Brigadrone – the HyperNormalisation of Scottish Culture

How Underbelly sold us Edinburgh Castle and put the hog back into Hogmanay by Hugo Fluendy & Bonnie Prince Bob.

Underbelly’s hypnotic stranglehold on public arts funding is tightening after they pocketed a cool two million pounds for a faked Hogmanay drone display.

The money (from Edinburgh Council, the UK Govt Cultural Recovery Fund, the Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund, Event Scotland and Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund) on top of another million or so in earlier handouts from Arts Council England and Creative Scotland for Covid relief – was funding for their Farewell project, which showed stags, selkies and various other tick-box tartanalia above Edinburgh landmarks, spectacularly picked out in lights created by what they claimed was the UK’s biggest ever drone display.

Underbelly’s public subsidy:

£800,000 Edinburgh Council
£584, 751 UK Govt Cultural Recovery Fund
£250,000 Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund
£200,000 Event Scotland
£175,000 Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund

Total = £2,009,751

The three videos were met with celebratory rapture online including fulsome endorsements from such a roster of luminaries as Tim Peake, Adam McVey, Ewan Gunn and Brian Ferguson – and a supine mainstream news media which contented itself with regurgitating the press release verbatim.

All well and good, I hear you say, a welcome ray of New Year hope for our plague-stricken masses.

On the contrary, this nostrum must be rejected and its perpetrators consigned to the voluntary sector with the rest of us.

The whole impudent farrago was a cynical exercise in crude digital fakery and faintly desperate social engineering using totemic national symbols to elicit positive emotions and short circuit any critical response.

Adam Curtis must be rubbing his hands.

Indeed, the BBC was an either unwitting or complicit cheerleader of Plunderbelly’s latest cash cow.

Both are culpable.

Of course, the videos blip-screened a disclaimer with the end credits, albeit rather opaquely worded after several moments of black.

Perhaps it seems petty to nit-pick technicalities in these benighted times, and most, but far from all media reports alluded to the post-production legerdemain, which was largely ignored in the self-congratulatory rush of Hogmanay bonhomie.

But even the most cursory investigation reveals the actual, quite modest shoot in the Highlands to be a digital Trojan Horse allowing the unscrupulous conspirators to concoct a clichéd but impressive Scot-lite phantasia over landmarks such as Edinburgh Castle, the Forth Bridges and even, incredibly, the Banana Flats.

For starters, the 150 drones that were alleged to have been used do not make the UK’s largest ever drone display – that honour would go to London’s New Year display the same night with some 300 aerial robots.

So more of a Trojan pony then.

More egregious still is the insult to our senses.

A rudimentary grasp of perspective and scale puts the lie to some of the more headline-grabbing images, such as this above the Castle.

As the first question marks emerged, the denials and obviously scripted affirmations became shriller and any pretence at realistic simulation was jettisoned for increasingly grandiose fictions.

You can keep counting after 150, answers on a postcard please…

Weasel words aside, the overall intent to mislead is depressingly clear.

The contempt this cheap carny hucksterism shows for us, their benefactors – that’s the tax-payer – is breath-taking.

Indeed, more established drone display companies in the States offer similar spectacles for less than $20,000.

So far, so Disney-add up.

For the aptly-named promoters at the heart of this sham – who have built their empire on unpaid labour and suspended their vampiric suckling of the public teat just long enough to foist this forgery on us – to use the Banana Flats as a backdrop for their fraudulent light show is tasteless.

But to focus on Underbelly’s Etonian pantomime villains Ed Bartlem and Charlie Wood, risks missing yet more serious implications.

Colonial adventurers and opportunist profiteers they may be, but one should be more incensed by the corruption this pitiful sham reveals at the heart of our cultural institutions.

The usual suspects, led by the Beeb and The Scotsman, appeared to connive at the tawdry deception. Basic journalistic standards were abandoned in favour of an ominous circle-jerk of regimented flag-waving. Most concerning of all is the collusion at the heart of government Holyrood’s own fake news advisory video reads like a checklist from a Farewell Hogmanay strategy meeting and ever eager to promote ‘Scotland the brand’, Scottish Minister of neoliberal culture, Fiona Hyslop, basked in the reflected glory of the event, irrespective of its authenticity.


