How Scottish tourism was transformed by one film

In the autumn of 1995, Braveheart was released and the first ever Easyjet flight took off from Luton to Glasgow – two events that helped transform Scottish tourism.

Braveheart sold Scotland around the world – and almost overnight, the country became synonymous with Mel Gibson’s historically dubious epic.

Scottish Tourist Board chief Tom Buncle recalled travelling overseas and people shouting ‘Braveheart’ or ‘Freedom’ at him when they realised he was Scottish. Suddenly, the world wanted to travel to Scotland, and every Mac and Campbell wanted to claim their Caledonian roots.

Low budget airlines, and deregulation of air routes made it possible. Direct flights from the US opened up and the year after Braveheart was released saw the first Tartan Day parade in New York. Sir Sean Connery beseeched long lost Scots to come back to their homeland and the diaspora became a major market.

But the tourism business itself was changing rapidly – the emerging internet meant everyone was a critic. Scotland had to keep up online, so even wee B&B crofts on Eigg had to get their own website.

The tourist was renamed VisitScotland and its focus was now online marketing, including paying influencers to come and promote Scotland. The documentary looks at resultant Harry Potter videos and arguably the worst Scottish travel vlog cliché – tourists buying and trying deep fried Mars bars.

The passion for genealogy also fed into the tourist trade with Scotland gaining from a glut of Americans, Australians and South Africans returning to trace their roots.

Visitors come in search of ‘Real Scotland’ – the rustic fisherman’s cottage, the folk music in the pub, the empty glen – but due to the money to be made, ‘real life’ Scotland is often changed by tourism. Some observers walk down the Royal Mile and see the capital is in danger of turning into a Tartan McTheme Park.

In rural Scotland too, the benefits of tourism are bitter sweet. There are questions over the impact of holiday lets and whether some aspects of local communities could be damaged by intense tourism.

Then the pandemic struck, decimating visitor numbers but also providing a pause to reflect on the value and future of Scotland’s tourist industry.

Episode two of Greetings From Scotland will be shown on Tuesday, April 13, from BBC Scotland from 10pm.