BOOK REVIEW: The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, by Richard Holloway

Richard Holloway writes in The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death that all of us are guaranteed citizenship in ‘the great democracy of the dead.’ A typically witty and concise way of summarising human fate.

Holloway’s book is written with his characteristic gentleness of tone, but the themes are demanding and theological. In fact, the great strength of The Last Bus is that its author is able to masterfully distill terrifying and complex philosophical ideas into accessible, enjoyable prose.

A former Episcopalian bishop, and now something of a wistful agnostic, Holloway does not offer any priestly reassurances. His manner is more that of the Scottish headmaster you never had. A friendly but admonishing voice, urging us to face and accept the unknown. This may be a negative to readers hoping for self-help-style consolation. Holloway is artful and humane, but whatever hope there is in this book is to be found in strategies of acceptance, rather than of transcendence.

Early in the book, Holloway recalls visiting Kelham Hall in England, where he trained for the Episcopal ministry when he was still a boy. He finds this former haven of Christian contemplation converted into a luxury hotel, and the domed chapel hosting a colourful, Asian wedding. The austere beauty of his beloved church is now the home of a modern, multicultural union. Holloway is melancholy about the loss of his teenage memories in such a dramatic change, but insists that it also allows him to let go of it. Change can be wrenching, but without change, we would be left clinging to memories, stuck in moments that are now abstractions.

This introduces a theme which runs through all of Holloway’s meditations in the book. It is our clinging to experience that causes us pain. Time brings death and loss, but it also brings renewal, freedom and relief. If we cannot let go of what came before, we condemn ourselves to imprisonment in the past. The sense of nostalgia brings with it the heartbreak of disappointment. We are confronted with the dreams and hopes that never came to pass. But for Holloway, stark shifts such as that of a seminary becoming a luxury hotel can force us to release those disappointments, and to move on unburdened.

Holloway identifies himself with St. Peter, the apostle who began as a blustering and boastful defender of Christ but ended up betraying Jesus three times over when he was arrested. Holloway’s discussion of this biblical story centres around Peter The Penitent by Guercico (1639), which hangs in the Scottish National Gallery. Our image of ourselves is very rarely what manifests itself when we face the moment of truth, when our values are tested and our character is stripped of its masks. Like St. Peter, we are likely to burst into tears when we confront the horrible facts of our weaknesses, and the lies we have told ourselves about ourselves.

In the moment of betrayal, Christ looked upon Peter as the bible teaches he looks upon everyone, with compassion and pity. Jesus being human as well God, knows the self-deceits of the human heart. When Peter sees Jesus look at him with warmth and understanding, the apostle is thrown into shame and depression. Only when Jesus reappears after his resurrection and offers Peter a chance to atone, is he able to release himself from suffering.

Holloway seems to see the story of St. Peter as a way of viewing his own folly. It helps him confront the self-aggrandisement of his religious years, and to forgive himself for not living up to the self-image of the wise philosopher-scholar. The story also sheds light on the nature of forgiveness itself. We cannot undo the past. Peter cannot return to the image of himself as the fierce warrior of Christ. But Jesus’s pity gives him an opening to release the shame, and to move onwards in life with a renewed, more mature spiritual mission.

Quoting St. Paul in Romans, this leads Holloway to meditate upon the concept of ‘predestination’. We are sinners. We are weak in the heart and mind. We chose the very things we don’t want. But as Paul says, God is in charge and law is good. So in some sense even our sinfulness is part of God’s plan. We are who we are, warts and all, because God wills it that way. Our lives then, are predetermined. Though the passage from Romans has no definitive interpretation, its mystery would be the very faultline that fractured the church during the Reformation. Anyone interested in the minutiae of this theological controversy, will be impressed with how Holloway handles it here. He not only explains it in swift, approachable prose, but he manages to apply it to the everyday challenges of the human condition.

In acceptance of our sinful nature, we find the compassion necessary to forgive ourselves. We see that though we are responsible for our failures, they are also the product of our environments, the pressures of circumstance and countless forces acting upon our conscience. We may never be able to undo the damage done by our shortcomings, but we can learn from them if we are prepared to face the truth about who we are, without the posturing of narcissistic masks. Once we accept that we are not perfect, our imperfections cease to haunt us.

