently, women, and they found great pleasure in expressing their disapproval for some of the actions of youth or people who dared to step out of line. Sometimes it seemed hand-to hand, street by street combat; just like Stalingrad I imagine but only more intense!
Maybe the power and reach of this attitude was more pervasive in smalltown places such as Dundee which despite being a city always felt smaller than Glasgow or Edinburgh, but I have no doubt this was a Scottish-wide phenomenon.
Slowly and imperceptibly at first the power of ‘the tut’ weakened. Generations of Scots from the post-war affluence of the 1950s onward, stood up against being told off, ostracised and whispered about. They dared to express themselves, or do the sort of things young people have always done such as hang around with other young people!
Slowly we won the freedom and lightened the air of much of Scotland: a liberation struggle which has yet to win the international recognition it deserves! In so doing we created a society which has much in common with everywhere else, where people are now unsure or scared to tell off miscreants for such bad behaviour as audible, usually banal mobile phone conversations, loud music, petty vandalism and offensive language.
In the course of a couple of generations we have travelled from the all-powerful King Tut which could carry all before it to a very different kind of ‘tut’ which is internalised, disgruntled and is frankly powerless.
This Little Tut is often now articulated by people who grew up experiencing the last wave of the King Tut and who rebelled against their elders general stuffiness, telling them ‘to stop going on about the war’ and railing against their ‘general squareness’.
This new ‘tut’ does not get us very far because it does not change anything and leaves people feeling frustrated and unsure about the codes of modern life.
Those middle-aged women in Dundee in my childhood were advocates of a very Scottish attitude: inheritors of a very stiff, static, proud civic conservative culture. Whereas today’s ‘tut’ is part of a general disenchantment with modern life found across the Western world, which people have unsureness about how to articulate and what behaviours they can challenge.
The Scottish journey in this has been to become a freer, looser, more tolerant society, but one that is ultimately more unhappy and insecure. A place which likes to revel in its Scottishness and sense of difference, but often via a very ‘official’ sense of identity, while in another sense, becoming just a bit like everywhere else.
I don’t miss the Dundee women or their famous ‘tut’, but somehow without them life feels a little more scary and unpredictable.