The myth of the ‘trustworthy’ Scottish accent

8 September 2018

9:00 AM

8 September 2018

9:00 AM

There was once a belief that for TV and radio commercials, a Scottish voice was more ‘trustworthy’. This was particularly the case for financial services ads. It was, however, a belief entirely without foundation. ‘We made it up,’ a banking executive once told me. ‘We’d moved our call centres up to Scotland, so we decided to use Scottish voices on our adverts.’

The ‘trustworthy Scot’ myth quickly gained currency. From the late 1990s onwards, you could hardly turn on the radio or television without hearing a Scottish voice telling you about mortgages, loans, terms and conditions. Soon the demand for Scottish voices moved beyond the financial sector: they began advertising everything from mobile phones to DFS sofas.

Then things began to unravel, starting with Gordon Brown. His spectacular mishandling of the UK economy put a large dent in the Scots’ reputation for fiscal probity. Further damage was sustained as financial scandals engulfed RBS and HBOS, Scotland’s two biggest banks. The charges of corruption and mismanagement were so serious that HBOS manager Lynden Scourfield was sentenced to 11 years in jail and the CEO of RBS — Paisley’s own Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin — was stripped of his knighthood.

Still, Scottish voiceovers remained on air. After all, Gordon Brown and Fred the Shred were hardly representative of the wider Scottish populace.

Then came the independence referendum. For the first time, English advertisers, who’d always championed the use of Scottish voices in their commercials, heard a lot of Scottish people saying quite unkind things about England. Even though the nationalists lost the vote, they were the more voluble side, so the die was cast. It’s only got worse with Nicola Sturgeon’s sour stewardship of the SNP.

Last month, a further nail was hammered into the Scottish coffin with reports that Alex Salmond, whose entire political career has been predicated on his ‘Professional Scotsman’ persona, is facing claims of sexual misconduct.

It is the recent World Cup, however, that may have done the most damage. As England progressed to the semi-finals, many Scottish fans refused to support them. In fact, they took pride in supporting anyone but England. To the English advertiser, a Scottish voice now sounded more treacherous than trustworthy. News International, BT, Guinness and the Co-op are among those who appear to have dropped Scottish voices from their advertising.

Of course, they won’t admit to losing faith in the Scottish burr. They’ll say, quite truthfully, that the greatest population density is in the south-east, so it makes commercial sense to use voices from this region. They’ll also acknowledge that, with an ever-increasing number of listeners whose first language is not English, a neutral south-east accent — somewhere between Danny Dyer and A.N. Wilson — is the most accessible and easily understood.

Scottish voiceovers, however, will still thrive; because of talent, not accent. Good voices, clear diction and impeccable timing will never fall out of favour. As a radio producer, I can honestly say that David Tennant, Lewis MacLeod and Aline Mowat rank among the finest voice artists I have ever worked with. But Scottish accents are not — and never have been — any more or less trustworthy than those of other Britons. Claiming otherwise was a cynical falsehood — and to quote that proud Scotsman, Sir Walter Scott: ‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave/ When first we practise to deceive.’

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