“I’m No Yer Bonny Lass!” On “Outlander” & Scottishness

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I’d been working on this piece for a while & ended up submitting it to The Butter. They sadly said no. Fortunately, I know an editor with way lower standards. Myself. Go me!

I’m Scottish. This is hardly the secret of the century given my Twitter username and habit of talking about my nationality more than is really necessary. I’m not ginger, I don’t own a kilt, I think haggis and whisky are disgusting, but I am addicted to shortbread. I also graduated from university with a joint honours degree partly in Celtic Studies, where I worked in various topics including a year of Gaelic and the ways in which Scotland is represented in culture and marketing, both by ourselves and other countries.

As such, I’m probably the last person who should be reading Diana Gabaldon’s wildly popular Highlands-set Outlander series. It’s really a big red flag in front of this extremely opinionated bull. I’m hyper-aware of when depictions of Scottishness go horribly wrong, and with good reason given our culture’s history of delving head first into the kind of tartan dominated imagery best suited to a shortbread tin. I can still feel the pain brought on from a solid hour of cringing at Brigadoon as a 9 year old. I’m fully aware that my circumstances make me a less than objective individual when it comes to these kinds of stories, so please understand that my intentions here aren’t to shame those who enjoy such tales, nor am I working to push a political agenda of some kind. This is a topic of particular contention right now given Scotland’s recent independence referendum (by the way, the referendum is not the reason Outlander has yet to be broadcast in the UK, although the mental image of Alistair Darling holding the show’s DVDs hostage is a delightful one).

I’d also like to remind people that it is possible and often necessary to be critical of something you enjoy. It doesn’t invalidate your enjoyment, nor does it render the achievements of the source material being discussed null and void. I don’t hate what I have read of Outlander (even though I must confess I just can’t work up the energy or interest to finish it). It’s an intensely overwrought yet immensely enjoyable novel, one with mostly solid research and an interesting central relationship, yet there are a number of glaring issues. This also applies to the Highlander romance genre in general. It’s not my thing, I understand why it’s a thing for many women, but there are still some discussions to be had.

I... I don't know what this is. There's so much here that baffles my brain.
I… I don’t know what this is. There’s so much here that baffles my brain.

In 1994, James Kelman’s fourth novel How Late It Was How Late won the Man Booker Prize, and found itself on the receiving end of much criticism, including disparaging comments from one of the prize’s judges. The book, written entirely in a working class Glaswegian dialect, was slammed for its regional vernacular and seen as a form of “literary vandalism”, mostly by English critics. This literary choice to recreate the spoken word of the biggest city in Scotland saw many claiming it bore more resemblance to illiteracy than anything recognisable by the wider non-Scottish reading public. This is nonsense, of course. Just because a dialect is difficult to read (see also Irvine Welsh’s output, notably Trainspotting), that doesn’t make it a fraudulent language. However, it is extremely difficult to pull off, even for a native. So when a non-Scottish writer employs the tool of dialect and does it badly, it does a disservice to a rich and wonderful language while doing the thing Scots all fear – making us sound illiterate.

The Scots dialect is used by Gabaldon to immediately distinguish the Scottish characters from the English narrator Claire (if the red hair and kilts don’t already do that), as well as to establish the “other” of the tale – the savage but noble Scots of a different age, at once frightening and secure, primitive and romantic. The ultimate alpha male, but not without a sensitive side. To Outlander’s credit, it subverts many of the expected relationship dynamics by having its brave, noble Highlander be the sexually inexperienced one, which is a refreshing change amidst a sea of bonnie lasses flung against the heather. Much of my problem with this trope, in romance and media depictions in general, is its reliance on the Alpha standard, which I’ve never been a fan of, although I fully understand its appeal. There’s something undeniably enticing about a figure so primal, but that fantasy died away for me many years ago after seeing too many male relatives go full True Scotsman at weddings.

Image from Zap2It. I totally get that bit of the show, ladies.
Image from Zap2It. I totally get that bit of the show, ladies.

In some ways, these Highlanders are depicted as a little less than human, a magical figure capable of anything, an ‘other’ that’s a marked contrast from other nations: From the postcard perfect enchanted heather-filled fields of Brigadoon to the out of history land of yore in Local Hero to Christopher Lambert’s accent roulette in Highlander. The very nature of their national identity imbues them with a power that can change lives or even save them. They, like Jamie Fraser and his clan, aren’t just from another time, they’re another kind of being altogether. Their traditional ways are a gateway for outsiders to experience a simpler way of life, a more traditional kind of relationship, or a more direct way of solving your problems (there can be only one!)

There are no real established spellings for Scots words given the vast changes that occur due to the passage of time and geography, and this is evident throughout Outlander, yet the usual suspects of vocabulary appear with the expected regularity.

