The theme is familiar in many classic films with a Scottish setting. A questing outsider, usually English or American, enters a remote, rural, “highland” community where he finds himself seduced by the locals’ charm, intrigued by their difference, frustrated by their elusiveness and deflected by their guile. Some form of catharsis ensues, invariably signalled by a pivotal cèilidh (gathering) around halfway through. In the process, and as the tale hurtles towards resolution, both visitor and host are changed.
The focus of the search may be pillaged alcohol (Whisky Galore), oil-exploration rights (Local Hero), a missing girl (The Wicker Man) or an island marriage (I Know Where I’m Going!). The first two observe the hallowed formula by having respectively an English and American protagonist, the last two underline a singularity by making this figure respectively a “lowland” Scot and (as well as being English) a woman.
But the precise ingredient that raises these films to classic status is that they do more than portray, with joyous wit and insight, a collision of worlds: they also reflect on and subvert the very lenses (Anglicist romanticism, Celticist stereotype, and what Malcolm Chapman in a pathbreaking study, The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture, calls “symbolic appropriation”) through which this collision has historically been framed.
It is too early to say how far London’s political entry into Scotland, heralded with some fanfare in early January 2012 – its mission, thwarting at all costs the country’s “separation” from the rest of the United Kingdom – will unfold according to this time-honoured narrative arc; even more, what kind of outcome its encounter with the locals will achieve.
What can be said at this point of the constitutional tussle – which will culminate in a referendum on Scotland’s independence, probably in autumn 2014 – is that each side is intensely rehearsing its part; that those pesky Scots are both acutely aware of and unfazed by the high-stakes play they are involved in; and that the major speech by prime minister David Cameron in Edinburgh on 16 February, the highlight of the opening phase, suggests that the outsider is beginning, creatively, to explore the possibilities of its own more limited repertoire.