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Why Study Scottish Literature?

Alan Riach
ScotLit 41, 2011

What is Scottish Literature?
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Was There Ever a British Literature?
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Our Multiform, Our Infinite Scotland
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Let me begin with an idea suggested by the words with which Alasdair Gray begins to draw his great novel Lanark to a close:

I started making maps when I was small
Showing place, resources, where the enemy
And where love lay. I did not know
Time adds to land. Events drift continually down,
Effacing landmarks, raising the level, like snow.
The idea is simple enough: the arts are maps. They show us the terrain of life, contours, cliffs and coasts, they chart our deepest oceans and their rivers run like arteries across arid plains. But Alasdair Gray’s words are also a warning: the maps tell us that human landscapes are always changing, and they require a special understanding, a training in how best they might be read. In answer to a question about the nature of art, the American novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren said, ‘Ah believe it’s just gettin’ yore reality shaped a little better.’ We have to learn how to make reality shapely.

All art represents and interprets the world. Represents and interprets. Representation might suggest approval or even celebration, and interpretation might imply criticism or even satire. Art resists the numbing of the senses. It helps us to live more fully, engaged with the world and critical of it.

The function of all the arts, and especially of literature, is, at the same time, both representation and critique. Mimesis – the representation of reality in art – might present a recognisable scene. But to articulate that scene in an aesthetic form is also to imply a distance from lived reality: the painting has its frame and space from the viewer, the pages of print have their book or magazine covers, the page is held at a space from the understanding of the reader. The reader works to go through it, and takes pleasure in that work. Music performed to be listened to has a different effect from that performed to be danced to. The immersion in screen media characteristic of the west in the modern world marks a significant escalation in the degree to which uncritical space is occupied. There is less work, less pleasure and less shock. For this reason alone, literature is one of the most valuable of all human resources. It still has a capacity to shock. It can show humanity at its worst, as well as its best. It remains a stranger to the bland.

But in any age of crass commercialism, the arts are disadvantaged, partly because the training that is needed to help us comprehend them is so vulnerable. The vanity of rampant managers and the strafing heartlessness of advertising clog up the channels of contemplation. In ‘Criticism, Art, Letters’, from The Best of Myles (1968), Flann O’Brien is only mildly exaggerating a popular philistinism when he declares that

. . . there is no excuse for poetry. Poetry gives no adequate return in money, is expensive to print by reason of the waste of space occasioned by its form, and . . . most of it is bad. Nobody is going to manufacture a thousand tons of jam in the expectation that five tons may be eatable. Well, he’s got a point, hasn’t he? You can imagine certain education ministers trying the thing on without a trace of irony, and getting knighthoods for the damage they do to generations.

The arts look after themselves. The creative force that produces them is so essential, so profoundly necessary, that they are as inevitable in human life as the desire for shelter, food and procreation. And sometimes, even when you’re not looking for it, the necessary thing will find you. A long time ago I came across an audio cassette tape in a drawer in a university I was visiting and found a recording of the American poet William Carlos Williams, where he says this:

. . . because the purpose of the artist, whatever it is, is to take the life which he sees, and raise it, raise it up, to an elevated position where it has dignity, just the same as a Navajo Indian puts a mark around a clay water pitcher and makes it distinguished, so the artist’s purpose in life, what he’s for, why he’s been preserved for the ages as he has been, the most, the imperishable thing, the one imperishable thing, that the world never lets die, is the work of art. Cities are wiped out, civilisation is wiped out, Homer persists. England will disappear. Shakespeare will be there. It’s that. The race cherishes that, cherishes the work of the artist. He’s the most important creature in any generation. The arts – all the arts – are as inseparable from being human as the dance is from the dancer, in Yeats’s poem ‘Among School Children’. But as the American critic Guy Davenport points out in his essay, ‘Do You Have a Poem Book on E. E. Cummings?’, in The Geography of the Imagination: Forty Essays, if the purpose of journalism is to inform and disseminate, it isn’t doing its job: ‘Thirty years of liberal twiddling with the lines of communication have made it almost impossible to broadcast anything but received propaganda.’ And so, ‘what’s happening in the minds that keep other minds alive and give them the courage to live is reported, if at all, in a dangerously denatured and official trickle of news.’ When the arts are neglected or obscured, people suffer from dullness and ignorance.

The purpose of the arts is to help people to live.

So much for generalisations. I would like to close in now on literature and Scottish literature in particular, with some personal data that I hope will be relevant.

