This week’s post comes from Magda Szymborska-Bishop, onDSCN2914e of the students on our MLitt British Studies course.


A few months ago Dr Christie Margrave discussed in her HSBI post the rising use of the Union Jack, a widespread symbol of Britishness. Her debate about ‘the ludic postmodern representations of the flag around the world’[1] gave, in turn, Dr Innes Kennedy a starting point for his argument about the meaning of British identities. Having read both blog posts in the context of (the now long gone) St Andrew’s day – the Scottish national day when on government buildings only the Saltire is flown across Scotland; and (the fairly recently passed) Burns’ Night, with its celebration of the contribution of the bard to Scottish culture, made me consider that it may be worth pausing on some aspects of the use of popular Scottish iconography.

As discussed by Christie Margrave the Union Jack design is now not only limited to fashion objects but has spread across supermarket shelves. It brands our fruit, meat and even crisps, where it is used to advertise the origins of ‘home grown’ potatoes.[2] Picture1This developing custom, besides creating a well-marketed heritage narrative, indicates that ‘banal nationalism’ is certainly on the increase.[3] Scotland’s heritage symbols, on the other hand, seem to be used in order to refashion this country yet again as a place for peaceful and/or joyful retreat. It appears that the sense of Scottishness encountered on a day-to-day basis sustains a connection that dates back to mid-eighteenth century aesthetics, which once shaped Scotland.

Many scholars, including Trevor-Roper’s infamous article about the ‘invention of tradition’ in the Scottish Highlands, have dealt with the issues that have participated in creating Scotland and defining it, largely, through this one region. As a result of Macpherson’s Ossianic Collection and Burns’s poems Scotland became a tourist destination in the mid-eighteenth century and that popular view of the country was intensified by Walter Scott’s fiction. The Romantic movement’s aesthetics of the picturesque and sublime portrayed Scotland and the Scottish Highlands as a place of romantic sanctuary and, subsequently, the region was made into a lens for perceiving Scotland as a whole. Interestingly, as Womack discusses, this region ‘acquired the role of representing Scotland for the English’.[4] Although, at first, this appropriation of the Highlands was created and recreated through art, over time it became a dominant narrative adopted for the needs of what is broadly understood as the heritage industry. Heritage which, in many cases, as Lowenthal defines, substitutes ‘an image of the past for its reality (…); it effaces history’s intricate coherence with piecemeal and mendacious celebration, tendering comatose tourists a castrated past.’[5]

Items which nowadays can be found in tourist shops across Scotland indeed reflect Lowenthal’s argument. What, however, is the situation with home-grown products that are supposed to be dedicated to the inhabitants of Scotland?

Without much difficulty I found two particular creations dressed in heritage ideology, which left me astonished, if not baffled. Picture2The first was an advertisement for the Highland home trend, which, according to a dedicated designer of the department store, will allow you to ‘transform your home into a rustic retreat (…). Inspired by the Scottish landscape and wildlife, this cosy collection creates a restful and ambient atmosphere that will make you reconsider if you ever need to leave your home’.[6] Unsurprisingly therefore the narrative, infused with myth-making ideology, which harks back a few centuries, tries to persuade customers that by purchasing  (heather coloured!) tartan bedding, a few knitted blankets, a picture of a grouse and deer-style candleholders they will be able to bring the romanticized Scottish landscape into their homes. Interestingly this advert does not rely too heavily oPicture3n tartan, but incorporates a wider albeit stereotypical vision of Highland scenery. More importantly however it lends itself to the divisive narrative of the Lowlands (understood here, I believe, as the rest of Britain) and the Highlands. The latter region denotes, according to this trend a ‘snug haven.’ Consequently, in my opinion, through the use of features of nature it partially adapts the eighteenth-century construction of the Highlands (wilderness, understood as ‘a version of nature’ and ‘the antithesis of culture’ and a space destitute of people)[7] thus offering our imagination a more authentic withdrawal from real life.

The second item confronted me with the use of popular Scottish heritage in the pub when, a couple of years ago, on the glass of my favourite lager I noticed clearly demarcated icons of Scotland.


The pint glass I was served in was produced in 2012 especially for the occasion of St Andrew’s day and was given the playful label ‘Scotland to a T’. It encompasses thirty six statements that were chosen from over 3000 entries and aimed ‘to create a unique snapshot of the nation in words and pictures.’[8] In theory it sought to capture current perceptions of Scotland; and indeed one might find a few humorous phrases that portray the country (my personal favourite is ‘land of the square sausage’). The marketing campaign even produced a cartoon where some comments were used to create a seemingly cohesive narration:


However these slogans, at large, adopt stereotypes in order to codify Scottishness and in this context they predictably tap into a wider, heritage-oriented narration. It is a challenging item, as although there is a noticeable intention of self-mockery, which  substitutes the tendency of the ‘Highlands home trend’ to fetishize the Highlands for putting a real (often drunk!) person into Scotland’s idealised landscape; the glass as a product, even if subvertly, echoes the same ‘castrated past’ and creates a no less castrated present.

Such a selective glance at some aspects of how Scottish popular iconography underpinned by Scottish heritage is used in contemporary products does not give a full picture of the matter. It does however indicate a very broad use of Scottish popular icons, which, essentially, create a sometimes deceitful cultural merry-go-round, made of solitary fragments of Scottish culture and identity.





[1] Innes Kennedy, ‘Bricolage and the question of British Identities’ in the Hub for the Study of British Identities. Available from


[3] See M. Billing, Banal Nationalism (London, 1995).

[4] P. Womack, Improvement and Romance. Constructing the myth of the Highlands (Basingstoke, 1989), p. 148.

[5] D. Lowenthal, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (Cambridge, 2010), p. 102


[7] D. McCrone, Understanding Scotland: The Sociology of a Nation 2nd Ed. (London, 2001), p. 39