Capital ideas

A screen capture from the official Oban website
In Glasgow this past week, I had occasion to take the subway and was intrigued by a billboard advert for “Oban – seafood capital of Scotland”.  With bright colours, the backdrop to the advert was a picture of the harbour around Oban, the sky suspiciously blue and creating the impression that this was some Mediterranean paradise rather than the usually wet ferry port that it is.

MacCaig's Folly

Not that I dislike Oban.  It’s a very pretty place, with a dramatic hillside setting around the bay, an impressive folly at the top of the hill (left), a characterful town centre and lovely views out to the islands of the inner Hebrides.  It boasts two shinty clubs, two cathedrals, a distillery, direct rail access to Glasgow, and some quaint yet grand buildings on the harbour front.  It is significantly nicer than its drab neighbour and rival to the north, Fort William, and an excellent base for exploring Scotland’s west coast.  Not bad for a town of just a few thousand.

“Seafood capital of Scotland”, though?  That’s a new one on me, and – having sussed it out on the internet – it seems it’s an entirely self-appointed label given by companies in the town involved in the seafood industry.  Now I’m not an expert on the seafood industry, and indeed strongly dislike seafood (I never eat any food that goes “crunch-squelch”).  But the idea of having a “seafood capital of Scotland” is disingenuous in many ways.

First, it’s a title Oban invented and gave itself. Dreamt up by prestige-hungry local councillors and business leaders, and no doubt advised by fad-obsessed branding consultants, it is tourist marketing at its most vacuous.  Where was the competition, or the neutral organisers?  Those are details Oban didn’t care about – it just invented a the brand and declared itself the winner.

Second, it of course implies that Oban is the best place to get seafood.  That’s an entirely subjective statement, given the plethora of excellent seafood restaurants around Scotland, many of whom would take umbridge at Oban awarding itself this accolade.

Third, why can’t Oban just be good at something and be known for it without a title?  Why artificially claim a title that suggests the product can’t stand on its own reputation?  If Oban truly is an amazing place for seafood, then word will get out.  People will talk about it.  The title might even be created naturally by the chatter of tourist guides and restaurant critics.  If the world united to declare Oban the seafood capital of Scotland, fair enough – but remember this was Oban’s arrogant and ultimately counter-productive self-anointment.

Fourth, what about the other stuff it’s good at?  When you think about the key features of Oban – see my second paragraph – you think of plenty other things besides seafood.  So why focus on one strength and one potential market at the exclusion of all others?  I wonder how the rest of the local economy in Oban feels now that they’ve been sidelined in the town’s branding at the expense of one particular industry.

And then there’s the wider point: it’s not just Oban.

Sometimes, it feels like every town and city wants to be a capital.

Aberdeen: Oil Capital of Europe.  Inverness: Capital of the Highlands.  Fort William: Outdoor Capital of the UK.

And by far and away my favourite, Stoke-on-Trent: The World Capital of Ceramics.  Not England or the UK’s Ceramics Capital.  The World’s.  Quake at the mention of Stoke-on-Trent, puny humans, and thank your lucky stars that wars aren’t fought with pottery weapons.  Because if they were, then I for one would welcome our new clay-wielding Stoke-on-Trent overlords.

What’s wrong with being a known important centre of something?  Why can’t a town simply be famous for certain things, and attractive in the broadest sense to visit?  Why does it have to misuse the word “capital” and claim a title that never existed before and was awarded by no proper authority?  Frankly, unless you have a legislative, judicial or executive base, then you can’t claim to be a capital.  Any other claim to be a capital is spurious and most of these examples just take the biscuit.  And yes, there’s probably a Biscuit Capital of the UK.

In fact, if you’ll excuse the diversion, I’ve just typed “biscuit capital of” into Google, and I’ve discovered that there are a couple of claims to be Biscuit Capital of the World (including Natchez, Mississippi), one claim to be Biscuit Capital of India, and, most amusingly, a claim to be Biscuit Capital of the Australian state of Victoria (that’s the town of Donald, fact fans).  Is there really so little going on in these places culturally and economically that they need to scramble desperately for such pathetic titles?

And if this trend continues, will there be anywhere in the world that isn’t a capital?  Just imagine this dystopian, capital-obsessed future.  There could be marketing campaigns for Dores as “Capital of South Loch Ness”.  Or maybe Grangemouth: “Oil Refinery Capital of Scotland“. And how about Eoligarry: “Capital of North Barra“? There’ll be a mad scramble as every town, village or settlement rushes to declare itself capital of something, even if it has to be capital of itself.

I think we should do a deal with these places.  If a city or town wants to arbitrarily claim a “capital” title, then we, the unwashed masses, should be able to democratically vote for them to receive a less than desirable title that must receive equal prominence in the branding.  For Oban, accompanying their seafood claim could be the title of “Rain Capital of Scotland”.  Then we could have “Fort William: Scotland’s Capital of Utter Misery”.  And Stoke could be “Capital of Complete Non-Entities That Rely On Claims To World Pottery Titles For Anyone To Actually Notice Them”.

Now those sorts of titles would really make headlines.  And they do say there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

2 thoughts on “Capital ideas

  1. Radio 4 referred to Wootton Bassett as the ‘Grief Capital of Britain’ yesterday – there’s an accolade.

    Another one I laugh at, is when Estate Agents refer to Portree as the ‘Capital of Skye’, although surely Broadford, as ‘second city’ could better claim that title (in an Edinburgh-esque way)

  2. The Grief Capital of Britain is a pretty grim title to receive. Not one I can imagine being used by the marketing folk at the local council or tourist board.

    As for Portree being the capital of Skye, that’s pretty shaky even without considering it is no longer the seat of a council. It’s exactly the sort of ridiculous and lazy branding I’m talking about. There’s plenty going for Portree without needing to adopt that sort of title. And as you say, Broadford might have one or two things to say about it (with its hospital and airport), and no doubt a credible bid could be mustered by Uig or Kyle with their transport importance.

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