Red, white and orange: why the Scots must not confuse politics with pride

I remember my first Irn-Bru. It was January 2012. Burns Night. Sitting at a formal dinner in the Great Hall of Durham Castle with a piece of tartan tied around my waist I stared in confusion at the industrial-sized bottle of luminous orange fizz that had replaced the usual jugs of water on the table. My eyes fixed on the bold steel logo plastered across the bottle. “IRN-BRU”, I read “but what on earth is that?”

Two years later the Commonwealth Games come to Scotland and I’m walking through the centre of Glasgow dressed in an Irn-Bru outfit, complete with Irn-Bru pin badge, cap, anorak and lucky socks, wearing an Irn-Bru rucksack, holding an Irn-Bru sign, and calling out ‘Irn-Bru’ as I lead 97 of Irn-Bru’s corporate guests towards the specially-decorated Irn-Bru bus.

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Somehow I’ve landed myself a summer job as A. G. Barr’s latest poster girl. As another dozen Glasgwegian men ask to have their photo taken with me, the “Irn-Bru laydee”, I come to wonder how ‘posh Katie’ from sunny little Hampshire has come to be in Glasgow promoting to the Scots their own national drink.

With just two months to go before the long-awaited vote on independence, would it not have been more appropriate to have a plump, beer-bellied Glaswegian man in a kilt with a fiery orange beard selling the stuff? Surely they could have chosen someone with at least a hint of a Scottish accent? Or perhaps one of the brand’s many loyal fans? To me, it was just a sweet, orange soda. To everyone else, it seemed, it was the blood in their veins; their nation in a bottle; liquid pride.

And I cannot think of any single other brand that sums up an entire nation quite as perfectly as this fiery orange drink sums up the Scots. Fights were breaking out between policemen over pin-badges. Bankers and businessmen were spending hundreds of pounds on bright orange onesies for every member of the family. Young children were desperately trying to steal my cap off my head as I passed. I was forced to take my excessively large sign into the toilet cubicle with me for the fear of it being stolen by an elderly volunteer. One man told me he drinks 2 litres of Irn-Bru every day. It was a mixer on nights out, and a hangover cure the next day. The entire nation was crazy for the stuff.

And it got me thinking.

At the Opening Ceremony of the Games the Mirror famously pictured 2 beer-bellied Scots guzzling Irn-Bru outside Central Station. It was a similarly barrel-shaped gentlemen who yelled at me during my first shift: “I drink 2 litres of the stuff every day. Every day! I’m not lying”.

Photographed in The Mirror
Photographed in The Mirror

I’m sure he wasn’t. You only have to read about the Irn-Bru addict who had to cut his intake down from eight litres a day to four to avoid a heart attack, or the Scottish athlete who won gold after giving the stuff up for just six months to make you think twice about taking a sip. Those two weeks should have been the perfect way to put me off the drink. But somehow they did quite the opposite. There’s something – and perhaps it’s that secret 32nd ingredient – but something in that stupidly sweet sugary and sickeningly bright bottle of fizz that gets you hooked.

Perhaps Scots would be offended that I choose to associate this stupidly unhealthy drink with their proud nation. But it’s not the health factor that has me writing (I’d be writing about deep fried Mars bars and Scotland’s ever-so-slightly-higher-than-average obesity rate if it was). It’s the brand – the fun, cheeky brand that encapsulates everything we love about the Scots and everything they love about themselves.

The ‘Friendly Games’ was nationalist pride at its peak. Just 7 weeks before voting day, the timing of Glasgow 2014 could not have been more perfect. It showed off Scotland at its very best. It put Glasgow at the centre of the world stage. And it proved that Scotland is more than capable of competing and beating some of the world’s greatest nations.

No wonder, then, that the taxi drivers, the policemen, and the people I met on the street were all part of the Yes team. Amongst the craziness of the Games, and the patriotism encouraged by brands such as Irn-Bru, I can see how many of the Scots were swept into the whirlwind of national pride lead by Alex Salmond.

The people of Scotland were some of the proudest I’ve met. My fortnight in Glasgow gave me just a taste of that pride. But voters must remember that it is today’s Scotland they are proud of. Not the damaged and broken Scotland of a future without the security of the UK.

Tomorrow the people of Scotland must vote with their heads and not their hearts (or tastebuds!). I just hope they don’t confuse politics with pride.

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