James Robertson: Scots Literature speaks to all

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SHALL There Be a Scottish Literature? It may seem that the question, posed to hundreds of international delegates gathered in Glasgow for the first World Congress of Scottish Literatures, is redundant. But it is worth asking, for three reasons.

First, there was certainly a time when a Scottish Literature did not exist. Second, even when its existence was asserted, it was often disputed. Third, prior or present existence does not guarantee future existence.

In 1919, in the magazine Athenaeum, TS Eliot wrote a challenging article under the title “Was There a Scottish Literature?” The history of literature in Scotland, he said, demonstrated a steady and increasing influence from England and English leading eventually to assimilation.

“We may even conclude it to be an evidence of strength, rather than of weakness,” he continued, “that the Scots language and the Scottish literature did not maintain a separate existence. Scottish, throwing in its luck with English, has not only much greater chance of survival, but contributes important elements of strength to complete the English… A powerful literature, with a powerful capital, tends to attract and absorb all the drifting shreds of force about it. Up to a certain limit of dissimilarity, this fusion is of very great value… [but] the basis for one literature is one language.”

Professor Robert Crawford has argued English Literature as an academic discipline was invented by 18th and 19th-century Scottish intellectuals, keen to create a British culture in which Scottish values and methodologies had a rightful and influential role. But in the century since Eliot wrote his review Scottish attitudes have changed and so too has the political relationship between Scotland and England: the terms of the Treaty of Union of 1707 were effectively torn up when a Scottish Parliament reconvened. England has also changed. In particular, London (Eliot’s “powerful capital”) is now effectively a city-state, different and detached from most of the rest of the British Isles. Whatever it has become, London is not the capital of a unified English Literature.

Meanwhile it has become normal to see Scottish Literature as a multilingual beast – at least triple-tongued (in Gaelic, Scots and English) but potentially unlimited in its use of languages, and willingness to engage with other literatures and cultures through translation. It is true that without language there can be no literature, but must one literature be confined to one language? What is astonishing is that Gaelic, Scots and Scottish Literature were not assimilated but re-emerged in the 20th century and demonstrated some of the very characteristics Eliot looked for in a literature: a tradition based on more than simple geography, writers who are not “merely connected by a tradition in time, but who are related so as to be in the light of eternity contemporaneous, from a certain point of view cells in one body”.

Burns, Scott or Stevenson, read as peripheral contributors to an English literary tradition, are frequently misread, devalued and considered either quaint or a damned nuisance. If, however, they are read as part of a Scottish literary tradition, it becomes clear they are not accidental mountains that popped up out of nothing, or curious, difficult-to-explain northern appendages, but part of a greater – yet more local – landscape. We can apply William McIlvanney’s term “mongrel nation” with some confidence to our literature. We can reassert the crucial importance of our oral tradition, of song, ballad and storytelling. We can celebrate and be relaxed about the sheer diversity of voices. A study of the literature of Orkney was recently published, and a study of the literature of Shetland is soon to appear. These are parts of Scottish literature yet also apart from it: they should be welcomed for both reasons. The experience of Scottish literature’s treatment by the metropolis teaches us to be wary of such terms as peripheral or remote, and to remember that the centre is where you are, not where you are not.

A literature not of one language – the rich, wonderful language that is English – but of three at least, is a blest literature. It helps to tell us who we are. The cultural arguments for or against independence have barely been heard in the referendum debate. Only six or seven of the 650 pages of the white paper, Scotland’s Future, touch on cultural matters. We have heard plenty about the pound, the European Union, Nato, pensions and jobs. We have heard almost nothing about the things that really differentiate one nation or one country from others. That may be no bad thing, at one level. Thankfully, in modern Scotland, democracy trumps ethnicity: it is right this decision is to be made only by the people registered to vote in Scotland and that nobody will be excluded by some spurious identity test. But perhaps all the white papers in the world, all the predictions of greater this or safer that or weaker the other, are less persuasive than the feelings generated by a song, poem or story. “Shall there be a Scottish Literature?” Yes, if we want there to be. Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun’s words from 310 years ago come to mind: “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”

This is a revised and reduced version of the plenary address to the “First Congress of Scottish Literatures”, University of Glasgow, on 2 July. James Robertson will read at “Scotland on the Cusp: A Reading for Independence”, Oran Mor, Byres Road, Glasgow, tomorrow at 1pm, along with Rodge Glass, Neal Ascherson, Liz Lochhead, Aonghas MacNeacail, John Glenday, Kathleen Jamie, Meg Bateman, Andrew Greig, Robert Crawford and Alasdair Gray.