The rise and rise of Scottish Twitter
Leith Content Strategist George Gunn charts the history, and analyses the success, of Scotland’s finest modern export.
The Festival Fringe is a weird one for Edinburgh residents. On the one hand, we’re treated to the world’s largest celebration of arts and culture on our doorstep. Thousands of performers cram into every available hall, public square, cafe, underground vault or whatever else they can find. Theatre, comedy, dance, circus, cabaret, music, spoken word — you name it, it’s here; with the city providing a launchpad for many successful careers.
It’s also a nightmare. The bursting city centre is effectively shut down for a month, earnest Oxbridge students pester us with flyers, and my daily commute has been reduced to a painful crawl (Festival visitors: please have your fares ready before boarding the bus, ffs). Although comedians from all over the world come here hoping to catch their big break, it’s while flicking though Twitter on my delayed commutes that I’ve been consistently getting my biggest laughs of the month. And most of these are from a homegrown, more grassroots source: Scottish Twitter.
And now as Edinburgh prepares to wave goodbye to / flick a few Vs at the departing Festival this weekend, Twitter UK have only gone and launched the Scottish Twitter Visitor Centre in the capital. They’ve also picked a winner, with a panel of Scottish comedians crowning the following @marcsimps0n effort as “Scotland’s funniest tweet”:
A strong choice, though Scottish Twitter connoisseurs will probably find themselves agreeing that it’s not reflective of the wider oeuvre. It’s certainly a Festival-friendly option (and one that can be safely displayed as an outdoor ad at a train station without causing offence). For the uninitiated, the best advice is just to get fired in. Scottish Tweets, one of a handful of Scottish Twitter aggregators, compiled a greatest hits towards the end of last year, while there’s a handy compilation over on Tumblr too.
Since no one else seems to have done it (and as it’s also my job to understand why certain things take off online), I’ve charted the key moments in Scottish Twitter’s development so far — before attempting to demonstrate why it’s become such a phenomenon, both in Scotland and internationally.
A note on terminology: I refer to “Scottish Twitter”, but this does occasionally include content originating from other platforms — particularly Snapchat, YouTube and Instagram Stories. It all ends up on Twitter eh.
— DECEMBER 2011 —
Although existing in nascent and sporadic form before this (special mentions to drweetabix and “Ah Hate Iceland”), another extreme weather event at the end of 2011 represented a truly seminal moment for Scottish Twitter. I am, of course, referring to Hurricane Bawbag. Sent home from work and trapped inside, the nation turned to social media for updates (and subsequent amusement once it became clear there was nothing to really worry about).
Cyclone Friedhelm’s unofficial-but-infinitely-more-catchy name trended worldwide, and was even used by a handful of unwitting TV and radio presenters. Despite not including the #hurricanebawbag hashtag, then Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave a knowing nod to events the following day:
And, of course, we were treated to that trampoline video.
Scottish Twitter had arrived.
— SEPTEMBER 2012 (ONWARDS) —
“It was something my friend and fellow Scottish writer John Niven got into doing between us for laughs,” Irvine Welsh explained to the New York Times. “Tennis commentary is generally pretty dull. Ours is grounded in the compelling perversity that the cuisine, climate and class structure of Scotland can produce a tennis champion like Murray.”
The man who introduced many to written Scots through his novels can be credited for doing much the same in a digital arena. Brilliantly fusing the stuffy universe of the All England Club with that of dodgy Leith boozers, Scottish Twitter is unceremoniously volleyed from its PG friendly early days to the outrageous, anything-goes version that still exists.
— 2013 (YEAR-ROUND) —
Plugging away since the mid noughties, Brian Limond found his niche and perfected his ‘nightmarish nonsense’ through Vine’s 6-second loops. These days, Limmy’s best known for his droll dead celebrity tributes, parodying of cancellation culture and Twitch streaming. A Scottish Twitter giant.
— AUGUST 2013 —
Apparently the family lives around the corner from me. An undisputed classic of the genre and, importantly, an addition to the anthology that gained equal traction across the pond. Which leads us to…
— AUGUST 2015 —
“35 Reasons Scottish Twitter Is The Wildest Place On The Internet”. BuzzFeed latch on to Scottish Twitter with the first of many listicles, disseminating it to the masses worldwide.