My parents encouraged my reading when I was a boy, and my grandfather especially encouraged me. I have particular memories of my grandfather’s gigantic bookcase and what appeared to be hundreds of great books, encyclopaedias, guides to world literature, titles like Races of the World, Everyman’s Encyclopaedia, the collected works of Shakespeare, Scott, Burns, Keats, Shelley and Byron. It was so big I could almost literally climb inside it when I was a boy. I also have particular memories of my father giving me a copy of Huckleberry Finn and the notion of floating downriver on a raft still pleases me – but he also gave me a copy of Moby-Dick and I still remember the feeling when the breath literally left my body as I read the final chapter, when Ahab goes over the side.

Great writing has this power. It helps you through all your life, one way or another. All the arts do this, I think, but literature is the greatest of them all because it gives you such a range and depth of experience of other lives, languages, places, politics, and histories.

Literature is the most liberating of all the things human minds have created.

And it arises from two basic human forms of expression: stories and songs. All else comes from these. But even here, literalism is a danger. I remember a particularly egregious member of staff at a university English department meeting suggesting in all seriousness that Heart of Darkness should be taken off the curriculum because Kurtz was not a very good role model!

The proper reply was quickly and mercifully given: ‘Neither is Lady Macbeth!’

Of course the Macbeths are not role models: they are the embodiments of our human potential at its worst. The arts propose not literal but metaphoric truths. In his autobiography, Theme and Variations, the conductor Bruno Walter defines this:

History! Can we learn a people’s character through its history, a history formerly made by princes and statesmen with an utter disregard of, frequently even in opposition to, its interests? Is not its nature disclosed rather by its poetry, by its general habits of life, by its landscape, and by its idiom? Are we not able more deeply to penetrate into a nation’s soul through its music, provided that it has actually grown on its soil? . . . Is anyone entitled to speak with authority of the Russians who has not become familiar with Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Gorky, and has not listened to the music of Mussorgsky, Borodin, and Tchaikovsky? . . . I have preserved the unshakable conviction that man’s spiritual accomplishments are vastly more important than his political and historical achievements . . . For the works of the creative spirit last, they are essentially imperishable, while the world-stirring historical activities of even the most eminent men are circumscribed by time. Napoleon is dead – but Beethoven lives. Or, Dundas is dead, Burns lives. Or, Stalin is dead, MacDiarmid lives.

I was born in Scotland. I left when I was four and went to school and university in England, then returned to live in Scotland from 1979 to 1986, completing a PhD at Glasgow University. I went to New Zealand in 1986. New Zealand was absolutely central in world politics to my view at that precise moment. The country was nuclear-free and the Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior had just been blown up by French spies, with murderous loss of life. Teaching across the range at the university where I worked, the University of Waikato – it is the Maori name for the area and the river that runs through it – I was able to initiate courses in Scottish, Irish and ‘Postcolonial’ literatures and Creative Writing and to teach in courses on English and American literatures and convene the big first-year ‘Introduction to Literature’ courses. So I was thinking about how best to introduce what really mattered to me to students who might have no prior knowledge to draw upon. So I was asking myself, ‘What are the important things about Scottish literature you have to know about, to get a sense of the shape of the terrain, the character of the country, its national history, its music, languages, the major writers?’ And a number of key moments were clearly of massive importance in providing crucial aspects of the country’s myths and its actual history.

Now I’d like to give three examples, of how literature connects with our understanding of human geography, language and painting.

First, how should we begin to acquire a comprehensive understanding of the geographical variety of Scotland?

For generations, to mainlanders and lowlanders and international visitors, the islands of Scotland were quintessentially the so-called ‘Romantic’ Hebrides, with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s great escape swirling in impenetrable mist and evidence of a human loyalty incorruptible almost to the point of foolishness. A legacy of romanticising Scottish history had been passing into popular perception over a hundred years. MacDiarmid wrote the first book that shifted the meaning of the term ‘The Islands of Scotland’ in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War: The Islands of Scotland, a revisionary demystification of island life. Over half of it was devoted to Shetland, where he had been living, much to Orkney and relatively little space given to the Hebrides.

The example was set by Walt Whitman really, the essential principle is to start from wherever you are. Whitman begins one poem, ‘Starting from fish-shape Paumanok, where I was born . . .’ You begin by looking out the window, walking out the door. Whatever is immediately around you is where you begin from. Think of James Joyce and Dubliners, William Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha County, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the Mearns of Aberdeenshire. And it does not imply sentimental attachment, blind, flag-waving loyalty or any lack of irony. Consider Edward Dorn’s brilliant little poem, ‘Success?’:

Success? I never had to worry about success.
Coming from where I come from,
You were a success the minute you left town.
Second, how should we comprehend the languages of the literature of Scotland?

