‘The Tourist Gaze on Gaelic Scotland’

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On 19 March 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Coinneach Maclean who discussed ‘The Tourist Gaze on Gaelic Scotland’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Coinneach argued that the Scottish Gael is “objectified in an un-modified ‘Tourist Gaze'”. The Tourist Gaze, a work by John Urry, served as a model for most of Coinneach’s lecture. Urry argues the tourist gaze regulates the tourist environment and identifies the ‘other’ and the ‘out-of-the-ordinary’. So while the Scottish Gael embodies Scottish culture from an international outlook, Gaelic culture is near invisible in current Scottish tourism.

Coinneach’s perspective is post-colonial, a view-point nearly discredited in the wake of Michael Hechter’s Internal Colonialism. However, Coinneach pointed towards revisionist works such as Martin MacGregor and Dauvit Broun’s  Mìorun Mòr nan Gall, ‘The Great Ill-Will of the Lowlander’? Lowland Perceptions of the Highlands, Medieval and Modern, which has helped to rehabilitate this viewpoint somewhat. Coinneach pin-pointed six key areas of discourse on this topic:

1) The Victorian invention of Scottish cultural icons and Gaelic culture

2) The ‘commoditisation’ of Gaelic culture in the image of the Highland Warrior

3) The re-naming of landscape features and the invention of new place narratives

4) Historical presence by invitation

5) Elision with Irish culture

6) The mute Gael

Coinneach touched on all of these topics but noted that each discourse could be a thesis in its own right.

Scottish cultural icons (tartan, the kilt, bagpipes, whisky, the Highland Warrior) have a distinctly Gaelic flavour. Extrapolation of these ‘cultural icons’ to identify Scotland arguably has a high-level of artificiality. Some have argued that these portrayals should be abandoned yet due to the mass international appeal they command, it may well be tantamount to ‘tourist suicide’. With the Scottish tourist industry directly employing 140,000 people and constituting 10% of the Scottish economy, this may be a point worth considering.

An influential writer on this topic, the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, sought to dismiss the ‘myths’ of Scottish nationalism and highlight the Victorian ‘invention’ of Scottish culture. Coinneach argued that he feared Scottish devolution and was attempting to debunk the idea of an authentic Scottish culture. He describes the ‘forging’ of the emblems of a ‘despised, disorderly savage’, to embody the Scottish people, a prejudice which serves to underline Coinneach’s argument.

Thomas Cook initiated mass tourism in the Highland in 1846 but the true instigator of interest in Gaelic culture was the royal family, specifically King George IV and Queen Victoria. King George’s visit to Scotland in 1822, and Sir Walter Scott’s arrangement of the famous ‘tartan parade’, has been credited (blamed?) with the invention of ‘tartanry’. According to McCrone, tartan only holds ‘haphazard significance’ in the Highlands, while Tom Devine claimed 1822 led to the creation of ‘imagined and false highland traditions’

However, Coinneach argued that Sir Walter Scott has been unfairly blamed as the originator of this ‘false’ tradition. He was aware of the artificiality of the pageantry and its ‘masquerade’ of Celtic society. In other instances he was scrupulous about the presentation of Highlanders, noting that Rob Roy should be wearing tartan breeches instead of a kilt on the front cover of his 1817 novel on the Macgregor clansman. The prominence of Highlanders in the parade was merely down to what the king would ‘like best to see’.

Despite the presentation of the Highlands as ‘essentially Scotland’, current Blue Badge tour guides barely mention Gaelic culture directly. The only instance in which the Gaelic language is mentioned is in the humorous account of the The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie. At tourist sites like Edinburgh castle, fàilte (welcome) is featured without the grave and almost seems like an afterthought or a ‘box to be checked’. At the Burns museum, it is noted that Burns’ poetry was translated into many languages, ‘even’ Gaelic. This is an example of a widely held notion in the tourist industry that Gaelic is a ‘difficult’ language.

The latent history of many landscape sites featured in the tours is being ‘airbrushed’ and replaced with invented tradition. For example, the five sisters of Kintail  , which refers to five mountains known separately in Gaelic as Sgùrr na Ciste Duibhe, Sgùrr na Càrnach, Sgùrr Fhuaran, Sgùrr nan Spàinteach and Sgùrr nan Saighead, now has an invented story featuring five love-lorn princesses and warlocks or witches. Coinneach argued this kind of invention was pernicious and wholly misrepresented the authentic cultural tradition. New place names bestowed upon landscape features seek to emphasise the pristine wilderness of the Highlands, a concept that particularly appeals to the domestic market.

There is also the issue of ‘cultural swamping’, in which packaged tours between Scotland and Ireland create the perception that the two countries are near synonymous. Coinneach alluded briefly to Donald Meek’s railing against the ‘Celtification’ of Scotland and Ireland. Nevertheless, when concluding, Coinneach sought to emphasise that he was not arguing that Scotland was actually a colony, yet the ‘tourist gaze’ originates from a colonial perspective fraught by unequal power-relations.

After the lecture, Thomas Clancy commented that Roper’s comments may have been a ‘collaboration in exorcism’, a convenient process that allowed Gaelic Scots to get tartanry ‘out of their system’. Martin MacGregor identified community-led organisations in the Western Isles that emphasise the reclamation of the Gaelic language and wider culture, which will hopefully percolate upward and improve a somewhat bleak image presented by Coinneach.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher) 

Our seminar series returns on 30 April with Cynthia Thickpenny’s ‘The ‘Interpenetration of Motifs’ and the Pictish contribution to Insular Art’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.3opm. All welcome.

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