Holloway’s discussion of predestination marries well with his reflections on free will, earlier in the book. Again, a complex and persistent philosophical puzzle is tackled with a lightness of touch. To Holloway, free will is defined as the sense that we could have chosen differently, that we were somehow in charge. And it is a foundational notion to our sense of justice and free society.

But Holloway insists that our sense of control over our lives is at least partially a convenient illusion. Instead of being the supreme auteurs of lives, the truth is we are more like craftsmen. He cites a friend’s preferred metaphor, that our lives like woven cloth. The thread is inherited, the loom is time, and the pattern is often surprisingly complex. It manifests itself as we merely sit and work the mechanical process of our lives. We play a part, but there are many other forces that we can’t control, which will affect the outcome.

More examples can be found of Holloway’s ability to hit the sweet spot when distilling difficult problems into accessible prose. ‘Being dead is beyond or past experience. But dying isn’t.’ ‘The mind is its own place and does its own thing.’ Or, with a subtle wryness: fear of death is ‘an entirely ecumenical emotion.’

Holloway describes himself as having a ‘romantic temperament’, but he’s critical of this fact. As a child he dreamed of being a cowboy, escaping the central Scotland village he grew up in and discovering his great mission. This desire for new experiences, he says, stopped him from truly relishing the beauty of the world around him. Death, says Holloway, forces us out of this kind of romantic preoccupation. And if we cling to our ideals, we can do ourselves a disservice in failing to prepare for our end.

This somewhat jars with an earlier section of the book, where Holloway seems to affirm the power of beauty, the romance of ritual and creative sacrament in religion, in helping us to face death with defiance. In this discussion, Holloway says it’s through our songs and our imagination that we can find the only conquest of death available to us. Life after death, the notion of salvation, the promise of a messiah – all of these are ways of the soul remaining heroic in the face of our common fate. Through them we create meaning and beauty in our lives. ‘Death gets us all in the end, but it can never kill our songs. And that is they only victory they give us.’

So it seems odd that Holloway is so damning about the romantic instinct in a later chapter. Using John Wayne as an example, he seems to relish the difference between the projected image of cultural heroes and the ‘quotidian’ reality of their lives. Wayne appeared to be the paragon of courage and masculine resolve on screen, but he ‘finessed’ his way out of service during the Second World War. Only when the Duke was on his deathbed did he actually become heroic in real life. Certainly we must be cautious when revering images rather than genuine human character, but none of this condemns romance and the idealistic longing intrinsic in the human soul. Surely it possible to be both romantic and idealistic, while also accepting the facts of existence? The odes of Keats would stand in testament to that possibility.

That said, there is wisdom in the idea that if we spend our lives trying to escape who we really are, we risk losing the chance to see grace and beauty in death. The very shortness of life means we cannot afford to kid ourselves. Only by making friends with ‘the stranger’ that is our true self, can we hope to meet our end with strength, acceptance and poise.

Acceptance of our fragility does not imply capitulation to death. Rather it is a chance to show virtue in the face of that which we can’t control. As Holloway deftly puts it, ‘We didn’t get to deal our hand in life. We only got to play the cards we were given. And how we play the last card can win the game.’

The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death is published by Canongate and can be purchased here


Sovereignty and the EU: Some thoughts on constitutional values

Sovereignty is about more than just power. It is the agency and moral purpose of a culture.

Just as a human being needs a sense of meaning to survive, nations and societies need a sense of sovereignty to survive. And if we are to feel safe and flourish within a stable community, we all need to be part of a nation or a society.

Some associate the word ‘sovereignty’ with the ‘divine right of kings’, or with tyrannical rule, or they look at society and say that any idea of a common purpose must be a myth, a propaganda tool for the many vested interests that exploit the needs and desires of the common people.

There is no doubt that sovereignty has been used for these purposes throughout the centuries, and vested interests continue to make a mockery of the idea of a common social purpose and meaning. But the existence of transgressions against an ideal does not render that ideal empty and immoral.

