The Case Against Tartan Week
A publicly funded con
Commentary by Brian Wilson
It was great last week to hear so many authoritative Scottish voices on network American television. I refer, of course, to CBS Sports' annual coverage of The Masters golf tournament here at Augusta, Georgia --- and to such highly respected commentators as Ken Brown, Renton Laidlaw, Kenny Schofield, David Livingstone and so forth --- able people excelling in an environment that has a natural Scottish connotation.
The contrast with that orgy of self-indulgent, pseudo-Scottishness, Tartan Week, could scarcely be greater. How long is this to go on for? Is it now established beyond dispute that a plane-load of politicians, minor celebrities and hired hacks will be transported at public expense every April to prance about in New York City in kilts and congratulate themsleves on the wonderful job they've done for Scotland? Or could we perhaps agree to call it a day when Sean Connery reaches 80, which would give the Scottish Executive some 5 years to think of some better way of presenting Scotland to the world?
I cannot imagine any other country believing that the image that it wants to present in the 21st Century is one of tubby politicians in national costume. Anywhere else would attempt to conceal them. The only good news is that the rest of the world, including the United States, is not remotely interested. Back home, we are being sold --- through relentless, publicly-funded publicity --- the con that New York, and indeed the admiring American continent, is caught up in the fervor of tartanry. Take a look at Google News and you will get a lot closer to the truth.
Even I was astonished to tap in the words Tartan Week here in the US, and find not a single American media reference. All of the coverage is from the Scottish press. In fairness, even the mighty Google search engine is not infallible and I know that there have been a few bits and pieces of coverage, though whether any sensible Scot would want them is another question. For instance, the New York Times published a brief item on the Dressed to Kilt fashion show, which stated: "Reflecting the legendary decorum of Scottish culture, the show was filled with men flahing their underpants, women in tiny skirts and kilt models." Well, thanks a lot!
I tried Tartan Day on Google News to see if it fared any better. I found one reference from Florida's Villages Daily Sun, which reported breathlessly: "Specially made tartan tams from Glasgow, Scotland, will grace the heads of the Village Twirlers for their first Tartan Day performance." Good news for the tartan tams industry, but not exactly a triumph for the increasingly frenzied --- and expensive --- effort to match the pulling power of St. Patrick.
It's not primarily the money that bothers me. A substantial budget should indeed be committed to promoting Scotland abroad, but not by hoping that some of the millions of people who pass through Grand Central Station in the course of a week pause long enough to notice a pavillion full of Scottishness. No self-respecting marketing organisation would tagret its audience in such a scatter-gun way .... and the results are bound to be correspondingly haphazard.
Whatever sum of money is admitted to as to the cost of Tartan Week, you can bet your bottom dollar that the real figure is about 2 to 3 times higher, once the concealed costs and contributions from quango budgets are totalled up. And while the chairmen of all these organisations may dutifully testify as to the fantastic success of Tartan Week, bigger and better than ever, the people who work in them are increasingly irritated by the demands made upon them and their budgets to support the political obsession with sustaining this event.
Here in Augusta, there's a vast market for Scotland to target in a clinically efficient way that would yield infinitely better results than what's been going on in New York. That would be the well-heeled golf market: the kind of people who pay large sume of money to watch the Masters and provide corporate hospitality around it. Here is a business in which Scotland really has a story, and thus, a product it can sell to the world. Yet, while VisitScotland was up to its neck in Tartan Week, it has no presence at all here --- no pavilion, no tourist information, no personnel. What can the logic of that be?
No party in the Scottish Parliament is interested in asking too many questions about Tartan Week, because they're all implicit in it, sending their finest to New York to join in the jamboree and give portentous lectures no one listens to. I read (in the Scottish press, of course!) that George Reid had been due to give a lecture "alongside Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton," but that the latter had, sadly, withdrawn from the event due to a "diary commitment". The hairdresser, perhaps? If Scottish politicians want to give unreported lectures in New York, that is their perfect entitlement --- but why should the taxpayer fund them?
Even the 'good news' coming from the Big Apple for domestic consumption is pretty thin: several years ago, a decision by MorganStanley to add 300 to their existing workforce might just have merited a press conference at Glasgow's Meridian Court, but it would have been a pretty marginal decision. Given the amount of effort that certainly would have gone into finding a good news story for linkage to Tartan Week (even though it has nothing to do with it), it doesn't say much for the Scottish Enterprise that this is the best that they could come up with.
The whole nonsense originated with then-Senator Trent Lott, who was very keen on his Scottish connections, getting Congress to formally recognise Tartan Day, whatever that may mean. Lott became a photogenic figure at the event, alongside Sir Sean and Mr. Salmond, before achieving the unusual distinction of being booted out of the Senate for committing acts of excessive racism. Indeed, I'm still waiting to hear a word of apology from those peabrains who thought it was a super idea to link Scotland's image with this Lott fellow in the first place, since there was never any doubt concerning his politics.
Of course, there's a huge American market in Scottish traditions, yet Tartan Week does not reach even this. A security guard at the entrance to the Augusta National Golf Club offices picked up on my accent and told me that his mother hailed from Helensburgh, and that he plans to visit Scotland this summer, in the hope of competing in veterans' events at some of the Highland Games. The piper I heard playing in a hospitlity pavilion had a MacLaren grandmother from Balquhider; he, too, had an ambition to visit Scotland. But neither man was even remotely aware of Tartan Week's existence.
Scotland should work much harder at those North American links that are absolutley authentic, both ancient and modern. From the intense cultural connections with Canada's Nova Scotia to the Texas offshore industry; from the interest in rediscovering roots to the quest for the world's best golf courses --- the whole problem with Tartan Week is that bare bums and kilted politicians tick none of the boxes marked authentic. Tartan Week must be abandoned to avoid further embarrassment.
Well, Brian Wilson (not the Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, by the way) makes a convincing argument --- but he fails to take into consideration the factors that make New York the city people want to do business with. Oh yeah: There's also the little matter of trying to get New York business back on its feet post-9/11. Did you stop to think about that, Wilson --- or are we New Yorkers too peabrained for your tastes? Maybe, sir, you should fly your Scottish ass here and see for yourself what kind of party we can throw, with or without politicians!
As ever, I wanna know what you think, America. Gimme an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.