The Trouble With Tobermory

Galleons, I may have a hot temper, but there is very little that truly enrages me. I’m frequently irritated, sure. Often disgusted. But full-on, shaking, vitriolic rage… well, that takes a special kind of stupidity to evoke.

And sweet baby jesus, have I got some top-grade stupidity for you today. I honestly cannot think about any aspect of this story without feeling tremors of anger thrumming in my chest. One of those stories that you read and just kind of stare at, mouth agape, trying to figure out how the hell this is even a thing.

The Scottish Isle of Mull is the fourth largest of the Scottish islands. The capital is Tobermory, a quaint-as-shit fishing port sporting a population of about 700 people:

In addition to its 700 human residents, Tobermory sports your typical patina of domesticated animals, including one particular roving ginger kitteh.1 The cat is kind of a local celebrity, wandering the town, lounging on cars, and, you know, generally being a cat. He’s like a town mascot- Tobermory’s cat:

He is, in fact, called the Tobermory cat, and visitors to the town take his picture and give him a good scratch behind the ears as part of the whole Tobermory experience. In fact, he has his own Facebook page…

Which is nothing out of the ordinary. I mean, shit, ginger ale, the LHC, and Jim Darkmagic (of the New Hampshire Darkmagics) have fan pages as well. I know plenty of folks who have made pages devoted to their own pets. I once made a Facebook group for people who wanted to quit college and run away to Europe to be part of a gypsy caravan. Rule 34 of the internet states “if it exists, there’s porn of it”. Rule 134 should probably be “if it exists, there’s a Facebook page for it”.

And so, since the Tobermory cat exists, he has a Facebook presence. There’s a page devoted to pictures of him and charming anecdotes.

Because there can never be enough cats on the internet, can there?

We now hop over to the Edinburgh region of dear Scotland, where Debi Gliori, a notable children’s author/illustrator (I have never heard of her, but then, I don’t read children’s books, so I can’t say I know any current children’s authors), receives a call from a local publisher. She’s known this man for many years, and he tells her he has an idea for a book. A book about the Tobermory cat. A Tobermory bookseller has been in touch with the publisher and is excited about the idea- it’s a great way to promote the town and give it some wider exposure, driving in tourists. After all, who better to draw folk to Tobermory than its unofficial mascot?

Gliori had never met Tobermory’s little celebrity. She popped onto his Facebook page and saw a few pictures of him, but she didn’t want to do anything with the character until she met the cat in person. So, she and the publisher traveled to Mull. They met with the local bookseller, who mentioned some local artist, Gus Stewart. Stewart had apparently set up the cat’s Facebook page (because, you know, that shit’s so hard) and was upset that Gliori and company were thinking of making a book about the cat.

Why, you ask? Why, because Stewart somehow thinks the cat is his intellectual property.

Yeah, this is where everything gets batshit crazy.

So, the publisher and Gliori meet with Stewart and tell him they aren’t stealing his… cat pictures. They say that Gliori is creating her own version of the Tobermory cat (it plays the violin or something… I don’t really care), with her own illustrations. It has nothing to do with Stewart’s fucking Facebook page.

Stewart never backs down, and the publisher and Gliori leave. Work continues on Gliori’s Tobermory cat story. Meanwhile, Stewart has starting cyber-stalking Gliori, sending messages to venues she’s going to be speaking at asking if they know one of their guests is a thief of intellectual property.

The whole situation is baffling, but I’d like to note here that Stewart never mentioned Gliori by name. These messages to venues and groups, along with statuses on the Tobermory cat Facebook page, are all those delightfully vague things that remind one of a 13-year-old girl’s status updates. You know, the girls who write stuff like “Some people aren’t worth your time and it’s best to just let them go” and “Life has a way of breaking you and putting you back together though the pieces will never again fit in quite the same way”. Stewart’s messages contain whiffs of that same faux-elite, actually attention-seeking drive to drag people into their overblown issues. For example:

Stealing creative works is not right. We wish to protect our creative rights so would kindly suggest people come up with their own ideas rather than steal or rework our ideas. We are open to suggestions for imaginative joint ventures based on our Tobermory Cat’s celebrity character but take a dim view of simple theft or derivatives which exploit the work we have done creating a celebrity cat.

Anyway, Stewart appealed to his fans, who rallied (as fans are wont to do) and started a campaign of cyber-bullying against Gliori and the publisher. Which is probably unsurprising, seeing as the anonymity of the internet seems to inspire newer, viler lows in humanity.

And why this sudden outpouring of hate? Because of a cat. A fucking cat.

No, not a cat. The cat didn’t do anything.

This is about Stewart, his complete inability to understand copy write law, “intellectual property”, or art, for that matter. And its about the people loyal to him, who blindly attack this author (without having so much as read her book, mind you) for daring to tackle a particular idea they think she shouldn’t. Not child rape, not the glorification of slavery- no, nothing so appalling. They are up-in-arms over a kitty. A run-of-the-mill ginger kitty in a small Scottish town.

