tartanA few weeks ago, I bumped into a gaggle of kilt-wearing Scots at London Kings Cross station, each of them carrying plastic bags full of provisions for the long trip north. They all lived up to the steroptypical image of a Scotsman abroad – tam o shanters, football shirts (new and vintage) and of course, the Saltire, the symbol of Scottish nationalism.

The sight of Scots expressing their national pride is not something we see too much in the south of England these days. When England used to play Scotland on an annual basis, every other year in London, we became accustomed to the bi-annual invasion, which was not always a pleasant experience. Now, we are restricted to images of Alex Salmond subtlely lifting the Scottish flag behind the Prime Minister when major sports events take place!

There was a time when most of Europe seemed to be populated by Scots on their travels. If you went to Spain during the 1970s, the Costa Brava and other celubrious areas of the Med were flooded by Scots on holiday. It was often a fractious experience and never more menacing than at a Thomson’s barbecue, when food and insults were hurled into the sub-tropical air. Football, invariably, informed the grand debate. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the balance of power had shifted north of the border, with Scotland recording wins both at Hampden Park and Wembley. The lager-sodden sons of Glasgow and Edinburgh lapped it up. “Flower of Scotland,” was the obligatory soundtrack of any evening in Sangria land.

There was rarely, if ever, violence between the Scots and the English, no matter how hard the former tried to provoke. For a start, they were a fearsome bunch and secondly, there were just too many of them. If ever there was a scuffle, it was more likely to be between Celtic and Rangers.

Occasionally, you would hear stories of how “Unca Douglas went to Lisbon to see the Lions and he’s still not back,” referring to Celtic’s legendary 1967 European Cup win against Inter Milan. Similar tales were told of Rangers’ European Cup Winners Cup success in Barcelona in 1972 and of course, the ill-fated Scotland World Cup campaign in 1978. While the English were seemingly football mad, the Scots’ passion was something else. “It’s the only thing we’ve got to look forward to – a game at Parkhead on the Jungle. Have you ever been to Glasgow?,” was one comment I still recall today. Put simply, wherever you went in Europe, indeed the world, you were sure to bump into a Scottish football fan asking, “Who’s the King?….Denis Law.”

Scottish football has, sadly, declined to a point where not only has the national team been consigned to also-ran status, but club football is almost at an all-time low. Moreover, very few – if any – Scots make it into the top clubs in England, a stark contrast to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when every successful English side had a Scot in its ranks. From 1960-61 to 1992-93 only a handful Football League championship –winning sides did not include a Scot – Manchester City in 1967-68, Everton in 1969-70, Liverpool in 1976-77 and Arsenal in 1988-89 and 1990-91.

Today, you’re hard-pressed to find a Scot anywhere, so you could be forgiven for thinking that the legendary Tartan Army may have dissipated in disillusion. But no, apparently, it’s alive and kicking as the strains of “Wee Deoch an Doris” at Kings Cross testified that morning.

There were no Wallace-esque banners about Bannockburn or Culloden, or demands for independence, but these Scottish fans were adamant that the hordes were still as passionate as ever about supporting Scotland. “There’s slightly fewer of us, because there’s less money around, and also, we’ve not been very successful in recent years, but those that do go to watch the lads keep the flame burning,” said one garishly tartaned fan who went by the name of “Tommy Baxter”. “We’re just waiting for when we rise again,” he laughed, hoisting his Saltire.

Another lad, “Aberdeen Jack” (from Gretna!) predicted fire and brimstone for the English game. “Wait a few years. You’ll see the arse fall out of the Premier. Then you’ll be keen to play us again. You see.”

His compatriot, “Macca”, who looked mighty fierce until I saw his Hamley’s carrier bag in which a cute teddy bear languished, said he sorely missed the annual Scotland v England clashes. “They were great times, kicking the backsides of the English team at Hampden,” he recalled, raising an imaginary can of lager to Ray Clemence, whose blunder has never been forgotten in Glasgow. “Cheers, Ray”.

The Tartan Army now manifests itself through a formal organization, “The Scotland Travel Club”, and has 35,000 members. It has its own tartan, needless to say, and to its credit, does a lot of good work for charity. It’s all very respectable!

Broken crossbars and urine-soaked tube trains aside, there was something grand about an England v Scotland game. Those days may never return, but even the most myopic England fan would admit to feeling a little saddened by the decline of the Scots. Just as Celtic need Rangers, Barca need Real and Arsenal need Tottenham, England need a reasonably competitive Scotland to enjoy the adrenalin boost of “local” rivalry.

Special thanks to Tommy, Jack and Macca for their time at Kings Cross – I hope their journey back from watching Scotland v Nigeria at Craven Cottage was a good one. I would hate to think that someone is still waiting for “Unca Douglas” to return from his travels!