Professor Joe Goldblatt
Cringe. The first time I heard this word was when I told a fellow Scot how proud I was to live in this bonnie land. She actually said to me that I had best be careful as I was, similar to the famous Minister upon Duddingston Loch painting, skating dangerously very close to being a victim of Scottish cringe.
I soon learned that old Scots versus the newer variety that includes me and my family often cringe with embarrassment when others speak positively about us, our culture, and our many iconic symbols. Among these symbols is of course Scottish tartan that is receiving a brilliant showcase with over 300 examples at the miracle on the River Tay, the new V & A Museum in Dundee.
Upon attending the opening night reception I was gobsmacked when I saw hundreds of folk proudly wearing their tartan designs and speaking positively about all things Scottish with nae a cringe among them. I was allowed to join this hallowed assembly because as part of the exhibition there is a focus on the People’s Tartan and as a new, Jewish and American Scot I was now a central part of Scotland’s people.
As I stood beside my necktie featuring the MacGoldblatt tartan I was further delighted as the good and the great of Scotland stopped by to say hello, admire, and then ask about the the creation of our design. For example, Judy Murray, the mum of one of Scotland’s greatest athletes stood beside me smiling as I told her that whilst others support Hibs, Hearts, Rangers, and Celtic, I support only one organisation which is Team Murray! She was delighted and then I realised that my small necktie and our mutual love of tartan had brought us together that evening. Neither Judy nor I cringed even slightly during our meeting.
A few minutes late, Sir Jim Walker, the chair of Walker Shortbread stopped by to say hello and proudly tell me that his packaging is included in the exhibition because for 125 years his firm has featured tartan as part of their product design and shortbread is along with tartan one of our major iconic symbols.
My head began to spin as one by one and in small groups both new and old Scots began to admire our tartan and this admiration quickly served as a brig a’ doon to further discussions regarding our mutual pride and love for Scotland. Surprisingly, that evening, I did not experience one moment that was even the slightest bit cringe worthy.
After finally tearing myself away from my tartan item I began a wee wander through the hundreds of objects, fashions, videos, paintings, interactive displays, and much more and soon discovered the diversity that is represented by those of us who are new Scots. One of the most intriguing displays was Scottish fashions created by Nigerian designers in Scotland. These beautifully woven wool garments are displayed upon mannequins with obviously Nigerian faces and I immediately began to see, appreciate, and be immensely grateful for the many ways our country has positively influenced the rest of the world.
The Nigerian designers I spoke with that evening were as proud to be Scottish as I was. Our shared pride in Scotland was underpinned by the mutual values we respect including creativity, innovation, and aye, mutual respect for all. I suppose that at that moment as we both stood together, American Jew and Nigerian facing toward the Nigerian and Goldblatt tartans we were all Jock Tamson’s Bairns and Robert Burns was smiling down upon us as we were united in our boundless civic pride for Scotia.
A few weeks after the opening reception I returned to the V & A Dundee museum with one of China’s leading cultural experts. My friend had previously over a ten year period brought hundreds of Chinese performers from China’s major cities to perform at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. As he slowly walked through the expansive exhibition he paused occassionally to note how Scottish tartan had been represented in Chinese culture such as the fine bone china plates on display. He then announced to myself and curators that he believed the V & A Dundee Tartan exhibition should tour all of China’s major cities as soon as possible.
As we walked out of the museum into the bright sunshine the River Tay was skinkling and the RRS Discovery tall masts were swaying in the wind and I soon realised that throughout Scotland’s history, we have first and foremost valued our ability and freedom to explore new horizons. Whether that exploration is the reinvention of the city of Dundee or Scott’s and Shackleton’s Research Ship to Antarctica, we are a country of limitless curiosity. Even today, through the new blockbuster Tartan exhibition, we continue to explore our identity and when that brief moment of Scottish cringe begins to appear, we continue now thanks to the V & A Dundee and the revitalised city of its birth, to continue to look to the distant horizon, raising our heads even higher with pride because as Robert Burns reminds us it is important to fight the Scottish cringe and “To see ourselves as others see us!”
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. His views are his own. The V & A Dundee Tartan exhibition runs until 14 January 2024. For more information about visiting the exhibition https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/whatson/exhibitions/tartan