By way of an insult, it is often remarked of certain towns, cities, villages, rural back waters, ghettos, unattractive, crime-riddled shitholes and the like, that the best thing about them is the road leading out. Of Braemar and the A93, this same thing might actually be said without any disrespect or depreciating reflection on the small picturesque village of Braemar itself. Because the A93, also known as the Old Military Road, is a remarkable stretch of track. For the road we have, in a roundabout way, Bonnie Prince Charlie to thank. It was in its original form, since tarmacadam’d over several times and deviated here and there due to modern ideas about engineering in the intervening centuries laid down in the wake of the Jacobite rebellion/uprising of 1745, in order to provide better transport access for the British/English troops garrisoned at Perth, and the castles of Braemar and further north at Corgarff, before finally concluding at the belligerently named Fort George. It was built by Major William Caulfield, who became the Inspector Of Roads for Scotland or Northern Britain as the Hanoverians were keen to rebrand the country in a Marathon/Snickers/Opal Fruits/Starburst/Stalinistic manner in 1732 after the more famous (but less prolific) General Wade. The opening section of the road from the Bridge of Cally up to the National Park feels like it was once a straight road, but had been stretched to its fullest extent and then released, causing innumerable bends and curves to appear apparently at random as the ribbon failed to regain its elasticity. But this is just the warm up stage for what is to come
Heading north from Perth, nudging passed the Palace Scone into the heart of the Cairngorms, it isn’t until you reach Finegand and the glen flattens out, that the true majesty of the A93 makes itself known, with dark green mountains (as green as the tunic of a Black Watch pipe major, with the same blue high and lowlights of the tartan on his kilt) rising up on either side as the trail snakes up and through a succession of valleys. For the next eighteen or so miles you are driving not so much through a landscape as an episode of Top Gear, with the road crossing and re-crossing the Allta’Ghlinne Bhig beck, encouraging you onwards, before at one point rising to 2,199 feet at the Cairnwell Pass (making it the highest main road in Britain beating England’s M62 at Saddleworth which rises a mere 1,222 feet). The climb is a dramatic experience (on the return journey, careering downhill towards the corner is a perhaps even more so). Once over the Cairnwell Pass, Glenshee Ski Centre sits in the bare valley below and then a series of long, exhilarating S-bends take you into Braemar.
The village of Braemar is at the heart of the Cairngorms National Park (more of which later). It was here that John Erskine, AKA Bobbin’ John’ due to his tendency to change political allegiances, AKA the 6th, AKA the 11th, AKA the 22nd Duke of Mar (from where the settlement takes its name) depending when you start counting from due to the family’s tendency to fall in and out of favour with monarchs (again, due to their wobbly ideas about loyalty) whether those monarchs had been coronated in Westminster Abbey or the Palace of Scone, raised the Royal Stuart Standard that marked the Jacobite uprising of 1715. The Braemar shopping mall now celebrates that moment in Scottish history. The village sits in the picturesque bright green bowl of the glen, surrounded on all sides by picturesque hills, one foot either side of the picturesque river Clunie that tumbles picturesquely through the village, complete with a picturesque waterfall (or in the picturesque language of the Scots linn) beneath the picturesque bridge. It used to be, thanks to its conflicting landowners, classed as two villages Auchendryne with its allegiance to the stolid-looking Fife Arms on one side of the burn, and Castleton whose standard is raised at the capacious and gloomy Invercauld Arms glowering from the other. Showing my English neutrality in this clan feud, I had a pint in each. The village has that clean perfection of Trumpton or Candlewick Green. If Postman Pat’s van were to trundle through, Jess perched on the dashboard, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s Hollywood or rather Disney’s idea of a Scottish village. The kind of Scottish village that Jessica Fletcher might solve a murder she wrote in The Mystery of the Poisoned Haggis. The effect is beguiling. And the irony is that it is we who are passing through the village that are the real spectacles on offer. Because there is more historical interest to be noted in the cars and the fashion mores of the visiting tourists, than there is in the buildings or surrounding fells, because in ten years time they (we) will have changed while the village will have resolutely remained the same.
Though, as will be seen, some of the visitors are as unchanging as the hills and yon babblin’ beck.
