By Alexandria Sage
PARIS (Reuters) - Malt whisky, bagpipes and the Loch Ness Monster take center stage in the newest Asterix comic, as the yellow-mustached Gaul and his portly buddy Obelix travel to ancient Scotland to drive back the Romans.
Scottish nationalists campaigning ahead of a referendum on independence next year have seized upon the book as an allegory for their struggle to break free of the UK - a theory the author dismisses.
"Asterix chez les Pictes" ("Asterix and the Picts") is the 35th in the classic series of comic books created by illustrator Albert Uderzo and writer Rene Goscinny in 1959 that have sold 352 million copies worldwide.
Taking up the mantle in the latest version, whose title refers to the early Celtic people who inhabited ancient Scotland, are author Jean-Yves Ferri and artist Didier Conrad.
In the comic that hits bookstores on Thursday, Asterix and Obelix come to the aid of a burly, red-haired Scot who has washed ashore in their village in Gaul, frozen in ice.
Once thawed, Mac Oloch explains how an evil collaborator with the Romans, Mac Abbeh - who bears no small resemblance to French actor Vincent Cassel - betrayed him.
The tale ends happily as Asterix and Obelix help Oloch unite the kilted local clans, save his sweetheart, defeat the power-hungry Mac Abbeh and repel the Romans overtaking their land.
Dozens of Asterix fans, some in bushy Asterix moustaches, lined up at a Paris bookstore on Wednesday night to be among the first to buy copies after midnight.
In Scotland, "Asterix chez les Pictes" was already being seen by some as a commentary on Scottish independence.
"(We are) animated by an endorsement from such a prestigious character, but, as ever, we would have to check that he is registered to vote," the "Yes Scotland" campaign said in a statement.
But Ferri, back in Paris after visiting Scotland to promote the book, denied any such hidden intentions.
"I went to Scotland to show the idea to the Scots. They were happy we thought about them and asked me 'Why Scotland?' And in particular they thought it was because of this referendum, when in fact not at all," he told Reuters TV.
(Additional Reporting By Morade Azzouz; editing by Mark John and Tom Pfeiffer)