It was a typical Scottish day, just before the start of summer…cold, windy, rainy, and then of course the sun came out. This phenomenon repeated over and over again. As I made my way, alone, in the Scottish Highlands, I couldn’t help but think of Grant the Scot.
Grant…A Greek in all but name
Historian Sir Steve Runciman has in recent times identified Grant as a Scot who played a pivotal role in medieval Greek folklore. Previously, there was debate as to whether he was actually German. Runciman however makes it clear that he was Scottish, and the only Scotsman to fight for the Byzantine Greeks in 1453, during the siege of Constantinople.
Johannes Grant had somehow made his way, alone, just as I had in the Highlands, to the city of Constantinople to fight for the Emperor, Constantine Paliaologos. His heroic deeds in locating enemy Ottoman mines and launching counter mines beneath the City walls saved Constantinople for a period of 4 weeks before its capture. Grant was a Scottish adventurer and engineer who made his name in Germany. As Scotland was not widely known in Constantinople during his sojourn there, he fascinated the Greeks of the city.
His adventures provided me with much food for thought whilst I was in Scotland. Are there many Greek speakers in the country that gave us Sir Alex Ferguson and the Loch Ness monster? I paid a visit to Edinburgh and was able to take in the Greek Church and a Greek restaurant. I was told that there are anywhere from 2,000-6,000 Greeks living in Scotland at any one time. Almost half are students from Greece, and as the economic crisis continues to grow there, it is expected more people will find their way here.
My cousin Argyris Georgopolous lived and studied in Edinburgh for 4 years (1997-2001). He told me once that the city is considered the ‘Athens of the north.’ Indeed, in the UK, Edinburgh is seen by idealists as a type of ‘Athens’ due to its long intellectual and artistic history. Edinburgh was the main city behind the Scottish Enlightenment 1730-1800, with Voltaire once stating that civilisation looks to Scotland (and Edinburgh) for ideas.
Edinburgh is a beautiful medieval, romantic city. One could propose to their partner here (as I once nearly did) or just get lost amongst the amazing array of beautiful buildings. In some respects, it is quite similar to what I would come across in some of the bigger Greek cities. And of course there is a certain warmth and charm about the Scottish people, traits you will similarly find amongst the Greek people.
Argyris undertook English language studies and and English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. When we spoke, he fondly recounted his time in Edinburgh, the first city he had lived in outside of Greece. My cousin told me that he made a conscious decision to immerse himself in the local culture. ‘I had no interest in recreating the Greek culture abroad,’ he confessed. He was interested in meeting people from abroad and locally, learning about them and further improving his English. Although he was adept at English and French, it did take him a few months to work out the Scottish dialect and colloquialisms, but not before his Scottish friends had made certain of teasing him with local phrases.
For Argyris, whose grandmother was English writer and Phil Hellene Sheelagh Kanellakopoulo, it was an incredible experience, being grateful that he chose Edinburgh over any other city. Coming from Athens where it is mostly a homogenous city, Edinburgh was a taste of cultural diversity in an English language environment. These days, Argyris calls London home, however, Edinburgh will always be a special place in his heart.
Local Greek Orthodox Church
The Greek Orthodox Church of Edinburgh (Saint Andrew) is an interesting one, as it represents not just the Greek community. It also represents English, Scottish, Russian, Serbian, Romanian and other groups. The Church promotes the cultural heritage of Greece whilst welcoming people from different backgrounds.
An encouraging feature of the Church is that a good percentage of its congregation is made up of young students who are transient from Greece and other Orthodox countries. Visitors can make use of the cultural centre, attend meetings and lectures. The Church also provides outreach and care for the homeless.
There is a Greek School connected with the Church, offering instruction in Greek language and history. This is similar to what I have witnessed in places like Astoria in New York, were the Church plays a leading role in promoting the Greek language.
The Orthodox Church in Scotland was established in 1922 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and is under the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain.
Whilst my visit to Scotland was aimed at visiting the home of Grant the Scot, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Greek Orthodox religion and language is being taught here.
A Greek – Scottish Connection
To the best of my research the first Greek ‘visitors’ to Scotland were Hellenes from Argos who joined an English invasion of that country in 1545. The Greeks were led by Thomas of Argos whose courage and valour was heralded by Nikandros Noukios, a famous traveller from Corfu.
It was Winston Churchill who once said, “Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.” That is a big call, of course, comparing Scotland with Greece. One is an ancient country with almost 5000 years of contributing to civilisation’s advancement. The other is about 2000 years old and has made its mark on the world during relatively more recent times in medieval and modern history. Any comparison with ancient and medieval (Byzantine) Greece is difficult, for any country, let alone the country of Johannes Grant.
I have always marvelled at how resilient the people of Scotland are, they laugh in the face of adversity, and they understand the concept of being strong willed and proud. Traits that also held in high regard throughout the Greek world. When the Greeks, along with Grant defended the walls of Constantinople in 1453, they all displayed those qualities. Grant’s jovial and easy going nature endeared him to many of the Greek defenders.
The most famous Greek resident in Scotland is the soccer player, Giorgos Samaras who was born in Heraklion, Crete. He moved to Glasgow in January 2008 and plays for Celtic, having appeared in almost 200 matches for his club. Judging by his contribution to this famous club, it is likely he will be here for many years to come.
Scotland is one of the picturesque places anyone could hope to visit. The friendly people, the castles, the beer, and the kilts make for a fascinating visit. In some respects, the distinct culture of Scotland is somewhat similar to Greece. Just think about ‘philoxinea’ (Greek hospitality), the tsouliades (the traditional Greek dress for men), the ability to have a good time even when times are tough, and the resilience of both people. These are just some of the commonalities. Even though Grant did not wear a kilt, and nor did the defenders of Constantinople wear tsoulia outfits, it is interesting that men from both countries have these styles of national dress, a defining feature in modern identity for both.
Something else that caught my interest is the unfinished national monument that dates back to the 1820’s to honour Scottish people who died in the Napoleonic wars. Due to a lack of funds, the monument which is modelled on the Parthenon, was never finished. The Edinburgh version of the Parthenon is at Carlton Hill and any attempt to complete the project is usually met with a mixed reception by politicians and the public alike.
The dialect of the Lowland Scottish people is known as Doric, a reference to the Doric Greek spoken in ancient Sparta. The Lowland Scots are known as being a tough and proud people, similar to the mighty Spartans. However, I met a Scottish person who felt compelled to tell me that the ‘Doric’ is a meant to signify the Lowland speakers as speaking a less than poetic form of English in comparison to the rest of Scotland. This negative stereotype was similar to how the ancient Athenians viewed their rivals, Sparta, to stir up their opponents (history, of course, tells us what a bad move this was as the Spartans defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War).
I have spent 4 years in the UK (and many more years travelling abroad) and I can’t recall too many occasions were I have been called Greek. As it is, I am also Australian and this is what people abroad typically know me as. Ironically, in Scotland, I was referred to as a Greek! In Fact, I met some Australian people there and they too thought I was just a ‘Greek.’ It’s as if Scotland knew me better than I know myself, in terms of my nationality.
As I made my way to the train station in Edinburgh for my trip back to London, I was sporting a big smile. In Scotland, I had seen enough to know that the Greek presence can make its way everywhere in the world as can the Scottish. Grant knew he was the token Scotsman in a Greek city and for a few days, I felt like I was the token Greek in Scotland.