Thursday, 13 May 2010


You cannot imagine how significant the 17th May is to Norwegians. I am writing this in advance of the actual date because I fully intend to spend the next few days in contemplation. As one about to leave these shores and head home to a country where constitutional and parliamentary change is all the rage, I plan to spend the next few days deliberating the soul of this nation....what does it take to build a nation, and just what is the appropriate way to celebrate it once it has been established?

I know the Norwegians are far too modest to think they have everything absolutely right, but I have to say, the manner in which they mark their nation’s independence every year on 17th May seems to me to represent an excellent model for such occasions.

On 17th May 1814 Norway became a ‘free, independent and an indivisible realm’ according to the new constitution that was agreed on that date at Eidsvoll. The Eidsvoll Constitution was effectively a compromise between absolutism and democracy, with Norway declaring itself independent of Denmark but being forced within the same year to accept union with Sweden. It was not until 91 years later that Norway gained true independence and those words became a reality. The date, however, is extremely important. Everything stops, everyone is on holiday, children in particular play a central role in the celebrations as the whole country salutes itself.

For several weeks now, Norwegians have been out raking their lawns, planting pots and flowerbeds, cleaning windows and painting their houses, all in preparation for the 17th May. On this day, they will put on their very best clothes, usually the traditional ‘bunad’, and put out as many Norwegian flags as they can find. Many will take part in a parade of some kind....there are parades for school children, all sorts of organisations, and of course The Russ takes part too. The streets are lined with the most dressed-up population you could imagine, everyone in their finery, waving and cheering the parades as they pass by. The bunads flutter in the breeze, each one, if you happen to know about them, telling the story of where the owner’s family were from in Norway. Nobody wears jeans. Everyone is very smart. And Scotsmen are fully expected to wear kilts.

I find it enormously moving to witness such a universal celebration of national pride. I like the fact that everyone makes an effort. I positively envy the fact that the nation carries out a collective cleaning operation to make everything look its best (and on that note, I can only say that when I last saw the piles of rubbish lying about in some streets in Scotland, I could have wept). There is nothing jingoistic about 17th May, no axes to grind, no political messages being pushed is a simple, delightful, peaceful, dignified, almost innocent celebration of the nation. The Norwegians have known what it is like to live under occupation – their freedom is very highly prized.

There is no such equivalent in Scotland. The only times I have ever experienced anything similar to this atmosphere at home is the very different setting of a formal Burns Supper. When a Burns Night is at its very best, thought-provoking, inspiring, amusing, inclusive, and not being used as an excuse to score political points, it is vaguely similar to the experience of 17th May in Norway. However, Burns Suppers do not involve the entire population, they are indoors, in winter, and usually relatively sedentary. With St Andrew’s Day also occurring in late November, there is no obvious date for an outdoor national party. None-the-less, it seems odd we have no way of expressing our national pride in public and all together. One can only speculate as to just what sort of effect this has politically.

So, while I think about this, there will be no new posts until after 17th May. But don’t leave altogether...come back and tell me how you spent 17th May and what it meant to you. I shall be in packing mode as we prepare to move, but I still have a few more subjects to cover, so don’t go away.

Happy 17th May!

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