'Och Aye': Reading Scottish Romances as an Actual Scottish Person
X Marks the Scot. A Scot in the Dark. Some Like it Scot. Seduction of a Highland Lass. Sleepless in Scotland. Never Seduce a Scot (oh hang on a second).
If you like men in kilts, then there’s a whole heap of romance novels waiting for you. It’s not hard to see the appeal of such stories and the tropes they use: A noble chieftain, loyal to his clan and drenched in uncontrollable alpha-maleness, finds his bonny lass and takes her amidst the heather of the Highlands. That’s a bit of a generalization, but it’s one that sells.
I’m Scottish. Usually bringing that up to non-Scottish strangers results in a few things: Ill-fated attempts to recreate the accent, queries about what haggis look like in the wild, proud declarations that they’re one sixteenth Scottish off their dad’s auntie’s dog’s side. The questions are usually the same — do you own a kilt (no, they’re pricey and I don’t do country dancing anymore); do you like Irn Bru (yes) or whiskey (only in champagne cocktails because I’m a snob); how did you vote in the independence referendum (No and I don’t care to explain why); why aren’t you ginger (want a genetics test or something?); and, the most recent addition to the group, do you watch Outlander?
Outlander is an odd duck in Scotland. The books have their fans here, but it’s nowhere near the cultural phenomenon it’s been in America. We certainly upped our tourism game to cash in on that sweet sweet fandom money, but most of us haven’t really watched it (my dad did, and his main response was wondering why it was so rapey). For all our national pride, there’s little drive to see ourselves made exotic like that. It’s been over 50 years and we’re still mad at Brigadoon.
I did try to read the first Outlander book, but I was hyper-aware of the tools it used to evoke a very romantic view of Scotland, even with all the rape. Everyone is a ‘lad’ or a ‘lass’ or a ‘Sassenach wench’; the men are savage but noble, stern but ceaselessly dedicated to their clan; and the most notable Englishman in the story is the most despicable creep ever. I cannot fault the achingly detailed research of the era, and elements like the accents are generally accurate, but reading stuff like Outlander and Highlander romance novels, or watching Braveheart or Rob Roy, are like tourism guides written for a place experienced only through cultural osmosis. The parts are all there but it’s just a little too clean. Of course it is - it wasn’t written for us.
Highlander heroes tend to be almost magical in their savage nobility: Tall, broad and probably ginger, always in a kilt (even when it’s not historically accurate) and ready to launch into battle at any moment. Pure, undistilled alpha rollicking across the scenic glen. Alphas are nothing new in romance — every category has them — but a Scottish alpha always ends up feeling a little less than human to me. They’re not just stoic warriors; they’re stoic warriors because it’s in their Scotch blood. The very nature of their national identity imbues them with incredible power, and it renders them the ‘other’ of the story. Even in non-romance stories, this is a common feature - the mystical power of Scotland and its people, lost in time, literally (Brigadoon) or figuratively (Local Hero), not quite of the real world but something more special, like Eat Pray Love with more alcohol and less sun. This is another trope rooted in history: Isolated island communities like St Kilda became popular tourist traps in the Victorian age, where visitors would come to gawk at the curious locals who were often advertised as being a step backwards in evolution. Come back in time and see the spectacle of the magical Scots; poor things, they’re not like us.
This image is hammered home by so many Highlander romances where the heroine isn’t Scottish - her refined, well spoken dialogue is written in stark contrast to the savage growls of the Highlander. If you thought trying the accent out loud was bad, try writing it. Half the time, a well-meaning non-Scottish author can’t help but descend into word-vomit that makes us sound illiterate while still being too generic to nail down to a specific region. Yes, a Highlander accent is different from a Lowlander; A hero from Inverness will sound very distinct from one from Glasgow. Want to see a film set in Scotland where people have different dialects? Watch Brave.
