(Before you ask the question, no, I’m not planning on travelling anywhere soon apart from in my imagination which, for the duration of Covid, has been running up plenty of air miles.) Suddenly my absent-minded scrolling was interrupted by a flash of red, white and blue. A huge Union Jack was emblazoned on the wall.
As I continued to click through the rest of the pictures, through the quaint little kitchen with its wooden beams, cosy bedroom, and snug little living room, bam, there was another one – stitched onto a cushion – and , bam, another in the form of a bedspread. An antiquarian print of the young Queen and Prince Philip gazed imperiously from the wall, amidst a hodge-podge of other twee vintage tat.
When we go on holiday, we live for however long we are lucky to have away from our daily reality as a fantasy version of ourselves. Me, but a little different. In a new location, playing at being a citizen of somewhere else, living glamorously, rather than the day-to-day drudgery of actually working and existing somewhere.
Objects placed around holiday rentals often deliberately lend themselves to these dreams. Perhaps there is a smattering of souvenirs, or pictures hung on the walls depicting the landmarks that lie beyond them, so we may ramp up our immersion as a fantasy citizen to the fullest.
Something for us to smile at as we pass by on the way out the door, walking down the new streets imagining ourselves as a resident there, one always at leisure, always in holiday mode. Decor doesn’t necessarily have to be of our own style for it to fulfil this purpose; in fact, a bit of kitsch is welcome.
There is a particular holiday aesthetic, however, that gives me pause when I see it here in my home country. Picture the cute highlands rental cottage. Or somewhere on the coast. A little bit hipster, a bit shabby chic, and a bit twee, all the authenticity invoked by woollen blankets and crackling fireplaces which make the air smell warm and welcoming after a day outdoors.
Now add a giant Union Jack and sprinkle some pictures of royalty around the place and what you now have is a pivot to a Tory hipster vibe. Let’s call it Yahcore. Commonly spotted in St Andrews.
Decorative choices for holiday cottages frequently take a nostalgic bent, appealing to sepia-tinted memories of what this era of budget flights and package holidays abroad has renamed a “staycation”. It appeals to old-fashioned fun, conjuring sticks of rock, striped deckchairs and seaside postcards, or if in the countryside, it’s more of a bunnets, wellies, and baking-in-the-kitchen vibe.
But when I see a gaudy Union Jack as a decorative motif in a wee Scottish cottage, it overwhelms the space. A Union Jack does not nod to any aesthetic but itself: it is a big brash brand. It’s brutal.
I happened down this particular internet rabbit hole after a Guardian weekend supplement feature recommended rental cottages across the UK.
One of them, near Banchory, was part of a small empire of rental opportunities, all heavily watermarked with the company’s logo, which appeared on mugs and across the visitor’s guide, all sunny photos with an Instagram aesthetic. In my head, I could faintly hear the twee stirrings of a ukelele choir until it was suddenly, rudely interrupted by the bum note of an Orange Walk: there’s the flag.
The Yahcore aesthetic repackages the classic Highland hunting lodge for a more youthful audience – more vegan Millennials with disposable income than moneyed old gents, but still fond of a bit of tweed. But if anything, the nostalgic bent harking back to colonial Britain makes it worse. It’s a tribute to the Union, but retro. It’s all a bit ‘keep calm and save the Union’.
Flags and bunting were a hip motif around 2010, the time of the Queen’s Jubilee and the Great British Bake Off brought them into our living rooms. At the time, I owned a Union Jack-themed biscuit tin.
After 2014 I looked at it anew and chucked it out. For many, flags signify nothing much. But to drape a Scottish cottage in Union Jacks feels either a little bit dim as to its political connotations, or overcompensation for the tourist who needs to be reassured they’re still on UK soil when venturing so far north.
I ask myself whether I couldn’t just put up with it. I’m sure I could just ignore it. I’m sure many people have gone there, enjoyed the space and didn’t think twice about it. But I picture myself studiously ignoring it from the sofa while it loomed over me, grating on my nerves.
Truly, I don’t want to be one of those people who burst a vein tweeting at supermarkets about what flag is on their strawberries. But do I want to recline under a giant Union Jack on my leisure time? I do not.
It was no surprise, then, to look at the website copy and see apologetic statements about the place being in the middle of nowhere. Most holiday homes are aimed at outsiders, this is true. One would expect directions.
But it seemed entirely to be aiming for the kind of crowd who gets the train up from London for the Edinburgh fringe and makes jokes about fried Mars bars and the lack of salad.
To some, Scotland is nothing more than a retreat; some of the most ardent southern unionists are fond of the idea of a bit of land to retire to among purple heather and mists. Everyone has their fantasies.
But I live in a Scotland of the here and now, and my fantasy Scotland doesn’t have a vintage Union Jack on the wall.