Part of the reason we know that the Iraq war was wrong, or that the 2008 crash was a violation of social values, is because these things failed to live up to a sense of common duty about what our society means and should be aspiring to.

Though history is full of examples of abuse of authority, this does not mean that the office of authority is inherently corrupt. Part of the heritage of British constitutional development, for example, is the way that competing interests have amended public government over centuries to ensure that the various parts of society are represented.

From Magna Carta down through the reform acts and the women’s suffrage movement, society has evolved so that the constitution and the office of sovereignty is both broad enough to represent the diversity of citizens, and specific enough to ensure that certain tangible rights exist for everyone regardless of identity.

To say that the British constitution is a product of imperialism is simply ignorant. In fact, one of the tensions that brought an end to imperialism was the grassroots movement on home soil against what was clearly a form of hypocrisy about democracy and the rule of law. At home, every citizen had the same rights in terms of right to trial and a right to vote. However, in the colonies, the model government was tyrannical and in most cases proudly undemocratic.

As citizens at home started to claim their rights, expanding suffrage and ensuring access to health and education, the disparity of citizenship between colonial subjects and native Brits became untenable. It started to make a mockery citizenship itself.

Though the collapse of the British empire was complex and involved the domestic politics of subjected nations across the world, one thing that helped us to dismantle it, was the knowledge that claiming democratic rights at home while disregarding them abroad was devaluing the very moral value of society, and the authority that kept our justice system alive.

Sovereignty is the common purpose which binds the largest possible group of people together. When is a heap a heap? When is a society a society? There is no scientific answer.

There is however, a spiritual one. The office of sovereignty creates a symbolic representation of national values. This is something that has been degraded and scoffed at since the end of the Second World War. People blame the very idea of sovereignty and nationhood for the abuses of power that existed in Hitler and Stalin, and for the exploitative abuses at the hands of imperial ambition.

However, we cannot make the worst case scenario the test of nationhood. The practical truth of the matter is that we must live in community with each other, and there is a point at which a community becomes too big, or too inclusive to have a sense of common purpose and meaning.

Society has shown us that sovereignty can be expanded, that we need not depend on the tyrannical will of one man. However, history also shows that sovereignty has its limits. It needs boundaries to exist.

It is this tension between limits and inclusiveness that characterise democratic nations.

The most concrete example of this broad but well defined common national purpose can be seen in the American constitution. The very existence of it, regardless of what can be debated over its amendments, is a demonstration of common purpose.

The idea of a constitution is the idea that government should be limited, that the society exists for the flourishing of the individual. America’s Bill of Rights, states that all men are equal, and that citizenship exists in ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
This is a notion that goes back to Aristotle, who believed that the health of the state is intimately related to the health and privileges of the citizen.

Though Aristotle would not have put a primacy on individual rights, and his concept of citizenship was infamously limited to a select group of wealthy men, the birth of an ideal exists that far back. The ideal being that citizenship is the means by which humans become truly human, and that citizenship must allow the flourishing of the individual if the existence of the state is to fully justify itself.

Sovereignty, then, does not represent mere power. It represents the ideals of citizenship, and the authority by which that citizenship is granted. The Queen’s recent visit to Manchester to visit the survivors of the bomb attack, and to commend the men and women who cared for those victims, is a perfect example of the spiritual values of sovereignty in action.

The Queen understood that these people had embodied the very best of what she exists to represent herself. Courage, love of fellow man, sacrifice and above all, endurance, the sustaining of human life through correct action.

In short, sovereignty is a matter of collective experience, cultural heritage and common values, all thrown into one. Sovereignty is strongest when it emerges over time, through the constitutional adaptation over time.

Critics might point to the rather top-down nature of the nature of American constitutional values, that the country was birthed by a document written by a select group of ‘white men’ and that it did not emerge from centuries of cultivation.

Perhaps that is true, but American independence could not be said to be ‘nation-building’ in the sense of the European Union, or the many neo-conservative failures in recent decades. What came first were the values, and the American constitution was created so that amendments and adaptations could be made, and they are in fact encouraged, by the inherent structure of it. The values are secure, but the way those values can be embodied is always open to dialogue and dispute.

