Britishness? Attacking biscuit tins would only be the start

Britishness? Attacking biscuit tins would only be the start

by Brian Monteith
article from Friday 9, March, 2018

I LIKE SHORTBREAD. Who doesn’t? Equally great with a cuppa or a dram, it is decidedly Scottish, for while other countries have their own shortcake biscuits none perfected them in the manner Scottish bakers did.  But just as shortbread is Scottish it also is British. That might not be a happy coincidence for the more partisan and, dare I say it, twisted nationalists, but it is a fact.

Even were mythical Scottish shortbread recipes from the time of Mary Queen of Scots be found – predating the Union of the Crowns in 1603, the Acts of Union in 1707, or the first printed example of a recipe by Mrs McLintock in 1736 – there can be no dispute the mass production and distribution which brought the delicious delicacy its fame happened in part and indeed benefitted from Scotland being British.

The mad, sad and bad demonisation of Walkers biscuits (established 1898) by Scottish nationalists for their use of a Union Flag biscuit tin – and Royal Family biscuit tins adorned with Union Flags – says everything about a contorted and perverse mentality that cannot accept any past or current connection with the rest of our fellow Britons.

I have worked in a biscuit factory; I helped make the mix, monitored the line for broken or burnt ones and packaged the tails, fingers and rounds into boxes and placed them on palettes. Needless to say I’ve eaten copious amounts, including when they were still warm after coming out of the oven. I helped make them for M&S and other own brands and seen them packaged in tartan or without. I know my shortbread.

When I passed through London’s Stansted airport on Tuesday the ‘Duty Free’ had stacks of Walkers' shortbread in a wide variety of packaging – including the Union Flag tins but more obviously the many variants of Royal Family memorabilia, showing the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Balmoral, Buckingham Palace and Sandringham. The Scottish association with being British – not least that Walkers carries a Royal Warrant was being exploited in every conceivable way, for personal taste or what might help the tins make a perfect gift. Other Stansted tourist outlets that traded on their ‘Britishness’ included Scottish produce with or without tartan, thistles, Saltires and Union Flags.

What Walkers is doing is using its Scottishness and Britishness in the knowledge that in particular markets they are complimentary. It is not saying it is English – or solely British – it is saying it is both Scottish AND British. What, really, is wrong with that? It has so many other biscuit tins exploiting its Scottish heritage, such as Scotty Dog tins and Westy tins – but does not have English Spaniels, Setters or Shepherds. It is not diluting its Scottishness – it is recognising that Britishness is part of Scottishness and it can trade on this to the benefit of its shareholders and employees.

Some nationalists seek to justify their outrage (and often abuse) on the basis that they are seeking to protect the virtues of Scottish branding – arguing it cannot be adulterated by Union flags or even the Royal Family. This is nothing other than a cover, for branding is a complex affair that can be determined and enhanced by relationships that take Scotland beyond its own shores and into associations with others of a different nationality.

Is the manufacture of Scottish seriously strong cheddar cheese not associated with an essentially, er, English cheese? Is Haggis itself not something which was eaten regularly in England until it was dismissed as a poor man’s food, leaving only the poorer medieval Scots eating it and claiming it as their own?

Shortbread is not alone in Scottish food and drink that is irredeemably British – with the branding icons and national associations often (though not always) being interchangeable. In particular, any produce associated with the British royal family, as it is familiarly known around the world, easily slips into using either tartan or the union flag – or both. Thus, while salmon is exclusively marketed as ‘Scottish’, bakery and confectionery has adapted its branding to suit specific markets and occasions.

It is also an undeniable fact that all Scottish food and drink companies have exploited Scotland’s partnership from our Union with England to expand initially their domestic market and then use the British Empire and then the Commonwealth to reach international consumers. Without being British their world renown and valued reputation would have been harder to achieve and nurture. It goes without saying that this led to jobs and prosperity in Scotland and a well-earned reputation for Scottish food produce.

Take McVitie's, one of the most recognisable biscuit brands in the world and renowned for its Digestives, Rich Tea and Jaffa Cakes, all of which it developed and pioneered. It began in Leith Walk, Edinburgh, in 1870 merging with another local baker to become McVitie & Price in 1875. It opened a large biscuit factory in Gorgie in 1888 and due to its huge success McVitie & Price spread around Britain with bakeries in Harlesden and Manchester, then merged with another Glasgow biscuit family, MacFarlane Lang to become United Biscuits in 1948.  Although now part of a Turkish-based multinational, it continues to trade on its Scottish name and British history; indeed most British people dunking McVitie’s market-leading digestives in their tea will probably be unaware of its ultimate ownership.

James Lind (1716-1794) was an Edinburgh physician who developed the theory that citrus fruits could prevent and cure scurvy. As a result lime juice was dispensed to Royal Navy sailors daily, using rum to preserve it, but in 1867 a Leither, Lauchlan Rose, perfected a method to preserve citrus juice using sugar rather than alcohol, establishing his first Rose's Lime Juice Cordial factory in Commercial Street, Leith, the following year. By 1875 the company expanded with additional production and new headquarters in London, then after the Blitz it moved to St Albans. Without being Scottish AND British – thus, without having the direct access to the Royal Navy and access to British markets – how could this train of events, of mutual benefit to people across Britain, have happened?

Other famous examples from Tunnock's, Highland Spring, Baxters of Speyside and AG Barr demonstrate how being BOTH Scottish and British have benefitted food manufacturers through easy access to the UK’s single market and the international markets beyond. In drinks the thirst of Scottish regiments for their own local beers saw McEwan’s shipped around the world earning the epithet McEwan’s Export. IPA is the acronym for India Pale Ale – the beer that Scottish brewers shipped to soldiers serving in India and other parts of the British Empire.

I find the rejection of Scotland’s British past as especially concerning for it reveals as a lie the nationalist claim that were Scotland to become independent we could still remain British. This is obviously a deceit and a lie – no sooner would independence be gained than any and every literal and visual representation of British symbolism would be attacked and expunged.  

Those retaining any sense of Britishness would be abused and marginalised – be it a biscuit company, a football team or a charity. Individuals would be targeted and isolated as anti-Scottish. If anyone believes nationalism is simply a gracious civicness they are deluding themselves or ignoring the evidence all around us.

Just look at the reaction to British and Scottish shortbread biscuit tins, the flying of the Union Flag or the use of the word ‘British’ in Scottish institutions like the British Transport Police and and government agencies. The evidence is all around us – to counter it we must declare our Britishness alongside our Scottishness, and where appropriate our Britishness alone.


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