Think of Scotland and what comes to mind? Haggis? Sure. Highland Cows? Yes. Tartan? Inevitably. 

Tied-in with these motifs is a visual aesthetic that’s about as far from contemporary as you can imagine. ‘Brand Scotland’ trades on tradition to an extent that rivals any country. History is the idea that powers highland Scotland’s multi-billion pound tourist industry. 

Over 3.4 million foreign tourists visit Scotland every year to sample the mystique of The Highlands. For years this has been sold through a tired display of tradition, repackaged in antiquated hotels, through tourist tat shops, and on the labels of whisky bottles.

But it’s an image that is far removed from the lived experience of most Scots. With a generation who have grown up with a more cosmopolitan, connected mindset, a tide of change has begun, and the image of Scotland is being challenged. It’s a movement that can (and often is) be mirrored in nations globally.

Many famous 5-star hotels – think Gleneagles – remain enthral to the bagpipe and tartan discourse. Yet newer, more boutique, establishments are showing that there’s room for a refined, modern, clean version of national identity, whilst still being unashamedly rural and Scottish.

Leading this charge are a host of businesses. Whilst growing up independently, they’re joined in their vision and approach. 

Guardswell Farm sits between Perth and Dundee. While their website shows roaring fires, Fair Isle knits and Land Rovers, it’s executed minimally; tastefully. 

A little to the West, Ballintaggart Farm offers communal feasts, wedding catering and cooking classes, all proudly overlooking the Tay valley. Stags, grouse, and stone circles are all found locally, yet this renovated farmhouse retreat has a visual identity built from icons and clean lines. A smart, sans-serif typeface adorns the menus, the logo is a reduced frame of a building, and there’s precious little embellishment. 

A touch of the Scandinavian design can be recognised here; there’s no doubt that Nordic chic has had an influence. There’s a softness to the grey tones, and dreamy photography that still says ‘countryside’ but it’s shaken off the shackles of fuss that usually comes with this territory. 

Such places may not be operating at a scale to attract coach trips, but by all accounts there are plenty of Scots who want to travel in their own country, and buy into this aspirational vision of their homeland.

In nearby Dunkeld, a popular coach-trip stop off, lines of tourists cross the Tay Bridge, gaze at the Birnam Oak, or visit the Cathedral. They’re treated to more iterations of this new vision of Scotland. Café Nova Botanics, Aran Bakery, or their sister shop, Lon all revel in clean lines, minimal touches of colour – and no mention of Macbeth. These places stock locally-sourced products, yet eschew the chintz to be found at places such as The House of Bruar, a gaudy tourist-trap twenty miles further north.

An appreciation of white space, clear typography, and minimal design, runs throughout these brands. One could ask if there’s enough substance in these designs to build into a new discourse, and perhaps that’s where elements such as stags and kilts do play a part. They build a story – which is subsequently sold on through media such as Braveheart, Brave, or Outlander.

It’s not hard to see a direct influence emanating from places such as D2C branding, and technology motifs. And of course, much of the way these brands are communicated is through the very social media platforms where these visual styles germinated.  

As with any industry, visitors to these places are looking to establish their taste through the way they consume. By drinking Isle of Raasay whisky, Wasted Degrees beer, or Apple cider, they show that they are discerning, and classy. Expressing yourself via a visit to Guardswell or Aran Bakery is to show you’re a cosmopolitan Scot.

Scotland isn’t alone in this phenomenon. Switzerland, for example, suffered a similar curse of tradition dominating experiences – with Highland cows replaced by alpine meadow cows, castles swapped for chalets, and the bagpipes substituted for the Alpine horn. And like Scotland, younger, design-led entrepreneurs began businesses, such as Brücke 49 hotel or Chopfab beer have begun to emerge.

It’s important that places do retain some uniqueness, some identity that can only belong to them. No-one wants to fall into the trap of a globalised, monocultured aesthetic. This groundswell of design-led rural experiences is proof that contemporary design can be applied in traditional settings, and that tradition itself isn’t immune to challenge.

Rural brands around the world can take inspiration from this approach, and give their own spin on the new rural aesthetic. By combining the contemporary and the traditional with confidence, they can build new, authentic versions of national identity.

Cover image source: Connor Mollison