It’s Not Just Sea Shanties—Scottish Energy Is Already Defining 2021

content-header__row content-header__hed” data-testid=”ContentHeaderHed”>It’s Not Just Sea Shanties—Scottish Energy Is Already Defining 2021From Nicola Sturgeon to the Brexit-harmed fisherman, Scots are capturing the moment’s pathos and humor in ways only they can.

January 15, 2021

By Andy Buchanan/Getty Images.

Now that TikTok’s sea-shanty fans have reached such cultural saturation that even Elon Musk is tweeting about them, everyone is eager to provide an explanation. We suddenly love sea shanties because of pandemic-era stress and isolation, or maybe it’s about depressing labor conditions, or simply the anarchy of TikTok’s algorithm. But the key to their success may lie with the person who kicked off the TikTok trend, and his fellow countrymen: Scottish accents are capturing something about the current moment that nothing else can.

Sea shanties are a well-documented international phenomenon, but it’s not a coincidence that one of the earliest people to go viral with one on the app was Scottish. Nathan Evans, a 26-year old postal worker who lives outside Glasgow, seemingly started the wider trend when a video of his rendition of the New Zealand folk song “Wellerman” racked up more than a million views and inspired tons of remixes, starting in the last week of December. His warm accent is what makes the song stand out, and his videos singing more traditional Scottish tunes have also taken off. “It went wild. I don’t really know what happened,” he said in an interview with CNET this week. “For me, it’s quite therapeutic because it’s just vocals and a bass drum, and people harmonizing.”

Despite our deep ties—a Scottish Tourism Board website points out that 34 of the first 44 U.S. presidents have Scottish ancestry—plenty of Americans are primarily familiar with a cartoonish vision of Scotland. There was Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, Mike Myers in Shrek, Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Simpsons’ beleaguered Groundskeeper Willie. Along with its obsession with 1960s tiki culture, sea shanties are a frequent concern of SpongeBob SquarePants, and in The SpongeBob SquarePants Experience, voice actor Clancy Brown says that he played Mr. Krabs as a pirate with “a little Scottish brogue.” (One of Evans’s more popular shanties, “Drunken Sailor,” serves as theme music for some scenes set inside the Krusty Krab.) 

These are all exaggerations, but listening to the real thing proves that few people combine pathos and humor more directly and soothingly than the Scots. It might be why Stuart Murdoch of the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian has spent much of the pandemic leading guided meditations, and the comedian Limmy, whose act humorously tackles depression and shame, has become a popular Twitch streamer. Actress Michelle Gomez was a late addition to HBO Max’s Kaley Cuoco–led murder mystery The Flight Attendant, but it’s difficult to imagine that show working quite as well without her steely assassin’s dry voice and occasional displays of shock and embarrassment.

As politics in both the U.K. and America have turned toward chaos, Scottish people and politicians have excelled at expressing a universal dismay—not exactly the rousing and mournful energy of a sea shanty, but maybe not so far removed, either. On January 1, the final stage of Brexit was completed and import and export rules changed, leading to widespread frustration—not least in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of staying in the European Union. And few expressions of rage have resonated quite like those of the Scottish fishermen, who have lost access to the European market due to delays. Despite his anger, Jamie McMillan, a manager for Loch Fyne Seafarms in the village of Tarbert, humorously threatened to bring all his rotting seafood to Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street in a video posted on Wednesday.

https://twitter.com/LochfyneLangous/status/1349381418804195328

Nicola Sturgeon, who has served as Scotland’s first minister since 2014, is no stranger to a bit of public saltiness, especially as coronavirus restrictions have made travel to and from Scotland contentious. In early December, she sternly declined to comment when asked about Kate Middleton and Prince William’s train tour making an incursion into her territory, and her government reportedly reached out afterward to Buckingham Palace to remind them that Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, should not be planning a holiday trip to their Scottish home.

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