Sovereignty is the authority of the ages. It is the legitimacy of power, as well just the mechanism of power.

The American constitution gets its legitimacy because it offers the most basic human needs as its fundamental value system. Its failure to live up to those values might erode the faith people have that the system has their best interests at heart, but it does not erode the legitimacy of those values themselves. That was what the Civil Rights Movement was all about. Salvaging the values of the constitution, from those who abuse it.

What’s wrong with the EU

In both the American constitution, and the British constitution, it is important to notice that economics did not create the country, however much economic interests powered the energy of change that helped those constitutions to emerge. Rather, the values, and the desire for the largest amount of peace for the largest amount people, were the main drivers in creating sovereign societies.

The core problem with the European Union is that it seeks to create a state, a very large, and comparatively centralised one, out of nothing but trade deals. It is nation-building at the hands of economists.

As opposed to the ideal embodied in Magna Carta, the 1688 Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Arbroath, and the American constitution, the European Union is a state built on economic ideology, rather than commonly held values.

You could argue that the European Human Rights Declaration acts a document of commonly held values. However, that document is the not the chief constitutional document. It exists separately from the EU. And as the disputes over the Lisbon Treaty proved, the apparatus of state legitimacy is an ongoing post-hoc activity. First came trade deals, second came the values of statehood.

Why is this a problem? Because the citizen is of secondary importance at best, to the economic ideology that happens to govern the foundational trade agreements. If a society exists for trade agreements first and citizens second, how can you say that there is a binding set of values and common interests?

What we saw with Greece, was the imposition of economic interests, and financial ideologies, over and above the needs to citizenship. For those who wish to the defend the legitimacy of the EU, they will have to accept that citizenship is not the chief concern, but trade.

If they admit to that, and they really must, then they cannot claim that the EU places a fundamental value in human life, but only in wealth creation.


One of the chief problems in putting this criticism forward is that most people regard harping on about citizenship and sovereignty as archaic, unrealistic, anachronistic even. Economics, says the over-educated mob, has always been the driving force of society. Citizenship and constitutions, we are told, have always been the propaganda of the bourgeois.

Even conservatives will use this kind of line of argument, not realising that they are simply regurgitating oversimplified Marxism and class conflict theory.
Perhaps it is time for a refreshed idea of what a society really is, and the mechanism that keeps it together. It is time to see economics as part of a wider evolution of social values, not the other way round.

Why do I only criticise the Left? Because life’s about picking your battles, that’s why

Trump is a buffoon. Farage is a demagogic narcissist. Fascism is bad. Unaccountable power is bad. So what?

I see no need to join the chorus of people online sharing their outrage about things that are obviously wrong. So I don’t do it. The exercise frequently ends up in being one of self-congratulation and superior scoffing.

Public life depends on the health of public debate. And public debate depends on the integrity of the language that pervades the public space.


Far worse than even the bloody crimes of Hitlerism, are the crimes of rhetoric that allow decent people to become monsters in the name of supposedly “good” and “charitable” causes.

I know that I am the least enjoyable to be around when I am behaving like a boorish, righteous moron just because I know I have God on my side.

This is the state of the Left. Just because we fight for fairness, charity and equality, does not mean we are beyond criticism.

In fact, it means we deserve it more than the worst Rightwing fascists, because it is all the more difficult to see our faults as faults, and our crimes as crimes.

To those who say I don’t criticise the Right enough, and reserve my anger only for the Left, it is for the following reasons:

1. The Left depends more on consensus for legitimacy of argument, rather than disputation. The Right haven’t had a consensus since the fall of the church in public life.

2. Free speech is my biggest guiding value, and the Left seems hell bent of reducing this to some product of white supremacy and western imperialism. That’s horse shit, as the history of dissent and civil rights proves.

3. It is one’s duty as an independent mind to dissent from the opinions of your own side. That’s the only way you can trust the legitimacy of your views. It’s not about being contrarian, it’s about being committed to truth.