Since 1832 Braemar has been home to the Highland Gathering which takes place on the first Saturday in September. Gathering’ (apart from sounding like the title of a Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel) is one of those peculiarly Anglo-sized Gaelicisms, along similar lines to the query where do you stay?’, when wanting to know where one is habitually domicile. Though smaller than the Cowal Games in Dunoon on the West Coast, the Braemar sports day has the cache and kudos that a Royal attendance will bring to the most mundane tree planting/ribbon cutting event. The games acquired the Royal soubriquet in 1866 after two decades of attendance by Queen Victoria and (up to his death in 1861) Prince Albert both decked in tartan off cuts of what was left over from the curtains at nearby Balmoral Castle after Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Duke of Saxony’s makeover of their Highland retreat. Due to these associations the games has an ineffably 19th Century feel to it. If it were to have an official painter, it would be Edwin Landseer.
A carnival atmosphere overtakes this remote village on Gathering Day. There is tartan coloured candy floss, Haggis burger vendors flipping beef pates the size of dustbin lids, pipers eating neeps and tatties from copies of the Inverness Herald, porridge fountains where attendees dip Lorne Sausage and Clootie Dumplings, there are scones lots of scones Irn-Bru flows like industrial effluent through the burn, 90 shilling Caeldonian Heavy tumbles over cheese sculptures of William Wallace made from Lanark Blue and woad face-painted kiddies wander through the thronging crowds, clutching still sizzling battered Mars Bars. All competitors regardless of nationality must compete in traditional’ Highland costume note the Cliff Richard-esque inverted commas (more of which later). As well as the so-called heavy’ events the traditional hammer throw, stone throw, etc the sort of thing you’d expect to see illustrating a box of porridge oats there is track and field, Highland dancing, and the various bagpipe bands. Looking through the souvenir programme (sold by Scouts), one of the most refreshing aspects to the games is the list of prize money. Having knocked the wind out of their pipes all afternoon with running, chucking and dancing, the competitors can hope to take home between £70 and £100 per event if they win. There’s something noble about this, somehow.
As for the attendees, these are split into two distinct groups the spontaneous tourist who has gathered to gawk and eat ice cream (me), and those who have some cultural investment in the event and its opportunity to give expression to their Scottishness. It reminds me of my trip to York racecourse where you have hardened gamblers who study form and consider how the ground conditions will affect the mounts and those there to sup Pimms/lager/bitter/cider that will back a horse based on its name or the colour of the jockey’s silks. Ignoring the casual day-tripping voyeurs , in their breathable Berghaus, North Face, Jack Wolfskin and the like, there are women in tweed with milky complexions and long auburn hair straight from the pages of a Sir Walter Scott novel who it’s easy to imagine are called Catriona or Isla, there are tax-inspectors, call handlers, policemen, bank tellers, taxi drivers etc, who spend the day pretending to be deer stalking ghillies or Rob Roy or Allan Breck Stewart. Kilts are ubiquitous. In fact, kilts are almost as popular in Braemar on Gathering Day than they are at an Essex wedding. But more than these expected stereotypes, there are Scots in kilts speaking the cursèd tongue with American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand accents, Scots in Kilts speaking Swedish, Scots in Kilts speaking Spanish, and Scots in Kilts speaking Hindi. There is even a family of Germans (who, credit to them, speak rather good if not particularly expressive English) in Kilts.
Which prompts the question, what is national identity? Or rather National identity, with a clearly defined capital N’, which is perhaps different to what’s stamped, without let or hindrance, on our passports. This question of Nationalism is particularly pertinent to Scotland, with the referendum on Independence (also with a capital letter) looming twelve months away in September 2014. Rod Stewart that most Scottish of rock stars was born in London. Sean Connery that most Scottish of film stars lives in Spain, or the Caribbean, or somewhere other than Scotland, regardless. Billy Connolly that most Scottish of comedians well, no, perhaps Frankie Boyle now wears that particular tartan bonnet anyway, Billy Connolly who is Scottish and a comedian lives in Los Angeles. Does it matter? Would I be any less English if I lived in Spain, or Los Angeles or Scotland? Identity is a state of mind. And the tribal instinct is strong within us. The need to belong. So much so that it adopts itself to the changing times. We ascribe our modern loyalties to a football team, or a rock group, or a particular cultural movement (Mods, Rockers, Skins, Teddy Boys etc), or a particular make of car, or even, incredibly, a computer operating system. The sight of Windows and Mac OS devotees brandishing Stanley knives and kicking the smoke out of each other on Brighton beach can’t surely be too far away. We can’t help it. This clan mentality is bonded in our DNA and encouraged by our instinct not just to survive but to conquer. Because it allows us to become part of something bigger than ourselves. By donning a Manchester United top you are part of the history of Sir Matt Busby, George Best and Eric Cantona. By wearing the blue and green tartan of the clan Campbell you have a link to the Glencoe massacre, and some rather tasty and nutritious soup. Not to mention a Rhinestone Cowboy.
