Things I wouldn’t write about Tourism in Scotland now

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More than three decades ago I started to get plenty of business writing material for and about Scotland’s tourism industry. Tourist Boards, travel publishers both national and international – I did ’em all back then! (And for years afterwards.)

I kept some of the stuff and this cardboard boxful of print followed me around, from attic to attic over the years. (That’s an alternative definition for the word ‘archive’ in our house.)


I just found ‘Scotland Where to Go and What to See’ for 1986 in the box. Writing style looked familiar. It starts – and I’m quite proud of this in a trainee cub copywriter sort of way:

“If you hunt for the real Scotland, there will be many times when you know you have found it.: when you hear your first Highland piper with the background of Edinburgh Castle; on some late, late evening on a far northern beach as the sun sets into a midsummer sea; as your golf-ball masters the on-shore breeze, bounces and rolls on to the green; or with your first taste of a malt whisky, peat-smoked and tangy…”

Well, I ask you, what more do you need? Scotland in a nutshell, eh? Florid, perhaps, overblown even, but, hey, that’s how VisitScotland (then the Scottish Tourist Board) liked it.

The guide is actually saying: ‘Och, look, there’s the sun up there. You’d be better off outside enjoying it, instead of visiting a fusty auld castle’. And aren’t black labradors almost impossible to light properly? They usually turn out as black blobs with a doggy outline.

And I could have demonstrated the apostrophe in the proper place at no extra charge. Anyway, I could have stopped there – but no, they paid well and I went on and did another two decades and more of heather-purple prose for main guides, itineraries, information packs and more for our national tourist board. (Until someone noticed it was me, probably.)

Scottish Tourism now – it’s different from back then!

Some things change as technology has transformed communications. I see back then I was instructed to exhort visitors to order an ‘Enjoy Scotland Pack’ through the post. (What was that? A bottle of whisky, half-a-dozen butteries and a small bottle of midge repellent?)

Today we access our Scottish information in completely different ways.

Tourist Information Centres In Scotland

What the knowledgeable staff in the 'TICs' of old used on the odd occasion when their knowledge failed them. They looked up a publication invariably known as '1001' and it really did have more than a thousand places in Scotland to visit. The top copy dates from 1990, a comparative youngster. NB I never wrote this one. Oddly enough, Johanna edited it one year though.
What the knowledgeable staff in the ‘TICs’ of old used on the odd occasion when their knowledge failed them. They looked up a publication invariably known as ‘1001’ and it really did have more than a thousand places in Scotland to visit. The top copy dates from 1990, a comparative youngster.

Also back then, it was obligatory to remind the Scottish visitor of the excellent network of what were called (in the trade) “TICs” – tourist information centres – in the days when every wee village had a wee information office.

Call in and you would find a wee wifie (usually) of uncertain vintage who knew every b & b operator and was honour-bound to field out the bookings in a scrupulous manner and not just to favour her chums.

She was invariably a local and also knew every walk, hotel, attraction, viewpoint, café, ferry time – and often without looking up a paper timetable.

As a breed with real knowledge of the product – of sharp-end tourism in Scotland, we are unlikely to see their likes again.

Scottish Tourism now – the Loch Ness Monster never changes

But let’s turn over a page. Under the bland heading ‘Colourful Scotland’ and under the castles section I see I that I wrote in a slightly coy manner ‘Take your picture of Urquhart Castle against the background of Loch Ness – and who knows what might appear in the picture?’ (Tut-tut, poor style, the repetition of ‘picture’.)

No matter, of course the rational answer to what might appear is a floating log, a wave interference pattern, a swimming otter family, a swimming red deer and so on.

I was hardly going to earn my fee my pointing out that the Loch Ness monster phenomenon is just a perennial myth which served the local tourism economy very well back then – and will continue to do so for years to come.

A little further on (‘There’s so much to do…’) is the obligatory mention of golf. Green fees, we are told, can be as little as 50p. Crikey. And I must have said somewhere that Scotland is the home of golf.

Or maybe that was St Andrews, though personally (out of political correctness or just because it’s a naff phrase) at least I never referred to it as ‘A Mecca for golfers’ – though lots of tourism material does.

Anyway, who would have thought that, more than 30 years, later golf club membership both in Scotland and south of the Border is actually declining, with golf clubs struggling to survive?

Scottish Tourism then and now – those reliable Highland Games

Aha. The back page of the old Scotland main guide. (Stereotypical brawny Highland Games Competitor also obligatory.)
Aha. The back page of the old Scotland main guide. (Stereotypical brawny Highland Games competitor also obligatory.)

Highland Games, like golf, were obligatory features of any Scottish tourism promotional copy – though these days, paralleling golf, perhaps they are not in such good spirits.

If you closely read the introductory section at the top of the events listing, you will be assured that you will find a ‘a bewildering choice of Highland Games.’

Och, I couldn’t have written that bit, could I? Surely I wasn’t intending to imply that on your Scottish holiday you’d have to pull into a layby to calm down because there were Highland Games everywhere, causing bewilderment and possible disorientation? Nah.