4. I know the face of the fascist Right, and I admit, I have underestimated its power in the last year. That said, I genuinely believe the Left’s ideological fanatics are a greater threat.

5. The danger of Left wing revolutionary fanaticism is that it really believes it has compassion on its side. The Right admit their love of hierarchy and divine right to rule, wheres the Left argue that their rage and violence is in the name of equality and good will. Nothing more worrying and threatening than that.

6. I believe the Left has forgotten its roots. It’s become about middle class people giving credibility to their bourgeois grievances. The ideological love of the EU is a great example. If people were really concerned with the working class they would know that globalism is a big threat to communities and social order, and it turns us all into “human capital” rather than human beings.

7. I see it as good practice as a Leftist to make my mind up issue by issue. I failed to do this in my younger years, and I was wrong. To be against fascism, the best weapon is reason, not ideology.

8. The Left failed in its response to the France massacres over the last year and half. The reluctance to hold Islam responsible for the fanaticism of its current factionalism, is fake compassion. I notice that many on the Left don’t give Catholicism the same free pass.

9. I have changed my views only in so far as I no longer believe western democracy and constitutional values (equality under the law) is the product of, or necessarily connected to imperialism. I notice that many on the Left still cling to this conflation. In truth, the constitutions of western liberal democracies are the only things standing between the world and tyranny, however flawed, corrupt and war-mongering their supposed advocates have been.

10. I don’t and never have actually, subscribed to Marxism. What little I have read of Marx, I respect him the way Muslims respect Christ, not as The Prophet, but as one among many dissenting philosophers whose voices were needed to end aristocratic tyranny.

I am an Oscar Wilde, William Morris leftist, and I believe beauty is truth and truth is beauty.

I am a classical liberal, and to say that does not make me a conservative. Far from it. Nor does it make me “alt-right”.

If the only way you assess someone’s progressive social conscience is by whether they virtue-signal, and rant against Trump and Nigel Farage or not, then you have a very simplistic view of politics. Politics becomes just a fashion statement.

There are plenty of issues that I don’t talk about online. Plenty of things I feel very passionate about, that I don’t feel the need to profess.

From the decline the Scottish fishing industry, to the justice system in Pakistan, I have many things I care about, but am not able to contribute anything change-worthy to.

The Left’s shift of focus to identity politics endangers public life itself. If we can’t disagree with each other, we don’t have a society.

This is a battle that I not only want to fight, it’s the number one battle I know I am fit for. I know I have the tools and the skills, the ideas and the passion enough to defend liberty over ideology.

There are many other battles worth fighting, and many other liberal issues to shout about.

However, this is the one area in which I know I can have the greatest effect. If I seek to challenge the seductive, intoxicating virtuousness of ideological thinking, then I am making the world a better place in the only way I have a hope of doing so.

I can’t get rid of the Trumps of this world. Neither can you. But we can stamp out the desire for simplistic political causes among ourselves, and thereby hold public life to a higher standard in the process.


Why Conor McGregor is the new Muhammad Ali

Conor McGregor is the celtic Muhammad Ali.

He proves the point that the greatest weapon of a fighter is his character.

McGregor is a martial artist. He understands that a fighter is also a poet, someone who must manifest values and embody truth.

Nate Diaz has one strategy, and that’s to keep going forward and beat the other guy with superior technique.

McGregor understands that a fight is won in the mind, like Ali did.

Here are three things I learned from Conor McGregor after UFC 202:

1. We win or we learn
2. Hard work protects you from critics
3. Being honest with yourself doesn’t mean beating on yourself

1. Mental strength doesn’t come from intellectual will. It comes from emotional reserves. As much as McGregor was damaged by his loss to Diaz at UFC 196 – and his image was tarnished as a public figure – none of that destroyed him. You can only come back from that kind of loss if you draw on your sense of self and your sense of moral purpose from a place that is independent of wins or losses. Whatever it is that drives McGregor, victory is only one part of what he loves about his job. His mental strength comes from a deeper place.

