Every week, two young Scottish singers are paraded before the court of public opinion. Forced to stand in front a television audience of 10 million viewers, they are subjected to a torrent of ridicule and abuse so hurtful, they admit, that by the end of the night they are in tears.
According to one critic, their act is a mixture of "piss-weak crooning with an indefinable sense of creeping dread". It has been suggested the continued presence of Craig and Brian MacDonald in the third series of the phenomenally successful X Factor is part of some existential joke. Others say it is a jingoistic conspiracy designed to put one over the Sassenach foe, a grotesque manifestation of an underlying national inferiority complex. Or, they say, it is evidence that viewers, having overdosed on reality television for too long, have finally lost grip on their own reality.
More plaintively, one fan website demands to know simply: "Just how bad are the MacDonald Brothers?" And yet, when it comes down to it, the Great British public has refused to cave in to the demands of the taste police, repeatedly declining to vote off the earnest young men from Ayr and keeping them steadfastly in the competition.
The pair's chief tormentor is popular culture's very own Mr Nasty, Simon Cowell. He is already sharpening his knives in advance of tonight's show, where success could see them spring-boarded into the last four, from a starting line-up of 12 acts.
Once there, and according to the bookies this is the most likely outcome, they could well be scenting victory and a guaranteed Christmas No 1.
It could mean the 20-year-old former Royal Bank of Scotland teller and his 19-year-old brother, a former bed salesman, become internationally famous pop stars. Surely the world has gone mad? Surely it cannot be?
Of one thing there is no doubt, Cowell's vehement antipathy to the MacDonalds has touched a raw nerve in Scotland. He has sought to dispel allegations of racism by claiming to be half and then a quarter Scottish - a claim painstakingly checked out by newspapers who interviewed the Svengali's staunchly loyal mother as she recovered from a hip replacement operation at her home in Sussex.
True, Cowell didn't enamour himself to the voting public north of the border by declaring the MacDonalds' rendition of Abba's "Fernando" as "a very Scottish version". And, to make matters worse, he further inflamed passions by apparently deliberately confusing the boys' surname, calling them McDougall rather than MacDonald.
But, having berated the youngsters' musical efforts as "the worst I have ever heard in my life", he remains resolutely dismissive of the one-time Queen tribute act's chance of success, predicting it will not come to pass in a "billion years".
But the boys remain upbeat. "We don't care about the criticism we are getting from him. We are just going to get up there and sing for everybody who likes us," said Craig speaking by phone from the sanctuary of their X Factor home this week. "There's nothing to lose We are going to enjoy ourselves on stage," he added.
They also plan to enjoy themselves in the clubhouse of the Brunton Castle golf course tonight. The MacDonalds have been wooing the crowds at the club for the past three years. And it is here in the rolling South Carrick Hills, close to their home in Alloway, that their most fervent supporters can be found.
The club's owners, the McCann family and their five grown-up children have been casting upwards of 2,000 telephone votes a week on behalf of their star act. The brothers have also been able to rely on the support of the 300 club members and their families, as well as 22 members of staff.
Such is the interest that a couple celebrating their wedding tonight have asked the festivities be interrupted to show X Factor on the big screen television. The same thing happened last week during a 50th birthday party, explains managing director Michelle Edens. "I keep asking them if we are too wee for them now, but they assure me they will stay with us, though I'm hoping they will go on to bigger and better things," she said.
Mrs Edens says it pains her when the boys are criticised, particularly when they take the trouble to telephone her four-year-old son each week since going on the show. "I don't like to hear that," she said. " People have their opinions but we have seen them play live here for years. They can turn their hands to any instrument - guitar, piano, fiddle. Not a lot of people have that talent and they always sing in tune."
The MacDonalds have become undoubted heroes in their home town where during a recent break in filming they were mobbed by shoppers when they visited their mother, Margaret, who works as a store manager at the local Asda.
Mrs MacDonald has been her sons' most stalwart defender and has been travelling to London to see them perform each week, modelling a free outfit from her employer's clothing range, she points out.
At the height of the spat with Cowell she hit back, accusing him of taking a personal dislike to them. "If I was up there on stage, I'd give him what for. I think part of what Simon says is for TV but I also think he is a nasty man," she said.
She admitted it hurt to witness their ordeal but was proud of her boys who, she said, were "too polite" to answer back.
"It's upsetting for me as a mother to listen to Simon slating my boys. I have to sit there and listen to it. Simon can't get any dirt on them so he's resorted to slagging them off. He's gone too far - it's downright nasty and disgusting," she said.
