Hold onto your hats – this is a long one…
I’ve followed two generations of family working in various parts of the Scottish tourist industry and have therefore been thoroughly steeped for years in views of garish tartans, shortbread of various shapes, endless piper dolls, Nessies, clan memorabilia and spurtles (damn, but I love that word!). Billy Connolly once said something along the lines that “we’re the only people in the World who actually believe all that tourist crap IS our culture”, which is either a sad reflection on the commercialisation of our culture to the extent that it has become a pale imitation of itself, or an endorsement of the scottish ability to take ourselves too seriously, but with good humour.
Our culture is, of course, something of a moveable feast, as most are in these global village days, with influences from all over the World making themselves known, but even locally we have a reasonably large population of second and third generation immigrant communities who are combining their culture with our own – changing both in the process. Such is the nature of art – it thrives on collaboration and cross-pollination, despite the best efforts of critics and big business to categorise and rationalise it.
I don’t like football. There are probably about 5 males in Scotland who don’t like football, which always strikes me as amusing that a country so bad at something can have such a love of it. It’s perhaps the national sense of humour at play again – we like underdogs, so let’s go crazy about a sport that we’re inherently useless at. If there’s one thing we’re good at (and this applies to the whole of the UK), it’s inventing games. We’ve invented loads of games – golf, rugby, football, cricket, the list goes on. Then we tell the World about them, win for the first couple of years and they thrash us. Soundly.
I do wonder about the origins of sports, and why some should be more popular than others. Running, hurdles, javelin, high jump, skiing – these all make some sense, being throwbacks to our days as hunters or foragers, but football/basketball/hockey/rugby/polo? They’re all basically the same game with variations on the ball, goals or method of movement, and go back to ancient Greece (or earlier, for all I know) when they used the head of the previous losing team captain, but what is the significance of sticking a ball in a goal? Lost on me, for sure.
As for the game of golf – where to start? Cross-country snooker. Waste of a good walk. Pick your favourite insult. Golf is just weird, through and through. From the Rupert the Bear outfits through to the electric golf carts for the people too lazy to walk a couple of hundred metres between holes, it is a strange parallel universe. People come to Scotland from all over the World to play golf – we have (according to those in the know) some of the best courses in the World.
But here’s the thing – no matter how stunning the landscape around the course, the course itself is identical to every other course in the world. Okay, the layout is different, the holes are further apart or whatever, but they have to be more or less similar in the same way that all football pitches are rectangular with a goal at each end. Arguably the most famous course is the Old Course at St Andrews, set beside a wonderful beach with the town watching over and the constantly changing sea scenting the air. It’s very flat and sandy, and golf courses the World over have modelled themselves on this, which is all very well, but just because it sits in the landscape of the Fife coast very comfortably doesn’t mean the same automatically applied elsewhere – a fact which doesn’t seem to have registered with golf course designers. For example, millions were spent on landscaping a vast swathe of Loch Lomondside to turn it into a flat, bright green carpet covered in sand pits. Loch Lomond is a freshwater loch. It doesn’t have perfect yellow sand. It has rugged hillsides of brown bracken, pale grasses and purple heathers – not flat, near-luminous green manicured lawns.
Please, if you’re going to dedicate an unhealthy proportion of the country’s first national park to the rich and stupid, would it be too much to ask to at least keep it in sympathy with the surrounding area? The local people struggle with endless forms of planning permission to make the slightest change to their house, but big money golf can come along and plant a monstrous eyesore in the middle of one of the country’s most beautiful locations and for some reason (money, obviously) that’s fine. And who decided that golf courses had to be placed in beautiful locations – you don’t see football stadia or racetracks in the middle of picturesque countryside? End of rant.
One thing that can be said of golf is that it seems to be all-encompassing. The obscenely rich who play at Loch Lomond pay thousands for the privilege to do so, but take a trip through Glasgow and you’ll see shell-suited youths en-route to their local course with golf club in one hand and carry-out in the other.
For the first 17 or so years of my life we spent a day each year at the local highland games – usually Luss, or occasionally the spectacle of Dunoon with its massed pipe bands. In recent years these have become the stomping ground of the “World’s Strongest Man” competitors, keeping up their profiles and earning a few bob in between pulling trains with their teeth or lifting boulders with their nostril hair, but back in the day these would have been local strong men, usually from the surrounding farms.
The games include various stalls, displays of highland dance and a number of sporting events. The events range from standards like flat races and shot putt, to hill races (who can get to the top of the nearest mountain and back the quickest), hammer throwing and the old favourite, tossing the caber. For those not familar with this event, it is probably even more phallic than it sounds – in a nutshell you have to pick up a long log and throw it up and through 180 degrees in the air, or as Iain Banks puts it; “…some thick-necked twat in a skirt trying to outwit a telegraph pole…” I always enjoyed watching these events, and felt they were a pretty good way for farm workers to show off the muscles they’d built up over the years, with reasonably unique sports aimed at their skills.
One event always seemed at odds with the rest, and I suspect probably owed more to “It’s a Knockout” than traditional scottish competition. It involved teams of two, one of whom would push, and the other sit in, a wheelbarrow. The barrow occupant would hold a long pole which would have to be inserted into a hole on a contraption housing a bucket of water, under which the barrow had to pass. Should the aim be off, then the team would be soaked (which was almost always the outcome), otherwise they would pass into the next round. I suppose this is really a less dangerous variant of mediaevil jousting, but don’t know what relevance it may have had to highland life.
This whole article was inspired by the Iain Banks’ line above which I’ve been chuckling about all day. It comes from his fairly recent non-fiction book “Raw Spirit” which is a sort of hybrid between travelogue, autobiography and whisky-tasting guide. I’ve never read any sort of travel book, partly on the basis that I’d just be jealous of the places people travel to, partly because I wouldn’t necessarily be interested in the sort of things the writer would, but mainly because I find them about as appealing as a slushy romance novel or a guide to cross-stitch – just not my thing.
However, this book is written by one of my favourite authors who has written some wonderful contemporary fiction (much of it based in Scotland), and is probably second only to Frank Herbert in the SciFi genre. It covers Scotland, so no need to be envious of exotic locations. It offers up history, information and assessments of various single malts without being pompous or technical. And finally, it contains lots of amusing Banksian anecdotes to bring life to the locations he visits. To bring us back to the the issue of Scottish culture I’ll end with another apt quote; “…music of extreme Heederum-Hawderum-ness that’s patently been dredged from the very lowest, most crud-encrusted sump of the great festering bilge tank that is Scottish Cliché MacMusic from Bonnie Glen Grotesquo.” So, if you want a guide to either Scotland or whisky by someone who lives and loves both, has a wry sense of humour and a knack for storytelling, as well as an appreciation of decent music, I’d recommend it.