“It doesnae matter if the drones wurnae real, it doesnae matter that the post production images cost as much as a fish supper, it doesnae matter that a couple o London chancers stuffed their pockets and paid their mates tae serve us live-streamed pre recorded mawkish Jock kitsch, it doesnae matter because aw that matterz is that Scotland is braw, ken!”

… but such disregard for truth in the cradle of the Scottish Enlightenment risks opening a Pandora’s Box.

You only need look to Washington in recent days to see the chaotic harvest of such a Faustian pact with the dark forces of irrationality.

Logical positivism and the scientific method have largely got us where we are now.

The world is melting but we can turn the lights on.

Just not these lights.

We deserve better.

Comments (29)

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  1. Derek says:

    Any better or worse than BBC-induced White Heather Club? Andy wossisname scarred my psyche for many dark winter years. As did comedic reverends. Piped fresh across the border to anyone who didn’t know better. It still goes on …

    1. Ninian Fergus says:

      Rikki Fulton and Andy Stewart were both hugely gifted performers, but of their time, especially Stewart. And they were loved by many Scots. But if I was an Edinburgh councillor, Underbelly would get my, or rather your, money. At least Princes Street Gardens don’t need to be completely replanted this year!

      1. Marga says:

        Weren’t Undetbelly also responsible for the wrecking of the Gardens last year?

        1. Graeme Purves says:

          They were indeed – aided and abetted by the City of Edinburgh Council and the National Galleries of Scotland, of which Benny Higgins, the Scottish Government’s adviser on post-pandemic recovery (and the Duke of Buccleuch’s feudal agent), is Chair.

  2. Derek says:

    I was minded to watch BBC England’s 10-minute fireworks and drones display. Very similar graphics so I presume that’s where some of the Westminster money went. Same production values 🙂 If Scotland got tartan kitch, England got a mind-numbing set of graphics and platitudes. Britannia keech.

  3. Wul says:

    I’d assumed that the £2 million for the Eton Uddersookers was just a retainer. A wee put-ye-by to allow them to stay at home and do feck-all until the next Festival Season when their unique talents ( unmatched by any person born and educated in Scotland) would again become essential.

    I’m actually shocked that they were expected to produce any kind of finished article in return.

    I enjoyed the wee films, but without the Makar’s words there was little of any worth in them. It did cross my mind whilst watching that I’ve seen more advanced Christmas light shows on the side of a suburban semi. 150 pixels is never going blow the mind.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    “Glamour or glamor may refer to:
    “Shapeshifting, a subtle illusion of mythological or fictional beings, used to hide their true form under a spell of beauty”
    I guess what’s underneath ain’t pretty.

  5. Graeme Purves says:

    Spot-on! Tragi-comedy on stilts.

  6. Squigglypen says:

    This is the start of the Still Better Together campaign ……We are One!…( Now look into my eyes..). Whit crap…Reminds me of Sher Khan bringing his paw crashing down on Kaa the snake (Tories) who was trying to bedazzle him…’I’ve no time for that sort of nonsense.’ Whack!
    Robert the Bruce went round all the castles that weren’t on his side .. emptied them and ‘disposed’ of any dissenters particularly if they were Sassenachs…. are we still allowed tae dae this….? in a kind and compassionate way sort of way of course….gies oor money back and get the hell oot oor country….

    What an excellent piece of investigative journalism…you’re hired!

