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17 April 2000

Give them culture, not haggis

New Statesman Scotland - Scots have failed to make the most of their assets when it comes t

By Christopher Harvie

The Scots tend to be rather self-congratulatory about their higher education. The creme de la creme can indeed excel, yet its average graduate’s skills can be modest: something like the second year of a Continental university. A scale of values that allocates high priority to drinking and clubbing, with a bit of loose change going on books, doesn’t make the heart rise up. A British colleague in a big German city commented on a recent draft of exchange candidates: “If that lot can read Hello!, they’re doing well.”

Scottish tourism is equally suspect: a potential £3-4bn-a-year business which is stuck about halfway there, mired in a tartan, bagpipes and haggis miasma, reached by only a tiny proportion of those who get as far as the London-Oxford-Stratford triangle and – having had quite enough of that – penetrate no further. Often for very good reason. Outside the filthy rich blowing their geld on Peter de Savary’s Skibo Castle, or at Gleneagles, much of what’s on offer in Scotland’s tourist areas dates from the 1960s, and reflects the destruction of the decade that brought the Beeching report and the closure of most country railways; the scrapping of the Clyde excursion steamers; some horrid urban redevelopment schemes; and dodgy tourist “attractions”, such as the now-crumbling Aviemore holiday centre.

Scots tourism has been bashed by the high pound and by a creakily exploitative image. American numbers are, proportionately, going down: the wealth of the boomtime has notoriously not done much for the middle class, who probably travel less than they did. For many Europeans capable of speaking English – a huge potential market – the country’s scenery isn’t enough to outweigh unpredictable weather and, frankly, a tacky atmosphere. Edinburgh in the summer radiates “full up”, while the smell of frying fat which hovers over downtown Inverness means the rule of only one clan – McDonald’s.

Moreover, until quite recently, the wrong lessons were being drawn. We now know that the humble backpacker contributes far more to the economics of Scottish tourism than the sort of motorised visitor the country has put itself out to attract. The latter was always liable to stock up at the local supermarket – the Dutch were at one stage notorious for this – and spend only on petrol when in Scotland. Perhaps, on an actuarial basis, they were even a net loss-maker, when occupation of road capacity was reckoned against this minimal input. And the backpackers often stand for the generation in Europe that Ralf Dahrendorf called Bildungsburgertum: well-educated, environmentally minded, relatively underemployed (many of the “sixty-eighters” are on the edge of retirement) and modestly rich. Catering for them could do wonders, not just for Scotland’s holiday areas, but for higher education.

The great example in this regard is Ireland. What the Irish have done is to mobilise academia and local literary resources in celebrating and selling the country’s cultural history, with weeks of summer schools – devoted to Yeats, Synge, Merriman – bringing in the literate visitor from all over, to programmes of plays, talks, readings, ceilidhs, guided tours. This packs out the hotels and boarding houses and fills the pubs in the evening, provides jobs for the students and postgraduates, and encourages local publishing and bookselling. Cultural education, cutting loose from the dominance of the big hotel chains and the ethos of exploitation, can be a benign force in tourism.

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In terms of literary – and more generally cultural – geography, Scotland is fabulously endowed. Burns in Ayrshire, the whole Ossian trip in the West Highlands, Neil Gunn in Caithness, Mackay Brown in Orkney, Barrie in Angus, Grassic Gibbon in the Mearns, Stevenson in Edinburgh, Scott and Hogg in the eastern borders, Carlyle, MacDiarmid and Buchan in the west.

In practically all these cases, the resources are to hand, in the museums and in new higher education institutions (such as the University of the Highlands and Islands), postgraduate research, critical editions and the interest of foreign scholars. And there’s a long tradition of organising such activities as the Edinburgh International Summer Schools. What is necessary now is a policy that will co-ordinate resources, experiment with different kinds of operation, and create an international network, not just to market these, but to engage scholars, writers and lay people from other countries with an interest in Scottish studies.

The charm of cultural tourism is that it is controllable and predictable without being regimented, and is independent of weather. The participants are unlikely to bring pricey distractions such as cars (where to park them?) or kids (where to park them?). They will use public transport or hire bikes, eat locally, and buy guides and local writers’ books. Over time, they will build up a mutual interest in the host town – a critical mass that will steadily increase interest. And what we’re selling is our product – the democratic intellect – rather than Braveheart or Mickey Mouse.

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