There are plenty of ‘lads’ and ‘lassies’ as well as ‘Sassenach wench[es]’ and general dropping of the letter ‘t’. This is all somewhat accurate yet completely without the necessary specificity. The Scottish characters veer between being barely decipherable to Brigadoon extras to sounding identical to the English narrator. On top of that, the dialect used is best categorised as ‘generic Scot’, a common mistake made by non-Scottish writers. In much the same way that a Bostonian sounds different from a Texan, a Highlander’s dialect differs, often wildly, from Doric or Glaswegian. This homogenised experience is similar to much of what happens in depictions of Scotland throughout literature and film by Hollywood (oddly enough, if you want a film that does a surprisingly solid job of depicting the variations in Scottish vernacular, watch Brave).

This homogenised Scotland is evident not just in the dialect but in the overwhelming whiteness on display in film, books, and so on. Somebody once asked me if there were any black people in Scotland, and while I laughed before launching into something or a tirade at the time, I understand where such ignorance comes from. From our own tourism ads to the beefcake cover models to the various creative individuals the country has birthed over the generations, the image of Scotland and Scottishness itself presented is almost universally white. The preferred image of Scottish masculinity, the commodified product, is seldom a diverse figure, let alone one lusted after in romance. Even Scotland-set novels outside of that genre seem to stick to whiteness (with notable exceptions including the wonderful Jackie Kay).

Before the strains of “But it’s historically accurate” begin to play, let’s take a look at that claim. We have records that show soldiers of black origin served in Britain during Roman times. A number of

Buy this book.
Buy this book.

black moors worked as servants (and probably slaves) in the court of King James IV, who came to the throne in 1488, and there are records from the early 1500s showing that the King requested an audience with a black baby. Then, of course, there’s the slave trade, which Scotland profited handsomely from. Some figures estimate that one third of all slaves in Jamaica during the early 1800s were owned by Scots. One of these slaves, Joseph Knight, ended up taking the man who bought him to court, effectively ending the slave trade in the country. Scottish author James Robertson wrote a fictionalised take on the tale a decade ago. Scotland also has a large Asian population, with prominent members including politicians Anas Sarwar and Humza Youzsaf, and actress Katie Leung. People of colour have been ever present in Scotland, and the chances are there were some running around the Highlands during the Jacobite era. It’s not ‘political correctness gone mad’ to correctly represent Scotland as the diverse nation it is. (If you’re interested in a Scottish romance with a diverse pairing that also tackles the intersections of race, religion and class in modern Scotland, check out Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss).

I effing love this movie.
I effing love this movie.

It can be hard to complain about this stuff because, honestly, Scotland’s made a fortune out of it. That image of rolling hills populated by noble freedom fighting kilt wearers with blue paint on their faces has been the backbone of the country’s tourism for decades now. In a country of 5 million people, tourism sustains jobs for about 200,000 people, and CNN named Scotland as the top tourist destination of 2013. Inverness is home to several Outlander themed tours, and when Brave was released, First Minister Alex Salmond went on the promotional tour, including a visit to Craig Ferguson’s show (he wore tartan trousers, because of course). Beyond the lived experience of Scottishness, there’s also its inherent performative nature. The people with money want to see kilts and nobility, so let’s give it to them. I’m not so sure visitors would be quite as enticed by our great nation if all our adverts focused on Trainspotting. There’s plenty of other facets to Scotland’s tourism industry, from this year’s Commonwealth Games to the world’s biggest annual arts festival in Edinburgh, and to Visit Scotland’s credit, they’ve exhibited more of those elements in their advertising than in previous years, but there’s a reason they have interviews with Diana Gabaldon on their YouTube channel.

The Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Yeah, we still don't know what happened there.
The Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Yeah, we still don’t know what happened there.

The commodification of Scottishness strips the nation of its centuries of history, culture and its wider place in the United Kingdom. It reduces all of those elements to a number of easy to identify markers – tartan, whisky, bagpipes – that can conveniently be packaged and sold on the Royal Mile. Outlander may be a more deftly created, researched and executed example of this, but it does contribute to the culture.

It’s not oppressive, at least it isn’t for me, but it can be limiting, and given how few films, TV shows, and so on we get each year that feature Scottish stories, it’s exhausting to see a small number of tropes depicted over and over again. It grates to be defined by a number of expectations that originate in Mel Gibson directed schlock, or be approached by strangers tentatively because they expect you to suddenly lose your temper and turn violent. I understand it’s hardly the worst way to be defined, and I certainly don’t face the issues Scots of colour do (such as the dreaded question “No really, where do you actually come from?”), but after a number of years of living while Scottish, it’s hard to ignore the questions that go through your mind. I’m many things, but I’m no’ anybody’s bonnie lass, ye ken?

 

3 COMMENTS

  1. Me faither was from Glesga and he’d be proud of ye, lassie! Seriously, I have trouble even reading Highland romances, since to me the accent doesn’t say, “hot man”, but “Hello, Dad.” I’ve eaten wee hot pies and bridies, (no haggis, though we do celebrate Hogmanay in our household), and I really enjoy hearing the pipes. I have Dad’s worn, leather-bound copy of Robbie Burns’ poems, and I proudly wear my bunnet with the tourey on top. And 2 sons and my husband own “everyday kilts” from http://www.stillwaterkilts.com, which sell them at reasonable prices. They wear them when we go to Renaissance Faires and Highland Games events.

    Your complaints are valid. Thanks for defending the honor and pride of me faither’s homeland.

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