Kailyard Myth and Scottish Cultural Memory

A research project and critical intervention reflecting on Scottish identity as manufactured by mid-nineteenth century writers, such as J.M. Barrie.

In Cultural Memory Studies – An International and interdisciplinary handbook (2010), Astrid Erll asks what kinds of cultural memory are produced by literature and film.  Cultural memory is based on communication through media via a host of different media operating within systems: religious texts, painting, TV documentary, films, music, monuments etc. Eril argues that each media has a specific way of remembering, and leaves it’s trace on the memory it creates.  She claims that film and novels have a huge power over the collective imagination.  They have the ability to generate and mold images of the past for entire generations and longer. Certainly the history of memory has moved from verbal story telling and oral communication to documentation employing ever more sophisticated technologies.

In the following explanatory statement I will contextualise the video work I have made for this critical intervention by discussing Scottish cultural memory in terms of Scottish identity as shaped by films. I will concentrate my arguments around the Kailyard school of fiction, stating that Scottish identity has been shaped by an inaccurate portrayal of the Scottish character as tartan wearing, clan based, gentle warriors. I will first define Kailyard and establish how mid nineteenth century writers created the Scottish myth that was readily adopted by twentieth century filmmakers.

In his book, The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory (2011), Andrew Blakie claims that we can identify connections with the past through specific kinds of narrative.  With collective memory manifesting itself as a source for national identity, each generation gets its bearing on its identity by drawing on ideas of society from the past, in order to root its identity in the present. For the Scots, this unfortunate narrative is derived from a fiction created during imperialism and the final stages of industrialisation. As British culture was becoming homogenised, Scottish culture would be constructed from images put down by émigré writers outside Scotland, and by the emerging conflict of a national identity borne of imperialism.

The tendency of mid nineteenth century authors like J.M. Barrie and Burns, is to caricature and romanticise descriptions of local towns and people using vernacular and Scottish dialects.  The resulting Kailyard School of fiction bucked against Scottish realist writing, that portrayed a real Scotland warts and all. The term Kailyard has come to mean things such as, ‘the strong comfort factor in recognising a parochial Scotland’ (McDonald, 2011: 153). The Kailyard model embedded itself in the national psyche as modernism developed. The suppression of the Highland clan system coupled with industrialisation in the central belt resulted in thriving nationalism. Blakie believes economic expansion, migration and social mobility brought opportunities for workers to mix with strangers at a level never seen before. The social language for acceptance came from shared identity. And that identity was Kailyard.

Yet it is prudent to ask why the tartantry myth of the Kailyard memory continues to thrive and endure, with Scottishness being ‘a quality open to crass exaggeration as well as more subtle forms of garbled excess?’ (Dunn, 2010: 102). In literature, theatre and film the romantic image of indigenous Scotland as the gentle clansman warrior was rolled out at all opportunities. In theatre, consider the early twentieth century plays of John Brandane, Joe Corrie and Robert McLellan: The Glen is Mine (1923), In time O’ Strife (1928), and Jamie the Saxt (1930) respectively. The glut of Scottish plays in provincial theatres at this time brought historic characters and occasionally contemporary concerns together, such as industrial relations and highland land ownership. Yet less successful contemporary productions failed to attract funding and government grants.

Cinema too perpetuated the delusion. Scotland’s struggling film industry was reignited with the help of the BFI in establishing the ‘Films of Scotland Committee’ spearheaded in part by John Grierson. The committee’s purpose was to intentionally ‘attempt to use film for national purposes’ (Grierson, 2000: 103).  The intention was exemplified in the films for the 1938 Empire Exhibition depicting Scotland’s industries with, Wealth of a Nation, it’s history – The Face of Scotland, agriculture – They Made the Land, and education – The Children’s Story. The tartanisation of Scottishness has trudged relentlessly through the twentieth century with Kailyard films ‘failing to subvert, or render problematic, existing conceptions about Scotland’ (Nash, 2000: 239). In Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots: distortions of Scotland in Holywood cinema, Colin McArthur describes the historical debate about Braveheart (1995) as having, ‘Generated much heat, but little light. An attempt is made to render this debate nuanced by mobilising historian Robert Rosenstone’s concepts of ‘true invention’ and ‘false invention’’ The late Kailyard films continue to derive their inspiration country value and fantastical yarns from that small group of late-nineteenth century writers.

Many writers and filmmakers have endeavored to disrupt the Kailyard myth espoused in films like Whisky Galore, (1949), and the chauvinistic Braveheart (1995). Authors such as Alistair Gray and Irvine Welsh have created the stuff of fresh urban legends – alienation with large helpings of grim satire in a post Thatcherite Scotland. But the ‘Braveheart Effect’ and its appropriation by politicians, journalists, sports people and the tourist board continue to be felt, most notably with the success of Scottish devolution in 1999.  Yet the construction of a mythical homogenous Scottish identity impacts on both the external view of Scotland, which we could call the ‘tourist view’, and also on the internal national psyche. Doubtless thousands of tourists flock to Edinburgh each year looking to witness a blue painted clansman wearing an English invented kilt, wielding a six-foot sword. However, for the Scottish people, memory of the past is a necessary part of the present as it provides clarification and continuity. But when that memory is manufactured or blurred by romanticism, we can witness a form of cultural conditioning. Looking at Scottish cultural artifacts through the lens of shared nationality, it is possible that the myths become a collective representation, and a way to see a country.


Blackie, A., The Scots Imagination and Modern Memory, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2000

Connerton, P., How Societies Remember, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009

(Ed) Dunn, D., The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry, UK, Faber and Faber, 1993

(Ed) Erll, A., Nunning A., Cultural Memory Studies, Berlin, Walter de Gruyter Gmbh, 2008

MacDonald, C. M. M., Whaur Extremes Meet: Scotland’s Twentieth Century, UK, Birlinn Ltd, 2009

Petrie, D., Screening Scotland, London, BFI Publishing, 2000

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