But Nationalism carries complications. And uncomfortable implications. Some of which may not be as historical as we’d like to comfort ourselves. The Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei were very good at Nationalism. And the Nationalism of the E-E-EDL is (perhaps he disclaims) the Nationalism of William Hazlitt, who propounded the aphorism that, the definition of a good patriot is a good hater’. The general, and media-accepted Nationalism of the United States of America is the Nationalism of moral complacency that finds comfort in always being right. These brands of Nationalism and branded clearly they clearly are, with the Swastika, or the Stars and Stripes (spangled or otherwise) or the CP Company logo that have all too often had as much to do with fear as they have hope. A Nationalism that concerns and promotes itself with death as much if not more than it does glory. It is the style of Nationalism that panders to simultaneously to self-pity and self-delusion. It is ego-centric. It confuses or contrives tribalism with mass hysteria. It allows a Nation to murder six million people, to inflict its own democratic preferences on others or see something heroic in smashing up a pub on an away day to a strange town of a Saturday afternoon.
But these political Nationalisms aside, surely for most people Nationalism is a (seemingly) harmless cultural rather than geographical association? And in this modern world where everyone on the island shops at Tesco, all watch Sky TV and all rely on our gas, electricity and water being supplied at rapidly inflating cost by some big multi-national (foreign) corporation what is its significance? Is Nationalism a political right? A political irrelevance? A political distraction? What is self-governance? Is it simply one group of politicians wresting power from another group of politicians, but still the same vested interest of big business manipulating the rules for their own ends? Do the people really benefit?
The 1707 Act of Union was a political mechanism akin to George W. Bush/Tony Blair’s United Nations resolutions prior to the Second Gulf War. Naked aggression with a political/economic agenda, clothed in speciously legal terms. It was designed to validate a political takeover one set of Royal inbreds (the Hanoverians) usurping another set of Royal inbreds (the Stuarts), who were already inbred with each other as is the way with the European Royal Cartel. The Union has since become a habit, particularly for the English. For those living south of Berwick-on-Tweed, Scotland has overtaken Yorkshire as the largest county in England, with the playing of the Calcutta Cup match being perhaps the only time when the English feel any motivation to admit to a National demarcation. But Scotland clearly is a different country. It’s accents, it’s cuisine, it’s architecture, it’s traditional music, it’s dress (though more of this later), in short it’s culture. Fundamentally what is the difference in terms of political independence between Scotlan
d and Kenya (independent in 1963) or Scotland and Canada (independent in 1867) or the United Arab Emirates (1971), or Australia (1901) or any of the other fifty-four countries who were once joined in some way to Britain? Had the tectonic plates cut the land mass off at Berwick and we had thirty odd miles of water between us, this would have been settled by now. Though, that said, incongruously, the need to cling onto Northern Ireland runs counter to this argument. It’s an odd thing this Nationalism. It’s a state of mind. Or a matter of pride. Or a political hangover. Or something. Which is what makes Gibraltar British. And the Falklands too. Because they have red phone boxes and Best Bitter. And while due to proximity the Spanish might have reason to wonder why the Rock is British Sovereign Territory, geographically the Argentinian claim is peculiar. Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands is 1180 miles from Buenos Aires. That’s like us laying claim to Tunisia, or Iceland or Gibraltar Hmmm Yeah This Nationalism lark really is confusing. And subjective.
