The Shortbread Tin: A Lesson in the Mechanism of Cultural Appropriation from Scottish History

Cultural appropriation may be a new discourse, but it is far from a new concept. Indeed, it is simply a useful descriptor for an issue which has existed, presumably, for as long as multiple cultures have existed in competition with one another. We will look at just one example from the history of appropriation and its effects: Scotland following its union with England.

Scotland and England had a tense relationship for most of early modern history. Even following the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1745, large pockets of anti-English rebellion remained. A union of the two parliaments had failed to make the two countries conceive of themselves as one United Kingdom. However, in the early 19th century something changed, which seemed to quell Scottish resistance and to make them accept the union as the new status quo.

In 1822 George III visited Scotland, the first monarch to do so in almost 200 years. The visit was largely directed and encouraged by the lowland, gentrified Scottish author Sir Walter Scott. The King wore a version of Highland dress, the kilt and sporran. The Dress Act of 1746 had banned the wearing of tartan and traditional dress in Scotland. By the time of its repeal, daily dress had been largely replaced by English modes. On the visit, Scott presented the King in Edinburgh with an enormous jewel, inscribed with ‘Righ Albainn gu brath’, which roughly translates to 'Long Live the King’ in Gaelic. Simultaneously, huge swathes of Scotland’s native Gaelic-speaking community were being forced to emigrate and were replaced by the more profitable Cheviot sheep.

This visit shows a marked change in the treatment of Scottish identity. Where the state’s legislative apparatus had faltered in putting a final halt to Scottish rebellion, its ideological arm stepped in to finish the job. When law and violence had done all it could, the tools of culture and hegemony would finally put the tin lid on Scotland.

The trend continued throughout the Victorian era. The Highlands, now largely free of Highlanders, were fertile ground to upper class Victorian hunting parties. They came in droves to admire its 'untamed’ and unpopulated landscape. They devoured Robert Burns’ poetry, written largely in Anglicised, Lowland Scots. Queen Victoria built a holiday home in the Highlands at Balmoral in the Scottish Baronial style, parodying earlier Scottish castle design. A fictitious, highly commercial system of individual family tartans was invented. Edward Landseer painted 'The Monarch of the Glen’ to hang in Westminster. The shortbread tin image of Scotland was born.

It is an image that will be familiar to any visitor today, it is the image that Scottish tourism is built on. The kilted ensemble that George III wore on his visit is now our national dress, we proudly wear it in our family tartan at weddings. As Scots today, we feel a strong sense of tradition, a strong sense of national identity.

And therein lies the success of cultural appropriation. Culture is so much part of group identity that, while said culture remains, the group identity will always remain also. In order to fully subjugate a group, you must remove their culture. Yet it is almost impossible to completely excise a culture from a group, and it is often within the space left by attempted excision that rebellion grows strongest. The best way to remove a culture is by taking its safe, benign elements and assimilating them into dominant culture: to acknowledge and subsume while simultaneously erasing. In taking up carefully selected Scottish traditions, the state wove Scottish identity into its own dominant cloth. It took technically useful elements of Scottish culture and captured them within the quaint enclosure of the Shortbread Tin.

Cultural appropriation also renders a lost culture extremely difficult to revive. In the first instance, the threads of the old culture can be so expertly intertwined that it can be simply impossible to untangle the old from the new. But there is a second, more nuanced, more pervasive and permanent way in which mechanism of cultural appropriation works so well. By so effectively replacing old culture, there is no feeling of loss. The many attempts to restore Gaelic as an established language in Scotland have been largely met with, at best, lukewarm enthusiasm. To most of the population of Scotland today, Gaelic feels mostly irrelevant and archaic. We already feel distinctly Scottish. That a whole Scottish language has been watered down to a dialect, or even just an accent, doesn't really matter. All that matters is that, while anglicised, it is still unique to the Scottish. We have, by and large, embraced the Shortbread Tin idea of ourselves.

Finally, it is extraordinarily difficult to apportion blame for appropriating a culture, especially on such a large scale. Whether this was a conscious tactic of the State is unknown and unproven. It could be argued that George III and Queen Victoria just genuinely loved Scotland and that Scott and Burns genuinely wanted to proliferate what they thought was true Scottish culture. You can hardly argue that much of Victorian society, in the grip of Scotmania, could be considered knowingly complicit in some sort of state conspiracy against native Scots. This is where true ingenuity of an ideological apparatus lies, in the subtle way it creates cultural hegemony through literature, art, architecture and fashion, which alters, not how we think about things, but how we feel about things. We are keenly aware of how our thoughts can be influenced by external forces and move to actively resist them. Yet we are usually resolute that our feelings are entirely our own. We have embraced the Shortbread Tin, not because we logically think it is a connection to our heritage, in fact, most of us know it isn’t. We have embraced it because we feel it is a connection to our heritage.

Cultural appropriation often feels this way to the appropriator, that is motivated purely out of love and appreciation for another culture. But it is important to consider the remnants of previous power dynamics. If a dominant culture gets to pick and choose aspects it finds useful from other cultures, it undermines them and risks entirely subsuming them into its own. A previously subjugated culture risks having its identity defined, not by itself, but by an external, dominant hegemony.


*Illustration by Eun Bin Seo*

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