Salute to the best of our nation's writers

THE literary tradition of Scotland is as unique as any other part of its culture.

Such is its overwhelming presence that there is not a part of Scottish life that is not informed by it in some way: from our language to our cinema, how we are written about by our own writers directly affects how we perceive ourselves as a nation - whether it is Irvine Welsh or Sir Walter Scott, Ian Rankin or Dame Muriel Spark.

To fuel the debate, The Scotsman has compiled a list of 30 Scots authors and their best works, whether it is novel, theatre or poetry - some of Scotland’s strongest literary contributions have been in verse - and we are asking our readers to choose the one they think is best.

The list, though far from exhaustive, ranges from the 15th to the 21st century, and some of the choices will undoubtedly cause outrage and consternation among those who cling to the literary canon. But to place a restriction on genre or period would be to deny the fundamental nature of Scottish literature: it is an evolving entity.

Interest in Scottish writing and writers is stronger than ever. Writers such JK Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith and Iain Banks are not just critically acclaimed here, their fame and renown stretch around the world.

This year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was the most popular yet, attracting almost 200,000 people to Charlotte Square Gardens, 11,000 of whom were children.

Meanwhile, BBC2 is embarking on a series celebrating and tracing Scotland’s literary heritage.

The multi-faceted nature of Scottish literature of course makes singling out any work as being head and shoulders above every other a daunting task. But as Ian Campbell, professor of literature at Edinburgh University, points out, the very best work not only talks with clarity of its own time, but speaks down the years.

"I certainly do think that you can read what Robert Fergusson wrote from an asylum 250 years ago and it still has something to say to us," he says.

"The great authors, Scott, Burns and Gray, were writing while the country was changing, and while they documented what it was as it was fading, they were also looking towards what was coming, and that was of fundamental importance.

"Writers lift up a distorted mirror to us, and we often don’t like what we see, which is why Irvine Welsh causes an outrage with his novels.

"But it is important that they do this for us, to show us who we are and where we are going."

He also emphasises the fact that the best works have a resonance that transcends Scotland’s boundaries.

"Sir Walter Scott was conscious that the balance of power was shifting south, and he brought a strength through highlighting its identity," Professor Campbell says.

"He raised the world’s consciousness with his poems, novels and public events.

"Others picked up on this, like Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote Kidnapped, just as John Buchan and Lewis Grassick Gibbon have.

"These authors not only describe Scotland, they also describe, and contribute to, the changes. They make Scotland a world-known place."

But he says that,, while the great novel exists in the mind of each reader, it is down to the ability of the writer to put it there: "Great authors capture what they want, but every reader reads it differently."

Professor Campbell also states the importance of the use of language in considering the strength of a text.

While, as a country we are blessed with three distinct tongues - English, Scots and Gaelic - it is the ability of the best authors to fuse and harness the expressiveness of them which is instrumental in creating a text that speaks with clarity.

He says: "Kelman is willing to push language right to its limits, like Irvine Welsh, and Iain Banks is particularly good at this. He’s virtually invented a language in his own right in some of his books."

However, when asked what his favourite Scots novel is, Professor Campbell’s answer illustrates the quandary that any reader of The Scotsman will have in coming to a decision.

"Fortunately, I have a roomful of books that I consider to be the best of what they represent, and for that I am very glad."

However, Tom Pow, prize-winning Scots poet, takes a more ethereal line, believing that the best writer and best work defines the spirit of the age.

"A great author is somebody who becomes emblematic of a society of which he writes, someone who captures the essence of that people," he says.

"Walter Scott captures great historical moments, and Robert Louis Stevenson captures something of a psychology of Scots while being endlessly readable.

"I really like Scott’s The Bride of Lammermuir because it has the richness and sadness of a Border ballad."

As a poet, however, Mr Pow is naturally drawn to the strength and imagery inherent in Scottish verse.

"I also like Norman MacCaig for the way writing a poem for him was a very natural thing to do," he said. "Seamus Heaney compared Norman’s writing of a poem to that of casting a fly as a fisherman because he wrote with such ease.

"Although the poems are very short, when you read them at length they capture a life and a way of looking at the world. They give you eyes to see. It isn’t what you look at but what you see. Norman’s poems help you to see.

"The best way to read Norman is at length through his collections. In The Equal Skies in 1980 he has a wonderful series of elegies for a dead friend called Poems For Angus.

"Edwin Morgan is another who I also admire hugely because he is still exploring new subject matter and is still inquisitive."

However, whether it is a novel or poetry, Mr Pow was adamant about what defined the best writer and their work: "A great author must have an unmistakable style and must help to see things in a different way."

Of course, it comes to a matter of taste. For some, the dimension-jumping, social commentary of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark may be the defining work of the Scots psyche, while Norman MacCaig’s poetry may talk to the human spirit and condition.

For others, however, the sweeping landscapes and period feel of Waverley or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie simply represent great books. Not Scots or British, just great art.

It is up to you argue, discuss and decide which writer and their work should be placed above all others.

Send your choices along with your reasons to the Scotsman letters page. Email or write to Letters, The Scotsman, Barclay House, 108 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AS

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