Crime writer Louise Welsh follows in the footsteps of Edwin Muir to discover how the country has been transformed since his Scottish Journey of the 1930s. She tells Claire Prentice of the growing desire for independence and how urban squalor and natural beauty have survived oil boom and financial bust
A CAPITAL in which financial plenty and poverty exist in jarring juxtaposition, a grimy West Coast metropolis teetering on the verge of industrial collapse and, in the Borders, rural life in terminal decline. When the Orcadian poet and writer Edwin Muir travelled around Scotland in the 1930s, he encountered a country riven by savage contradictions. The book he wrote about his experiences, A Scottish Journey, became a classic, but its observations were challenging: Muir portrayed Scotland as a country that drank too much and havered on about its dreams and resentments. A country uncertain about its future while struggling to live up to its past.
Since the 1930s, Scotland has lost its heavy industry, discovered oil, spawned world-famous film stars, writers, artists and musicians, seen its biggest bank go bust, and elected a nationalist government. But how has the essential character of the country and its people changed in seven-and-a-half decades?
That was the question asked by crime writer Louise Welsh, as she travelled in the footsteps of Edwin Muir for a documentary series that starts today on BBC Radio 4. “I wanted to see if Muir would recognise Scotland if he came back today,” says Welsh, whose girlish voice and gentle demeanour are at odds with her louche novels and femme fatale’s scarlet lipstick. Her journey was not scientific or systematic, but following Muir’s route, from Edinburgh to the Borders to Glasgow and on to the Highlands and Orkney, allowed Welsh to take the pulse of Scottish society at a time of profound change.
“There’s this old-fashioned view of Scotland as a place where people are buttoned up and taciturn but I found people were very open about their hopes and anxieties for the future,” Welsh says. “They were worried about where the country is heading, where the jobs would come from, about money, housing and education.”
Inevitably, politics was on everyone’s mind. In the 1930s, Muir was disturbed by the rise of Scottish nationalism, fearing it had a dark underbelly of resentment and exclusion. As a sceptic about Scottish nationalism, Muir would have been horrified by the sea-change in political opinion which Welsh discovered touring 21st-century Scotland.
Wherever she went, Welsh encountered support for independence. “Not everyone had a shared vision of what that would look like,” she admits. “People would say, ‘but I don’t understand the economics of how it would work, I’d need to know that first’ or ‘but I wouldn’t want an SNP government’.” The motivations for independence Welsh encountered mostly revolved around an atavistic hatred of Tory rule and a desire to see whether Scotland could sort out its problems for itself.
Like many of the Scots she met, Welsh wonders whether poverty might be more effectively tackled by an independent Scotland. But she has her doubts. “Scots have a reputation for being neighbourly and community-minded. One-on-one we are, but as a society maybe not. Do we have the will to change things? I’d like to think so but I’m not so sure. We still have a lot of children living in poverty. How neighbourly is that?”
Though many of Scotland’s poorest areas have been given a facelift, Welsh came to the depressing conclusion that poverty in Scotland survives on much the same scale as it did in Muir’s day. “Places like the Gorbals which were astounding slums don’t exist today, but we have housing estates on the outskirts which are equally notorious for deprivation.”
But while the political destiny of the country is still undecided, her journey reassured Welsh that Scotland was filled with people facing the nation’s problems with ingenuity and imagination.
In the Borders, farmer Tom Douglas complained that today only one of his neighbours is a farmer. “There is still a sense of community but it’s weakening,” he said. But rather than mourning the passing of a way of life, Welsh was struck by the resourcefulness of the farmers. To help supplement their earnings, they had opened farm shops, B&Bs and cafes, or taken on other jobs.
In Galashiels, writer Stuart Kelly, who was born in the town, observed the impact of the decline in traditional industries like textiles. “Although we talk about a global village, some places, like this, are becoming more cut off, from power, from the capital, from progress and technology. That’s what’s leading to this limbo status a place like Galashiels now has,” says Kelly. The rise of the out-of-town supermarket has turned Galashiels high street, the former social and commercial heart of the town, into an irrelevance. Welsh says: “The independence and distinctiveness that Muir noted in the Borders has been eroded.”
