On my first foray into the Scot lands in 2009, I stayed at a charming hostel perched on the edge of Loch Ness and hobnobbed with the venue management over drinks in the evening. Inspired, as I recall, by a customer’s sordid tale, the bartender imparted to me a truism, as she implied, on Scottish temperament: if you fall and crack your head open on the curb, the Scots will pick you up, dust you off, and send you on your way with a bandaid and a pat on the back. I did not, of course, take this story literally. But I did infer from it that the Scots were a laid back sort of people, warm but resilient and able to take a few knocks. In a world of ever-growing restrictions in the name of public safety, I was attracted to the idea of a more relaxed climate and attitude toward personal responsibility.
When I was a wee whipper-snapper, my favorite playground equipment was a horizontal bar just high enough from the ground for me to do flips on. Nowadays, at least where I come from, you’ll rarely see so much as a metal slide (burn hazard) much less anything you might risk cracking a skull on. And the red tape isn’t limited to the little people; try to sit, stand or walk anyplace not strictly approved for the purpose and you’ll be yelled off on charges of “safety.” I can only assume that this pattern of paranoia is a product of the lawsuit culture in the United States. The “safety” really being referenced is the city or the property-owner’s protection from liability. Even erroneous lawsuits are costly and damaging to reputation. I was looking forward to living some place where the laws were a little more permissive and I could explore my environment without fear of being yelled off by the authorities. After all, if I want to stand in the shower while drying my hair, that’s my right as an idiot.
At first blush, my intuition seemed sound. As I was discussing job prospects with a local friend, he mentioned that Law was not a very lucrative discipline in Scotland, as there just isn’t enough work to be had in the field. A fascinating idea, coming from a place where Law is considered an extremely responsible degree with excellent prospects. So it is all the more confounding to discover that, far from the land of hard-knocks I had envisioned, Scotland is extraordinarily regulated.
The last time that I lived in school-accommodation, I was dumped into a small apartment with three other people and then immediately and entirely forgotten until the rent came due. The contrast with my latest experience is enough to make you long for the days of administrative apathy for your existence. In the Halls at St Andrews, not a week goes by that something isn’t being tested, inspected, handled and branded for safety regulation compliance. It’s an active, ongoing cycle that can’t be buggered to back off while semester’s in session. One day the porter needs access to inspect the fire equipment, another day it’s the ever-foreboding shower head that requires immediate investigation. Cleaning inspections run monthly, and our adrenalin systems – that is, the fire alarms – are tested Every. Single. Tuesday. Morning.
Additionally, each semester an electrician requires permission to enter the premises and test every cord, contraption and cable that ever even dreamed of harboring an electric current. He then glues a large purple sticker to each and every device lest it be caught horrifically naked and unstickered and summarily confiscated. From where I sat on the bed after the electrician had had his way with things, purple stickers could be seen adorning the television, television cables, refrigerator, dishwasher, thermostat, lamps, stove, tea kettle, and the kitchen sink. (Okay, that last one was a bonus.) And personal possessions were not immune: everything from my laptop to each individual mobile charger had been tagged. It reminded me of an old roommate who used to put stickies on all of her property with the words, “Do Not Touch!” throughout the apartment. I was discovering formerly unnoticed stickers for days.
But the height of the insanity snuck up, as it often does, in the wee hours of the night. I was awoken one Tuesday morning to the soothing sound of an electric trill. As I slowly drew myself up from the alternate universe of unconsciousness, I calculated the date. Yes, it was Tuesday. Fire alarm test. The trilling stopped and I drifted back toward the siren call of blissful slumber. The alarm sounded again and my eyes popped open, landing on it suspiciously. I checked the time on my mobile: not yet 5am. Was the system glitching? Tripping a few hours too early? Was this a real alarm? I couldn’t smell smoke or hear screaming. Most likely it was a glitch or a drill, but I hadn’t read anything on the noticeboard about the latter, so I had to prepare for the worst. If I was going to be standing outside in the Scottish night for untold hours, I’d need protection from the cold. I pulled on my jacket, shoes and hat. Should I save anything? I started to leave empty handed, then reconsidered and went back for my laptop – that way I could let my family know what was happening and keep busy until (something like) order resumed. I proceeded cautiously, checking closed doors for heat, then finally exited the building. I skirted the large crowd loitering just outside the door and put some distance between myself and the prospective inferno, looking back to search for signs of smoke. I noted that no authorities had yet arrived, which I would expect even in the case of a false alarm. Just as I was wondering how long we’d have to wait, I heard a voice announce from the crowd that we were free to return. A drill. It was all just a drill – a thing I have not experienced in twenty-odd years, and never in the dead of night. And not just a drill, but a timed one. The Warden was less than impressed.
Presumably, all this safety paranoia in the Halls stems from an administration in abject fear of over-protective parents, many of whom may hail from the lawsuit-happy U.S. But the regulation-frenzy isn’t relegated to the Halls. I had another surprise when I attempted to access a classy website catering exclusively to adult sensibilities on my mobile. Mobile providers, and indeed internet providers as well, block any and all 18+ content by default. Even high brow literature, such as I was plainly seeking, is not immune. It’s not enough to be the authorized owner of a device – access to, shall we say, sophisticated content requires not only a manual change in the Account settings but the submission of a valid form of ID. Since I don’t have a Scottish driver’s license and am opposed to censorship on principle, I had to proffer the exhaustively long serial number attached to my government-issued passport. Short of these, you won’t sample a paper thimble’s worth of undressed vanilla. Since “adult sites” can be interpreted very broadly, you’d be surprised how much falls behind the veil.
A less salacious shock came in the form of counter-shock measures. UK regulations do not permit any outlets in the bathroom, with the solitary exception of one exclusively for shavers built into on a small lamp above the mirror, presumably to keep it sufficiently removed from sources of electrocution. It is also not uncommon for switches in the bathroom to be on pull-cords, reputedly to prevent wet hands coming in contact with electric outlets. I don’t know if this has anything to do with light switches generally being located outside of the room they are intended to light, but I am certain that they are an endless resource for pranksters and small children.
Scotland isn’t quite the land of hell-hardened warriors that I thought it was, but the overbearing public oversight isn’t all bad. There are a number of social services that we could use in the U.S. When I went to order tickets for a show, I found discounts offered not just to seniors and students but to the unemployed. The railway even provides an avenue for mature students, like myself, who ordinarily age out of student benefits to prove our academic status to qualify. Tenants are liable for property taxes, known as tarrifs, but these are waived for undergraduate students who rent privately. And there are full-service discount stores here selling the same essentials (like mulled wine) you can buy at the more expensive chain stores for a fraction of the price. St Andrews is considered by the locals to run toward the high end in cost-of-living, and judging by the way property prices plummet as you head out of town, that must be the case. But coming from the Bay Area of California, living has never looked more affordable.
So, Scotland may ere more on the side of a Coddling Nursemaid than a Nanny-state and be refreshingly lawyer-free, but until the day that I can surf my laptop from the bathtub, it will never be the savage land sold to me by Braveheart and a little bartender at Loch Ness.