Ever since, Scotland have cultivated and perfected the art of failure, but amid all the disappointments, setbacks and low points, the Tartan Army has stood tall.
For 90 minutes, Scotland all but matched Brazil. Yes, captain Colin Hendry and his defence struggled to contain the fabulous wizardry of Ronaldo and the South American attack, but that was irrelevant to the thousands of Scotland fans that day. A competitive team represented the nation well and so did the fans. On the eve of the curtain raiser of the 1998 World Cup, thousands of Tartan Army foot soldiers had swept through the French capital, staging a massive open-air party. Some had sailed up the Seine by boat.
Did they realize then that it was to be Scotland’s last major finals for 22 years? “I have travelled in hope ever since,” says Harry Cathcart, at 79 a member of the “buss pass” Tartan Army.
France 98 stands as an iconic and nostalgic tournament for Scotland supporters. It was a summer of badinage, merry-making and impromptu Rod Stewart performances. Gordon Laing, a friend of Cathcart, recalls he drove to the Scotland basecamp in Saint Remy, met the prince and princess of Luxembourg and invaded Saint-Etienne with at least 20,000 other foot soldiers for the Norway game. Of course, the campaign ended in a manner that has become all too familiar for Scotland fans in the past decades: with heartbreak, following a deflating 3-0 defeat against Morocco.
Ever since, Scotland have cultivated and perfected the art of failure, but amid all the disappointments, setbacks and low points, the Tartan Army has stood tall, battered and bruised, but unyielding. Cathcart first travelled with Scotland for the 1974 World Cup to watch his team take on world champions Brazil, Yugoslavia and Zaire. Air travel was still expensive, but at times the Scots that did cross over were less reputable: they were rowdy, hot-headed and intoxicated. Their demeanour perhaps reflected the social upheaval at home after the collapse of the country’s heavy industries, leading to more nationalism and an even bigger inferiority complex.
“The Tartan Army really took off when cheap flights arrived,” explains Cathcart, former CFO of whisky behemoth Gordon & MacPhail. “It meant that the working chap could afford to make a trip. You had your Estonias and Georgias as well, there was the curiosity factor. They started to get excited about three days of fun and 90 minutes of hell.”
Cathcart doesn’t exaggerate. The Hampden Roar is famous and at times Scotland fans outnumber the home support at away games – Lithuania in 2010 a case in point, but that loyalty was often rewarded with the team’s talent for meek capitulation, something quintessential to the Scotland experience.
In 2009, Laing, a giant and generous man, travelled as far as Yokohama to see Scotland succumb to a last-minute winner from Keisuke Honda in a friendly he describes as ‘crap’. Even so, the camaraderie, the cultural exchange and the occasional whisky or two in excess have prevailed. Cathcart, a ‘Laird’ who strolls into pubs with aplomb and an infectious joie de vivre, is not innocent either, he socialised with Moldavian police, gate-crashed a wedding in Poland and danced the night away in many a European capital. Roving kilt-wearing football fans, downing beers and liquors in copious amounts, are not a conventional benchmark for civic order, but the Tartan Army prides itself on demonstrating an ambassadorial nationalism.
The travels channel nation-building. Wherever the Tartan Army go, kilts, sporrans and bonnets, often decorated with a pheasant feather and match pins, dominate. There is a sense of Scottishness and bravado with fans draped in the blue St. Andrew’s cross or the red and yellow Lion Rampant. The ugly sectarianism that divides Glasgow and the domestic game is absent. “Celtic see themselves as Irish and Rangers see themselves as unionist,” explains Cathcart. “They believe in the union jack. They don’t support Scotland. A lot of Scotland fans are nationalists.”
Before the first referendum in 2014, some flags for independence went up on an away trip to Slovenia. Ultimately, 55 percent of Scots said no to a ‘Scexit’, ceding from London, but the United Kingdom breaking away from the EU and the political ineptness of Boris Johnson have fuelled the prospects of Scotland achieving independence in the future. “Expect to probably see a few flags at Wembley,” adds Laing.
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In London, he will be among the 2,600 Scottish fans for the highly-anticipated clash, which will also symbolise the differences in fan culture. In recent weeks, ‘supporters’ of England have booed their players taking the knee. Who do these fans then precisely support apart from an intolerant, racist and ignorant nation? “English fans have such a terrible reputation and Scotland are playing on that by saying we are the opposite,” says Cathcart, who was at Wembley in 1977 and claims to have a piece of the pitch in his garden.
Through the Tartan Army Children’s Charity and the Sunshine Appeal, Scotland supporters have long lent their voice and generosity to social projects everywhere. For years Jim Hart, a retired and soft-spoken geologist from Clydebank, spearheaded campaigns to raise money. In Georgia, a visit to a desolate hospital for premature babies, often with jaundice, led him to take up the charitable work. The Tartan Army donated incubators to prevent two babies from having to share a single one. “There was, in particular at the time in those developing countries, a need for additional support that wasn’t provided by the local authorities,” says Hart.
He walked 26 miles in the first Tartan Army kilt walk in 2010 from Hampden Park to Loch Lomond and organised the Speyside kilt walk near his home with 500 foot soldiers raising around 150,000 pounds. The success of the walks allowed for sizable away donations. In Macedonia, homeless Roma children benefitted; in the Czech Republic and Kazakhstan autistic children.
In 2019, Hart retired from the Tartan Army after two decades of unwavering support. Hart and other Scotland fans are sanguine about the team’s chances at Euro 2020. In Group D, reaching the second round shouldn’t be impossible, but whatever the outcome, the Tartan Army will bring a romance to the tournament that no other fan group can match.