The economic crisis has shaken Scotland’s financial capital, making it more insecure than at any time since the 1930s. On a rickshaw ride through George Street, fund manager Douglas Watt failed to reassure Welsh that Scotland’s financial institutions had learned enough to avoid another financial crisis. “Banking and financial probity were at the core of Scottish culture for a couple of hundred years and the safety and risk-averseness of the Scottish banks was famous until the last ten years or so, when they got sucked into the bubble that affected most of the world economy,” said Watt. The encounter left Welsh feeling that Scotland had too many of its economic eggs in one basket: “Why aren’t we making things? We can’t rely on moving money around. There’s tourism, which is great, but who are the big employers of the future going to be?”
Traditionally, Edinburgh has been seen as a city divided between douce gentility and vice. Such contradictions intrigue Welsh. Her first novel, The Cutting Room, was a powerful portrait of sexual and sadistic secrets lurking under the apparent civility of Glasgow’s West End. Welsh was keen to discover whether Edinburgh’s seamy underworld still existed. The answer was yes. “Wherever you have all these major institutions with the bankers, politicians, lawyers and so on, of course you have this murky underworld. You can’t have so much respectability without it. Wherever you are in Edinburgh, you can see a sauna.”
And while some vices are semi-hidden, others are unavoidable. Muir had no illusions about Scotland’s troubled relationship with alcohol. “The drinking habits of the Scots,” he said tersely, “are far wilder than those of the English.” Welsh is encouraged that finally the country’s alcohol problem is being addressed. “That idea that we want to lose ourselves in drink and drugs is to an extent still there, but the acknowledgement that there is a problem is progress.” And she believes the work being done in Glasgow to tackle gang culture is even more significant. “In the past you got the sense that there wasn’t the political will to change things – who cares if the poor are killing the poor? But now there are some amazing initiatives going on.”
One of the most hopeful moments came in Glasgow, at the headquarters of Clydespace, making satellites for the space industry, one of a number of new niche businesses springing up in an area once dominated by heavy industry. Though it might never employ people on the same scale as the Clyde shipyards, which at one point made 25 per cent of the world’s ships, Clydespace’s CEO Craig Clark says: “Clydespace is a very small example of some of the fantastic engineering businesses and industries we’ve got still in Glasgow but that you just don’t hear about, because it’s not as visible as building massive ships on the Clyde.”
In order to prosper, Welsh believes that Scotland should build on its traditional strength in education, and provide access to university for all. She emerged from her tour convinced that in the 21st-century world, confidence is a vital national commodity, and one which Scotland needs to develop. “We are a slightly more confident nation than we have been in the past. Maybe that’s why we can face up to the negative aspects of our society. But I’d like to see us do more to encourage children to be more confident, to speak out and express their views. For some reason we see that kind of confidence as obnoxious.”
One of the pleasant surprises Welsh, an openly gay woman, encountered on her travels was how tolerant her country folk have become. “People on the street are further ahead on issues like gay marriage than politicians and church leaders. They don’t seem to want to condemn homosexuality in the way church leaders and some others do.” She detected the same tolerance of immigrants, specifically the recent influx from Eastern Europe. “Not one person said to me ‘they are taking our jobs’. ”
For hundreds of years Scots have been driven to seek opportunities elsewhere. If the economy shrinks further Welsh fears that Scotland’s brain-drain will worsen. But in a country which often pays lip service to community while tolerating urban social alienation, one place stood out for Welsh as being closer to paradise than anywhere else she visited – Muir’s native Orkney, which has managed to retain both a sense of community and a profound connection to the past. But she sees hope in her home town too.
“I live in St George’s Cross, in Glasgow, and it’s often pretty manky here. I’m looking out the window and it’s a miserable, wet, grey day. But you can see the sky, people aren’t dying from smog poisoning, you can fish in the Kelvin. None of this was true in Muir’s time. As a writer I could go and live and work somewhere else. But I’d always come back, I’m tied to Scotland. This is not a Utopia. But the Scottish sky and the beauty we have on our doorstep is hard to beat. And it’s not just the landscape – Scotland has such creativity and imagination and resourcefulness.” «
• Louise Welsh presents the first of five episodes of Welsh’s Scottish Journey today on BBC Radio 4 at 2.45pm