The state of Scottish writing

The Scots are a nation, but Scotland is not a state. That is to say, it does not have a seat at the United Nations and is not a member-state of the European Union. Last year we had the opportunity to vote to change this, but rejected independence by a margin of a little more than 10 percent. Nevertheless there is a Scottish Parliament and a Scottish Government with a very considerable range of powers and responsibilities.

In fact we haven’t been an independent State for more than three hundred years. So the United Kingdom which was created by the Treaty of Union of 1707 is much older than United Italy or United Germany. That treaty however reserved certain powers or areas of public life to Scotland. We retained our distinct established Presbyterian Church, schools and universities, and our own distinct legal system. Arguably it was Scots Law, based on Romano-Dutch Law rather than the Common Law as in England, and the Presbyterian Kirk which did most for the next two centuries to preserve Scotland’s distinct national identity.
This is a literary festival, not a political one, I’m glad to say. So I intend to concern myself mostly with literary and cultural questions rather than contemporary politics.
In his History of Scottish Literature the poet and critic Maurice Lindsay declared that after The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Muriel Spark’s novels belonged to English rather than Scottish Literature. I liked Maurice, but told him, perhaps sharply, that I didn’t think we had so many good Scottish novelists that we could cast Muriel Spark adrift in this manner. I might have spoken even more sharply, for two reasons. First, I wasn’t sure that the distinction between Scottish and English literature is anything like as clear-cut as he seemed to be suggesting. Second, though neither of Muriel Spark’s parents was Scottish, she was born, reared and educated in Edinburgh. She left Scotland when she married young, returned only for short visits and indeed spent the second half of her life in Italy, first in Rome, then her in Tuscany. However she described herself as being “Scottish by formation” – a good phrase. She often said that her work was chiefly influenced by the Border Ballads, as collected by Sir Walter Scott in his first notable publication, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. So the tone of voice in her novels always sounded Scottish to me. She remembered overhearing a conversation between two Edinburgh ladies in a tea-shop. One of them was laying down the law on some matter. The other nodded repeatedly in apparent agreement, and then pursed her lips and said “Nevertheless…”. Muriel thought that “nevertheless” was a very Scottish word – so do I – and said she wrote her novels on the “nevertheless principle”. Things are what they are; nevertheless they may not be what they seem to be.
During last year’s referendum campaign I was asked in a radio interview if I thought of myself as a Scottish or British novelist. “Both”, I replied, adding that “nevertheless I’m also an English one because the language I write in is English.”
That I do so is the consequence of a number of historical events or developments which, taken together, prevented the northern form of Old English or Anglo-Saxon known as Scots from becoming, as the Orkney-born poet Edwin Muir observed, a language suitable for all purposes. As a result English, not Scots, is the language of public discourse in Scotland.
The first of these events was the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformation, which made Scotland a Presbyterian or Calvinist country, and did so much to form the character, ethos, and intellectual attitudes of later generations of Scots, brought us the Bible in an English, not Scots translation. Likewise the metrical psalms and paraphrases which were the staple of worship, were sung in English, not Scots.
Then in 1603 the Scottish king, James VI, inherited the English Crown and removed to London. Gradually the old Court Scots withered, and the various forms of Scots spoken in different parts of the country never coalesced into a standard Scots. In the eighteenth century David Hume, Adam Smith and the other luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment schooled themselves to write a correct English, removing Scotticisms from their prose. People continued to write poetry in Scots, or a variety of Scots, but the Scots of great eighteenth century poets, Robert Fergusson and our national bard Robert Burns, was a much thinner Scots than the language of their Renaissance predecessors, William Dunbar and Robert Henryson. There are few Scots today who can read Dunbar, Henryson or Gavin Douglas, the great translator of The Aeneid, without the help of a glossary.
Many of us may still speak some sort of Scots, and novelists may still employ Scots in dialogue, but essentially Scottish Literature is part of the literature of the English-speaking peoples, just as Irish, Australian or indeed American literature is.
Unlike many nationalist movements, Scottish nationalism today has not been provoked by discrimination against a people’s language or by the dominance of a foreign one. The arguments for Scottish independence are made in English.
Some, resenting this, will in objection, raise the question of Gaelic. We’ll hear more about the riches of the Gaelic language from Donald Murray later in this Festival. So I’ll say only this.