2. How do you avoid the toxic effect of ringside critics? McGregor said that everyone from pundits to fight fans, wrote him off. It’s true. By his own admission, Conor’s fight camp was much more structured than before. He treated it like a nine to five, set himself tasks and completed them. The business of work keeps us grounded. Greatness and poetry and beauty and bloody victories all come from the same place – dedicated concentration on the task at hand. This is the only thing that keeps you grounded in an age of selfies, social media witch-hunts and opiniontainment.

3. Something Conor said in his post-fight press conference interested me a lot. He talked about how he had to take a good hard look at himself, to analyse his weaknesses and vulnerabilities as a fighter. Too often we confuse confidence with invulnerability, with being impervious to criticism. Again, the fact that McGregor draws his emotional and mental strength from deeper reserves than a boom or bust bank account of the heart, means that he has the objectivity and maturity to do that. Criticising ourselves, being ruthlessly honest, doesn’t mean we have to beat on ourselves. In fact, it can be the best way to love yourself – you are effectively confirming your potential for greatness, by admitting to yourself that you have more work to do.



Like I said, I am no MMA expert, but I do understand the psychology of how fights are won.

Any martial art is a spiritual practice. The person least enslaved by their temperament and subconscious drives is always the ultimate victor.

Like Andy Murray in tennis, I see Conor McGregor as a hugely important cultural figure. He shows the celtic fringe nations that fierceness and warrior prowess have little to do with anger and volatility.

A warrior is someone with complete command of his or herself, and it was this command that led McGregor to victory at UFC 202.

Adventures in old songs: The irreverent freshness of Alasdair Roberts

‘I don’t really consider myself a folk singer,’ says Alasdair Roberts, whose music is steeped in traditional influences.

Alasdair shuns the label not out of some desire to avoid being pinned down, but because he feels certain words are ‘fraught with problems.’

‘Some people think of me as a folk artist, not sure if I do myself,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I do. In some ways it’s an adequate description, but in other ways it isn’t really.’


Alasdair also doesn’t like the cliches and associations with being an ‘acoustic artist’.

Though he has done his fair share of the stripped back, raw, one-man-and-guitar approach, Alasdair doesn’t seem to have an attachment to any particular style.

Having started out as an experimental and electronic artist, this makes sense. His primary interest is in the sound, not in the dogma or the genre.

Alasdair’s latest self-titled album has a warm mix of instrumentation and individuality.

He gives the impression that he would like to do more work with other musicians, and not be tied down to preconceived notions of the lone folk balladeer.

‘I think a lot of people, they think that they are getting something, because of the intimacy, “authentic”. But these words are fraught with problems. “Authenticity” and “honesty”.

‘People feel that they are getting that with this kind of approach. A stripped back approach makes people use words like that, and when I read reviews of my records with words like that I don’t really like it. It makes me uncomfortable.’

Alasdair’s music is infused with traditional music and stories.

He often peppers his live performance with new interpretations of classic ballads and can bring large audiences to utter stillness with his unaccompanied renditions of these songs.

Alasdair’s advantage as a ballad singer is that he doesn’t rely on established approaches, and he’s not referencing any nostalgic oeuvre.

Scottish music in particular suffers from this nostalgia, and can often be dismissed and avoided by modern audiences for its perceived corniness.

In short, British folk music can sometimes suffer from an image problem.

Alasdair, being a sound artist first, brings your focus onto the song, and the song only.

But if he doesn’t consider himself a folk singer necessarily, why turn to folk songs?


‘I’m attracted to the song form in particular,’ he explains.

‘I think when comes to traditional song, in Scotland or elsewhere, it’s the ballad or narrative songs that appeal to me, and have done for a long time. So I suppose in that sense I suppose I could be regarded as a folksinger.

‘But I feel like I am trying to act creatively with traditional material. My own writing draws on quite traditional sources a lot of the time.’

There is a marked difference between his approach to traditional forms and his own writing, however.

When interpreting old songs, he still pays respect to their simplicity, and to the heritage of melodies that they provide.

Alasdair’s own self-composed work, however, is broad reaching, drawing on multiple influences and he seems to go out of his way not to let a song be dictated to by style.

