O’Eck: Scotland is just another name for Ireland


By Kenneth Roy

The surprise of the week in Hollywood, apart from the presence of so many star-struck ambassadors from bonny Scotland, is that Rebekah Brooks seems to have landed a starring role as a feisty Highland princess. Due in the dock with her husband Charlie at Southwark Crown Court later this month, the former Murdoch functionary is moonlighting as an animated character in a Disney film.

On closer inspection, it may not be Rebekah herself, but a computer-generated doppelganger. How can you tell the difference? Either way it is ‘not a problem’ – the helpful mantra of our age – since few of the sad popcorn munchers who will be exposed to ‘Brave’ have heard of Rebekah Brooks and conceivably even fewer have heard of Scotland.

When someone from the BBC asked a cross-section of the population of Los Angeles what the word ‘Scotland’ meant to them, most of them replied ‘Ireland’. It is indeed a tribute to the tireless work of the Scottish Tourist Board – the post-war inspiration of the late, great Tom Johnston – that, 60 years on, Scotland is another way of describing Ireland. Still a bit of work to do, then.

Thankfully, Eck is not at all fazed by this slight problem of identity, or the lack of it. When it was put to him that, on the west coast of America, the proud nation of which he is the political leader is routinely mistaken for another country, he replied in his customary jaunty fashion that this proved the existence of what he called ‘a large, untapped market’. The first minister betrayed not a flicker of embarrassment at the rather obvious thought, which must surely have occurred to him, that it also proved the ineffectiveness of VisitScotland, the hip rebrand for Johnston’s old tourist board.

In the latest attempt by this organisation to establish Scotland as not Ireland, an ad promoting the glories of not Ireland will be shown on cinema and TV screens to a potential audience of 80 million people. The ad is, however, so brief that its effect is almost subliminal. All I remember of it, having seen it twice, is a shot of muscular chaps straining at a length of rope. What they will make of this in downtown Yokohama is anybody’s guess. ‘Curious people, the Irish’ could be one reaction.

The choice of the long-haired Ayr historian Neil Oliver to do the voice-over adds to the opaque curiosity of the piece. Mr Oliver, best-known for talking to himself on mountains, is firmly established as the rugged enunciator for all Caledonian occasions.

Speak to the blue badge tour guides, the professionals at the sharp end, and they will not spare you the horrors of many Scottish hotels, particularly in the Highlands where most of the coach parties end up.

Is there a doctor in the house? After the blush-making Scottish invasion of Hollywood, we could use one. Step forward Dr Michael Cantley, chair of VisitScotland. Dr Cantley, in a statement before the world premiere of ‘Brave’, sounded positively evangelistic about the redemptive power of Rebekah Brooks’s new movie. ‘The film,’ quoth the good doctor, ‘is about changing your fate and I believe it will change the fate of Scottish tourism in a significant and positive way’.

Who writes this awful stuff for the doctor? It is no longer one P Riddle, the chief exec of VisitScotland listed in the latest set of annual accounts. It seems that the mysterious P Riddle gave up trying to persuade the world that Scotland isn’t just another name for Ireland. He succeeded so brilliantly that he quit the job with a modest leaving package of £240,000, only slightly more than the much-maligned dinner ladies of Lochgilphead earn in a lifetime. P Riddle has gone, but the hype lingers on.

The true state of Scottish tourism does our national reputation – to the limited extent that we have one – few favours. Once the leading Irishmen of our time, O’Eck and O’Cantley, have persuaded the popcorn munchers of the world to visit these shores on a fate-changing mission, what can they expect? Speak to the blue badge tour guides, the professionals at the sharp end, and they will not spare you the horrors of many Scottish hotels, particularly in the Highlands where most of the coach parties end up.

I emailed one of these guides and put the value-neutral question: ‘How would you describe the typical Highland tourist hotel?’.

This was the answer:

Where to start? Many have poor amenities – no lifts, steep winding stairs (most coach tourists are elderly), often small cramped bedrooms with old, tired beds (never examine mattresses too closely), small cramped bathrooms with useless showers, no free wifi (Americans complain much about this), tired, old-fashioned decor, poor food – either unimaginative (chicken and boiled turnip – is there anything more tasteless?) or pretentious and poorly executed (last week I had, and sent back, a minute portion of goat’s cheese pannacotta with the consistency of blancmange and the smell of old socks), woefully understaffed, often with inexperienced and under-trained staff. And, all too often, guided by the principle that the customer is always wrong.

Now, all this is a world away from the PR guff spilled by people like O’Eck and O’Cantley and faithfully regurgitated by our ever-obliging mainstream media. It is, inconveniently, how it really is. The first minister said earlier this week that the new Disney confection would ‘give everybody a really warm glow when they think about Scotland’. If the Scottish Government concentrated rather more on practical measures to improve the standards of Scottish tourism, and rather less on meaningless jaunts to Los Angeles, even those of us who live here could start to feel that warm glow when we think about Scotland.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review