Back n those simple days, I see I was awfully fond of describing them in a somewhat wordy manner as a ‘celebration of sporting and artistic skills combined on the same occasion’. (Hmm. It’s clear I was getting paid per word.)

Like golf, this unique combination of athletic prowess and musical spectacle (what? crikey, there I go again) has seen a decline over the last few years, according to a report from even as far back as 2011.

Simply put, there aren’t as many Highland Games taking place as thirty-plus years ago.

To a Lowland Scot like me the ‘modern’ Highland Games always seemed to have a faint air of fakery, of a harking back to a kind of Scotland that was mostly invented by Sir Walter Scott and his ilk.

A harsh judgement, yes, I know. The standard explanation was always that they owed their origins to the need for chieftains to hold auditions for the best athletes and musicians – a kind of ‘Clans got Talents’ show.

Anyway, the decrease in the number of Highlands Games being held in Scotland appears to be linked to young folk not being so interested these days, and the amount of bureaucracy involved in staging a Highland Games.

There is, for example, the claim by Lochearnhead Highland Games officials some years back that the local council insisted on plastic or rubber swords in the famous sword dance – for health and safety reasons. Tee-hee.

Where to stay in Scotland

Meanwhile back in that big old guide/brochure, there were the reassurances about accommodation and its availability. The idea of a b & b was heavily emphasised. ‘They offer simple facilities, but usually represent good value and very flexible and informal accommodation.’ Or so I pontificated…

I have no idea what that means now – but the implication seemed to be something ‘homely’ (in the British English sense, not the US English sense). The general thrust was that you would be sharing and getting an insights into local life.

The idea of a b & b has moved on a lot since then. It could still happen, but the chances are that today you won’t be sitting in the living room with a crofter and his wife, whose family go back generations. (As in the family we once stayed with in the Outer Hebrides alluded to on that link.)

Instead you’ll have your own sitting room (maybe) in the custom-built bungalow of a couple from another part of the UK who took early retirement, came north and are doing b & b as a lifestyle choice. (He was in financial services, she was a social worker.)

Don’t expect an insight into Scottish culture and heritage but – and this is important – the home-made muesli for breakfast will be in a class of its own. And the place will be immaculate and have four or five stars.

The over-run Fairy Pools of Skye

Geographically, you wouldn’t expect much to change. After all, Scotland is pretty well trodden and discovered.

The gloomy Dunvegan Castle on a gloomy Skye Day. It's the home of the famous Fairy Flag. (Stifles yawn...)
The gloomy Dunvegan Castle on a gloomy Skye Day. It’s the home of the famous Fairy Flag. (Stifles yawn…)

Still, back then, write about Skye and you used to commonly mention – of all things – the so-called Fairy Flag at Dunvegan Castle, which has a variety of magical powers attributed to it. Yeah, right.

Today, with Skye filled to capacity and beyond with outdoorsy types in main season, stuffy old tales of fairy flags saving the clan in battle are eclipsed by pseudo-magical experiences at the Fairy Pools.

This location, more or less unknown some years ago, seems to be an obligatory visit now, especially if you want to go wild swimming.

And, yes, the Fairy Pools carpark at main season was horrendous (and is now enlarged) all because of thanks the number of travel features written about the place. (But not by me, obviously!) There is talk of bussing people to the start of the Pools walk.

Scottish History or Movie Fantasy

I guess that from a historical perspective what or who was mentioned in the promotional material back then has changed a little.

Rob Roy, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Mary Queen of Scots remain in the consciousness, then as now, thanks either to movies (in Rob’s case) or quality visitor centres such as the NTS’s take on the Battle of Culloden.

Sir Walter Scott long ago had his day, though the home of Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford is still on the Scottish Borders list (and the visitor centre there is excellent).,

But these days there are probably more Scots aware that this old Tory buffer did Scotland no real service by helping create the romantic tartan fantasy land that has been part of the nation’s promoted tourism image ever since.

Today, instead of the Waverley novels, tourism material/promotion is much more likely to reference, for example, the Harry Potter books and films; also the popular Outlander

Incidentally, you might argue that Outlander helps perpetrate romantic tartan fantasy Scotland and thus is directly linked to Scott.

What seems to be high profile now but less so back then is the increasing emphasis of movie locations in Scotland as a hook for promotional activity. The term ‘set jetting’ (wince), where folk go to see movie locations, is of comparatively recent invention.

And I’m thinking here of the seemingly mandatory mention of a the Harry Potter flying car with Glenfinnan Viaduct, for example. There are many more examples, such as the Old Man of Storr on Skye and the BFG from a few years back.

Meanwhile – thank you Mr Bond – Skyfall did nothing to make Glen Etive a quieter place. I reckon Rob Roy – the movie – started all this! (Wait…maybe it was Highlander…or even earlier.)

Obviously, the biggest and most obvious change of all is how you are reading this. Back then, an array of print, plus helpful information office staff and a variety of people with real knowledge of Scotland were at the core of the tourism industry.

Now, for travel or accommodation information we read the most recent TripAdvisor review, the latest contribution to this or that travel forum, or the output of some promoted blogger, with a smartphone and a YouTube channel, on their first visit to Scotland.

Today, in short, we are all Scottish experts.