Never underestimate the power of a good story

Posted on by Guy Cookson

Never underestimate the power of a good story.

In the 1820s two English brothers, John and Charles Allen, told acquaintances that they were the legitimate sons of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Stuart claimant to the British throne.

They moved to Scotland, changed their names to John Sobieski Stuart and Charles Edward Stuart, and ingratiated themselves into Scottish society.

“They succeeded in fabricating around them an aura of bogus royalty,” according to James Lees-Milne, in his book The Last Stuarts.

And so, when in 1829, John Allen produced a manuscript containing tartan patterns that he said came from 1721, his claims were taken seriously.

A few years later, in 1842, a new edition of the book appeared, with colour illustrations, which the elder brother now said dated back to 1571.

Within the encyclopaedia-style pages readers found details of how different Scottish clans wore distinctive tartan patterns.

The book was a sensation, its ideas embraced by Victoria and Albert. Families throughout the world with any kind of Scottish lineage proudly adopted their family tartan.

There was just one problem. The book was a complete forgery. While people in different parts of Scotland had sometimes dressed in colourful plaid clothing, this was determined by the natural dyes available in the region, not by affinity to any particular clan.

No matter – tartan is today a multi-million pound industry, forever associated with Scotland.

Origin stories of dubious reliability are everywhere. Nations are built on creation myths, and more than a few brands have spun engaging tales of challenges overcome that do not stand up to scrutiny.

Frankie & Benny’s was founded in 1995, not 1924, as the brand claims. There was never a person called Ted Baker, though the brand would have you believe otherwise. The name Häagen-Dazs was invented because it “sounded Danish.”

Does it matter? Probably not when it comes to fabric or ice cream.

“History,” as Napoleon Bonaparte once said. “Is a set of lies agreed upon.”

Or, as Tony Wilson’s character in 24 Hour Party People says, “When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, choose the legend.”

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette, Lancashire Post and other titles. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.

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