Gaelic was indeed the language of the Highlands and Western Isles till recent times. Yet Gaelic has been in retreat for centuries. James IV (1488-1513) was the last King of Scots who could speak it, and the people of Lowland Scotland rarely had either knowledge of the language or sympathy for it. When Dr Johnson and James Boswell made their celebrated Journey to the Western Isles, the society, language and way of life they encountered were almost as foreign to Boswell, an Ayrshire laird and Edinburgh lawyer, as they were to his English companion. Today the Scottish Government encourages us to think of Scotland as a bilingual nation; but this is an exercise in fantasy. It’s desirable that Gaelic should survive, and that public money be spent in protecting and encouraging the language, but the fact is that the number of people who claim to be able to speak some Gaelic could all be accommodated in the stands of a football stadium. And native Gaelic speakers have told me that most of the enthusiasts speak very bad Gaelic.
Of course there are Scots who can’t speak or read Gaelic who nevertheless esteem the language. Fair enough. On the other hand thirty or forty years ago I was sometimes amused, sometimes irritated, by friends who assured me that Sorley Maclean was the greatest living Scottish poet. Some said the greatest living European poet. I knew him slightly and found him a delightful man, but, since he wrote in Gaelic, I couldn’t judge the quality of his work. Nor of course could these admirers who claimed so much for him. If you can’t understand the language in which a poet writes, you are not qualified to judge the merit of his work. There are of course translations, but they give you only the sense. Poetry is not the thing said, but the way of saying it. When I listened to Sorley reading his work, he might as well have been reading from a Gaelic telephone directory. I was prepared to accept that he might be a great poet, because my friend Iain Crichton Smith, a poet and novelist who wrote in both Gaelic and English, assured me he was. But I had to take it on trust.
Why, you may ask, do I bring this up now? I do so because it is to my mind characteristic of a species of dishonesty or cant that is common when people speak or write about national cultures.
The Irish historian, journalist and politician, Conor Cruise O’Brien, put it like this: “Holding high esteem for a language you don’t actually use”– by which he meant Irish Gaelic or Erse – while holding the one you do actually use “by which he meant English – “in low esteem is to be in a parlous mental and moral condition”.
Quite so.
Is there such a thing as a national culture, a national literature? A difficult question, if only because the richer the literature, the more diverse it is likely to be. Take, for example, the American novel. Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner were almost exact contemporaries, remain to my mind the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century, but Faulkner’s concerns, subject-matter deeply rooted in the experience of the Southern States, have little – almost nothing – in common with Hemingway’s or Fitzgerald’s.
Walter Scott was the first great Scottish novelist – and is indeed still, in my opinion, our greatest. By common consent – at least in Scotland today – his best novels are those set in seventeenth and eighteen century Scotland. They helped to create the idea of Scotland and the national consciousness of our history. His method was the dialectic (which is why Marxist critics admire him). He presents us with a picture of two societies or two political or ideological parties, and shows how the outcome of their clash was a synthesis, rather than the overwhelming victory of either. To offer a couple of rather crudely stated examples: in Rob Roy and Waverley, we encounter the clan society of Highland Scotland on the point of disintegration as it is confronted and challenged by the commercial spirit of Lowland and urban Scotland. Thesis and antithesis are personified in Scott’s Glasgow merchant Bailie Nicol Jarvie and his distant cousin the Highland brigand Rob Roy. But what is the outcome – the synthesis? Highland society will collapse or be destroyed; yet, thanks to Scott, the Highlands – the Gaelic society – will not only be incorporated in the body of Lowland Scotland ; it will even take possession of it and imprint its stamp on Scottish identity. Tartan and the kilt – regarded as the historian Lord Macaulay wrote – by the grandfathers of contemporary Lowlanders as the mark of a thief or brigand – become the mark of a Scot. One should observe that Macaulay himself was an anglicized Scot, two generations away from his Highland ancestors.
Scott had successors of course, but most took only what was colourful and romantic, rather than what was intelligent, from his work. The only significant exception in the nineteenth century was Robert Louis Stevenson whose two finest, completed, novels, Kidnapped and Catriona, reprise Scott’s clash of civilizations theme.
Otherwise something odd happened to the Scottish novel in the nineteenth century, or, more precisely, the oddity was what didn’t happen: indeed the two things that didn’t happen.
