A creative Scotland? III
says we are promoting the wrong sort of Scottish culture at home and overseas
Where's the vision?
'Blood is one of the great forces of a truly civilised country.' Thus spoke one of our belted earls to a Times correspondent at The Gathering, billed by its organisers and the Scottish Government alike as the centrepiece of the Year of Homecoming. Well, he would say that wouldn't he? Because he can trace his lineage back to Robert the Bruce. So we should not be surprised to hear that the next Gathering incarnation is planned for 2014 and will take place at Bannockburn where we can celebrate the 700th anniversary of sending the 'auld enemy' southward to think again. We really need to ask if Scotland in the 21st century should be defined by an apparent endorsement of bloodline and the clan system, without any analysis of its history, and victory at a battle in 1314.
What on earth is this about? Every marketing man worth his salt knows that the pipes, tartan, whisky, golf and castles are globally recognised icons that many a small country might sacrifice a right hand to acquire. That's why Scottish policy-makers have tied the objectives of the Year of Homecoming to increasing tourism revenue. This is understandable but a small step only in the right direction.
I'm sure the editor of a major newspaper in western Canada who told me in the winter of last year 'Scotland has no visible tourism presence over here' would see this as progress. Certainly the Labour-dominated Scottish Executive did little to encourage VisitScotland to target the many millions of the Scottish diaspora in North America except for the annual beanfeast of Tartan Day in New York. I've long known they feared that promoting Scotland overseas the way the Irish promote their country would merely 'put wind in the sails of the Nats'. As it turned out, VisitScotland was never really bothered anyway. Western Canada still seems to be the dead zone as far as VisitScotland is concerned despite the fact that over half a million people of Scots descent live in Vancouver and Calgary. Our national tourism bosses do not seem to be interested – ho hum.
Where's the vision? Certainly not in the current presentation of Homecoming, described to me by a Scots Canadian observer as 'the tea towel writ large'. So is Homecoming really all about tourism and money? Well it would seem not. There is now widespread suspicion that everything from the torchlit processions which kicked off the Homecoming celebrations in Dumfries back in January to the centrepiece event which was the Gathering combined with all the other 'heidrum hodrum' is about instilling a sense of Scottishness among us doubting natives. Having been born in Scotland of Scottish parents I've never been in any doubt that I am a Scot. Many others will feel as I do.
So why do we Scots who live here need to be taken to the next level of national consciousness by attending parades led by belted earls and descendants of some of those who cleared our highland cousins from their homes and only source of livelihood? Many will think it a cruel irony that our Scottish leaders have recently put £12.5m of our money into the pocket of the Sutherland clan in return for part-time display of their 'Titian' in Edinburgh. If we are to be co-erced into re-living a sorry past perhaps we should be remembering what Sutherland and his ilk actually did to the highlanders. Do we really need to 'put a little piece of clan into every one of us' as Lord Jamie Sempill of the Gathering recommends that we do? Is it the mark of a mature nation that we intend to assemble possibly tens of thousands of our citizens on the field at Bannockburn to celebrate victory in a battle 700 years ago?
There is discomfort about all this among elements of the body politic in Scotland. The Scotsman's theatre critic recently said of the evening pageant which rounded off the Gathering on Edinburgh Castle esplanade: 'It had no geography, no balanced sense of history, and above all no politics since it utterly failed to leaven this blood-based account of Scottishness'. On the same day a prominent columnist complained of 'fist waving emphasis on...loss, battle, conflict, confrontation and blood', at the same event and quoted a courageous but un-named senior SNP parliamentarian as opining 'too Nuremberg-y for my liking'.
So does all this mean that we modern Scots cannot have a big party which celebrates aspects of our history without some of us, like me, getting all po-faced about it? I hope not but we need to pause for some thought before the less scrupulous among our political class let things get out of hand. Their premise seems to be that by waving national symbols at us and hauling us into the public squares for displays of patriotic splendour our national identity will be further burned into our psyche and we'll follow the only true word and shining path. We should call it for what it is – opportunist, populist nonsense and parochial and backward-looking nonsense to boot.
There is great value to be had in exporting the very best of our traditional and modern culture to really engage with the millions of members of the Scottish family and others around the world. Combined with an urgently required visionary approach to marketing all the attractions of ancient and modern Scotland overseas, it would be a tremendous and long-term benefit to Scottish tourism, leading to the re-connection of our diaspora with a modern 21st century Scotland.
We have a proud heritage. We survived the decline and worst excesses of the clan system and have no need to re-invent it. We have a young vibrant cultural tradition, proud of its roots and its Celtic connections. That's the Scotland I recognise. Our government has bent the stick of national identity too far one way and it's time we got them to bend it back.