The naming of the Cairngorms National Park through which the aforementioned A93 rolls highlights a particular cultural phenomenon related to Nationalism. Because it’s another example of an unconscious or not so unconscious attempt to re-map the landscape in our own English image. (The Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Translations, which I read for A-Level, spins this premise out to three acts). But the naming of the Cairngorms also a mistake. A glaring 4,528 km² example of Sassenach ignorance and cultural bulldozing arrogance. (Even though the park was set up by the Scottish parliament in 2003, and the error given credence). Because Cairngorms is a misnomer an English misnomer that like many other English misnomers, or English misappropriations, or English thoughtlessness, such as Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya) and Ayres Rock (Uluru) has stuck. The word is Anglicization of a Gaelic expression relating to just one of the peaks, corrupting the original to make it easier to slip off tongues used to speaking English the least lingual of all nations but, through common use south of the border, ended up lazily re-naming all the peaks as being the Blue Mountains’, as opposed to the Red Mountains’ as they were to the indigenous Gaels, and still are to those who read Gaelic on the signs, as Pàirc Nàiseanta a’ Mhonaidh Ruaidh. It is an established scientific and geographic fact of the space time continuum that the British created the world in the 19th Century, because nothing existed until the English stumbled across it and gave it a name.
Braemar and its Royal Gathering, as already stated, sit in the centre of this misnamed National Park. As do the Royal Family, with Balmoral Castle, their modest three hundred bedroom family home (as an elderly lady in receipt of State benefits, HMQ is said to be worried about the bedroom tax, especially with Buckingham Palace and Sandringham to consider) sat in fifty thousand acres of grounds, just under ten miles further along the heroic A93. The Royal Pavilion overlooking the showground has the appearance of a summer house bought flat-pack from Homebase with rather shaggy and unconvincing astro-turf on the roof, the Royal Standard flying on a disproportionately high pole above it. This is no Field of the Cloth of Gold. This is not the levee of Louis XIV in the gardens at Versailles. The Queen who tipped up at 3:30ish in an antique Daimler the size of a boat, to catch the last couple of hours, in company with her geriatric coterie of ladies in waiting scowls at the participants, the stench of poor people’s fried food in her nostrils, her legs wrapped in a car blanket (tartan, obviously), flanked by the Duke of Edinburgh and the Prince of Wales, both exposing knees in kilts that would look just as comfortable in lederhosen. But despite their Teutonic roots, and their Teutonic patella, the Royal Family consciously exude Scottishness. They are the clan McWindsor. She may have the body of a weak and feeble (not to mention miserable) women, but she has a heart made of haggis with fifty-year old Macallan Whisky coursing through her veins. It’s part of a PR makeover by the House of Hanover/Saxe-Coburg-Gotha that has made them as synonymous with Britain as fish and chips and uncompromising taxation. New Labour and its Mao-ist forced diversity programmes during the short march to Multi-Cultural Britain would have done well to take a note out of the Hanover/Saxe-Coburg/Windsor’s seamless integration (after the initial teething problems in 1689, 1715, 1745 etc). Because I’m sure there were some Scots present during those early games who resented Victoria and Albert, whose Grandparents had been butchered at Culloden and whose family had been elbowed out of the country by the Clearances which had taken place under Her Majesty’s grandfather and uncles’ reigns and were still continuing during Her own. All that is now buried under time and tartan. Because the Royal Family have draped themselves in tartan. Whether it be the home at Balmoral Castle as synonymous with the Monarchy as Buckingham Palace, perhaps more so, as it seems like a personal rather than constitutional choice of home, to Prince Charles’ childrens’ story The Old Man of Lochnagar. The Germanic link was hidden further with the deed poll change of name during World War I at a time when the level-headed, Patriotic Britons were showing their solidarity to the boys on the Western Front by having their German Shepherd dogs and Dachshunds put to sleep when the family became Windsor. But of all these steps to remove their German heritage and appear more British generally, in particular the Royal Family have especially associated themselves with Scotland.
Some might say that, as sunshine follows thunder, this Royal (with a significantly and capital rolling Rrrrrrr) affiliation with Scotland is a cynical or political (I find the two words are interchangeable) ploy, given their descendants previous troubles with this tetchy northern part of the island. Because what it’s meant is that the 1745 rebellion/uprising and the Act of Prohibition which followed it a year later have had little more effect on history than to provide a back story for a modern Scottishness that has its real foundations in two events. The first was George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, and the second was the publication of Vestiarium Scoticum in 1842.
