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Things I wouldn’t write about Tourism in Scotland now

Blog - Is It Scotland?

A sporadic blog about Scotland and tourism that isn't grumpy all the time.  Promise.

Things I wouldn’t write about Tourism in Scotland now

Gilbert Summers

How things have changed in Scottish tourism.

More than three decades ago I started to write material for Scotland's tourism industry. I kept some of the stuff and a cardboard boxful of print seems to have followed me around, from attic to attic over the years. And that’s an alternative definition for the word ‘archive’ in our house.

I just found ‘Scotland Where to Go and What to See’ for 1986 in the box. Writing looks familiar. It starts - and I’m quite proud of this in a trainee cub copywriter sort of way:

The guide is saying 'Och, look, there's the sun up there. You'd be better off outside enjoying it, instead of visiting a fusty auld castle'.

The guide is saying 'Och, look, there's the sun up there. You'd be better off outside enjoying it, instead of visiting a fusty auld castle'.

“If you hunt for the real Scotland, there will be many times when you know you have found it.: when you hear your first Highland piper with the background of Edinburgh Castle; on some late, late evening on a far northern beach as the sun sets into a midsummer sea; as your golf-ball masters the on-shore breeze, bounces and rolls on to the green; or with your first taste of a malt whisky, peat-smoked and tangy…”

Well, really, what more do you need? Scotland in a nutshell. Florid, perhaps, overblown maybe, but, hey, that’s how they liked it. And I could have demonstrated the apostrophe in the proper place at no extra charge. Anyway, I should have stopped there - but no, went on and did another two decades and more of heather-purple prose for our national tourist board.

Incidentally, I like to think the kilted guy on the front cover pictured here, may be saying 'Aye, folks, yon's the sun up there. We dinna see much o it, so you'd be better ootside than traipsin roon a fusty auld castle.' However, there are other possibilities. 

But what did I write then that I wouldn’t write now?

Some things change as technology has transformed communications. I see back then I was instructed to exhort visitors to order an ‘Enjoy Scotland Pack’ through the post. (What was that? A bottle of whisky, half-a-dozen butteries and a small bottle of midge repellent?) Today we access our Scottish information in completely different ways.

Tourist Information Centres in Scotland

What the knowledgeable staff in the 'TICs' of old used on the odd occasion when their knowledge failed them. They looked up a publication invariably known as '1001' and it really did have more than a thousand places in Scotland to visit. The top copy dates from 1990, a comparative youngster. NB I never wrote this one. Oddly enough, Johanna edited it one year though.

What the knowledgeable staff in the 'TICs' of old used on the odd occasion when their knowledge failed them. They looked up a publication invariably known as '1001' and it really did have more than a thousand places in Scotland to visit. The top copy dates from 1990, a comparative youngster. NB I never wrote this one. Oddly enough, Johanna edited it one year though.

Also back then, it was obligatory to remind the Scottish visitor of the excellent network of what were called (in the trade) “TICs” - tourist information centres - in the days when every wee village had a wee information office. Call in and you would find a wee wifie (usually) of uncertain vintage who knew every b & b operator and was honour bound to field out the bookings in a scrupulous manner and not just to favour her chums. She was invariably a local and also knew every walk, hotel, attraction, viewpoint, cafe, ferry time - and often without looking up a paper timetable. (As a breed with real knowledge of sharp-end tourism in Scotland, we are unlikely to see their likes again.)

The Loch Ness Monster is still around

But let’s turn over a page. Under the bland heading ‘Colourful Scotland’ and under the castles section I see I wrote in a slightly coy manner ‘Take your picture of Urquhart Castle against the background of Loch Ness - and who knows what might appear in the picture?

The rational answer is a floating log, a wave interference pattern, a swimming otter family, a swimming red deer  and so on - but I was hardly going to earn my fee my pointing out that the Loch Ness monster phenomenon is just a perennial myth which serves the local tourism economy very well - and will continue to do so for years to come.

Golf in Scotland

A little further on (‘There’s so much to do…’) is the obligatory mention of golf. Green fees, we are told, can be as little as 50p. Crikey. And I must have said somewhere that Scotland is the home of golf. Or maybe that is St Andrews, though personally (out of political correctness or just because it’s a naff phrase) at least I never referred to it as ‘A Mecca for golfers’ - though lots of tourism material does. Anyway, who would have thought that 30 years later golf club membership both in Scotland and south of the Border is actually declining, with clubs closing at a steady rate?