First Scotland was transformed in that time. A poor agricultural and commercial country became a rich industrial one. A country whose principal exports had been cattle, herrings and woollens became the workshop of the world, pre-eminent in shipbuilding and engineering. Great wealth was created and also the worst urban slums in Europe. Urbanisation brought the social – and personal –problems that are common today as the undeveloped develop.
The North and Midlands of England experienced the same transformation, and the 184Os – the Hungry Forties – saw the publication of a number of novels concerned with the Condition of England. They were inspired by the Scottish historian and social critic, Thomas Carlyle. George Eliot said there was scarcely a notable novel written then that didn’t bear the mark of his influence. But Carlyle had no such influence in his native Scotland. While Dickens, Disraeli, and Gaskell wrote about the Condition of England, there were few, if any, comparable novels about the Condition of Scotland. What agitated the public mind of Scotland was what is known as the Disruption of 1843 – the secession of ministers and congregations from the Established Church of Scotland.
Subsequently – consequently – the characteristic Scottish novel of the late nineteenth century was concerned with small town and rural Scotland – not with the Scotland of the great cities. This became known – pejoratively – as the Kailyard novel – a Kailyard being a cabbage patch.
So the Condition of Scotland novel was the first thing that didn’t happen. What was the second?
As you will know, the nineteenth century has been called the Century of Nationalism. It was that in much of Europe, in Ireland too. But not in Scotland. There was cultural patriotism with a nationalist tinge, but very little political nationalism. There was no need for it. The mediaeval wars of Independence were remembered and commemorated – statues of those wars’ heroes – William Wallace – Braveheart in Mel Gibson’s film – and Robert the Bruce – were erected in towns and cities. But this didn’t inspire a political movement. On the contrary: Scotland’s struggle for independence in the Middle Ages still mattered principally because it meant that Scotland had eventually entered on Union with England by choice, as a partner, and not as a result of conquest like Ireland. Scottish patriotism was satisfyingly contained within a British patriotism and even more within an imperial one. The Scottish role in the British Empire was disproportionately large and the Empire mattered more to Scots – of all classes, I would say – than it did to the English. It is significant that nobody talked of the English Empire, but always of the British Empire.
Scottish nationalism found cultural expression in the decade after the 1914-18 war. There was what is called a Scottish renaissance, and its most prominent – and self-publicizing – figure, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid was a political nationalist – also, briefly, inclined to Fascism, before he became also a Communist, writing poems in homage to Lenin. He was one of the founders of the Scottish National Party, which he found sadly bourgeois, and from which he would be expelled on account of being a Communist. Another of the founder members was the novelist Compton Mackenzie who in the mid-thirties embarked on a very long, four-volume novel, The Four Winds of Love. This followed the intellectual and amatory progress of its hero through the first part of the twentieth century. Mackenzie had a romantic attachment to small or oppressed nations or national groups – the Greeks, the Irish, the Poles, and, ultimately, the Scots, who weren’t however at all oppressed. Much of the novel is delightful – though the hero is a tiresome know-all – but I have to say, sadly, that the Scottish nationalist passages and Mackenzie’s programme for an independent Scotland are very dreary.
Be that as it may Scottish nationalism in a political form aroused little general interest and was regarded by majority of Scots as daft.
So what changed? How did it come about that we arrived at the position today where we have a parliament and SNP government in Edinburgh and in the Referendum last year almost 45 per cent of voters opted for Independence?
Cultural nationalism and the enthusiasm of writers and other artists certainly played a part, though the claim that the independence cause was “culture-led” is grossly exaggerated. Certainly the Scottish National Party has shown at best a very modest interest in culture. Compared with nationalist movements in other countries its investment in culture is negligible.
Scottish nationalism has prospered as the attachments which deterred its emergence in the nineteenth century have withered or frayed. Britain – the United Kingdom – is no longer a Great Power. The British Empire has vanished; in Kipling’s phrase it is “one with Nineveh and Tyre”.
There’s a novel by Eric Linklater whom I regard as one of the two finest Scottish novelists of the twentieth century; it’s called The Dark of Summer, and it’s a masterpiece, a wise and moving novel, and a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. The narrator is a professional soldier, and early in the novel, he says that like so many – perhaps he says everyone – of his generation, those too young to have fought in the First World War, he grew up in the knowledge that we , the British, had come down in the world.
