A Scot and an American offer their perspectives on Scotland, as told through pop culture.
The Scottish view: “The perception of Scotland in the media has a long way to go.”
If Scotland’s portrayal in media was anything to go by, you can imagine my disappointment when, instead of the fiery, beautiful Scotswoman of stereotypes, I turned out an awkward, nasally Glaswegian with all the grace of a bin lorry. You wonder what tourists think when they see the same Scottish themed shops copy-pasted into every second street. These shops revel in superficial nationalism, with real Scottish idols like Mel Gibson adorning every mug. And while their £5 t-shirts reading “I HEART CELTIC/RANGERS” always get a chuckle, these stores are symptomatic of Scottish media representation. We all know the type: the loudmouthed, temperamental folk who don’t exist outside of swears and funny accents – a popular interpretation since the early 90s.
Misguided interpretations of Scottish culture and history aren’t new, however. They’ve been around since the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century. Take Walter Scott and his wretched slog Waverley, where our titular hero becomes infatuated with the sister of the clan chieftain, initially at the expense of his demure Lowlands betrothed on a Highland venture. It’s an old-fashioned interpretation that has since died out, and one that isn’t relatable to most Scottish people. Its last hurrah was in the 1954 musical adaptation Brigadoon, a ham-fisted portrayal of the old trope: American tourists find a mystical village in the mists of rural Scotland, containing a comely village lass played by an American actress doing a very loose interpretation of a Scottish accent. It’s cheesy, romanticised, and acknowledged by almost everybody as inaccurate.
But for many, this isn’t the Scottish representation we remember. Of course, we must mention Braveheart, a three-hour-long bastardisation of Scottish history producing the rallying cry of many a Scottish nationalist. It plays fast and loose with 13th-century Scottish history, with some baffling diversions such as the Wallace and Princess Isabella romance, and Scots portrayed as mudhut-dwelling lads instead of the relative equals they were to England. The Scottish were hardly the most oppressed in Edward I’s reign (that honour likely goes to English Jews and the Welsh) and yet Wallace’s dying cries of freedom have become an unironic resistance symbol for many Scots, and people who loudly proclaim Scottish ancestry. Scotland has hardly been victimised in its history, enjoying its share of imperialism and brutality during Britain’s stint as an empire, with that legacy lasting in the street names. Scotland’s reputation as a historical underdog in the grand scheme of the UK just isn’t true, but from this angle, movies like Braveheart enforce it.
But what about modern Scotland? Shows like Still Game have been praised for their realistic humour, and while not as bad as prancing through heather fields or wearing Pictish warpaint centuries too late, they perpetuate an unrealistic image of Scotland which, like Braveheart’s cries of freedom, seep into Scotland’s perception of itself. With pantomime-like acting; characters that, again, don’t exist outside of their accents; swearing; and occasional raunchiness, the show reinforces the idea that Scots are the world’s best comedians by saying mundane things with an accent (which, if the existence of the humour-black-hole Scottish Twitter is any indication, isn’t dying down). Take Trainspotting which, while not a film that accurately depicts all Scottish life (despite providing fuzzy memories of waiting at Bellgrove), shows a more balanced view of Scotland than anything above. With few exceptions, the characters’ Scottishness isn’t inherent to their comedy. These people are witty, but also tragic, vulnerable, and smart: characteristics that can make their experience universal. The decaying urban backdrop doesn’t create false imagery, and while not perfect, is a welcome diversion from the hokey interpretations of Scotland in the past, be they rural like Brigadoon or urban like Still Game. While not lacking in representation, the perception of Scotland in the media, for those who live here and those who don’t, has a long way to go.
The American viewpoint: “The Scots I know are loud and rambunctious, but are also able to quickly flip the switch and take important matters seriously”
Scotland is portrayed in the media as a mystical place: a country of Vikings, sword battles, dragons, and monsters (such as the infamous Nessie). Even modern magazines and travel guides portray Scotland as a magical land of tranquillity where the picturesque mountains contain your inner dreams and the lochs reveal a mirror to the soul. As an American teen, I devoured films about Scotland and obsessively read travel guides. Due to the stereotypes I saw in media, Scotland was easily the number one place on my travel bucket list. However, following my first few days of being in Scotland after coming here for university, I was surprised to see how inaccurate those stereotypes were.
On my second day in the country, I went on a tour of the Highlands to explore the magical land that I had been waiting to see my whole life. However, to my slight disappointment, all I saw were mountains, rivers, lochs, and a lot of trees. While the scenery was certainly beautiful, it was not in fact filled with the mystical creatures and knights and battlefields I had been promised. The magic of the Scottish highlands is one that comes from nature; the Highlands are full of raw, untouched beauty, which can be a magical experience for those who appreciate the wild. However, this magic is one that can be found all over the world; it’s not unique to Scotland, but instead unique to the experience of the environment in its truest form. I actually found the Highlands to look quite similar to my home state, Maine, which also contains thousands of acres of untouched nature. The picture of Scotland that portrays medieval castles and dungeons is one that was made over 700 years ago, and while the history of Scotland is one to be proud of and one that is well preserved in its architecture, it is not a history that is accurately reflected nowadays.
Scottish people are usually portrayed in films as rowdy, belligerent idiots who will take any chance to go for a pint and who may occasionally surprise you with an act of bravery. However, this is an extreme misrepresentation of the people in modern Scottish society. Scottish folk are the most inclusive, fun and intelligent people I’ve ever met. While they do enjoy going for a pint, they always invite all those around them in hopes of spreading their joy. The Scots I know are loud and rambunctious, but are also able to quickly flip the switch and take important matters seriously. The idea of Scottish people being unintelligent is one that is quickly disproved by looking at the structure of the education system. The education system in Scotland raises students to focus and study on what matters most to them and financially supports them through university until they are able to find a stable job. This allows for Scottish youth to have access to a world of knowledge, which therefore invalidates the image of the “drunken Scottish idiot” that is often portrayed in many films and television series.
I was also surprised to find that the cultural differences between Scotland and America are not as evident as I had thought – Scotland is similar to America in many ways. Before coming to Scotland, I thought I would be travelling to a foreign country where everything would be different. I expected to be unable to understand the dialect, to be startled by the excessive drinking, and to be baffled by a maze of public transportation. However, after a few days in the country, I realised that the transportation systems, stores and restaurants run similarly to America, and while many clothing and food brands are different, the products themselves are the same. Many cultural differences between Scotland and America do exist, but they are all small differences that reveal themselves more over time.
The picture of Scotland and its people that is painted in the media is one that is inaccurate, however, I argue that the image that is presented is actually beneficial to Scotland as a country. Whilst there are a few degrading stereotypes, the majority illustrate Scotland as a must-see destination for many people in western cultures. The stereotypes of Scotland are overdramatised – yet the ancient castles, lochs and rolling hills that do exist are unique and bring tourists to Scotland from all over the world.