Highland Games

Aha. The back page of the old Scotland main guide. (Stereotypical brawny Highland Games Competitor also obligatory.)

Aha. The back page of the old Scotland main guide. (Stereotypical brawny Highland Games Competitor also obligatory.)

In that respect there’s a vague parallel with that other ever-reliant topic for the tourism brochure: Highland Games. Awfully fond, in those days, of describing them in a somewhat wordy manner as a ‘celebration of sporting and artistic skills combined on the same occasion’. (Still, I was getting paid per word.) Like golf, this unique combination of athletic prowess and musical spectacle (what?) has seen a decline over the last few years, according to a report from 2011. Simply put, there aren’t as many Highland Games taking place as thirty years ago.

To a Lowland Scot like me the ‘modern’ Highland Games always seemed to have a faint air of fakery, of a harking back to a kind of Scotland that was mostly invented by Sir Walter Scott and his ilk. A harsh judgment, yes, I know.  The standard explanation was always that they owed their origins to the need for chieftains to hold auditions for the best athletes and musicians - a kind of ‘Kilts’ve got Talents’ show.  

Anyway, the decrease in the number of Highlands Games being held in Scotland appears to be linked to young folk not being so interested these days, and the amount of bureaucracy involved in staging a Highland Games.  There is, for example, the claim by Lochearnhead Highland Games a few years back that the local council insisted on plastic or rubber swords in the famous sword dance - for health and safety reasons. Tee-hee.

Where to Stay in Scotland

Meanwhile back in that big brochure, there were the reassurances about accommodation and its availability. The idea of a b & b was heavily emphasised. ‘They offer simple facilities, but usually represent good value and very flexible and informal accommodation.’ I have no idea what that means now - but the implication seemed to be something ‘homely’ (in the British English sense, not the US English sense). The general thrust was that you would be sharing and getting an insights into local life.

The idea of a b & b has moved on a lot since then. It could still happen, but the chances are that today you won’t be sitting in the living room with a crofter and his wife, whose family go back generations. Instead you'll have your own sitting room (maybe) in the custom-built bungalow of a couple from another part of the UK who took early retirement, came north and are doing b & b as a lifestyle choice. (He was in financial services, she was a social worker.) Don’t expect an insight into Scottish culture and heritage but - and this is important - the home-made muesli for breakfast will be in a class of its own. And the place will be immaculate and have four or five stars. 

The fashionable Fairy Pools of Skye

Geographically, you wouldn’t expect much to change. Still, write about Skye and you used to commonly mention - of all things - the so-called Fairy Flag at Dunvegan Castle, which has a variety of magical powers attributed to it. Yeah, right. Today, with Skye filled to capacity and beyond with outdoorsy types in main season, stuffy old tales of fairy flags saving the clan in battle are eclipsed by pseudo-magical experiences at the Fairy Pools, which appear to be an obligatory visit now, especially if you want to go wild swimming. And, yes, the carpark there at main season is horrendous thanks to the number of travel features written about the place. 

Scottish history or movie fantasy?

I guess that from a historical perspective what or who was mentioned in the promotional material has changed a little. Rob Roy, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Mary Queen of Scots remain in the consciousness, then as now, thanks either to movies (in Rob’s case) or quality visitor centres such as the NTS’s take on the Battle of Culloden. Sir Walter Scott long ago had his day and though the home of Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford is still on the Scottish Borders list, (and the visitor centre there is excellent), these days there are probably more Scots aware that this old Tory buffer did Scotland no real service by helping create the romantic tartan fantasy land that has been part of its image ever since.

Today, instead of the Waverley novels, tourism material is much more likely to reference, for example, Harry Potter books and also the curious Outlander, though you might argue that Outlander helps perpetrate romantic tartan fantasy Scotland and thus is directly linked to Scott. What seems to be high profile now but less so back then is the increasing emphasis of movie locations in Scotland as a hook for promotional activity. And I’m thinking here of the seemingly mandatory mention of a the Harry Potter flying car with Glenfinnan Viaduct, or the Glen Etive link to Bond and Skyfall. There are many more examples, such as the Old Man of Storr on Skye and the BFG. I reckon Rob Roy - the movie - started all this! (Wait...maybe it was Highlander…)

Obviously, the biggest and most obvious change of all is how you are reading this. Back then, an array of print, plus helpful information office staff and a variety of people with knowledge of Scotland were at the core of the tourism industry. Now, for travel or accommodation information we read the most recent TripAdvisor review, or the latest contribution to this or that travel forum. Today, in short, we are all Scottish experts.