David Beckham's Haig Club whisky is exactly what’s wrong with the Highlands

Vast swathes of the place I come from are little more than a playground for the rich

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The Independent Online

Last seen running around LA in his pants, David Beckham has returned to our screens in another collaboration with director Guy Ritchie. The occasion? He’s only gone and launched his own single grain Scotch, produced by Diageo and aimed at those “who don't think they like whisky”, but are presumably a sucker for a celebrity endorsement.

Beckham is, of course, a master of this game and his Haig Club whisky - packaged in what resembles an oversized, blue-tinted perfume bottle - is no different. The accompanying advert has been slickly directed by Guy Ritchie, and follows Becks and his attractive companions as they journey to the Scottish Highlands. With each of them soaring through the glens via Aston Martin, vintage motorcycle, Land Rover or seaplane, they arrive at their plush Highland getaway just in time for a wee dram and a group photo on the banks of Loch Affric.

In a minute and a half of glamorous gallivanting, the advert manages to capture much of what’s wrong with the Highlands. It may be 200 years since the dark days of the Clearances, when tenant farmers were forcibly evicted by an aristocracy set on replacing them with sheep, but patterns of land ownership remain much the same. Indeed, Scotland has been described as having the least equitable distribution of land in the developed world, a feudal hangover which means that just 432 people own half of all private land.

Because of this, vast swathes of the Highlands act as little more than a playground for the very richest, where absentee landowners fly in at the weekends to stalk deer, drink whisky and prance about in tartan and Hunter wellies. Many come from noble stock, the same families who’ve owned land for centuries, while others - City bankers and Emirati billionaires - are more contemporary additions to Scotland’s landowning elite.  The pages of high society bible Tatler recently saw Scotland’s aristocrats, both old and new,  fretting about the outcome of the independence referendum. “The big landowners are nervous”, it concluded, having detailed their concerns about Salmond imposing a “mansion tax” and the prospect of more rigorous land reform.

Whether the intention of Ritchie and Beckham’s whisky commercial is to lionise this culture or not, it’s difficult to remove it from this context. From their method of arrival to sartorial get-up - all Barbour jackets and deerstalker caps  -  it gives off the impression of a bunch of affluent urban types, full of romantic notions about the area, on a weekend jolly to play at being landed gentry. Such “authentic” Highland experiences are very much available, if you’re willing to pay. The Glen Affric Lodge, at which the advert culminates, is about 30 miles from Inverness and offers up a full range of rural exploits to its self-described “ultra-luxe” visitors. A Highland theme park for aspiring aristos, guests can sample everything from game shooting to pony riding, whisky tasting and trout fishing, with the eight bedroomed Lodge coming in at a mere £6000 a night.

 

The Glen Affric estate itself was purchased in 2008 by the Matthews family, owners of the exclusive Eden Rock hotel in the Caribbean and the parents of Made in Chelsea professional posh boy Spencer Matthews. But then that’s the reality of land ownership in northern Scotland: it’s a commodity traded between the super-rich, a status symbol to impress friends at dinner parties with. The Highlands as a place where people live and work - like the island I grew up on, with its endemic crisis of affordable housing - is a secondary concern, if it factors in at all. Beckham’s ad campaign is simply a reflection of the centuries-old mantra that the Highlands are for the elites and, as they would have it, long may it remain that way. Slàinte!

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