‘Have you ever seen Outlander? I recently watched the first few episodes and it’s essentially like the tourist body for Scotland got together with Mills and Boon to create something that would irresistibly draw middle-aged women and their disposable income to Scotland. The plot is essentially as follows: English woman falls two centuries backwards in time and, completely by chance of course, ends up romantically entangled with an unfeasibly handsome (not to mention unfeasibly clean for the period) Scottish man who has a sporran-load of ruggedness, mystery and emotional turmoil.
Almost every single scene features either breath-taking views over wild Scottish landscapes or a vast quantity of nudity – and frequently both. It’s hard not to surrender to the romantic view of Scotland, and not just because of all the pretty naked people. No matter whether you grew up thinking that Monarch of the Glen was an important artwork or an enjoyable excuse to spend Sunday night in front of the TV, there’s something undeniably compelling about the barbarous country north of the border. (Apologies, Scottish readers, but at least I haven’t made any Irn Bru jokes yet…)
Take the Isle of Islay for example. Shaped like a hunchbacked witch staring into the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean, it is a place that millions of people dream about visiting. Being something of a whisky fanatic, I’ve always assumed that this was entirely due to the fact that this small island is home to some of the world’s most famous distilleries – Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Bowmore, to name but a few.
But it appears I was wrong. People are not dreaming about gazing upon the magnificent stills in which the hallowed uisge beatha is forged from grain and water and fire – see, you can’t even talk about Scotland without becoming overdramatic – but rather they long to travel to that sacred place to hunt its most notorious quarry. The Islay goat.
Don’t get me wrong, I love goats. They’re very tasty, for one thing. But they don’t quite fit the picture of an animal that you’d travel thousands of miles, and spend hundreds of pounds, to stalk for several days. I think that it’s due to the lack of romanticism: compared to the prospect of a majestic stag, or lion, or elephant, they fail to inspire a frisson of excitement. (Give some handsome goats a role in Outlander, however, and it might soon be a different story…)
It’s for this reason that I couldn’t help but giggle when I first read about Larysa Switlyk, who is now forever branded with the title ‘The Goat Hunter of Islay’. Who would have thought that the story of her two-day goat hunting trip on Islay would generate almost as much coverage as the story of Cecil the Lion? And who would have thought that people would be quite so outraged about the legal culling of a non-native animal that no one particularly considers cute, if they consider it at all? I couldn’t, of course, keep laughing for long.
The reason that Switlyk generated so much controversy was because she posted photographs on her social media accounts – accounts which are chiefly designed to promote the American huntress and the ‘merch’ available on her website – of her wearing camouflage and posing with the dead goat. Predictably, this caused a storm of indignant, outraged comments, including by Scottish MPs, which was gold dust for the press. Headlines like “Law to be reviewed after outrage at Islay wild goat shoot” soon started appearing above articles that also included Switlyk’s social media account details, which predictably fuelled the number of hate-filled messages and death threats she received. So much for a responsible press…
Furthermore, a trawl through the coverage highlighted the uncomfortable truth that not only was the story big because the ‘psychotic American hunter devastates beloved local wildlife’ story is so much in vogue these days, but it was particularly vicious because the psycho had breasts. So much of the way that the articles were written, emphasising social media outrage rather than the fact it was a legal cull that brought money into the local economy, read like a justification of the violent thoughts that thousands of people were publicly expressing towards this woman.
From our perspective, however, it wasn’t the incoherent howls of outrage that did the most damage, it was a tweet by Nicola Sturgeon that was – understandably – widely reported: “Totally understandable why the images from Islay of dead animals being held up as trophies is so upsetting and offensive to people. @scotgov will… consider whether changes to the law are required.”
It doesn’t matter than in separate statement Sturgeon also said that: “Responsible culling of animals is a necessary part of sustainable land management and the culling of some wild animals, including deer and goats, is not illegal.” (Although the choice of ‘not illegal’ wasn’t helpful. ‘Not illegal’ doesn’t assure people that something is legal, rather it creates the suggestion culling goats is either a dubious grey area or on the verge of becoming illegal now the practice has come to light. You’d think politicians would be good with words…) All that matters is that Sturgeon, in what can only be seen as a vote-seeking move, seemed to be condoning the outrage by promising to act on it – even though we can hope that ‘consider’ means stare out of the window for two minutes and then move on.
The problem caused by this is best illustrated by a satirical piece in the National (the publication for an independent Scotland, in case you were wondering) entitled ‘Why the goat hunter of Islay has done us all a favour’, which incidentally started by describing Switlyk as a type of animal and included the words: “While there are other species native to the UK that kill for sport rather than for food, this one can be easily distinguished from them by its black-rimmed eyes, small brain and inexplicably popular Instagram account.”
“Perhaps Switlyk has actually done us a favour,” it continued. “Up until now there hasn’t been a huge pushback against the hunting industry in Scotland, with the debate usually shut down by the assertion that it is worth £155 million a year to the economy….But Nicola Sturgeon has added her voice to those condemning the ‘upsetting and offensive’ images shared by Switlyk this week…”
Ignoring the fact that Sturgeon didn’t actively condemn the pictures, the piece does make the worrying point that, in this widely reported issue, the shooting industry is represented by pictures of a brash American (whatever you think of Switlyk’s posts, you have to admit her choice of language was insensitive), while reactionaries with little understanding of the realities of the situation are seen as having the backing of the government.
Unfortunately for us it seems that with this issue, much like any post on social media, the context and nuances behind a single image will be ignored by the masses and, again like any post on social media, it may well come back to haunt us in the future. ‘