— OCTOBER 2015 —
r/ScottishPeopleTwitter is founded shortly after and goes on to become one of the most popular subreddits, with over half a million members. Frequented largely by bemused / fascinated Americans attempting to decipher Scots dialect and, at the same time, realising their whimsical perceptions of Caledonia are one hundred years out of date (and nowhere near as glamorous).
— JUNE 2016 —
“Mangled apricot hellbeast”
Trump’s 2016 visit to Scotland (and specifically his misinformed comments on Scotland’s EU referendum stance) conjured some wonderfully inventive online ripostes from his less-than-welcoming hosts. Comedian Janey Godley was slightly more no-nonsense. Scottish Twitter hits the mainstream as news and media outlets around the world report the humiliating reception.
— AUGUST 2018 —
Scottish Twitter goes meta, using a still of the Scottish character Merida from Ralph Breaks the Internet as a template for re-hashing its greatest hits. A similar format sees Milk Edinburgh get the treatment soon after.
— JULY 2019 —
Lewis Capaldi’s daft online antics help elevate the 22-year-old to genuine real-world superstardom, with his debut album achieving gold status after just two days. The singer’s public tit-for-tat with Noel Gallagher delights existing fans as well as bringing onboard those who ‘don’t like his music, but would have a pint with the boy!’
— AUGUST 2019 —
Twitter UK launch the Scottish Twitter Visitor Centre in Edinburgh and temporarily rebrand their account as #ScottishTwitter Visitor Centre.
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We’ve seen how it developed, but how can Scottish Twitter’s digital, and now physical, success be explained? I recently did a joint study on what makes things shareable, which might be able to shine some light on this:
1. Psychological response
“Anything that’s highly emotional […] will get shared more.”
That’s the view of science of sharing expert Karen Nelson-Field, with Shareablee also concluding that emotion is the main reason why things catch on online. Intense and positive emotions — including exhilaration, amusement and delight — are the most effective at doing this. I think we can all agree the best Scottish tweets tick this box and then some.
2. Social motivation
Put simply, humans seek validation — with young people (young men in particular) wanting to appear funny above anything else. Writing and circulating Scottish tweets therefore allows people to showcase and reinforce their (online) identities, or personas, in this way.
But looking funny isn’t the only relevant motivator. In her excellent July 2019 article for The Face, Eve Livingston suggests there’s a nationalistic element also at play - with social media giving young Scots a unique platform to express their authentic voice:
“The role Twitter can play in constructing and communicating identity might also be central to Scottish Twitter, particularly for a country with a strong sense of collective culture but a complex and somewhat unique position as a nation within a nation — and one still grappling with existential questions about its own place and identity.”
As well as being able to relate to the kind of stories, scenarios and themes that crop up, many young Scots are seeing the way they speak properly represented — and celebrated — for the first time. As Glasgow-based linguists E Jamieson and Sadie Ryan explain, Scottish Twitter is helping various Scots dialects stay alive and flourish as a result.
For non-Scots speakers and international fans, engaging with Scottish Twitter implies some kind of insider knowledge — of being ‘in-the-know’. There’s a dual appeal here: deciphering the dialect is all part of the fun for non-Scots, while natives take pride in their language and culture being appreciated:
3. Breaking the mould
Twisting a familiar format in an original, surprising or unexpected way helps to grab interest. Funny Scots tweets not only stand out in amongst the junk filling up our timelines, but they provide a light-hearted respite too.
As a bonus, any social media content that holds our attention for longer than a cursory glance will typically deepen engagement. For non-Scots trying to work out what’s being said, Scottish Twitter does just this.
4. Social proof
Finally, as Scottish Twitter has now “become a thing” (and is recognised as such), more and more people are jumping onboard — both in terms of creating original content and sharing it — simply because they observe so many others doing the same.
This last point is important. Because — putting the analysis to one side for a moment — there’s something undeniably raw and audacious about Scottish Twitter at its best. A large part of its appeal comes from its subversion of social media and how we’re expected to use these platforms. The danger now is that it starts to become contrived or watered-down.
Let’s hope that Scottish Twitter’s da getting in on the act, and its parading of tweets, doesn’t curb this fearlessness and authenticity.