Each piece has its own identity, and invents its own rules.

Alasdair recalls his first adventures in sound recording, which were anything but traditional.

‘I started out recording in my bedroom when I was like sixteen or seventeen. Well, I started recording stuff then,’ he says.

‘I bought a four track when I was seventeen, and I spent a lot of time as a teenager alone in my bedroom recording music. At that time it was more just sonic experiments, it wasn’t necessarily about songs.’

The concernen with texture and sonic impact is something that has lasted in Alasdair’s approach, particularly in his live performances.

But his background and family heritage were steeped in the Scots folk tradition. With a father who was a folk musician, Alasdair says he remembers old records from the likes of Alex Campbell in his father’s collection.

Was there a sense of reacting against all that in his early musical identity?

‘I think so,’ he admits. ‘And I think that tension sort of remains. Sometimes it’s felt more keenly in the work than at other times. But I think that’s quite typical of a lot of Scottish artists of my generation.’

Where does the resistance come from? Is it wanting to avoid cliches, or the familiar?

‘An association with conservatism, small-mindedness, and backward looking, retrogressive impulses.’

That ‘remaining tension’ could be the source of Alasdair Roberts’s piercing and arresting performance style.

When playing live, there is a constant need to explore, to avoid the predicted result and find a new way of saying what’s been said already.

Alasdair continues: ‘After a while the question of conservatism didn’t really bother me.

‘I didn’t feel that exploring or having an interest in an art form that one perceived as something conservative necessarily entailed that you as the explorer of that art form were conservative.’

This balance of exploration and conservatism is prevasive in Alasdair’s work, and he now embraces it fully.

He says that the influence of a presbyterian culture may be the source of puritanism in the Scots folk tradition, and as a result its tendency to get trapped in repetitive tropes and associations.

However, Alasdair is wary of getting into any political or cultural speculation, and though he recognises the Scottish heritage, he doesn’t consider it – or anything else – the dominant influence on his creativity.

‘I suppose on some level there was an exploration of Scottish identity,’ Alasdair explains, ‘but then my repertoire has never been exclusively Scottish. I sing English and Irish and American songs too.’

Like any good sound artist, the environment and immediate sensory resources are where Alasdair seems to get his impulses to write.

‘There’s a historical influence and the traditional influence comes from these older recordings and things, but then there is the very immediate contemporary influence of the people I am working with in the moment.

‘I live in Glasgow, and I’ve lived there for about twenty years, and its very vibrant musical community so we just absorb the atmosphere of what’s going on.

‘Different projects of the people you work with, that’s more of an influence than saying I’m influenced by Bob Dylan or something.’

Even when it comes to traditional material, the sense of exploration and freedom still fuels the process.

Alasdair explains that one song can change identity each time you sing it, and that this is part of the power of old songs.

He says: ‘The Cruel Mother, I’ve probably been singing that for fifteen years now. And the way I approach it now is completely different than the way I did ten of fifteen years ago.

‘And I am sure as I grow and mature, and as I experience things in my life, it will enrich my approach to that song.

‘And hopefully the way I sing that song in fifteen or twenty years time will be totally different to the way I sing it now. You can always find different things in the song to explore.


‘Different ways to think about it. Different ways to think about the characters and different ways to bring those characters across.’

This fluidity and adaptability are essential to Alasdair Roberts as an artist. But it’s the fact that this sometimes irreverent freshness meets with traditional forms that makes his work so important and unique.

As long as Alasdair Roberts continues to perform, Scottish folk song can properly be called a ‘living tradition’.

Alasdair Roberts will be performing a two-day residency at London’s Cafe Oto on February 10-11. 

Tickets can be purchased here

For more information visit 


The Language Of Liberty: Three Things I Learned From Robert Burns

Robert Burns was a libertarian. Everywhere in his verse you find the subtext of a broad egalitarianism and the burning question asking – by what right do our rulers tell us what to do?

Perhaps copying Shakespeare, he was able to insult the ruling classes while at the same time flattering them.

