"Scotland the Brand": National Collective

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This article was first published on the National Collective website on July 29, 2014

While I believe there are many reasons for independence, cultural awareness and cultural confidence are fairly high on my list. My hope is for a culturally democratic nation free from barriers that implicitly or explicitly prevent citizens from individually or collectively engaging with culture. Hope for a society that sees creative artistic expression as a fundamental human right, not as something reserved for the privileged few. I believe that the more knowledge we have about the culture of our own place, the more we see the connections between other cultures and our own. It is my dream that future generations will have confidence in their own voice, who they are and where they come from.

Last week we collectively cast our gaze upon the tartan spectacular that was the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow’s Celtic Park. It was a chance to tell the story of the nation and showcase the best of ‘Scotland the Brand’ to an international audience. Of course, such performances are unable to fully capture the full extent of a nation’s character, heritage and contribution to the world. To put it lightly, it seems to have divided opinion. Some loved it as a lighthearted and self-conscious send up of our global image; others cringed at the quirky pantomime of giant haggis, inflatable Nessie and dancing tea-cakes. Unlike some who tweeted that the quirky display on offer points to the fact that Scotland ‘isn’t quite ready for independence,’ my own view is that the performance of the infamous tartan monster we all witnessed is as clear a reason as any that Scotland is absolutely ready – and desperately needs – to vote Yes.

There were elements of the show that were colourful, full of hope and mesmerisingly beautiful. Billy Connolly’s tribute to Nelson Mandela and South African singer Pumeza put Scots language and internationalist values centre stage. The inclusion of ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ painted Scotland as a welcoming nation keen to make right and take responsibility for its part in the Empire. The whole world heard it, and it was wonderful. There were other elements that were mesmerising in not such a beautiful way. Many have already done a fine job of deconstructing the glorious pastiche that was, so I’d rather take some time here to reflect on why this performance might have inspired such a polarised and impassioned reaction.

Some would argue that the so-called ‘cultural cringe’ that many experienced fairly forcefully watching the Opening Ceremony is undoubtedly the result of our diverse and plural culture reduced to a single narrative and seen through another’s gaze, whether that be the British lens or authorised by Hollywood. Culture is all-too-often something that happens ‘at’ us and not something we ourselves create. That is why it is so wholly transformative to encounter our own culture – local, regional, even national –  projected back at us, on our own terms, not always mediated by another.

It is a well-known story that during the 1950s, Hollywood producer Arthur Freed went to Scotland to search for locations for the shooting of his all-singing-all-dancing feature, Brigadoon. He visited the most representative and picturesque sites of the land, but was not convinced of the ‘Scottishness’ of these places. Famously, he decried, “I went to Scotland, but I could find nothing that looked like Scotland.” As his words reveal, the filmmaker was not looking for Scotland itself, but for something that resembled what he wanted Scotland to be: a dream world of pre-industrial crofting villages and peculiar folk customs. In the end, he decided to shoot the film in a Hollywood studio, where the Scottish essence could be ‘faithfully’ recreated. As was to be expected, the result was a film which offered a highly romanticised representation of Scotland far removed from reality: filled with sounds of bagpipes and the sights of kilts and bonnie lassies, harmless and colourfully dressed people whose only apparent motivation in life was to sing and dance. Every 100 years, the people of Brigadoon awaken for a 24 hour period and then go back to sleep for another century, while Brigadoon itself vanishes in the mists.

Of course, every country has its stereotypes, iconography and clichés.  “Surely this is all just harmless good fun,” you might ask? Well yes, in most cases. The problem with such superficial stereotypes is not that they exist (indeed they always correspond to some aspect of reality) but that they fail to reflect the plural nature of any culture. Images, myths and fictions are inadequate accounts of the reality we experience. A research project  exploring the relationship between children’s geographies and the construction and representation of nations and nationalities published in 2001 asked primary school children to draw images they associate with their identity. What transpired were the usual bagpipes, saltires and thistles; not the stories of their family, their local communities, their local places. When a generation of young people define themselves solely by such empty superficial stereotypes that bear no relation to their own lives, relationships or communities, how can we expect them to take themselves seriously as global citizens?

Professor of History of Scottish Art at Dundee, Murdo MacDonald, recently commented:

One of the drivers of my own commitment to independence has been my acute awareness of how ignorant I once was of my own culture except in the form of stereotypes.

This is so often the case. There is so much more to Scotland’s cultural identity and yet so many proudly and fiercely defend such stereotypes as absolutely central to their identity. The insidious effects of this are difficult to measure but I’d wager that it has had an incredibly harmful effect on collective cultural confidence. Moreover, it can – and has been – argued that these contested symbols are part of a national ideal that stands in direct opposition to democratic processes and social transformation.