An accent botch-job can sting for Scots, especially those of us who are aware of how such dialects have been dismissed and marginalized in mainstream fiction. Irvine Welsh’s work is famously steeped in the slang and vernacular of Leith, which had some English critics rolling their eyes, while James Kelman’s glorious masterpiece How Late It Was, How Late, written as a stream-of-consciousness, working-class Glaswegian dialect, was deemed “cultural vandalism” after in won the Man Booker Prize. Never mind that Kelman is one of our greatest writers, a bona fide genius who deserves more worldwide acclaim than he has; These English critics refused to see its use of how thousands of people talk as anything other than shock value or borderline illiteracy. Some of these books are tough to read, even for someone like me who is around people who speak like that all the time, but that doesn’t lessen their worth. That’s what makes it hard to stomach a few too many utterances of “och aye, bonny lass” in some of these romances; We don’t even get a free pass for writing our own voices.
After a sea of Highland flings, battles with the English and rampant screwing in castles, it becomes hard to ignore the overwhelming whiteness of these books. A few years back, some poor sod online once asked me if we had any black people in Scotland. I chewed them out for it, but it only hammered home how prevalent that stereotype is, and how fetishized our specific brand of whiteness is. You won’t find much evidence in these novels that oppose the assumption of Scotland’s homogeny (kudos to Alyssa Cole for being the only exception I’ve read), and usually the deployed defence is something regarding “historical accuracy” (see also: It’s historically accurate to have women be sexually assaulted as often as they are in a show with time travel). That’s all easily disproven, of course (everyone seems really happy to overlook how big a part Scotland played in the slave trade), but I can’t blame them for perpetuating something Scotland is only too delighted to do ourselves.
We have commodified our nation into the perfect tourism product, and have done so for decades. As with most things in Scottish culture, you can blame Walter Scott.
In 1822, the newly crowned King George IV was struggling with his unpopularity. After following his beloved father, the former Prince Regent wasn’t one for people, and they hated him for his apparent greed and nasty treatment of his poor wife, Caroline of Brunswick. He needed an image overhaul, and something to appease those damn Scots up north, who hadn’t been visited by a reigning monarch in about 200 years. But he didn’t just want to come to Scotland, he wanted to come to the Scotland of Waverley. Walter Scott was hugely popular as a writer, and his heather-strewn tales of hyper-romantic Scotland sold by the boatload. Never one to turn down the opportunity for a pageant, Scott helped to organise a glorious tartan-fest for George’s visit. There, he would be clad in the full Jacobite get-up, greeted by clan leaders with incredible pomp, and plenty of reels, bagpipes and flag waving to make any Scot happy (or cringe to death). The visit paid off for George - while he was mocked mercilessly for his attempt at Highland dress (he was way larger than the flattering portraits of the time), his popularity did rise, and Scott’s pageant had a huge effect on the nation. Tartanry was in and the spectacle remained a major part in how Scotland sold itself. Walk down any road in Edinburgh and you’ll see shop-fronts loaded with those easy markets of national identity - kilts, whisky, bagpipes, shortbread, anything you can slap tartan on. Scott’s legacy secured once again, so of course every Highlander hero is a clan chieftain with kilts to spare. We could sell you a kilt-towel for a good deal too if you fancy lording it up like old George.
I don’t wish to disparage those who enjoy Highland romance novels, nor do I want to overstate the ways this phenomenon affects me. I hope people like what they like, no shame involved, and there are books I’d recommend (When a Scot Ties the Knot by Tessa Dare is sweet, well-constructed and delightfully self-aware). I’m certainly not oppressed by such stereotypes, and I get a lot less flack from these expectations than Scottish people of colour do (for one thing, nobody’s ever asked me “seriously though, where are you really from?”) However, culture is a major power in shaping not only how the world sees you but how you see yourself, and there’s an undeniably smothering effect in place when everyone’s reference point for your existence is either Outlander or Trainspotting (in fairness, the latter doesn’t offer as many gift-shop opportunities). No book is written in a bubble, and even the fluffiest heartfelt tale of love amongst the lochs will be imbued with centuries of history, culture, ideas and expectations. I invite any romance reader or lover of hotties in kilts to rock their sporrans off to whatever makes them happy, but I hope that leads them to discover people like James Kelman, Jackie Kat, Liz Lochhead, Alasdair Gray, Louise Welch, Lynne Ramsay, Bill Forsyth, and a whole host of great Scottish talent.
It occurs to me that I got through this entire piece without giving in to one Scottish stereotype I truly love — swearing. So to quote my fellow countryman Malcolm Tucker…