Jan 23

Scotland - all myth and malt?

ANDREW BOYLE, Comments: 0
Is Scotland: the Brand getting in the way of serious consideration 
of the cultural integrity of the Scottish people?

Last weekend I joined 90 others in raising my glass of fine malt to the gaelic cry of Slainte mhath. Haggis was paraded along the tartan-decorated tables (see image), before being served. Ye Banks and Auld Lang Syne were sung. It was in every way a typical marking of the anniversary of Robert Burns' birth, a traditional Burns Supper. But this room was not in a Scottish city or one of the centres of the Scottish diaspora. It was in Fredrikstad, south of Oslo. Over their plates of haggis sat 90 Norwegians, members of the local Malt Whisky Society, and one token Scot, myself, acting as toastmaster.                                         

Tartan Norway: haggis is sered at a Burns Supper in Fredrikstad, south of OsloIt was an evening of mixed feelings for me. Part of the mix is pride that Scottish culture has such appeal, and satisfaction that the event gave me the opportunity to sing its praises. But somewhere in the mix a deep part of me grumbles, sensing that it is being sold too cheaply. For on the wall a large Scottish saltire had been hung - a step too far for my taste. It reminded me of an earlier Burns Supper in Norway when a group of six male friends, all lovers of malt whisky and all clad in matching highland dress – the kilt, the sgian dubh, the lot – asked the assembled company of 120 Norwegians to rise and sing with them O Flower of Scotland. When the national flag of Scotland is used to decorate a themed Norwegian party, and Norwegians turn Scotland's national anthem into a jolly singalong on a par with Loch Lomond and Auld Lang Syne, it leaves a chilling impression of how perfunctory any regard for Scottish identity usually is.

Does it matter? These Norwegians are not scholars of Scottish culture or politics. They are eager consumers at the receiving end of a powerful industrial supply chain marketing Scotland: the Brand.  Tartan Tourism. All myth and malt. As indirect investors in Scottish prosperity, Norwegians or Japanese or Americans who enjoy a Scottish-themed celebration of folkish culture are really doing nothing but good.

If we can keep the flag and the national anthem out of it: then no, it doesn't matter. What is being packaged and sold to the Scotland Fan is not our culture, our birthright, but the modern toys of Scottish tourism. The kilt, the haggis, the skirling bagpipe – they are tokens of nostalgic romance, not totems of our cultural commonality. It costs a Scot nothing to see a Burns Supper held by non-Scots, for Scots don't feel they are giving anything away. If anything it is more a sense of sharing, an effect of the same open and hospitable character that Norwegians always comment on after visiting Scotland. We enjoy invoking with non-Scots the myth; letting them in on the joke.

But other questions arise. They are more important, and their proper address is not the consumer of the tartan brand products, but the Scot who is trying to clarify and steady his sense of identity ahead of the coming tug-of-cultural-war.  If Scottish cultural identity lies beyond Burns and kilts, bagpipes and haggis – what is it and where is it? As with all other cultural groups – all of them products of lengthy osmosis – it is perhaps only those who have grown up in it, who can sense its integrity and its complexity. All the same, let me try and distill from the cloud some drops of identity that seem important to me.

An important element of the Scottish psyche is a conflict of compass points. Modern British history has oriented us north-south, but for most of our cultural evolution impulses coming from the axis that, in a sagging curve, runs east-west were probably more important. They still have powerful resonances. In economics Alex Salmond hit a reef when extolling The Arc of Prosperity binding Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, and Norway. But culturally, his Ark floats! Both for those Scots conscious of their Irish descent, and for the great majority who recognize echoes of the Celtic and the Scandinavian in themselves, a gravitation can be felt, liberating them from the north-south straitjacket, urging them to look towards their roots in the east and west. It's still in us, of course it is! There are few, if any, of the English and Norwegians I know who would look at my face, bone structure, and complexion and associate me automatically with the Celtic. But to the trained eye? Throughout each IRA bombing campaign of the '80s I would be the only air passenger travelling from Oslo to the UK who would be routinely pulled into airport customs to open his bags and explain his movements.

I implied that the tartan products were mere tokens of nostalgia. But that is too simple. They are also surface markers, indicating a strong cultural identity deep below. Like some vivid flower on the surface of a lake, above an intricate system of roots. No other country has such a colourful display of national tokens as Scotland, and no country shares them as freely with others. Perhaps we do it in the hope that those who are genuinely interested will sense the invitation: Come on down and discover what's really underneath! 

Shetland Scots celebrate their Scandinavian history at the annual Up Helly Aa festival. 

Photo: Ann Burgess. 

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