In the 1970s, Tom Nairn famously proclaimed the vast presence in Scotland and abroad of tartanry – shorthand for the kitsch shortbread image and garish set of symbols – as the ‘tartan monster.’ The argument in Scotland was that because national identity could not take a political form of expression, it was subverted into a cultural backwater of deformed nationalism. A number of writers have argued that this so-called monster has distorted Scottish culture, painting a picture that, ultimately, Scotland is too provincial to be aligned with modern modes of political and cultural progress.

Tartanry and kailyard, seemingly so opposite in their ethos, are the joint creations of an imagination which, in recoil from the apparently featureless integration of Scottish life into an industrial culture whose power and whose identity lies outside Scottish control, acknowledges its own inability to lay hold of contemporary reality by projecting itself upon images of a society equally impotent before the forces of history
— Cairns Craig 1982, 3

In the 1980s, the heritage debate raged as we saw the rise of the pejoratively termed ‘heritage industry,’ seen by many as a product of the new liberal economic ideology of Thatcher’s Britain and a symptom of the failure of modern society to face the future after the decline of industry. Heritage was condemned as ‘bogus history’ for a mass public easily seduced by nostalgiaAs Zumkhawala-Cook remarks, ‘Heritage’s complicity with global capitalism’s rationalised depthless market of consumable products of culture can appear irreversibly total, as real national differences – not to mention social divisions of power – are erased by mass trinkets that create the spectacle of “Scottish” life’ (2007: 114).

The relationship between heritage and tourism is particularly strong in Scotland. Normatively, what we often think of as ‘heritage’ in Scotland has become inextricably bound up and reduced to a version of the nation that is expertly exploited by the tourism industry, carefully packaged for production and consumption. Of course, the tourism industry is vital and contributes millions to the Scottish economy ( Scotland has something like 300 heritage organisations, a large amount for a such a small nation; more than half have emerged since the 1970s).  The problem is not that this version of Scotland exists, but rather that so many cannot see past it for what it is. If a national culture can be reduced to the images of leisure activity, cuisine, Hollywood film and costumes, the possibilities for political transformations of that nation become limited to consumer choices about mass-marketed artefacts of culture. Not the real, but ‘the desert of the real itself’ – as postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard has described the spectacle of contemporary culture – is a simulacra that masks, perverts and eventually replaces all relations to history, not through a process of exploring dynamic social struggles that are its history, but through a pastiche of consumable objects (dancing teacakes?!). The very fact that such a particular version of the past is so dominated by commerce makes it very difficult to change.

Is this not incredibly dangerous?

The story of the tartan monster, however, is only one aspect of a broader cultural discourse. The relationship of tartanry to international commercial interests goes way back to the the eighteenth and early nineteenth century Waverley and Ossianic cults that inspired the origins of the tourist industry itself and engineered Scotland’s image as a global tourist destination. Here began an ongoing process of mythologising that has forever blurred the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined in Scotland’s past. The intertwining of fiction and history is quite fascinating when we reflect upon how we ‘see’ our landscape and culture here in Scotland, both from within and from outside.

The creation of ‘imagined Scotland,’ of course, was cemented following Walter Scott’s celebrated stage-managing of a Highland extravaganza for George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822; a story many of us know very well.  This was the first time a monarch had stepped foot on Scottish soil since Charles II had taken refuge there during the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. Edinburgh witnessed the corpulent king parading the High Street in pink tights and a kilt.

In response to the threat of cultural erasure by the British State, Scott reached back into the mythical past for inspiration. Seeking to emphasise the separate cultural identity of Scotland, he looked to the greatest markers of its cultural difference: the Highlands and Islands. Once regarded as backwards and coarse peoples of a primitive world, the Highlanders were rapidly transformed in the Romantic imagination of an international elite into brave and virile warriors, bonnie lassies, docile labourers, melancholic folk, proud orderly clans, and many combinations of these. In the context of the industrial revolution, the landscape stood in for an on-going fantasy of better times almost always linked to an organically arranged social world of beauty, cooperation and honour.

Seemingly overnight, Scott created a version of ancient Scotland that was a commercial success transportable to all of Britain and the world. It was – and is – a fantasy; not in any sense real. A very few commentators thought that the whole thing was in poor taste. The writer Thomas Carlyle left Edinburgh altogether, rather than staying to endure such ‘efflorescence and flunkeyisms’!

The argument is that at the very time Scott was constructing a Romantic image of the Highlands – and through appropriation, Scotland as a whole –  he simultaneously consigned any real or plural  identity to the dustbin of history: ‘Scott reduced history to a series of isolated narratives which could not be integrated into a fundamental dynamic of history. It can be argued that he deprives the Highlands – and Scotland as a whole – of any progressive identity… The future belonged to Lowland commercial Scotland and ultimately to the success of the Union and the British Empire.’