The eighteenth century saw a flourishing of poetry and song in Gaelic, sometimes drawing from the same sources as James Macpherson, whose poems and stories of Finn and Ossian linked back to pre-Christian myths, but also dealing directly with contemporary events, from the Jacobite rising of 1745 to the consequences visited upon the Highlanders after Culloden in 1746, and the Highland Clearances of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Two major poems not directly related to these events but still with astonishing immediacy and vibrant attraction are ‘Praise of Ben Dorain’ by Donnchadh Ban Mac an t-Saoir / Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724–1812), which describes a deer hunt across a wooded mountain, and ‘The Birlinn of Clanranald’ by Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair / Alexander MacDonald (c.1695–c.1770), which describes a sailing ship (or birlinn) crossing through a storm on a journey from Scotland to Ireland. Both these major works draw on the Gaelic tradition of both Scotland and Ireland, but there are also influences and affinities with English-language poems such as James Thomson’s The Seasons (1730) and the Scots-language poems and songs of Robert Burns and others. So let me suggest that the name of Robert Burns should never be mentioned without in the same breath acknowledging the greatness of his contemporaries writing in Gaelic, his great predecessors in the Scots language, Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson, and the English-language dominated writings of the Enlightenment, which preceded and continued through his lifetime.

Third, let me invite you to consider two paintings of the capital city of our ancient nation. First, a work dated from 1825 by Alexander Nasmyth (1758–1840):

Alexander Nasmyth, ‘Princes Street with the Commencement of the Building of the Royal Institution’: Scottish National Gallery

Nasmyth’s painting depicts a bright, bustling city, full of progressive commercial activity and prospects. It is a painting about draining away the past and building for the future. The view is from the north-west of the city, looking south-east, but almost everything in the picture is coming towards you, riding, walking, under construction, promising to become more than it already is. The fresh-fronted facade of the New Town smiles on the left, Princes Street – Edinburgh’s main street for fashionable and expensive shopping – and all the prosperous people moving along it, in carriages or on foot, fashionable and well-dressed – charges out of the horizon and into the foreground. On the right, the Royal Institution is under construction. Later this building was home to the Royal Scottish Academy and now it is called the National Gallery of Scotland. The classical columns going up to proclaim the antiquity of the pedigree of new Edinburgh’s quality. In the middle distance, the bed of the Nor’ Loch is being excavated to make way for the railway: the industrial revolution is coming and the trains with it, and with them, Waverley Station at the end of the line, another monument to Walter Scott. But as the painting slopes uphill to the horizon, the Old Town is visible as a misty, receding, far-away place, and the Castle – surely Edinburgh’s most distinctive landmark – is placed beyond the scope of the canvas, literally outside the frame. The painting was completed in 1825. It tells us that the ancient, pre-Union, walled city capital belongs in the past. The present and future is being celebrated. The painting is wonderfully confident, positive, clever and purposeful. It might even be predicting its own longevity in that the Royal Institution, depicted in the early stages of being built, is now connected to the National Gallery of Scotland, whose foundation stone was laid in 1850 by Prince Albert and which was opened to the public in 1859. Both were designed by William Henry Playfair (1790–1857), and the building you see in the painting was opened first, in 1826. You can walk between these columns, through the doors, and find this painting in the collection there. So the art gallery seen under construction in the painting came to be its own sheltering location. The prosperity and progressiveness the painting celebrates also holds forth the promise of its own preservation.

Compare it with a painting of almost exactly a hundred years later: ‘Edinburgh (from Salisbury Crags)’, by William Crozier (1893–1930).

William Crozier, ‘Edinburgh (from Salisbury Crags)’: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

This dates from 1927, so it is centrally located in the decade of the Scottish Renaissance. Crozier’s painting looks from a position diagonally opposite to Nasmyth, from southeast of the city looking northwest. As you look over the roofs from Salisbury Crags, it is as if what is depicted is not receding so much as rising and turning back to meet you. You look over the roofs of the Old Town and the Castle rises above, looking west but also strangely looking over its shoulder back at you as well. This is a painting about the present impact and immediate relevance of the past. Curiously, it is full of houses but there are no people prominently visible. One imagines a population – not only the people in Nasmyth’s painting – shoppers, artisan builders, investors, engineers, professionals and commercial classes – but residents, working people, people who inhabited these buildings, this piece of territory, in histories other than the present, where the very economic structure was different. It is a reminder that the way people are changes in history.

