Lillian Stewart Carl writes contemporary novels blending mystery with history, romance, and ghosts, and short mystery and fantasy stories.
The Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series (America’s exile and Scotland’s finest on the trail of all-too-living legends) begins with The Secret Portrait. The Avalon Chanter (Five Star, January 2014) is book seven of the series and her twentieth published novel.
Most of her short stories are collected in Along the Rim of Time and The Muse and Other Stories of History, Mystery, and Myth, including three stories reprinted in World’s Finest Mystery anthologies.
“We’re making up traditions as fast as we can.” —Scottish/Texan musician Ed Miller.
A recent article in The Scotsman details how the Disney movie “Brave” is expected to generate £120 million for the Scottish economy in the next five years, as fans flock to see the areas that inspired the film.
No surprise that Scottish tourist agencies combined a huge marketing drive with promotion for the movie. All those hoteliers, restaurateurs, fishing guides, pamphlet publishers, and so forth need to make a living. And the people who fight entropy at historic properties can use every penny.
Movies such as “Brave”, to say nothing (and I’d prefer to say nothing) of Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” have brought tourists to Scotland. But what it is those tourists expect to see? For one thing, “Braveheart” is almost as much a fantasy as the animated “Brave”. Harder-edged contemporary movies like “Trainspotting” don’t depict the real Scotland, either, nor does one of my all-time favorites, the gentle fable, “Local Hero”.
So what, then, is the real Scotland? Stunning land- and seascapes? Yes, they’re there, even if you have to avert your eyes from wind farms, ferry terminals, and perennial road works. Castles? Sure. Some are nettle-covered ruins with warning signs. Some are tidy places where the scent of mold wars with that of fresh paint, provided with ticket booths, velvet ropes, and special events like car rallies or children’s teddy-bear picnics.
You can easily find picturesque corners in villages, towns, and cities. But there will be children skateboarding around that old mercat (market) cross, and up that cobblestoned alley you’ll find teens gathered in a cyber-café and Chinese takeaway. (I recommend the chips with curry sauce.) You’ll also find plenty of Scots (of both the ancestral and recent-immigrant varieties) matter-of-factly going about the business of catering to tourists.
How many Scots cater to tourists with gritted teeth and rolled eyes, how many poke fun at the naïveté of the visitors, and how many are happy to share their dramatic past, I can’t say. I hope that tourists caring enough to come see the original earns points with the locals. I hope the contradictions those tourists encounter are educational, even humorous, not disappointing.
Our yearly Texas Scottish Festival, one of many such Festivals across the U.S., is the situation in microcosm.
At first glance, it resembles a science fiction/fantasy convention or Renaissance Festival. Instead of walking around dressed in steampunk, Star Trek, or saucy wench outfits, the attendees walk around draped in tartanalia—sometimes over saucy wench outfits. And I’ve always loved the guy who dressed up his kilt not with a claymore but with a Klingon batleth.
At the Festival, you avert your eyes not from power pylons but from folks airing contemporary political prejudices, as well as from folks convinced they’re descended from Mary, Queen of Scots or another historical celebrity. The attendees may have developed a sentimental attachment to a Scotland that never existed. Or, like me, they may be enjoying the convergence of romance with reality.
Clan tartans? They’re only two hundred years old, but hey, in Texas two hundred years counts as hoary antiquity. The small kilt was invented by an English industrialist? Apparently so, but the great kilt, yards of wool fabric wrapped around the body, originated in the mists of time.
However, Texas has a distinct lack of misty mountains, and draping yourself in a blanket isn’t a good idea. Few Festival-goers wear traditional Highland dress, or the modern glorious excess of a silver-buttoned jacket and fly plaid pinned by a Celtic brooch (although all the above is on sale at the vendors’ tents). Most men wear a T-shirt with their kilt, along with athletic shoes or cowboy boots. And the women? Well, it’s hard to resist that fly plaid, even with shorts and a tank top.
And the music! American, Canadian, and Scottish groups re-arrange traditional songs for electrified fiddles and guitars—and the Great Highland pipes make superb rock ‘n’ roll instruments. They were once considered instruments of war, after all.
Scottish singers such as Brian McNeill dismantle myth and legend. Turn him loose on the aforementioned Mary, Queen of Scots, and you’ll get an earful. Historical celebrities? His songs are about crofters and coal miners.
Other singers such as Ed Miller remind us that the Lowlands of Scotland have also seen vast quantities of history—and that many Scots come from urban areas such as Glasgow.
You want brave? At the games you see husky young men throwing around telephone poles or hurling heavy weights over a bar (my daughter-in-law calls this “clonk-a-noggin”.) This is even historical. Once upon a time, the laird checked out the abilities of his tenants with such games, with an eye to sending those tenants to lift the neighbors’ cattle or raid an English village.
The Scots haven’t exactly beaten their swords into plowshares—there are aspects of that bloody history that still rankle. Anyone who knows the history of the Glencoe Massacre of 1692 will cringe at the display at Clan Campbell’s tent of Campbell’s Cream of MacDonald soup.
But better bad taste than cold steel.
To quote from my novel The Blue Hackle, “. . . Scotland, where the past had played out in scenes of blood and thunder, fire and sword. Now popular memory and the Scottish Tourist Board elided here, revised there, and edited fierce bloody-mindedness into high Romance.”
There’s nothing wrong with romance and sentiment when it’s viewed with clear eyes and a sense of humor. There’s nothing wrong with a group of like-minded characters getting together and celebrating their community.
And you can get chips with curry sauce!
Times change. Customs evolve. The past is always with us, but every now and then a little brightly-colored, tartan-clad fantasy is good for the soul—even if your soul has not a drop of Scottish blood.