This is about stupidity. This is about censorship.

***

Now, before we go any further, I think it’s important to detail exactly how Stewart believes the Tobermory cat is his “intellectual property”. Because, if you are a reasonably intelligent person, you’re probably trying to figure out just how the hell you can claim a living creature as your “intellectual property”.

“I wisheded the kitteh into existence, guyz. He iz mah kitteh- I madez him.”

Stewart seems to believe he created the character of “The Tobermory Cat” through his Facebook page. It’s apparently all part of some art project of his. Or something.

According to Stewart, his, uh, “goal” with this Facebook page of cat photos was to create “the worlds first famous for being famous cat”.

So meta.

Apparently, upon achieving this “famous for being famous” status (however you judge that), Stewart’s going to move on to branding, product placements, and merchandising. Which I personally find hilarious, seeing as it kind of flies in the face of what most artists stand for. Cheap commercialism and ridiculous celebrity are, in fact, the complete antithesis of what 99% of the creative community would consider art.

My guess is it’s intended as a playful jab at celebrity culture. One without any real artistic resonance, sure, but a cute little “gotcha” nonetheless.

What’s truly baffling about all of this is that Stewart firmly believes that the Tobermory cat belongs to him (for the record, the living, breathing cat does not belong to Stewart) because he’s responsible for its celebrity. Never you mind that the cat was already known as a staple of the town, its hijinks amusing and entertaining the locals. Yes, the cat may have been Tobermory’s unofficial mascot before Stewart, but by all the gods, he made a goddamn Facebook page dedicated to it. It fucking must be his now. The man admits he’s trying to create a cat “famous for being famous”, which implies the cat was famous before Stewart came around. So what the fuck is this about?

Stewart claims this isn’t just about cat pictures: “We are not interested in simply producing pictures of a cat, we are creating a celebrity cat in a place and with a back story.” I spent way more time than I wanted to browsing through the stupid Facebook page, and I don’t see some kind of character emerging from any of this. It’s a bunch of pictures of a ginger cat sleeping, walking around, and interacting with the town, with a bunch of mundane captions that add nothing to the cutesy photos.

So, it’s hard to see how a children’s book about a cat that does not belong to Stewart (I cannot stress enough that this is not his fucking cat) could possibly interfere with his Facebook page of cat photos and the kitsch postcards he makes from the images.

I could see him being a bit ruffled if he was releasing a children’s book about the Tobermory cat. He still doesn’t own the cat (and a physical, living creature cannot be someone’s “intellectual property”), so I don’t think he would have a case unless he could prove Gliori and co. stole the plot of the book or some character quirk not present in the real cat that he created for his own book. The cat itself remains its own entity, free to be a furry little muse for anyone.

Of course, Stewart releasing a children’s book based on the Tobermory cat is absurd. After all, when this all started back in December of 2011, Stewart posted on the Facebook page:

They intend to merchandise what we consider to be our creation by producing a kids book based on our Tobermory Cat. For commercial reasons T.C. Management really doesn’t want to go anywhere near Balamory – we preferring to work amongst the more playful adult demographic and don’t want our creation dragging off to play school.

BUT WAIT. Fast forward four months, when Stewart’s now deeply entrenched in his personal war against Gliori and co., and now he’s posting this:

our Tobermory Cat card collection was launched today. Next we intend to produce a children’s book based on the ginger tom cat character and stories we have created.

Yeah, Stewart’s a fucking artist and certainly not being a whinging little fucker just for the attention it’s garnering him. I believe it.

To be fair, Stewart old boy, you’re now ripping off someone else’s idea of a children’s book based on that kitty. By your own twisted logic, you’re the douchebag thief now.

Fucking wanker.

***

So, beyond Stewart’s glaring fucking stupidity, what really pisses me off about this story? I guess it’s the idea that we can cull and censor the very world around us, dam it up as it trickles into the pool of inspiration all artists (musicians, painters, photographers, poets, novelists, etc.) visit in pursuit of their next idea.

Artists pull from nature, from society, from the news, from experience, from history. Creative folk are struck by the slant of a sunbeam on dark brown eyes, by a cellist playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor in the ruins of Sarajevo during the 92-96 siege of the city, by the unknown back stories of red shirts on Star Trek.

Once, seated outside a dormitory on a summer evening, I saw my friend Derek walking out of the darkness with a backpack on his back, fireflies flickering in the grass around him. This image inspired me to write a poem. The unnamed man in the poem is inspired by Derek, but it isn’t him. I am not creating an autobiography, I’m creating art. I was inspired by Derek, but he is not my “intellectual property” (and his wife would kick my ass if I ever said he was, heh). I do not own him.