It is painted in a manner which is not Cubist but is certainly aware of Cubism. Crozier has surely been looking at paintings by Cézanne. In other words, he is choosing to paint the Old Town of Edinburgh using emphatically modern techniques. The colours are too dark to evoke a sentimental ‘golden glow’ – the lines are hard, the tones are not soft – but there is an inviting demonstration of curiosity about the maze-like design of the structures. The affinities with the work of, for example, F. G. Scott in music and Hugh MacDiarmid in poetry should be clear. Both Scott in songs and MacDiarmid in poems, in the 1920s, catch an idiom of pre-Enlightenment vernacular liveliness, linked to ballad metres, the Scots language, qualities of tenderness and eerie, unearthly effects of light and shadow. Similarly, Crozier is indicating a way back behind the Industrial Revolution, behind Romanticism and behind the Enlightenment, to a Scotland that existed before the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 and before the Union of the Crowns in 1603. It is anti-nostalgic, however. It does not propose a return to the past but rather a deepened occupation of present and future.

These paintings highlight a contrast that takes place within a fabric woven of national traditions. People are being represented in different ways. The direct and immediate correlations between social organisation, hierarchy and morality, painting, music, language, speech and literary art is unmistakeably vital in Scottish cultural production, and this is as true today as it ever was.

In 2010, the Scottish Government commissioned a formal report from a Working Group on Scottish Literature chaired by the writer and journalist Rosemary Goring. With regard to the place of Scottish literature in our education curriculum, the advice was firm. Let me quote directly. The report states:

Access to Scottish literature should be an integral part of the education process from the earliest stages, and not something only tackled as pupils approach exams. This should be seen as every pupil’s right, giving them an insight into their cultural heritage, and allowing them to hear voices from their own background – or very different – who convey Scotland’s distinctive history, outlook and values . . .
     . . . On an official level, we would like to see the introduction of a mandatory examination question on Scottish Literature in the Higher examination syllabus. In England, Northern Ireland and Wales, national literature is a compulsory part of the curriculum, and it is hard to see why this is not the case in Scotland. Although Scottish teachers have every chance to teach Scottish literature should they wish, it is very much left to individual teachers’ experience and preference whether or not this happens. We believe that it should not be an optional element, but compulsory.
It seems remarkable that this recommendation had to be made at all, and that it was not acted upon immediately. It had already been made, more than once. In a letter published in The Herald on 29 November 2007, written when I was President of the ASLS, I said this: We believe that Scottish literature should be securely embedded throughout the curriculum – not to the exclusion of other great literatures in English or other languages or in translation, but as central to any study of literature in this country.
     The appreciation of our literature should not simply depend on particular annual occasions such as St Andrew’s Day or Burns’ Night, but should sample a continuous, developing resource, which runs from St Columba through the great poetry of Barbour, Blind Harry, Henryson, Dunbar and Douglas, to David Lyndsay’s great play on the eve of the Reformation. It can draw upon our ballads and folk tales.
     It can introduce our young people to Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns, Duncan Ban MacIntyre and Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair, Mary Macpherson, Walter Scott, James Hogg and Margaret Oliphant, to George Douglas Brown and John Davidson, Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan and Liz Lochhead, and a host of other writers who probe human potential in all its variety in Scotland.
     In some respects, our literature is more vulnerable to neglect or diminishment than our history, as one of our languages – Scots – is still often thought of as ‘merely bad English’. Yet Scots is the language of a great literature and the daily speech of most people in Scotland. Appropriate attention to our literature empowers a validation of that speech.
     Exploring our literature is an introduction to a range of areas of human experience and is an irreplaceable basis for sympathetic understanding, individual confidence, a sense of social engagement and intellectual stimulation. These fully address the ‘four capacities’ endorsed in the Government’s Curriculum for Excellence.
A familiar idea is that a language is a dialect with an army and a navy but I’ve never liked that much. It smacks of Fascism, the rule of might. Rather, say this: A language is a dialect with a literature. Scots has that all right.

And in an article I wrote for The Herald published on 13 March 2007, I wrote this:

A decade ago pupils were required to answer a compulsory exam question on Scottish literature. The only way to ensure people study a subject is to assess it. Meanwhile, teachers need a qualification to teach it. There should be a recognised foundation qualification for teachers of literature to give them an experience of great books. Until we get a generation of teachers coming through who are confident with the material, little will change. This article is intended to help make that change. When I worked in New Zealand, we had a visit from the President of Ireland, Mary Robinson. The line she delivered then has haunted me ever since: The arts are the genius of your country. And education is the key with which to unlock the door.


Copyright © Alan Riach 2011


Last updated 14 October 2014.