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Scottish-American Relations: A Boon Industry?

January 24, 2012 3 comments

This article on the BBC today got me thinking about the relationship between America and Scotland and how it’s being re-defined in response to commercial pressures and the potential of an independent Scotland. Scotland has always had a close relationship with America, in large part due to the vast numbers of immigrants from Scotland who settled in the States during the early period of American expansion. This means that Americans are often quick to point out that their great-great-great-great grandfather came to America on a boat from Scotland and they’ve always thought of themselves as part-Scottish. This conversation happens quite a lot when I visit America, and from Irish friends of mine, I hear very similar kinds of stories.

Part of the attraction of claiming Scottish ancestry is that it is a way of claiming a romanticised picture of ‘Scottishness’ that’s build up as haggis and tartan, hills and glens, thistle and whiskey. This has been often a strategic way of marketing Scotland to a wider audience, and the proliferation of the ‘Kailyard novels‘ (literally, cabbage-patch novels) drew quite extensively from a rather one-dimensional of Scottish life (and were subsequently criticised as being an unrealistic picture of Scotland and its people). While the Kailyard novels were soon replaced by the more sophisticated works which emerged from the Scottish Literary Renaissance, nevertheless, the ideas the Kailyard writers explored remain deeply entrenched idealisms about Scottishness, both inside and outside Scotland.

But the political and commercial landscape of Scotland is changing, and forging closer links with countries beyond the UK seems to be an important plank to the Scottish Government’s strategy of global relevance. Part of doing this properly is moving beyond quite narrow definitions of what Scotland means and what it is to be Scottish, and that’s certainly what Salmond and the SNP appear to be trying to do (although they are still very much invested in traditional ideas about Scotland).

During my Fulbright interview last year, one of the questions I was asked was how I would ‘sell’ Scotland to people that I met in America. I started off by saying that I would try to go beyond essentialist notions of Scottishness and that Scotland wasn’t just about whiskey, haggis and tartan. The follow up was ‘well then, what is Scotland all about?’, at which point I started rambling about how it was impossible to define Scotland in simplistic terms because it relied too much on essentialist definitions, but I digress. I think that much of what I said then is echoed in what’s happening now.

Scotland is certainly trying to move beyond the Kailyard, but when these ideas are some of the most widely recognised symbols of Scotland, what do you replace it with?