“Even my wife doesn’t understand my accent”

Scottish novelist and Chicago transplant Irvine Welsh on being a Scot in America
“Even my wife doesn’t understand my accent”

Ilustration by Marcus Butt

I doubt that being Scottish in America is a stranger experience than being any other nationality, though it can often feel a little weird. In the northern states, people often don’t know where you come from. I’ve been called Irish, Australian, English and a New Zealander. 

In the south, it’s a bit different. A lot of people there have Scottish roots. In West Virginia, some folk look, and even sound, as if they’ve walked straight out of a pub back home. Many are descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland Jacobites who, during the great migration west, simply stopped in the Appalachians, so reminiscent of their homeland, which is where they felt safe.

My home state of Illinois is dotted with Scottish place names — Elgin, Dundee, Montrose — but there’s little sign of an active diaspora. Without statehood, a country to reference as a political entity, it seems Scots are generally model integrators, becoming Americans very quickly.  

My given name sounds strange to my ears when uttered from American lips, pronounced Ir-vine, like the Californian college town (we drop the “e” in Scotland). But while I usually have no problems with voices here, my accent can present difficulties. My wife, who is from Chicago, knows when I’ve been back to Scotland. My tones thicken up from my slightly embarrassing gruel-like mid-Atlantic drawl into that glorious thick broth that nobody here can make out. If I mention that “my wife doesn’t understand me” at a party, it’s never meant as a pick-up line. 

I originally came to America for love, not money, but ended up in Hollywood, where my success as a novelist opened up a second career for me in film and TV. It’s far from the folklore of wretched, huddled masses shivering on Ellis Island. Whatever struggles I’ve had in life certainly haven’t taken place on American soil. 

The main thing I noticed when I arrived was the clamorous diversity. America is a glorious collision of hustling tribes and interest groups, each enjoying varied levels of privilege, alternately competing and cooperating with each other. That’s what makes it so exciting to somebody like me, who grew up in a relatively monocultural society. 

What other differences do I find? Americans are generally more in control of their emotions than Scots. They are more ordered and civil, particularly in the Midwest. They drink far less alcohol. 

As for what I love about the country, I’d have to start with the sense of optimism that burns incandescently in so many people. When you grow up with a toxic fusion of the “no ideas beyond your station” mentality of the British class structure, and the Scottish “that will never work” cringe, then the “you got this, buddy” enthusiasm of America is intoxicating. I’ve been fortunate to find more than my share of good people here. I’ve been shown a lot of love by this country and its people, and that’s ultimately the most beautiful thing.  

T2: Trainspotting, the movie based on the 2002 sequel by Irvine Welsh, will be released in the U.S. on March 3.