  7. Colm mccloskey says:

    Well said Hugo and Bob- there’s a creeping nihilism abroad in this celebration of drone power, and the panoptical possibilities they present. (Drones, beloved by peeping toms and long distance military strategists – in 2017, michael Fallon, then defence minister was proposing v.c.’s for operatives in Lincolnshire, who were ‘taking out’ targets in Afghanistan with their big boy Playstations.)
    At least us here in the West were spared the dreaded national humiliation of this shortbread tin, deepfried mars bar spectacle being thrust upon us by entitled avaricious wide boys from down south. But we in Glasgow have had our own version of municipal nihilism when the Labour council was dead set on blowing up the Red road multistorey flats. Dr Bridget McConnell spoke of a spectacular opening ceremony for 2014 Commonwealth Games and Gordon Matheson, then lord provost, opined that Glasgow would wow the world. The asylum seekers living in the one tower to be preserved were to have a fantastic up close view of the intended carnage. The insanity only averted at the last moment by a huge public protest.
    Municipal nihilism is abroad in our lives. From the BBC’s One Show to Trump’s hordes cavorting up Capitol Hill.
    Like the old anarchist philosopher proclaimed, “the urge to destroy is also a creative urge.”

  8. Isa Bella says:

    Fine, I agree, but the piece is a sair read an aa. Eeech.

  9. Anne Forte says:

    Jerks from England making money out of Scotland (AKA ‘The Colony) by portraying us as uneducated jocks and Edinburgh council paying them to do it. Sickening.

  10. Davy Henderson says:

    I think it’s maybe, don’t moan, do it better (cheaper, more relevant, more Scottish, and etc) or STFU. It’s easy to complain, no? (and the main complaint seems to be, “We didn’t do it.”).

    1. Dale says:

      Do you really think anyone other than Underbelly were even offered the chance? I think you might have misread.

      1. Davy Henderson says:

        Aye well, I had another read, Dale, and I don’t see anyone else (another firm) being turned down. Was it reported elsewhere?

        My thinking is that Scots are famous for invention and innovation (for many things that have made Scots and Scotland famous over the centuries!). So, rather than snipe and complain, from the sidelines, why not put pressure on the various funders, and demand an open bidding for the next one?

        That way, if it fails, or rips off people (in various ways) we’ll just have _ourselves_ to blame.

      2. No other firm, no open tendering.

        1. Davy Henderson says:

          Hello Ed. Well, that’s the very first thing to change!

          1. I think the first thing to change is thinking about what these events are actually for.

          2. Davy Henderson says:

            In reply to the Editor, perhaps the first thing to question is what’s the actual point of such ‘events’.

            Without going into some ‘when I was a laddie’ riff, I used to go to the Tron for the bells. There, after a few drinks, I’d shake hands and kiss strangers. Nobody had the idea of a drone being anything other than part of bagpipes (although we did dream of the year to come).

            It was enough, it was plenty. Can the Underbelly genie be put back in its (upsetting English) bottle? Doubtful. Can we do our ‘own’? Of course! Should we? … Aye well (apart from saying that’s a lot of money that could maybe be spent more ‘wisely’) I’d say it’s for us – along with all these funders – to make that decision.

            But, I come back to my original comment(s) – if we go through that process, and someone else does it (maybe better?) don’t just sit on arses and complain. We’re better than that, or we should be.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Davy Henderson, you don’t appear to understand the concept of democracy. Or accountability. Or offering dissenting opinion. Or informed criticism.

          4. Davy Henderson says:

            Aye, if you say so, you’re right 😉

          5. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            @ Davy

            The actual point of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and events like them is commercial; it’s to attract visitors in large numbers so we can relieve them of their dosh. This is something we ARE doing for ourselves, through our public bodies; we do it by hiring events organisers like Underbelly to… well, organise those events. When it comes to attracting paying visitors to Edinburgh, spectacles like the Winter Festivals trump kissing them at the Tron at the bells big time. The Winter Festivals also directly provide business to some 600-odd local suppliers and some 800 staff.

            I don’t think the authors of this piece are complaining about this or that they’re not getting a piece of the action. I think they’re complaining about the image of ‘Scotland’ that such events project to the world (its ‘Disneyfication’, as it used to be called) and that the public investment would (arguably) be better spent on subsidising their (arguably) more authentically ‘Scottish’ productions.

