Stereotypes are strange things. Painting simple, caricatured images of a people or a place, a stereotype is often the quickest – and most misleading – way a stranger is introduced to a particular culture or nation. Often the stereotype is grotesquely exaggerated, but for better or for worse, the Scottish have one of the most enduring stereotypes in the English-speaking world.
The image of a ‘typical Scotsman’
The ‘typical’ Scotsman is often thought of as: a red haired, surly, penny-pinching Highlander who speaks with an impenetrable accent. He would be pictured strutting around the windswept, heather-clad moors in a kilt with a sprig of thistle on his breast, perhaps blowing a merry tune on a bagpipe before going home for a spot of whisky and haggis. When the Scotsman gets really tipsy, he becomes extremely maudlin and sentimental, singing the praises of his favourite football team and heaping curses on the despicable English.
The description above is a fair summation of the standard Scotsman stereotype. Of course, any visitor who goes to Scotland expecting to see living, breathing specimens of this awful character will wind up severely disappointed. By and large, the Scotsman of the real world is as far removed from this stereotype as can be imagined – except perhaps for the bit about football and the English.
The Scots would be the first to laugh at their stereotype and have a love-hate relationship with it. On the one hand, ‘Scotland the Brand’, or the popular and highly romantic image of Scotland, is instrumental in attracting tourists, businesses and international attention to the country. On the other hand, it is also the cause of more than a little misunderstanding and exasperation.
This is particularly true when it comes to the ‘penny-pinching’. As with most cultures, courtesy and generosity are highly esteemed by the Scots and though there are always a few tight-fisted ones around, most visitors have found them to be warm-hearted, generous people, frugal at worst but certainly not misers. ‘Taciturn’ also seems to be rather off the mark. Though there’ll always be characters who seem to live for surliness, Scots are for the most part known for their sense of humour.
As for the thick brogue, most Scots would also protest that they sound perfectly understandable, if only the listener would pay attention – and on an island famed for its variety of barely decipherable accents (particularly to the non-native English speaker), the Scottish accent can hardly be singled out as being particularly difficult. Scotland is in fact known for its poets and orators, many of whom speak better English than the English themselves. If anything, the thick-tongued Scotsman image ought to be blamed on non-Scots: for some reason, the Scottish accent is infamous for being one of the most mimicked accents in the English-speaking world, its horrendous imitations often heard on radios, in television commercials and movies.
Of kilts and tartans
Next to the accent, the kilt is the symbol most people think of as irrevocably Scottish. The kilt has its origins in ancient Highland garb but despite its origins, both Highlanders and Lowlanders are proud to wear it – though perhaps not half as passionately as many of the far-flung Scottish Diaspora, who proudly espouse the virtues of the kilt to any non-Scots. During re-enactments fairs, Tartan days and other such occasions celebrating all things Scottish, the kilt turns up in all its glory. It has become the accepted traditional costume around the world, and like all such attire it is usually worn on special occasions as proof of continuing cultural heritage and national pride.
Unfortunately, most casual spectators aren’t interested in the historical or cultural issues; they’re more interested in the undergarment question. Traditionally, the kilt is worn with a shirt long enough to keep the wearer decent in case of exposure, but the modern interpretation of the costume often calls for more extreme shows of manliness. This has led to innumerable jokes and pranks and has even spawned the infamous kilt-check, which is more or less exactly what it sounds like. Most people will understand if a timid wearer decides such openness is too intimidating and even rabidly patriotic Scotsmen have been known to prefer inauthenticity to the risk of public exposure. Fortunately, most kilt wearers have learnt to take the curious teasing in stride and wear the kilt with flair and style. They also know how to deal with the curiosity and some of the best comeback lines are replies to the question: so, what are you wearing under that kilt?
The tartan pattern of the kilt itself is also often a subject of some confusion. Many of the really ancient tartan designs were lost after the Battle of Cullodeen, as the victorious English suppressed much of the Highland culture. Over the past two hundred years, the tartan has gradually reassumed its importance and today, is wildly popular internationally. There are now hundreds of tartan patterns available and many of the designs are registered as the official version of ‘X’ or ‘Y’ tartan. This includes tartan designs for Scots living in the United States, Scots living in Canada and various other national tartans, as well as family tartans, institution tartans, individual tartans…the list goes on.
Though there are the inevitable complaints that the the tartans of today aren’t exact replicas of the ancient designs and that traditions have been woefully adulterated, the tartan’s popularity has also ensured its survival. Such enthusiastic adoption of the tartan is also very welcome to the enterprising Scots, as it means more people are willing to buy even the most hideous, blatantly untraditional designs. Many Scots are also proud to wear their clan’s tartan, without quibbling too much over authenticity. Of course, when a proud native Scotsman comes across an ignorant tourist sporting his family tartan, he may be moved to laughter or tears.
A beautiful landscape
The stereotype also extends to the typical scenery expected of Scotland. The mind inevitably conjures up a vast expanse of rolling moorland, covered with purple heather and moody grey skies. In the distance would be tall, forbidding mountains, snow clad and wreathed with mists. This is one of the few elements in the stereotype that not only comes near the reality, but also falls far short of the mark. Scotland has great expanses of rolling moorland and many broody mountains. The country is known for its breathtaking, oddly desolate landscape and is beloved of moviemakers and romance novelists.
The most striking thing about the countryside (pictured above), particularly up in the north, is that you can easily feel as though you’re the only person around for hundreds of miles. In fact in many places, you really are the only person around for hundreds of miles, with the wilderness stretching uninterrupted from horizon to horizon. Many of the families that would otherwise have occupied this empty land were forced out of their homes by greedy landowners in the last century and moved overseas to begin a new life. Scotland’s population never recovered from the forced emigration and the empty landscape today is a reminder of that past injustice.
The other striking thing about the countryside is the heather. This low-growing moorland shrub is very closely associated with Scotland and decks the hills in a glorious coat of purple blossoms twice a year, in early spring and early autumn. Many visitors come just to look a the breathtaking scenery and more than a few will take home a sprig or two of heather for their gardens. Traditionally, heather has also been an intimate part of Scottish life; people slept on heather scented beds, brides carried it for good luck and of course, there was nothing like the taste of heather honey or heather ale to really bring out the Scotsman in you. Nowadays, many Scots still retain a fondness for the little flower, even if they don’t sleep on beds of heather anymore. There are also many companies taking advantage of the popular love of heather to sell everything from heather ale, to heather cream, heather seeds and even heather bouquets over the Internet.
Actually, it would be exhausting to list the many, many ways in which the Scots differ from their stereotype. Certainly, the popular image of a Scotsman can’t be found on the streets of Edinburgh, Glasgow or any other Scottish city, where for the most part the locals look like every other European. Probably the only place where such a caricature could possibly be seen would be on television show lampooning the Scots, and its quite likely that in the audience would be a Scotsman or two, laughing even harder than the rest.