Scotland or What?


That's the question.

Somewhere among my many books there's an old - a very old - Beano Annual. I was a big fan of the Beano when I was a child. My beloved grandad bought me a copy every week. There was usually a mild tussle with my dad over each new issue, because he loved it too. Mostly we would read it together. Come Christmas, there would usually be a Beano Annual in my stocking. In one of the cartoons, I forget which, but it may have been Lord Snooty, now only remembered every time Jacob Rees Mogg rears his head, there's an image of the Scottish border. Not that Lord Snooty was Scottish, but since the Beano and Dandy were published in Dundee by the redoubtable D C Thomson, the cartoons would, every so often, contain a small and faintly satirical reference to English perceptions of Scotland. 

The border was, as far as I remember, a very definite line, on the northern side of which were instant mountains, (lochs and bens) and men in kilts, leaping about, tossing cabers, and saying things like 'hoots mon'. It was, of course, a joke. A joke, moreover, at the expense of our English neighbours. A bit like that episode of Hancock's Half Hour, where Tony discovers that he has Scottish blood and becomes the laird of Glen Sporran. Or tries to. The one in which James Robertson Justice calls Hattie a 'fine wee woman'. 

I found myself thinking about all these things last weekend when I watched the first episode of a new TV crime drama 'set in Scotland' (sic). It was a television version of a well reviewed radio drama which, surprisingly enough, I hadn't heard. To say that I didn't enjoy this incarnation would probably be to underestimate the strength of my feelings about it, and it's safe to say that I won't be watching it again. But I'll leave the reviewing of it to more dedicated TV critics than I am. 

Besides, that's not really what this post is about. You see, for me, it demonstrated a very real and all too common disrespect shown to Scotland, far more often than is excusable. As though we live in some kind of cartoon country, where once you step over the border from England, you will find yourself in a vague, undifferentiated place where signs saying 'Benview' indicate that this is a land of bens and lochs. Watching an hour of this drama, from Scotland, was deeply frustrating, mostly because it was nothing at all like Scotland. 

The crime solvers were housed in what looked like an empty modern building in the middle of nowhere. So empty that I swear it echoed. There was a Norwegian detective and a Scotsman who thought she had taken his job. I mean I know this happened in reverse in the stunningly good Broadchurch but that was explicable in all kinds of ways. A (Clyde Coast?) marina seemed to have only one boat in it. My ex-professional sailor husband muttered mutinously over this one. Sometimes a vague city skyline or a few buildings hove into view. More often, there was a whole lot of sea, and a character who inexplicably goes to school in a small boat. There are lots of shadowy mountains, sorry, bens, in the distance, interspersed with sudden shots from the obligatory helicopter, of a single track road winding through dense forests. This place simply slides away from you all the time, like Brigadoon. It has no existence at all beyond this moment. 

Where the hell were we? This was Scotland for Dummies, produced by people who seemed to have no knowledge of the reality of this place that I love, in all its wonder and variety and complexity. 

And yes, I know it was a crime drama, not a travelogue, but it didn't need to be like this. I kept thinking about the always excellent Shetland. It doesn't matter that in real life there are (thankfully) few murders there and Shetlanders may be able to find fault. But most of us can willingly suspend our disbelief, because everything else is so lovingly scripted and filmed and acted. 

Instead, in the immortal (real) words of Mr Spock, this was 'no Scotland as we know it!'