Robert Burns

Robert Burns was able to insult the ruling classes while at the same time flattering them

Here are three things I learned from Robert Burns:

  1. Scotland’s Enemy’s Within
  2. The Rank Is But The Guinea’s Stamp
  3. The Language Of The People Is Inherently Dangerous


The Enemy Within

The song Parcel of Rogues in a Nation is a song condemning the merchant and aristocratic elite for taking bribes from their counterparts to agree unfair terms in the Act of Union of 1707.

The great crime of the union was never its existence. The idea dates as far back as the Scots historian John Mair, and was a favoured idea among even the most radical and patriotic Scottish scholars like George Buchanan.

You could even say the Scots invented the union!

No, Burns’s Parcel of Rogues serves a reminder that the enemy of the Scots is the Scots, the presbyterian Bourgeoisie, the mercantile class and bankrupt Lairds who readily sold not just the land of their nation but the spiritual spine of it too, for the sake of a corporate fiction: Great Britain.

Burns was not anti-union, he was simply ashamed of way philistines within Scotland bargained away the identity of a people to line their own pockets.

The wounds of this tawdry deal go deeper than simply the Act of Union. They exist because of a loss of culture, the stripping of a people’s identity overnight.

Dismantling a state is just as artificial and traumatic as trying build one. If there is to be Union it should be fair, organic, and forged over time, not bought at the cheapest price.

The Rank Is But The Guinea’s Stamp

The line comes from A Man’s A Man For A That. It is easy to overlook the power of a line like this in Burns’s time. The sentiment was by no means taken for granted, and it gets its bite from the political backdrop of the times.

The aristocracy was becoming increasingly reliant on industrial investments and empire to prop up its political power.

Nevertheless the elites still considered themselves born to rule, and in an English centric monarchy, divine right of kings was still a resonant concept.

The idea is also essentially Scottish. There are class distinctions in Scotland but you’ll be hard pushed to find anyone with any illusions of birth and entitlement.

So much of Burns’s poetry is invested in the idea that all human beings are fundamentally the same, that no one set is born to rule over another, and that one group’s claim to power is grounded in nothing but the might of the sword.

A line like this puts him firmly in the Republican, pro-French Revolution camp, and it was a dangerous camp to be in.

One of the sad things about the bourgeoisie is that they don’t do away with aristocratic entitlements. They just claim them for themselves. That is Thatcherism in a nutshell.

You too can have a piece of the pie.

Still more ironic is the tendency to protest too much about one’s working class roots.

This marred Burns’s literary contribution in his own time, and it taints his legacy today. All the haggis bashing and twee, tartan flummery around Burns Night is testament to that.

The Language Of The People

That Burns’s writing in the Scots tongue is broadly considered just a sentimental curiosity is tragic, but it’s exactly what happens to any writer who attempts to distil the language of real folk.

It happened to Kerouac and the Beats, when they wrote in the authentic hepcat hip-talk of street hustlers and isolated artists.

In both cases the language was real, in no way an affectation. But a bourgeois audience integrates it and it ends up having the opposite of the intended effect, which is to present reality, rather than the pasteurised symbolism of middle class culture.

Despite this, the fact that higher classes feel the need to sanitise any folk aesthetic demonstrates how dangerous it always is, particularly when it comes to language.

We talk a lot about the tragic loss of gaelic culture, but what is equally tragic is the loss of Scots culture, and the heritage of its linguistic development.

Language determines the psychic possibilities of a man and his culture. Burns knew this, and his achievement was bold and cannot be undone.

The secret buried in the Scots tongue is this: that Scottish culture is an amalgam of Anglo-saxon/Norman and celtic aesthetics and heritage.

Those that overemphasise the celtic roots of Scotland are not being inaccurate, they are just lacking in thoroughness.

What makes Scotland unique compared to any of the other nations of the British Isles is this convergence of saxon/Norman and celtic cultures, and the ease with which these they are blended in the language.

Burns’s hero Robert Ferguson was the braver of the two poets; he died in Bedlam for his Scots verse.

But Burns made sure that however drowned in anachronisms and petty nostalgia Scots language culture continues to be, the truth of its gravity and power is there for any of us if we want it.