Joyce McMillan: Don’t sink in a kitsch self-image
If you are part of the 78 per cent of the Scottish population now said to be linked to the internet, you may have had the good fortune this week to come across one of the most joyous contributions to the independence referendum debate so far, in the shape of Lady Alba’s Bad Romance, a five-minute video spoof on the 2009 hit by Lady Gaga. Featuring a messily glammed-up Lady Gaga lookalike disporting herself in front of Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood and the Palace of Westminster – at one point with a head full of rollers made of Irn-Bru cans – the song ruthlessly sends up the more absurd masochistic extremes of the No campaign.
“Naw, naw, gonnae naw …” chants Lady Alba, the singer Zara Gladman, in a fierce Glasgow accent. “I want yer weapons, I want student fees, I want a country run by Tory MPs, I’m voting No.” And so it goes on, for two or three gloriously satirical verses; it’s sharp, witty, well-made, and a great advertisement for the sheer creative energy and wit of the latest generation of young Scottish artists, most of them apparently leaning towards the Yes campaign.
What Lady Alba does not do, though, is to project an image of Scotland as a place very different from anywhere else in the 21st century world. Indeed she belongs to an age of Scottish contemporary artists, writers, theatre-makers and musicians who punch above their weight in reflecting that world; but whose work – thanks to its very truthfulness about the realities of life in the global village – cannot offer the kind of shorthand, distinctive image of Scotland that is needed for tourism and marketing purposes. For that, you need to delve into the pre-globalisation past. So for the Netherlands, it’s windmills and clogs. For Ireland, it’s shamrocks and leprechauns. For England, it’s the carefully-restored half-timbering on Shakespeare’s birthplace at Stratford.
And for Scotland, it’s the bens, the glens, the clans, the images of red-haired warriors in a wild and beautiful landscape. It’s not so much an image we’ve assigned to ourselves – although Sir Walter Scott may have played his part in creating a romantic image of the Highlands – as one that has been assigned to us; but the fact remains that for both mainstream British culture and Hollywood, it’s our mountains and moors and castles – not our oil-rigs and rock bands and world-class games industry – that represent our distinctive contribution to the life of the planet. Hence the huge popularity of films – from Brigadoon to Braveheart and the recent Pixar hit, Brave – that repeat that Highland image. And now there is a new one, in the shape of the forthcoming American television series Outlander, set during the 1745 rebellion, now being filmed at Doune Castle, and apparently already so popular – on the basis of a short US TV trailer – that the castle is being besieged by eager fans and visitors.
None of which would matter much, if Scots living here in Scotland could take it with a pinch of salt, and simply view phenomena like Braveheart and Outlander as atttractive pieces of entertainment which help the tourist trade. The truth is, though, that Scotland’s sense of itself – while perhaps stronger than it was – is still based on a very fragile foundation of information and self-knowledge, and is therefore immensely influenced by powerful images projected from outside. Most contemporary Scottish culture remains largely unknown to the people of its own country, in terms of mass audience. Most young Scots learn little or no substantial Scottish history at school, focusing instead on the two world wars; and every time there is an attempt to introduce some compulsory knowledge of Scottish history and literature into the curriculum – the kind of knowledge I seemed to acquire as of right, back in the high Unionist days of the 1950s and 60s – there are immediate protests that Scottish subject-matter is too “parochial” to merit inclusion.
The truth is that so long as most Scots are left with a kind of vacuum where their solid knowledge of their own country and its real story should be, they are bound to be exceptionally sensitive and vulnerable to any views of Scotland expressed by others; indeed you only need to hear the obliging, grateful laughter with which Scottish audiences respond to the often pathetic references to Scotland stitched into visiting stage productions, to know how deep is the continuing need for validation from elsewhere.
Under these circumstances, the constant reiteration of images that portray Scotland in terms of a picturesque past, rather than a dynamic present and future, may still be inflicting more damage than we realise on our political and cultural self-confidence. We live, after all, in a nation where senior campaigners on the No side of the referendum argument have recently suggested that Scottish culture, and Scottishness in general, simply do not exist in the 21st century – a view that, at best, suggests a bizarre lack of knowledge and self-confidence at the very highest levels of our society.
There have, of course, been some glorious exceptions to this pattern of retro image-making about Scotland, notably Danny Boyle’s brilliant 1996 film of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, a view of contemporary urban Scotland so wildly stylish and dystopian that it created its own mini tourism boom, and changed some visitors’ view of Scotland for ever. Of course, there are plenty of people in Scotland today – some born here, some not – who have taken the trouble to learn the story of the place where they live, its history, economy and cultural life; and who are no longer likely to be clutching at Hollywood straws for help in constructing their identity.
Yet I wonder whether those people are yet in a majority. In a world increasingly dominated by the big flat screen on the living room wall, I suspect that the images promoted by a series like Outlander may still prove to be mightier than the home-grown brilliance of Lady Alba and her colleagues – although I know which strand of Scottish culture is more fun, and more likely to leave those who experience it feeling energised, empowered, and fit to determine their own future.