Scotland The Great - Homecoming
Wha’ like us?
As Scotland prepares for its Homecoming, Kirstin Innes throws off her Presbyterian shackles and takes a bird’s eye view of the great, late Bard’s legacy
Four skinny boys stare up at a mountain. The mountain stares back at them. The hairiest one throws his arms out and roars: ‘Does it not make you proud to be Scottish?’; the prettiest one looks up from his vodka bottle, and hurls back bile.
It’s been 13 years since Danny Boyle’s version of Trainspotting exploded onto the global, pop culture radar, changing the way Scotland was perceived and perceived itself. There we were, our country blown up huge on the big screen, our sexiest movie star for decades in his best-ever role, looking cool and shouting: ‘It’s shite being Scottish!’, bringing it very forcibly home that we are a nation with more than a few identity problems.
This is the year of Homecoming, a huge re-branding campaign funded by the Scottish Government. The massive project is being hailed as a celebration of all the things that make our nation great; its detractors wonder if this isn’t just a cynical exploitation of our broadest, tartan-clad, whisky-scented stereotypes, designed to lure rich, heritage-obsessed Americans (and their dollars) back to the dear auld mither-land. Perhaps criticism wouldn’t have been so rife if the campaign didn’t feel so far removed from real Scottish life. Who hasn’t winced, watching the Homecoming television advert in which assorted (mostly ex-pat, and exclusively white) celebrities stand in front of beautiful Highland landscapes doing a karaoke version of Dougie McLean’s ‘Caledonia’? Who can forget the image of Lulu closing her eyes to croon in faux-Glaswegian, ‘Ah’m goin’ hooooome’; especially since it was later revealed that her segment was filmed in London?
In a way, the level of cynicism and suspicion aimed at Homecoming, partly due to the way in which it is being marketed and the demographic it appears to be targeting, is regrettable. Whether it is successful or not in inspiring the wealthy descendants of the Highland Clearances to ‘summer’ in Scotland, Homecoming, and the myriad events taking place under that banner between Burns Night on 25 January and St Andrews Day on 30 November, will hopefully at the very least encourage the Scots that do live here to take another look at our national identity.
Homecoming pivots around the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns and the campaign has chosen him as its figurehead. He is not without his detractors however. The conservative historian Michael Fry, writing in the Times early this year, provoked outrage by suggesting that the ‘misogynistic drunk’ Burns was an unfit role model for the country, citing as evidence his multiple sexual partners.
Burns as an icon of Scottishness may seem like an obvious choice – he’s one of our greatest national exports, and has become synonymous with a certain cosy set of clichés. Better still, his shortbread tin good looks are an easy advert for the version of Brigadoon-lite Scotland still sold to tourists, complete with Highland Marys and tartan frippery among the golf courses.
However, as a man, Burns is actually quite a revolutionary figurehead for our country. Think of the stereotypes of a Scot: dour, miserly, backwards to the point of barbarism and latterly used as comic relief, with incomprehensible accent (cf. Groundskeeper Willie in The Simpsons). The joke is on us, really, as we ourselves persist in maintaining this stereotype.
Look at the things we love and remember Burns for: his lyricism, his wit, his sexiness, his art and confidence, and his egalitarianism. Despite the infidelities, his often proclaimed love and understanding of women, evident in so much of his poetry, is far more laudable than the macho posturing of Sean Connery, both on and off screen. The person who wrote ‘That man to man, the world o’er, / Shall brothers be for a’ that.’ is surely a better choice of national icon than Fry’s alternative suggestions, the bloodthirsty, murderous William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, or noted sectarian bigot John Knox. What Burns represents is the exact opposite of the stories we’ve been telling ourselves about what we are for decades.
In Scotland, we’ve got a bad habit of talking ourselves down. We snigger at our own dress sense while Christopher Kane, Jamie Bruski Tetsill and Deryck Walker are busy establishing a new Scottish fashion mafia in London; Glasgow is repeatedly lauded as one of the coolest cities in Europe. We commission the likes of Del Amitri to write pessimistic dirges on the (admittedly rare) occasions that our national football team makes it to the World Cup, and then express shock when a Scot has any sort of sporting success. We cringe at ourselves: when anyone tries to celebrate our successes we respond with a well-placed quip about deep fried Mars bars, instead of celebrating Michelin starred, homegrown talent like Martin Wishart, Tom Kitchin, Tony Borthwick and Jeff Bland.
Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Scottish theatre and literature began developing in reaction to a perceived cultural dominance from England; specifically from London. This reaction created a hugely fertile climate that produced some of our best writers and theatre-makers; it made it possible for someone like Irvine Welsh to write a book like Trainspotting, almost entirely in dialect. The novelist Ali Smith, interviewed in 1995, summed up this movement: ‘In Scotland, people are particularly keen to categorise themselves as different … from [the] English. To be Scottish is to be separate.’
In 2009, this is no longer the case. Writing in Scots or singing in a Scottish accent is no longer necessarily an act of political rebellion – it has become a very natural form of expression to our novelists and playwrights, to rock bands, singer-songwriters and MCs alike. Look at the work of Anne Donovan, The Twilight Sad, and this fortnight's featured band, Franz Ferdinand. Our visual artists win the Turner Prize over and over again, and we have a brilliant, vibrant National Theatre that expresses local issues with global appeal. Scottish culture in its current form may have evolved from a reaction against Englishness, but these days we make confident, internationally-reaching art that doesn’t need the stimulation of an anti-English chip on the shoulder. We’re also a burgeoning multi-cultural nation, however trite that might sound. Glasgow dance music, for example, has evolved to incorporate the bhangra favoured by the city’s huge Scottish-Pakistani population, while Asian tastes have been infiltrating our national cuisine for generations. There are a huge number of contemporary reasons to celebrate Scotland this year, without cringing, apologising, or bringing Lulu into it, and the Homecoming banner is as good a place to start as any.
For more visit homecomingscotland.com. The Simpsons is on Sky1, Sundays, 6pm.