A flying visit to Harris and Lewis – Scotch whisky’s most remote Hebridean outpost.
One of the best recent developments on long-haul flights has been the addition of box sets to your in-flight entertainment. No longer do you have to eke out the (few) movies you actually want to watch into outward and return viewing.
This time, however, I was stumped as to what to watch. True Detective? I love it, but the mumbling dialogue can’t be heard above engine noise. Breaking Bad series three? Haven’t yet completed series two.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I chose Outlander. I vaguely recalled it had received good reviews, and it had a Scottish theme.
I knew it was escapist fantasy, but unless you are trying to unsettle the person in the next seat by watching Australian horror movies, that’s not a bad way of passing a few hours.
I also figured it would have fewer moments which would induce involuntary sobbing – I’m a blubbering mess at 37,000 feet.
So, I began at the beginning, fully aware that it would require a certain willing suspension of disbelief. I couldn’t, however, have anticipated how appalling it was.
Outlander, for those of you who haven’t experienced it, mashes together The Wicker Man, Highlander, Quantum Leap, The Perils of Pauline, Macbeth, Braveheart and Balamory (but with more sex and less Archie the Inventor).
Witches, standing stones, time jumps, perfidious English, hunky men running around in kilts, woad, mud, plucky feisty heroine… and an execrable script.
Like Balamory, but with more sex: Outlander
I gave up in a rage. That’s the other thing about emotions at 37,000 feet. You either weep uncontrollably (never watch Toy Story 3 on a plane) or become immensely irritated.
So infuriated was I that, on arrival in the US, I searched for Outlander reviews and was amazed by how it was being taken as a mildly exaggerated manifestation of the truth.
Outlander, it transpires, fits in with people’s notions of what it is to be ‘Celtic’ (or, as many of them prefer to spell it, ‘Keltic’).
Things came into focus on the return journey when I was reading a piece in BA’s High Life magazine on modern Scotland by the ever-astute A L Kennedy. She opened with this gambit:
‘Scotland is a land rich in interesting history and, should you meet an American or Canadian tourist while you’re [there] you will hear a great deal about it…’
Too true. Many is the time I have been asked which clan I belong to by some Tam o’Shanter-ed Yank. To be honest, I reply politely, I’m more busy getting on with being an ex-pat 21st century Scot.
There’s the irony, I thought. Scotch whisky is regularly accused of playing up to these stereotypes, even though the reality is that, while the tartan-and-heather approach worked in Edwardian times, it hasn’t been part of the arsenal for many years.
‘Tartan-and-heather’ instead has become shorthand for ‘out of touch’ and, while I may fulminate on occasion for the need for whisky firms to understand contemporary Scotland, I do think that in this case it’s consumers who are out of date.
I’d argue that Scotch needs to be more Scottish – just not clichéd, but maybe drinkers want there to be misty glens and hunky men running around in kilts.
Then I got back home, sat at my desk, started to write this and looked around me. Books of Scottish folk tales, Gaelic poetry, stacks of traditional music, stones chosen not just for shape and colour, but for their connection to a place.
The myths I was dismissive of are alive. I like the fact that on Islay a remedy for toothache is to hammer a nail into a stone in a field above Port Charlotte.
When I’m teaching Scotch, after the talk of reflux and esters has abated, I remind those still awake: ‘Don’t forget the magic. This spirit is about more than just science.’
So, now I’ve got a more nuanced view of what Outlander represents. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still shite, but my objection is its (lack of) quality, its easy embracing of cliché.
The true weirdness that roots Scotland still exists. Scotch treads a fine line between cliché and magic.
Who would be a marketeer?
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