Why can’t we Scots shrug off that Caledonian Cringe and simply accept how much the rest of the world loves Scottishness?
I’ve been living in Scotland for a few years now, ever since I met the Scottish crime writer Craig Robertson at the Left Coast Crime Conference in Colorado, and when I’m back in the States there is an endless fascination about my Scottish romance.
I’ve also taken on the role of tour guide for my US friends who want to visit. They all want one thing: The Scottish Experience.
And in my new role, may I say, I think you’re missing out on some marketing gold. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, but there is such a Scottish shy ness about just being Scottish. Living with my own Scotsman I’ve become familiar with the ‘Caledonian Cringe’. I saw it in full force during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, which presented a parade of all things Scottish. When the 41 Scottish terriers trotted out in their little tartan coats, I could feel the collective national shudder. There is almost a horror about traditional Scottish symbols.
That’s not to say I’m a fan of kitsch, or what you call ‘tat’. In Edinburgh there is a whole line of shops on the Royal Mile purporting to sell the ‘Scottish Experience’. If you wander the aisles of said shops you’ll find kilts, wool scarves, curly coos, clan tartans, bagpipe CDs, shortbread, and of course, whisky. The stuffed coos, and the wool, and the shortbread are to me just easy, possibly desperate, last-minute purchases for relatives back home.
But the kilts, well, that’s another story. Say ‘Scotland’ to a straight woman or a gay man in the US and chances are the first word that’s going to come out of their mouth is ‘kilt’. Followed by ‘hot Highlanders’. And this is not because Americans have a thing for tartan. It may be hard for some Scottish women to believe, but American women want your men. Would it really be so hard to embrace your international status as sex symbols? I know, some of you just stopped breathing.
But you cannot overstate the romantic connotations of your country. There is a whole subgenre of the romance novel (romance is by far the bestselling fiction in the US) called Scottish Romance, or Highland Romance. Another popular subgenre is Viking Romance, which Scotland can also claim. There’s even a sub-subgenre called Scottish Time Travel, which makes sense to me, because the romance of this country has a distinctly historical allure. There’s real time travel going on here every day.
The historical part, you’re definitely getting right. The monuments and museums I’ve been to are genius at capturing living history; to visit any historical site is to be transported back in time. Craig is one of the organisers of the Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival, and for three years now I’ve seen how international attendees react in jaw-dropped awe to the festival setting: the medieval town centre of Stirling. The modern world falls away as you walk up that hill towards the castle. And yeah, the castles. We don’t have castles in the US. We can’t get enough of them here. They touch off some primal, fairytale longing.
Of course one of the most magnetic aspects of the Scottish experience is the landscape. Even the most geographically challenged American, and there are many of us, is aware of Scotland’s reputation for natural beauty (a friend of mine describes it as ‘an outdoor cathedral’). The very fact that you have lochs instead of lakes is marketing genius. The Highlands, the Isle of Skye, the sweep of the coastlines, the Orkney islands, Shetland… it is constantly amazing to me how varied the terrain can be in such a small area of land.
Plenty of Americans come over to golf, but I suspect that’s just an excuse to luxuriate in the scenery. I posted photos of Crovie on my Facebook page and half of my followers identified it as almost the village from Local Hero – and Crovie went straight onto the travel bucket list of the other half.
I’ve spent a good part of my working life on film studio lots, but it’s here in Scotland that I feel as if I’m living on a movie set, between the ghost tours and moors, the architecture of Edinburgh and the art nouveau of Glasgow, and of course, the mystery of the Loch Ness monster (sorry, but you can’t avoid it!).
But tourists don’t just come here for Scotland – they’re actually craving Scottishness. I don’t believe anyone here can possibly realise the extent to which America is obsessed with this country, and a large part of that is that everyone in the US seems to think they have Scottish ancestry. Not to cast aspersions on Scottish virility, with which I have been duly impressed, but the current population of Scotland is five million, while the population of the United States is 320 million. Surely you all couldn’t have been that prolific. Still, Americans want to connect with what, rightly or wrongly, they feel is their own heritage. They want to experience what it’s like to be Scottish.
I know you’re not that shy. After a few drinks my Scottish friends will be up on the dance floor, happily slamming to Runrig’s version of The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, a song which captures a mix of Scotland I particularly treasure: Brigadoon with a large helpingof Trainspotting. Similarly The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles is a Scottish song every party-going American loves. My American friends delight in the ‘proper pubs’, where anything can, and does, happen, from the madness of pub quiz to spontaneous ‘turns’.
So could you maybe think about letting the rest of the world in on the party? The whole world wants to be Irish on St Patrick’s Day. If you would just pick a day to promote as Scottish, and throw in some identifiably Scottish symbols, the US would happily show up for the ceilidh, wearing kilts and bearing Irn-Bru and whisky. I implore you. Stop being so Scottish – and let yourselves be Scottish.
Alexandra Sokoloff is a screenwriter and the Thriller Award-winning author of the Huntress Moon crime series, the Haunted thrillers and the Screenwriting Tricks for Authors writing workbooks.
She lives in Los Angeles and Scotland with author Craig Robertson.
(This feature was originally published in 2016)