Glasgow’s annual book festival, Aye Write!, is getting underway. Now in its 11th year, big name writers making appearances include the philosopher AC Grayling, broadcast journalist Robert Peston, crime writer Val McDermid and the mountaineer Chris Bonington.
The name of the festival is a play on “aye right”, a sarcastic Scottish way of saying no. This encapsulates much about the literary outlook in this part of the world – a vernacular defensiveness, a strident overcompensation in the face of imagined English snootiness about Glaswegian speech. A neutral might conclude that the arts in Scotland exist in a state of perma-froth at presumed metropolitan condescension.
If support for Scottish independence can be considered a proxy for such froth, there is certainly much in evidence. At the time of the 2014 independence referendum, the Scottish literary scene was near unanimously in favour of a Yes vote – nowhere close to the 55-45 split among the wider population.
This normally disputatious crowd felt overwhelmingly that the Union was inimical to Scottish culture and that the literary tradition would best flourish with independence. Little has changed since. Don’t expect much enthusiasm from them about Theresa May’s Britain at this year’s festival.
This mood didn’t begin in 2014, it must be said. In the Thatcher-hating days of 1988, the pro-devolution Campaign for a Scottish Assembly gave this starkly black and white assessment:
The Union has always been, and remains, a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland.
Is this right? Most great Scottish writers – Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, for example – thrived within the Union between Scotland and England. Indeed, most Scots will know much more about their nation’s literature since 1707 than about previous eras.
If the Union was such a problem for Scottish writers, why was it invisible in what they had to say? Why is there no tradition of anti-Unionist invective? Aside from Burns’s well-known 1791 poem condemning the “parcel o’ rogues” who “bought and sold” Scotland “for English gold”, the Union is at best an absent presence. Even today it receives little attention from Scottish writers – why?
Scottish literature’s relationship with the Union is the focus of a new book of essays which we have edited, Literature and Union: Scottish Texts, British Contexts. The most compelling explanation for the lack of literary attention to the Union is that until recently, other questions were more important to Scottish writers, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In particular, partisanship and religion long trumped national identity. Indeed, they were deeply interwoven, shaping two distinctive mythical representations of Scotland.
One was Presbyterian and democratic, the myth of Scotland’s godly Covenanting tradition. The other was Episcopalian, royalist and Jacobite, the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Forty-five Rising. Each reached back to earlier periods – the Covenanters claimed to be the true heirs of the Scottish Reformation; Jacobite sympathisers were entranced by the romantic plight of Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned and finally beheaded by a Protestant queen.
Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) might be the classic example of the Jacobite representation, recounting many of the events of 1745 from a perspective very sympathetic to the Highland rebels. It was followed by a long stream of Jacobite literature – and Scott himself returned to the theme both in Rob Roy (1817) and Redgauntlet (1824).
Depictions of Covenanters are variously positive and negative in Scottish literature. Many 19th-century novels present them as heroes for their democratic outlook, with their roots in the culture of ordinary folk. John Galt’s Ringan Gilhaize (1823) is one example, telling the story of three generations of rural people.
Other writers are repelled by the illiberal and philistine totalitarianism they discern in the tradition. The most notorious example is James Hogg’s 1824 satire, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, whose lead character considers that having attained his place among God’s saved, he has carte blanche to commit terrible crimes.
Nationalism took hold on the Scottish literary scene over the course of the 20th century, primarily under the enduring influence of Hugh MacDiarmid. Even so, he and others held to a view that Scotland’s Reformation had been just as bad, if not worse, than the Union. For McDiarmid, it was the founding of the Protestant church – and not the merger with England – that was the beginning of the repression of Scottish folk and their authentic culture.
Novels and poems about Covenanting and Jacobitism still abound today. James Robertson, for example, who is appearing at this year’s Aye Write!, makes sport with Covenanting fanaticism in The Fanatic (2000) and The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006). Robertson has also written the only novel that has brought Scottish nationhood into focus in recent years: And the Land Lay Still (2010). More generally, the Union remains a submerged and largely invisible feature of the Scottish literary landscape.
While it is true that the Union never enjoyed much of a fanfare among Scottish writers of previous generations, it was rarely if ever the focus of their work. Several even made conspicuous contributions to British – indeed to English – national identities. How else do we account for the fact that the figure of John Bull was the coinage of a Scottish doctor, John Arbuthnot, and Rule, Britannia the work of the Scottish poet, James Thomson?
It is hard to imagine a Scottish writer expressing a similar sentiment in their work today. Yet the reluctance to write about independence has continued, despite writers’ enthusiasm for the cause. It is as if the literary tradition weighs heavy on their shoulders and encourages them to look elsewhere for inspiration.
In sum, the relationship between Scottish literature and the Union turns out to be much more tangled, ironic and surprising than might have been expected. Today’s nationalists do indeed dominate Scotland’s literary scene, and will undoubtedly be in force at Aye Write!, but they do not have all the best tunes. It will be fascinating to see to what extent this changes in future.