The X Factor has turned into a family affair for the MacDonalds. The brothers have said they are determined to win in memory of their late grandmother Sadie Machendry, who saved up out of her pension to pay for their first accordion. She died before seeing them play live.
The boys' stepfather Jim, whose band the Linelle Trio won a place on Opportunity Knocks in the 1960s, has also been drafted in to defend the duo. When reports suggested the pair had attracted a sizeable gay following, he sought to scotch rumours over their sexuality. "They are not gay, although they don't have girlfriends at the moment. They're men's men who enjoy a pint and a game of football," he said.
Mr MacDonald is putting his faith in the public to recognise the brothers' true qualities. "They are very, very talented and quietly competitive. They aren't arrogant in any way but they are completely focused on their career. And after all, it doesn't matter what [the three judges] Simon, Sharon or even Louis thinks of them. It's the people who are voting that count and they seem to have won everyone else over," he said.
Another person who thinks the MacDonalds could have a future is Rick Fulton, showbusiness editor of Scotland's Daily Record, whose readers have been at the forefront of the debate over the MacDonalds.
He says it is easy for people to sneer. "Let's look at what is actually going on out there. They might not be everybody's cup of tea - music lovers might not like them and nor do some critics - but a lot of people do like them. There is a market for them. It may be the sort of people that buy records in supermarkets, who are looking for something between Daniel O'Donnell and Michael Ball. But who is to say what is good or bad music?"
Fulton also rejects allegations of parochialism by the voting public - pointing out that two Scottish performers have already exited the show.
Correspondents to the letters pages of the Daily Record have been split over whether the boys deserve their unconditional support. "Can anyone honestly say they would pay to see the Macdonald brothers?" asked Scott from Glasgow. "The X Factor is a talent show, so give an honest vote not a sympathy vote," he urged. However another urged "the whole of Scotland to get behind [them] ... Simon Cowell, you are so smug and cocky".
Columnists have also been divided with The Sun's Martel Maxwell admitting she was "cruising for a bruising" when she urged Scots to act with their heads, not with their hearts and vote off the MacDonalds.
However, Nick Weinberg of Ladbroke's concedes there is a definite regional bias in their support, at least when it comes to gambling on their success. "The majority of the money we have seen, 90 per cent of it that has gone on them to win, has come from Scotland," he said.
Although he does not believe this support will be enough to save them, offering long odds of 20-1 for them to ride out eventual winners.
The X-Factor has become big business, not least with the bookies where £4m in bets will be placed over the current series. The show, partly owned by Cowell's production company, replacedPop Idol in which he starred, though not before a legal spat with the rival impresario Simon Fuller.
Cowell's previous series elevated winner Shayne Ward to international stardom, and the format has been copied from Iceland to Kazakhstan. The show even received the unlikely backing of Gordon Brown, who name-checked it, along with Dragons' Den and The Apprentice, during a discussion on the value of ambition to the British economy. "I like it ... They show the value of aspiration, how anyone can achieve things," he said.
The X Factor certainly reveals the level of unmet ambition in Britain in terms of becoming a pop star. More than 100,000 people auditioned for the privilege of taking part in the present series, though only a handful will make it on to the screen, including some of the more bizarre and outlandish acts who didn't make it into the competition proper. It also reveals the willingness of people to judge or support them. Six million votes were cast in the final of the second series, with some supporters voting up to 500 to 600 times each for their favourite.
Yet there are those who remain critical of the format, claiming it is emblematic of a get-rich-quick, something for nothing, celebrity-obsessed culture. It is not a view shared by the MacDonalds. "This is the stepping stone to our dreams," said Brian recently. His brother Craig agrees. "Winning X Factor would mean the world. It's everything I have ever worked for."
The brothers successfully negotiated the auditions with "Don't Worry Baby" and "As Long as You Love Me", which saw them dubbed the "Scottish Beach Boys". They showcased the Beatles, the Bee Gees and the Scissor Sisters during the boot-camp phase and the Everly Brothers for the judges' house round.
In the studio they have performed Rod Stewart's "Sailing", the Commodores' "Three Times A Lady", as well as Abba's "Fernando" and Wet Wet Wet's "Love Is All Around". Tonight's theme will be film soundtracks, with the remaining five contestants getting advice from the pop opera stars Il Divo. It is now up to the public to decide.
"The X Factor" airs at 6.25pm tonight on ITV1.
'You cannot in a billion years win this competition'
'A mediocre, very Scottish version of "Fernando" with the worst guitar solo I have ever heard in my life'
'One of the most boring songs of all time ... utterly pointless. With respect, it's a sympathy vote'
'They're not winning me over. It's getting beyond a joke . It's almost as if the more I
criticise them the more people vote for them'Reuse content