This year has been labeled the Homecoming Year in Scotland, where expats are being asked to return to their homeland to see what they’re missing. In a timely project, partially funded by Homecoming Scotland, STV and actor/presenter John Michie have created a program that looks at the iconic images the world associates with Scotland and investigates why so many items have become symbols of this one country.
John Michie is an actor best known for his role on Taggart, but in recent years he has moved more frequently into presenting for non-fiction programming, working on a variety of programs with STV in Scotland. When he began looking into his ancestry and discovered that his last name came from an ancestor who, in the 17th century, had to flee and change his name after killing his own brother to become the clan chief, the idea for a factual program began to form. Michie’s family had no dedicated tartan in Scotland because his last name was invented out of this murderous ancestor’s nickname. When Michie initiated a project to have a tartan made for his family, he also pitched the idea for a television program about the tartan and its origins to longtime collaborator Mick McAvoy.
McAvoy, executive producer at STV, felt that examining the connection of tartan to Scottish heritage was only one aspect of the program. What intrigued him was the larger idea of how Scotland looks at its own national identity and what the rest of the world identifies as pure examples of Scotland. ‘For a country of our size there are so many iconic elements that seem to resonate around the globe,’ says McAvoy. ‘I think that’s an interesting phenomenon in itself. Denmark doesn’t have as many iconic elements of its national identity.’
While Michie’s journey to have a tartan pattern created for his family is the center of the program, to create Made in Scotland, McAvoy got other famous faces on board to examine icons of their homeland such as whiskey, haggis, bagpipes and golf. While most of these iconic images go back centuries, McAvoy points out that not only are these symbols of Scotland completely preserved in Scottish life, many of them have actually evolved into prosperous industries for the country. The biggest food producer in Scotland makes shortbread, and the production of whiskey is the main employer in its Highlands.
While making the program for STV, Michie says the most interesting thing he learned about tartan was that its earliest sightings were in Asia (a piece of tartan was found on a mummy in Kazakhstan), and tartan itself was banned in Scotland in the 1700s when the Hanoverian government wouldn’t allow anyone except the army to wear the patterns. ‘That’s an incredible thing. How can you actually ban a pattern?’ says Michie. ‘That’s why it became such an iconic Highland material.’
For McAvoy, the investigation of the terrain of the country’s Highlands was one aspect that surprised him. ‘There are very few derelict buildings you can actually say are attractive, but the Scottish ruin castle sometimes seems like a piece of essential punctuation to the Scottish landscape,’ says McAvoy. ‘If you look at a glen with a ruin castle in it it’s better for it, which doesn’t happen in any other aspect of life. You don’t really look at a cityscape and say: ‘I quite like that burnt out building.”