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Lessons learned from Scottish life

Date: 6/13/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

As Gene Autry — look him up, kids — would sing, "I'm back in the saddle again" after a two-week vacation in Scotland. There I was pretty much "unplugged" — no email, no Facebook, no computer and it was glorious.

We packed in a lot, thanks to a very generous family whose hospitality was incredible.

Staying away from my electronic media addiction meant that I could concentrate on more important activities such as meeting many of my wife's family, attending a wedding for a beloved cousin and taking a dive into the deep end of the "All Things Scottish" pool.

Now I'm not one of those Americans who come back extolling the virtues of a foreign country at the expense of our fair nation. There is good and bad everywhere. I did make a number of observations about a few of the conditions and characteristics in Scotland that are worthy of a discussion here.

One of the obvious ones is the in-depth mass transit infrastructure they have there. Busses and trains connect much of the country in a way that made a visit by foreigners easy. Clearly there is a real cultural difference between Scotland and the United States when it comes to cars. Plenty of people own them, but they also use the mass transit options to go to work and to shop.

It's embarrassing to note that we don't even have commuter rail linking Springfield to Boston. Yes, we have busses, but a rail link should be available.

The mass transit options allow for Scots to commute to work and live in smaller communities outside of the larger cities without lengthy and costly drives.

Another aspect of the Scottish life I could appreciate was the preservation of the downtown business districts. We stayed in Renfrew, a historical town near Glasgow. Within a five-minute walk of one another there was a supermarket, a medical center, a butcher shop, restaurants, hair salons, barbershops and a variety of other businesses.

Apparently Renfrew and nearby Paisley — once a textile town that reminded me of Holyoke — had an even more prosperous downtown before the construction of a Holyoke Mall-style mall nearby. Although they are certainly popular, malls, as we know them, have not popped up all over the country.

The result is the downtowns, even on a Saturday afternoon, are alive with people shopping and hanging out. It was a delightful shock to see urban centers with so much life.

Of course many people live within walking distance or they can use the mass transit options to go downtown.

There is a lesson here about urban planning: if you take jobs and housing away from downtown areas, you can't avoid destroying your retail and service sector. The Urban Land Institute report on Springfield compiled years ago emphasized that to restore our downtown we have to have people living there.

Downtowns have to be mixed use. What have we done in Springfield for this goal?

Perhaps, we have a better chance to strengthen mini-downtowns in Indian Orchard and Forest Park neighborhoods of Springfield as well as reviving the downtown of Holyoke and advancing the redevelopment of Chicopee's downtown as those areas have more of that jobs/housing/retail mix now.

Westfield is also a candidate for this kind of redevelopment. Much has been done in local communities to revive downtowns on both the private and public sectors, but more needs to be undertaken.

Other lessons I learned: In a nation that produces some of the best beer in the world it was shocking to see American swill such as Budweiser on store shelves. My wife and I were also amused by several "Yankee Sweets" stores in Glasgow that carried Ike and Mike, Hershey products, Hostess Twinkies — how old were they? American soda and Marshmallow Fluff. In a country that has one of the finest chocolate lines in the world, Cadbury, why would anyone want a Hershey bar?

I guess people can't resist those sexy American imports!

The Scots love their newspapers — thank you — and there are quite a selection of dailies on the stands, including one that is simply soccer news and pin-ups. I wonder if that would work here?

Agree? Disagree? Drop me a line at or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.