First to cover the back story. The Act of Proscription (1746) was made law by the Westminster parliament in the wake of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s over-reaching, greedy attempt to take the English Crown as well as the Scots one. Amongst other restrictions of Scots life and the oaths of allegiance school children were forced to recite, the Act made it illeg
al to wear Highland Dress’, which included tartan. Clothing has a long and even recent history as a means for those in authority to identify troublemakers. Anyone who went to a nightclub in the latter half of the last Century will know how jeans and trainers were frowned on. And New Labour had similar ideas about hooded tops in the first decade of this Century. The Act of Proscription wasn’t repealed until 1782, and it wasn’t until George IV’s visit to Northern Britain forty years later that the wearing of tartan got an official thumbs up Which is where (sic) some aspects of what we most readily associate with Scottishness as exemplified at the Braemar Gathering has its roots.
The newly crowned George IV’s visit to Scotland was orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott. Scott came up with an itinerary of events which were published in a pamphlet beforehand. And it was this pamphlet which caused a rush for tartan, because the dress code for the Highland Ball held on Friday 23rd August 1822 at the Assembly Rooms on George Street, Edinburgh stipulated that everyone was to attend wearing Highland Dress’. Which most of those, if not all, due to attend didn’t have. George IV only wore his own tartan (the freshly minted Royal Stuart tartan that is now synonymous with tins of shortbread, the Bay City Rollers and Sid Vicious) which had cost the British taxpayer in the region of £100,000 in today’s money (though George as had been noted by Beau Brummell a few years previously was considerably overweight, so there may have been a significant quantity of tweed to spin) once. And then with bright pink ladies stockings to camouflage his bloated legs. And not to the Highland Ball. But all the others there that summer night did. Newly bought and itchy. And so German George unconsciously and unwittingly invented a heritage industry that still flourishes today clan tartan. That is, specific tartan designs associated with specific Scottish families. Something which hadn’t existed before this time. As even Sir Walter Scott the most Romantic of Scotland’s romantic romancers remarked: The idea of distinguishing the clans by their tartans is but a fashion of modern date.’ But tell that to Gene McTaggart in Illinois or of Blessings McHonesty in Nigeria, as they listen mournfully to Big Country’s Crossing album and sip Iron Monkey cocktails (Irn-Bru and Whisky) This clan association with tartan patterns which the Highland Ball prompted, was then formalized in the Vestiarium Scoticum (which roughly translated means, dress of the Scottish). The book was the product of two Englishmen who had been born in Wales. In one way it does follow a tradition a dubious one, admittedly in Scottish literature, that of forgery and fiction passing itself off as legitimate fact. Such as The Book of Ossian, edited if that’s the word by James McPherson and published between 1760 and 1763. Like McPherson, the two English/Welsh authors of the Vestiarium Scoticum claimed to have pulled the material together from ancient Scottish/Gaelic sources none of which they ever produced and in colour plates mocked up a history that you can still buy in shops, petrol stations and McGift Shops from Gretna Green to John O’Groats not to mention worldwide sales online. Snobbery will create its own identity. Snobbery thrives on tradition. Because tradition no matter how new or how artificial excludes just as much as it inducts. It’s like Nationality it creates a dividing line. Us and them. Why else would Magdalene College in Oxford be pronounced Maudlin’? It says, you can join us, but only if you embrace our rules. No matter how nonsensical or stupid.
What is ironic is that the landowners who were so keen in the early 1800s to re-introduce the kilt as a mark of Scottish identity, and to propagate the fiction that certain designs were a uniform for their clans, were the very men such as Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry, the self-proclaimed last Chieftan of Scotland addressed in his poem Beelzebub’ by that most Scottish of poets, Robert Burns due to this Chieftan’s mercantile views on his tenants/fief men who were keen to either have their tenants AKA Clansmen AKA fodder working for next to nothing or nothing or ship them off to America and Canada during the Clearances/Improvements which were carried out from the mid-18th to latter 19th Century, when the Clan Chieftains realized that sheep were more profitable than men. Clan fealty is a marvellous thing, especially when it gets you free labour and puffs up your self-esteem at the same time. And gets people to fight for your cause, whatever that might be. And the same thing can be said about Nationalism one way or another. As the lads who died at Flanders, and Flodden, and Afghanistan know all too well. We the little people should never forget that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. So said Henry Kissinger AKA Heinz Kissinger. Which underlines the fact that all politicians are wankers as they love no one more fully or more frequently than they love themselves. You should never underestimate the politician’s need to stroke their own throbbing, luxuriant, tumescent egos.