It is important to recognise that this identity for Scotland was not an imposition and many Scots were actively complicit in its creation. It was enormously successful in providing an identity that both preserved a sense of national distinctiveness at home and abroad and yet at the same time remained stalwartly and extravagantly loyal to the state of Great Britain.

What followed was the explosion of tartan as a popular fashion amongst Britain’s nobility and elite, sometimes called the process of ‘Balmoralisation’ of Scotland (a reference of course to the purchase of Balmoral as Queen Victoria’s summer residence in 1848). This fashion prompted those who could afford it to emulate their Queen in buying sporting estates and attracted a new class of aesthetic pleasure-seekers. Balmorality was particularly significant because it was accompanied by a very selective and incomplete narrative, a narrative that was perpetuated by writers and visual artists of the time. Edward Landseer was perhaps primary among them, building a reputation on the depiction of the familiar stags, glens, kilts and tartan – his most iconic image being the ‘Monarch of the Glen.’

This was not a matter of history being covered over by forgery, but a case of one very class-specific history replacing another. In reality, the Highland region became a source of military might for the British Empire; a huge, untapped grazing ground for the growing sheep-rearing industry with thousands cleared from their land, and a killing-field for the elite sportsman. A whole culture was decimated and its material artefacts became the markers of a new British elite’s privilege.

Traditions, of course, are re-written, re-visualised and fetishised at home and abroad. Far from offering realistic portrayals of Scottish identity, many films depicting Scotland today still dwell on the clichés and stereotypes of the tartan monster. Due to the fact that Scotland has not had (at least until recently) a developed film industry, representations from outside tend to prevail in people’s minds. Such cultural tropes have monopolised the creative and political field of cultural production in Scotland for many years and it is still the case that, even with devolution, Scottish artists, film-makers and writers struggle to gain international attention if they fail to indulge in the romantic image. This is in no way culturally democratic. The most internationally recognisable image of Scottish culture in recent years is Disney Pixar’s Brave, with the tagline, ‘Scotland: a land where legends come to life.’ Brave, of course, was expertly exploited by Scotland’s national tourism board, VisitScotland. I loved the film; I thought it was wonderful, but I can see the potential damage. As long as we can tell other stories too.

Throughout the centuries then, such Romantic representations of Scotland have provided not only a psychological escape from contemporary reality, but also an escape from the history of Scotland itself. I would argue that such a role for the nation has wreaked havoc on the public’s ability to not only know the the story of their own place – through no fault of their own – but also on their ability to imagine progressive and democratic alternatives.

What has been truly fascinating to observe this week is the general divergence in views of the first ten minutes of the Commonwealth games. Some in the Yes camp were horrified, desperate for something more creative, more imaginative, something new, something that might accommodate the colourful plurality and many layers of narratives that co-exist and ultimately make up the modern nation. Those in the No camp, it would appear, found the performance to be a wonderful celebration of all things ‘Scottish.’ There are of course exceptions to this observation and the picture is far more complex. Nevertheless, it is really amazing how much this difference of opinion confirms the blind irony of a large number of No voters and their accusation that the Yes camp are all narrow cultural nationalists. Architect Ross Aitchison hit the nail on the head when he observed, “We see a totally different country.”

The performance of culture this last week proves to me that we need independence to step out of the fairytale and back into history. We need to break free, once and for all, from this all-consuming tartan monster. This is not to say we must leave it behind – I for one don’t mind a little tartan here and there – but we must reclaim it for ourselves, put the monster on a leash and tell the tartan story on our own terms, alongside others. Scotland is a cultural powerhouse with world class artists past and present. We need to make this visible for all to see and to celebrate. Stereotypes, iconography and clichés are only harmless fun if we are at the same time collectively and culturally aware of the culture behind the façade.

Can we achieve this without independence? I do not believe that we can achieve cultural transformation without social and political transformation. And how do we achieve social and political transformation within the current system?

I don’t believe we will achieve cultural awareness or confidence through any narrow nationalist vision, however. All nationalist essentialist attempts to create mono-culture will inevitably tell incomplete narratives and build in power assumptions which will affect gender, race, religion, class or any other social dimension for that matter. Cultural nationalism in Scotland has, among other things, been inherently masculine, where women have been marginalised and femininity has been selectively deployed as a symbolic category. We need independence to tell a new post-national story where many narratives can co-exist; to discover and re-discover who we are, and to re-brand ourselves as a diverse, progressive, plural, democratic, outward-looking international nation highly capable of political and cultural progress.

We need independence to discover new ways of saying “This Is Who We Are.”

Mairi McFadyen
@MJMcFadyen
National Collective

Mairi McFadyenComment