So we had, and the descent has continued ever since. Consequently, for many, if Britain is less than it was, why shouldn’t Scotland aspire to be more than it is? This is the question that inspires what as a non-Nationalist, as someone indeed who agrees with the Scottish writer Norman Douglas, who spent most of his life happily here in Italy, that all nationalism is dotty, I can nevertheless recognize as the respectable side of nationalism. It’s the question which, if he’ll allow me to say so, informs James Robertson’s fine novel, And The Land Lay Still. But he’ll be talking about that himself.
It’s the other side of nationalism that repels, indeed disgusts, me: the four legs good, two legs bad side; the assumption of a superior virtue.
There is doubtless some basis to the claim that the resurgence of Scottish national – or nationalist – feeling has been culture-led. One aspect of this has been the revival of interest in Scottish history, and especially of post-union Scottish history. Then there are novelists who have identified themselves as nationalists in favour of independence: Irvine Welsh, James Robertson, and Alasdair Gray, for instance. But there are others whose earlier enthusiasm has turned to opposition, because they came to dislike or even fear what they saw as the intellectual and moral dishonesty of the Pro-Independence campaign. And of course there some who remain attached to the Union, and some who are simply apolitical. None of this should be surprising. Writers are by their nature, if not their political convictions, individualists, and the idea that they would be found singing the same song is ridiculous. Politics in the narrow sense of the word is rarely the concern of novelists. They have other, more pressing, interests.
The most flourishing fictional genre in Scotland today is crime-writing. It has enjoyed a remarkable flowering. William Mcllvanney, who sadly isn’t with us this weekend because he has been undergoing a serious operation, is regarded as the Father of Tartan Noir – with good reason for his three Laidlaw novels not only showed that Scottish crime could be as compelling as Californian crime, but set the bar high for those that followed. That said, the Laidlaw novels, good as they are, don’t, I think, match his achievement in two other novels, Docherty and The Kiln. Docherty, set in a mining community in Ayrshire, is a marvelous, deeply felt and beautifully realized picture of Scottish working-class life, an evocation of a society on the brink of its destruction. The Kiln is a novel with a double time-scale, one the story of eager and aspiring youth, the other a study of the disappointments of middle age struggling to remain true to the ethics learned or imbibed in childhood and adolescence. Ford Madox Ford once write that the glory of the novel is its ability to make you think and feel at the same time. McIlvanney in The Kiln does precisely that. I regard it as the best Scottish novel of the last half-century; it is vital, wise and sad as Autumn.
Finally, a word on crime. The Scottish master is of course Ian Rankin, a global success. Why crime? For me, the strength, the attraction, of the crime novel today is that it does something that the social novelist finds difficult. We live in a stratified society, in which most people congregate with those of their own class or income level. This is the case all over the western world. The social novel reflects this stratification. But the crime novel may escape it. Crime after all permeates society at all levels. The seemingly respectable lawyer may have links to the criminal underworld. Bankers may be engaged in the laundering of money. Politicians may have links with shady property developers. The crime novel is concerned with all sorts of corruption, moral and intellectual as well as financial. Ian Rankin recognizes this, and his books colourfully reflect this reality.
Following McIlvanney, he has many followers himself. In one sense it’s all very odd, and to the extent that it is odd, it’s escapist. For the fact is that Scotland is generally a law-abiding place. Even our scandals are rather dull. It is probable that more murders are committed in the pages of Tartan Noir every week than in a year of real life in Scotland.
Literature in Scotland is in good health, and this is reflected in the number of book festivals, even though, as a novelist, I am less than exhilarated to observe that politicians promoting their memoirs, and TV celebrities doing likewise, will usually enjoy larger attendances than mere writers. The Scottish publishing industry is in a healthier condition that it was thirty or forty years ago, with many small enterprises – cottage-publishers, from whom I’ve benefitted myself in my declining years. Nevertheless most of these publishers could not survive without subsidy from Creative Scotland. Successful Scottish writers are still more likely to be published in London rather than in Edinburgh or Glasgow, and arguably only two Scottish firms really compete with the big London publishing conglomerates. Money talks and the big battalions have more money.
That would be a sad note to end on. So instead I will remark that we may take the generous invitation extended to us by Lucia Della Porta, the other organizers of this Festival and the Comune of Pisa as evidence of the continuing vitality and present flourishing state of Scottish writing. We are all very grateful and intend to enjoy the Festival and our few days in this beautiful and historic city.

Allan Massie

© 2015, Allan Massie.
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