          6. Niemand says:

            Trouble is, if the basis is commercial, then the stereotypes will out won’t they? Because they ‘sell’. Once the talk of Scotland ‘the brand’ is acceptable, then the rot has well and truly set in already. Personally, I find the way branding now trumps content in many aspects of our lives (to the point people now see their own identity as a brand), the triumph of the simulacrum, behind which there is essentially, nothing. ‘National identity’ can be little more than a voodoo mask that when finally ripped off, reveals a terrifying void.

            So the question is what should such a ‘display’ have in it then that isn’t actually depressing emptiness? Or perhaps the better question is, what is the point of any such display at all beyond the commercial?

          7. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Indeed, Niemand; these are the material conditions of the postmodern world.

            The above article assumes that there are two kinds of simulacra: the first, a faithful reproduction, which attempts to copy precisely the original or authentic ‘Scotland’; the second, a distortion of that reality. The idea behind this assumption is that there’s a ‘proper angle’ from which the true or authentic ‘Scotland’ can be seen.

            Against this assumption, Marxian theorists, like Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco, argue that a simulacrum is not a true-or-false copy of the real, but becomes the real in its own right: what they call the ‘hyperreal’.

            Where realists see two types of representation – faithful and distorted – hyperrealists like Baudrillard see only one: simulacra, which bear no relation to any reality whatsoever. There’s no ‘authentic’ Scotland or whatever, but only the simulacra that we generate as we live and work together to produce our means of subsistence. ‘Scotland’ is ultimately nothing but a creature of our contemporary relations of production.

            Gilles Deleuze, takes a slightly different view, seeing ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ or ‘authenticity’ as those simulacra that constitute an accepted ideal or ‘privileged position’ and countercultures as the avenues by which those privileges can be challenged and overturned through ongoing culture wars between competing simulacra.

            The whole Baudrillardian/Deleuzian historiography of truth/reality/authenticity is analogous to Thomas Kuhn’s earlier historiography of science, which views that history as a kind of perpetual culture war between competing paradigms; i.e. distinct sets thought patterns/behavioural dispositions, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field of enquiry.

            Perhaps what we’re seeing in the present dispute over Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is an episode in the culture war between competing simulacra that currently constitutes ‘Scotland’. And who knows where the dialectic of that competition will take us?

            Exciting times, as always!

        2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

          My understanding is that Underbelly tendered a successful bid for the contract to deliver the City of Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay in January 2017. It was a three-year contract, with the Council reserving the option to extend it for a further three years. Presumably, the Council has opted for the extension. I also presume the Council followed the Scottish government’s byzantine public procurement policy and legislation, which would have tied its hands in procuring Underbelly’s services. If you know otherwise, then the respective electorates should be told…

          I’d only add that the Scottish government’s public procurement policy and legislation are hugely expensive to implement and adds considerably to the cost of service provision. Still, it does provide employment for large bureaucracies of public servants. On the downside, the expense to bidders of submitting tenders, especially for such large-scale contracts, tends to discriminate in favour of the larger operators in the creative sector – like Underbelly. Smaller operators tend to be reliant on the subcontracts that flow from the main contracts the bigger boys win.

          1. This is correct. The only bit to add is that the contract was renewed in the face of extraordinary public opposition and outrage at the ruination of public assets and the repeated flouting of the most basic planning laws.

          2. Foghorn Leghorn says:

            Yep, the public sector is hardly the most agile and astute when it comes to procuring and managing service contracts. The whole system’s grossly bureaucratic, costly, and inefficient.

  11. May says:

    I have long been shocked at the amount of public money that an already commercial Edinburgh’s Hogmanay (run by a London-based commercial company) seems to receive for “so-called arts projects”. I wonder if the cultural sector in Scotland feel the benefit?
    For such a paltry project to receive over 2 million of funding whilst the country is in crisis and we are seeing the collapse of cultural organisations is a scandal. Congratulations to Hugo and Bob for spotting this. In my view an enquiry into the impact of public money used from “emergency” funds for a joke of a project like this is called for.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      Yep, the Scottish government could commission an enquiry into its own cultural policy. That would be more money well-spent. You’re getting the idea, May.

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