The Tobermory cat is a lovely, large ginger kitty. He sunbathes, he explores, he pesters local wildlife. His cult status within the town is sweet and beautiful. It is, dare I say, inspiring. If I considered Stewart’s Facebook page “art” (which I don’t- I don’t consider any Facebook pages to be art of any sort), I would have to argue that it shouldn’t matter if he has this page and Gliori has a children’s book. The point of any art created around the Tobermory cat is to celebrate a living creature and his unique connection to the small town he resides in. No one person created this cat- he created himself. All any artist or fan could do is add their own little snippet to the mythos surrounding him (…like Slender Man, that creepy motherfucker). Nobody owns him. As Wright Morris said, “Cats don’t belong to people. They belong to places.”

The cat is the spirit of Tobermory, its fuzzy genius loci. Writing about/sculpting/painting/composing a jaunty jazz number2 inspired by the Tobermory cat is no different than painting the Grand Canyon or writing about Cleopatra. It’s about being inspired. The Tobermory cat inspired a concept of a Facebook-centric art project for Stewart, and it inspired a children’s book for Gliori and her publisher. The cat himself, that ginger gentleman roving the streets of Tobermory, is owned by neither. There is no claim of intellectual property to be disputed.

To kowtow to Stewart’s ridiculous claim would be setting a nasty precedent. Russia may still go around persecuting people for their art, but Scotland (and most of the world) is better than that. Criticism is one thing. No one will ever please the world, and artists know this better than anyone (except maybe politicians). Criticism is useful- it helps us grow as an artist. The ever-so-talented Amanda Fucking Palmer was discussing this on Twitter this morning. A follower mentioned they were disappointed with Amanda’s last show. Amanda politely asked the follower to tell her more. Why was the show weak, in that girl’s eyes? When people started sending harsh messages to the follower, Amanda stepped up and told them to stop, that she is legitimately curious when people don’t enjoy shows she thinks were good. Amanda may be a strong and independent personality, a lady who does what she likes onstage because she loves what she’s doing, but she’s not oblivious to her fans. She’s one of those rare artists who listens to her fans and works with them. She gives us what we want, without compromising herself.

She’s got this art thing down.

But criticism is not the same as viciously attacking artists, working to undermine their credibility (as happened with Gliori), and attempting to trade mark nature itself to prevent art from being created. That, my galleons, is the most troubling aspect of this whole story. That is why I’m so ludicrously pissed off about this. I feel bad for Gliori, I feel disgusted by Stewart, but mostly, I’m thoroughly, 100% en-fucking-raged that people are spewing hate and filth in the supposed name of “preservation of intellectual property”.

You do not own the world. You do not own the people, the scenery, the animals. You do not enslave nature in the name of art. You share it, you celebrate it, you unveil its mysteries and its wonders.

Instead of attacking someone else and being a great tit about something utterly nonsensical, perhaps Stewart should just focus on his own art. Art isn’t supposed to divide us. Art unites us. It brings people together.

End Rant

1 In my half-assed research regarding this fucking cat (I am not a journalist and have never claimed to be), there are actually conflicting reports. Some refer to it as a singular cat, while some say the cat is actually a handful of similar looking felines. For the sake of this post, we’ll refer to a singular cat, though I do believe the cat in question is actually many cats.
2 On a completely unrelated note, I am utterly amused by the idea of a saucy little jazz song featuring bagpipes, to really evoke the feel of Scotland. SOMEBODY MAKE THIS A REALITY.

2 responses to “The Trouble With Tobermory

  1. Thank you for taking the time to capture how a huge part of the community in Tobermory is feeling. I, along with many others, am ashamed at how Debi has been victimised and bullied by Gus Stewart and his Facebook followers. She has been left shaken and upset by the whole ordeal- fuelled by Gus and perpetuated by those who do not know (or care) about the truths behind this whole sordid affair. In fact, she is not the only person who has been intimidated and left to feel threatened by Gus and his increasingly aggressive and erratic behaviour.
    I have found it absolutely incredulous that there are those I regarded as sane-minded, rational and reasonable people in the community who have allowed themselves to be blindly led by this man with his own agenda and far too much time on his hands. I think it is important to note that it is not just faceless cyber commentators who have been whipped into a frenzy by Gus but people in Tobermory who have not taken the time to glean the facts from the fantasy he has created.
    My surprise was only confounded when Gus critically described his Facebook followers to me earlier in the summer (while trying to flog me his Tobermory Cat postcards to sell in my shop- needless to say I declined). He deemed them nothing more than “crazy-cat-loving-middle-aged-women”. Nice one. Slag them off them call them to arms to do your dirty work for you.

  2. Kara, as you live in Tobermory you will have the inside story. Did this troll bastard make a famous cat using three cats or not? Were the cats known by a different name by the residents of Tobermory, were they always called Tobermory Cat? Its a bit confusing but he sounds like a real poisonous cunt for trying to claim he created Tobermory Cat. Everyone knows Debi created Tobermory Cat.

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