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On Saturday VisitScotland chartered a train for about 150 journalists to travel from Edinburgh to Dunkeld in east Perthshire. Passengers were seated at tables adorned with hampers containing haggis-flavoured crisps and single-malt miniatures. At Dunkeld, alighting correspondents were welcomed by three bagpipers. Time was spent on dignitaries and scenery; the town is near Birnam Wood, which provided camouflage for Macduff to attack Macbeth.
The junket, which I sadly learnt about in the Times, is part of a £7m campaign to supplement the release of another arboreal drama: Brave, an animated movie from Disney/Pixar. Set “in the rugged and mysterious highlands”, the film stars Merida, a young archeress with Rebekah Brooks hair and Maggie Tulliver chops. “Best of all, this land is no mythical place, this is Scotland,” says VisitScotland. It has launched six itineraries so tourists can follow in the footsteps of Merida and her three brothers, Harris, Hubert and Hamish. The agency seemingly hopes that Brave will to do for Scotland what Finding Nemo did for fish.
There is often a tension between how a place wants to present itself to the world and what the world wants to find when it gets there. Prague is a hip fairy tale drenched in stag-night Pilsner. Egypt may soon decide to project more than scuba and the Sphinx. Stereotyping can lead to jolly good fun, if you’re into the jubilee and the like. It can also be lucrative: Diageo announced yesterday it was investing £1bn to keep snifters full in emerging markets. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep some dignity. Brave will no doubt be a great movie but it’s time Scotland showed off more than just McShtick.
I blame the English. In 1822, Sir Walter Scott orchestrated the visit of King George IV to Edinburgh. It was the first trip by a monarch across the border since the 1630s. He spent the first night on his boat in Leith docks, enjoying the somnolent effect of cherry brandy. Once he had lumbered ashore, he enjoyed a delirious week of ersatz highland pageantry. The “Chief of Chiefs”, replete with grouse, veal and pigeon pâté and wearing skin-coloured tights beneath his kilt to hide the impact of avoirdupois on his knees, hosted the first “Gathering of the Clans” before enjoying a bespoke production of Rob Roy.
No matter that the real Highland way of life was being decimated by forced clearances of people to make way for sheep. King George’s visit gave royal approval to Romanticism. In doing so it threw a tartan shroud upon the Scottish enlightenment. The country of Adam Smith, David Hume and Joseph Black was increasingly seen by outsiders as the home of a noble savage in a tam o’shanter. Brave is an apt update of this invented tradition; Scotland is being Disneyfied, literally.
The cartoon of course makes for a better tourist attraction than Trainspotting or The Wicker Man. I can’t see VisitScotland marketing trips to heroin dens or to the Summer Isles archipelago for a frisky saturnalia. But the problem isn’t outsiders’ kitschy opinions. It’s when Scots start believing them too. The timing is poor – a referendum on Scottish independence is ultimately a question of Scots’ self-identity. So far, it has been a peculiar spectacle.
Alex Salmond last month launched the Yes campaign in a cinema, with a sprinkling of Hollywood stardust. Scotland’s first minister, thought by many to be a political genius, was endorsed by two actors, Sean Connery (who lives in the Bahamas), and Alan Cumming (who lives in Los Angeles). This month he will attend the Brave premiere in LA. Around the same time the No campaign will be formally launched, though confusingly it will also be marketed as a Yes campaign, but in favour of continued union.
There is a sad paradox in all this: more Scotland risks making the Scots less Scottish. In the Yes-Yes referendum each side claims to speak for a single form of Scottishness. But at its best, Scottish identity is an enlightened one, worldly, confident, enterprising, without superstition – and at ease with complexity. The pro-unionists should stress there is no monochromatic Scottishness and to suggest otherwise deprives Scots of the liberty to hold multiple identities. Mr Salmond, who has done much to reduce anglophobia north of the border, should recognise that a romantic Scotland is for tourists. Only an enlightened one can make a success of independence. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum in 2014 – 700 years after the battle of Bannockburn – Scotland would do well to be brave and cut the McShtick.