Kailyard & Cultural Memory

Kailyard Myth and Scottish Cultural Memory. Digital Video (2012) © Andrew Welsby

The Kailyard Myth and Scottish Cultural Memory


In his book, The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory (2011), Andrew Blakie claims that we can identify connections with the past through specific kinds of narrative. With collective memory manifesting itself as a source for national identity, each generation gets its bearing on its identity by drawing on ideas of society from the past, in order to root its identity in the present. For the Scots, this unfortunate narrative is derived from a fiction created during imperialism and the final stages of industrialisation. As British culture was becoming homogenised, Scottish culture would be constructed from images put down by émigré writers outside Scotland, and by the emerging conflict of a national identity borne of imperialism.


The tendency of mid nineteenth century authors like J.M. Barrie and Burns, is to caricature and romanticise descriptions of local towns and people using vernacular and Scottish dialects. The resulting Kailyard School of fiction bucked against Scottish realist writing, that portrayed a real Scotland warts and all. The term Kailyard has come to mean things such as, ‘the strong comfort factor in recognising a parochial Scotland’ (McDonald, 2011: 153). The Kailyard model embedded itself in the national psyche as modernism developed. The suppression of the Highland clan system coupled with industrialisation in the central belt resulted in thriving nationalism. Blakie believes economic expansion, migration and social mobility brought opportunities for workers to mix with strangers at a level never seen before. The social language for acceptance came from shared identity. And that identity was Kailyard.


Yet it is prudent to ask why the tartantry myth of the Kailyard memory continues to thrive and endure, with Scottishness being ‘a quality open to crass exaggeration as well as more subtle forms of garbled excess?’ (Dunn, 2010: 102). In literature, theatre and film the romantic image of indigenous Scotland as the gentle clansman warrior was rolled out at all opportunities. In theatre, consider the early twentieth century plays of John Brandane, Joe Corrie and Robert McLellan: The Glen is Mine (1923), In time O’ Strife (1928), and Jamie the Saxt (1930) respectively. The glut of Scottish plays in provincial theatres at this time brought historic characters and occasionally contemporary concerns together, such as industrial relations and highland land ownership. Yet less successful contemporary productions failed to attract funding and government grants.


Cinema too perpetuated the delusion. Scotland’s struggling film industry was reignited with the help of the BFI in establishing the ‘Films of Scotland Committee’ spearheaded in part by John Grierson. The committee’s purpose was to intentionally ‘attempt to use film for national purposes’ (Grierson, 2000: 103). The intention was exemplified in the films for the 1938 Empire Exhibition depicting Scotland’s industries with, Wealth of a Nation, it’s history – The Face of Scotland, agriculture – They Made the Land, and education – The Children’s Story. The tartanisation of Scottishness has trudged relentlessly through the twentieth century with Kailyard films ‘failing to subvert, or render problematic, existing conceptions about Scotland’ (Nash, 2000: 239). In Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots: distortions of Scotland in Holywood cinema, Colin McArthur describes the historical debate about Braveheart (1995) as having, ‘Generated much heat, but little light. An attempt is made to render this debate nuanced by mobilising historian Robert Rosenstone’s concepts of ‘true invention’ and ‘false invention’’ The late Kailyard films continue to derive their inspiration country value and fantastical yarns from that small group of late-nineteenth century writers.


Many writers and filmmakers have endeavored to disrupt the Kailyard myth espoused in films like Whisky Galore, (1949), and the chauvinistic Braveheart (1995). Authors such as Alistair Gray and Irvine Welsh have created the stuff of fresh urban legends – alienation with large helpings of grim satire in a post Thatcherite Scotland. But the ‘Braveheart Effect’ and its appropriation by politicians, journalists, sports people and the tourist board continue to be felt, most notably with the success of Scottish devolution in 1999. Yet the construction of a mythical homogenous Scottish identity impacts on both the external view of Scotland, which we could call the ‘tourist view’, and also on the internal national psyche. Doubtless thousands of tourists flock to Edinburgh each year looking to witness a blue painted clansman wearing an English invented kilt, wielding a six-foot sword. However, for the Scottish people, memory of the past is a necessary part of the present as it provides clarification and continuity. But when that memory is manufactured or blurred by romanticism, we can witness a form of cultural conditioning. Looking at Scottish cultural artifacts through the lens of shared nationality, it is possible that the myths become a collective representation, and a way to see a country.





System Made: The Tartan Machine. Pencil on Paper. 200 x 120 cm. (2012) © Andrew Welsby



A recent trip to the south of Spain offered an opportunity to reflect on national identity outside Scotland. I observed that totems of identity (Hobsbawm, 1987) sat comfortably with, and informed each other. An example is the co-opting of moorish decoration and architecture. I was pleased to see that Arab culture played a vital part in shaping Spanish culture, art and philosophy. In Al-Andalus, for over 700 years, east seems to have met west; Christian versus Muslim, Catholic versus Protestant, and ultimately Faciast versus Socialist. But before, and since the Christian uprising of 1610, where the Moors were permanantly expelled from the region, Islamic and Christian cultures co-existed peacefully. An example is the Moorish decoration of a Cordoba synagogue, where Hebrew carvings sit amongst Islamic carving, stonework, and ceramic tiles.


Using Moorish tile design as a strating point, I asked if Scottish identity reflected in part the cultural tolerance found in Medieval Spain. I found that nationalism in Scotland did not firmly take root until the eighteenth century under the watch of a resident English aristocracy. Prior to the Enlightenment, Scotland saw, like Spain, a variety of invasions, migrations, and ethnic or political entities (Stroh, 2012, p.47). Without a political hegemony, shifting relationships between these entities were fluid and in flux. It is reasonable to assert, as Stroh does, that a variety of short-lived communities, conquest and consequential ethnic ‘othering’ thrived in Scotland’s Dark and early medieval ages (Stroh, 2012, p. 49). Cultural combination in a heterogeneous Scotland therefore suggests that the popular notion of Celticness is inaccurate. Indeed Stroh points out that the Gaelic language, often identified as the bedrock of ancient Scottish national identity, did not become used extensively until the twelfth century (Stroh, 2012, p. 51). This supports the assertion of Anderson that ‘the formal universality of nationality is a social-cultural concept’ (Anderson, 2006, p.7). Anderson goes on to propose a definition of nation as an ‘imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’ (Anderson, 2006, p.6).


The image above therefore attempts to join symbols of Scottish identity using the motifs of Moorish tile design. The drawing machine made marks over stencils informed by Anderson's (2006) valid point stating that the nation-state is faceless and imagined, but possesses properties represented simply by signs and symbols, with a flag being the perfect example. Drawing upon semiotics we can interpret these signs as signifying belief, the defense of the nation, the revival and maintenance of tradition etc. But for all its representations, is it possible to point at our nation-state and say ‘there it is’? In other words, is it a tangible entity? Moretti suggests that the nation is an entity beyond imagining and is indefinable. He questions the existence of the nation-state by asking: ‘Where is it? What does it look like? How can one see it?’ (Moretti, 1998, p.17). By saying that it ‘cannot be imagined and only imagined’ (Redfield, 2006, p.50), we are beginning to understand that nationality does in fact correspond to the idea that identity is shifting and ephemeral. In Spain, cultural harmonies, and clashes, result in an imagined unity, but in Scotland, as the referendum for independance approaches, identity is far from fixed, and is worthy of further enquiry.




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