“Here’s to the hills and here’s to the heather and here’s to Bonnie Mary of Argyll… What the hell does that mean?”
Heather, Haggis & Hogmanay
During the late Seventies and early Eighties a newly emerging Scotland began actively trying to distance itself from its traditional Scottish heritage. Its economy boosted by the success of North Sea Oil, Scotland was aiming to be taken seriously as a nation with more to offer the world than what it saw as an outmoded “shortbread-tin” image. From that point in time, all things tartan were to become fashionable targets for scorn and the persona of Andy Stewart; the kilted purveyor of heather, haggis and a Happy New Year, became one of the casualties of the times.
A Guid New Year
The idea that Andy Stewart was guilty of perpetuating the Scottish image of “heather & haggis”, relentlessly popping up on TV screens every New Years Eve was a myth to Andy; one that he couldn’t accept or even understand.
Tongue-in-cheek comments made in 1992, regarding the infamous ‘Squidgygate‘ tapes of private telephone calls between Diana, Princess of Wales and James Gilbey, suggested that Andy Stewart may well have been indirectly responsible for the actual recording of the illicit conversations on the 31st of December 1989.
When the question was raised “Who would be scanning the airwaves on such a night as New Year’s Eve?” The remark that many people would find the company of a radio scanner preferable to that of Andy Stewart and the Hogmanay programme, was a typically derisory comment that did not escape Andy’s attention:
“It all seemed very weird to me. Princess Di wasn’t born the last time I did a Hogmanay show.”
That wasn’t quite true. After the production team of The White Heather Club delivered their final Hogmanay programme for the BBC on New Year’s Eve 1968, Andy channel-hopped over to ITV for New Year shows in 1969, 1970, 1973, 1975 & 1977 and appeared as a guest on Hogmanay programmes for the BBC in 1976 & 1982 and Grampian Television in 1979, 1980, 1983 & 1984.
Perhaps Andy was in denial about his close association with New Year, or that following the end of his association with the BBC Hogmanay show, he did not consider himself a regular feature of New Year anymore. However, the fact remained that appearing on networked BBC Hogmanay shows for most of the Sixties – formative years in British television – was easily enough to have established Andy in the public imagination as a regular part of any New Year show. To the uninitiated or the casual viewer (or those South of the Border) it didn’t really matter who the presenter was: Peter Morrison; Bill McCue; Johhny Beattie; they assumed it was Andy Stewart anyway. Because it always was, wasn’t it?
Grampian TV New Year Compilation
From Hogmanay1982, 1984 and 1985.
Made-for-TV Hogmanay programmes followed a tried and tested formula, but twenty years on, that formula’s “whisky-fire” was no longer quenching a critical Scotland’s thirst to re-invent itself. Perhaps Andy was expressing a desire to separate himself from a TV “event” not as essential viewing as it once was.
Out With the Old
A good example illustrating the changes in Scotland comes with examination of Andy’s first recording Donald Where’s Your Troosers? and a comparison between its original release at the dawn of the Sixties and surprise re-release at the tail-end of the Eighties. When first released in 1960 it was a living breathing slice of modernity poking fun at the kilted Highlander out-of-place in the heart of the big city. However by the time of its surprisingly successful re-issue (reaching a UK high of number four in the Christmas chart of 1989) it was definitely viewed as a novelty record. Andy’s song of modernity was now as quaint as a Harry Lauder recording had sounded in 1960. But when it was suggested that the song was now regarded as a way of mocking Scots in general, Andy profoundly disagreed:
“I never heard that. Not the first time and not the second time. The whole thing was a joke you know. You know where the title of the song comes from? It’s a Glasgow expression. Anybody in a kilt in Glasgow, it was either “Kiltie kiltie cauld bum”, or you’d say “Hey Donald where’s your troosers?”
Ach, there’s nobody does more to caricature the highlanders more than they themselves. People are awfully self-conscious. If a nation can’t laugh at itself, it’s doomed.”
Andy viewed his body of work, beginning with The White Heather Club, as a reaction against what had been put onstage before with musical-hall acts like Harry Lauder who he often took pains to distance himself from. In 1967 Andy appeared in the ‘BBC Show of the Week’ TV special Scottish Minstrel performing the songs of Harry Lauder, but making sure he explained that he was interpreting the songs themselves and not impersonating Lauder. Generic showbiz “Scottish” branded stage-shows received short shrift from Andy too:
“Here’s to the hills and here’s to the heather and here’s to Bonnie Mary of Argyll. What the hell does that mean? We broke away from all that and we put onstage what had been regarded as totally non-commercial.”
However Andy had been so successful at marketing his brand of ‘Scottishness’ that it was now regarded as the traditional, and something that Scotland in general would have liked to have swept under the carpet.
In With the New
Up-and-coming Scottish comedians, sensing a general mood, now began exploiting the prevailing trend, inserting into their acts a ruthless “putting down” of Scotland and mocking of its traditions. Scottish comedy had always had a history of self mockery, but this type of humour was now involving a much harder edge and was both feeding from and in turn fuelling the home-grown fire for change. The humour of the couthy canny Scot was now being superseded by that of the loud belligerent Scot and it would seem to many already established Scottish stars that, unless humour now included either shouting or swearing (or both), any irony, subversion or indeed fun in the use of Scottish imagery was totally bypassing critics of the time.
Seasoned performer Jimmy Logan observed of the Scottish nature:
“We in Scotland have got many wonderful things to our character, very positive things. One of the negative things we have is we are the first to decry our own. We are the first to say “ach, he’s no good.” Andy went through that tunnel as I have done where you are flavour of the month and then all of a sudden people say “ach, he wisnae this, that, or the next thing…”
Logan commented again at greater length on the downturn on popularity of all things tartan in Scotland at the time:
“Critics were convinced that all of Scotland’s ills were caused by people who wore this awful kilt, kept saying “Hoots Mon” and told terrible Scottish jokes. The problem was born out of Scotland’s desire to be a thriving modern nation, but somewhere along the line someone decided the best way to do that was to ditch our heritage.”
“As a result wonderful parts of our culture like the kilt, tartan, heather and so on took an absolute hammering from just about every quarter.”
“The kilt at one time in recent years went through a period when if you wore a kilt people would say “och, yer no wearing that are ye?” And then it changed, I think, with the youngsters going to weddings and seeing somebody in a kilt and saying “here listen, that looks pretty good” and so the change came, but we just soldiered on. However going abroad with the kilt representing Scotland was like possessing a passport inscribed in gold.”
“At one stage, there were moves afoot to get me out of the kilt, but I knew that would be wrong. You can’t just dismiss something that brought you such fame and recognition.
Besides, I enjoyed it. I liked what I was doing and not everybody can say that. We can all dream from time to time about what might have been. But I have no regrets.”
Though You’re Tired and Weary, Still Journey On
Moving into the 1980s Andy was now spending more and more of his time touring abroad, finding audiences in Canada, Australia and New Zealand still as appreciative as they always had been. These audiences who came to see an ‘Andy Stewart Show’ had certain expectations and Andy never failed to deliver what he knew they wanted: transportation back to a time that never will be again, in a Scotland that never really was.
Those who sought to deny Andy Stewart’s place in Scottish culture would complain that the Scottish imagery used in his act was inauthentic. However true authenticity in most cultures is almost certainly difficult to find (and probably very difficult to market), and most cultures subjected to detailed examination would likely display similar manufactured stereotypes. Andy knew that in a land of koalas, cork hats and kangaroos, a sprig of white heather, a tilt o’ the kilt and a little song of Scotland could always find a welcome.