Book review: The Cambridge Companion To Scottish Literature

Exile: Rupert Everett Millais's portrait of Thomas Carlyle. As a 'diaspora' Scot who made his reputation in England, the writer has been problematic for Scottish literary historians
Exile: Rupert Everett Millais's portrait of Thomas Carlyle. As a 'diaspora' Scot who made his reputation in England, the writer has been problematic for Scottish literary historians
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A new reference for our national literature finds neglected gems and removes bogus boundaries – as it should – writes Stuart Kelly

The Cambridge Companion To Scottish Literature

Edited by Gerard Carruthers and Liam McIlvanney

Cambridge University Press, £24.99

THE study of Scottish Literature, once seen as a marginalised or minor endeavour, has come of age, given the high calibre of the essays collected in this Cambridge companion. As one might expect, there are studies of Burns and Scott, Stevenson and MacDiarmid; and Muriel Spark is rightly accorded an essay on her oeuvre as well.

For nearly a generation now, the old canard that Scottish literature began with Barbour’s The Brus or the elegy Qwhen Alexander Our kynge Was Dede has been undermined. As Thomas Clancy observes here in his essay, from the 6th century onwards literature was produced in the places which latterly became Scotland in Welsh, Old English, Old Gaelic, Middle Gaelic, Old Norse, Old French, Older Scots and Latin.

This plural tradition is what the entire companion stresses: as Peter Mackay writes in his fine essay on the Gaelic tradition, it is “a product of meetings with other languages and cultures… not simply a canon of texts and figures, but a tradition of cultural negotiation, flexibility and relocation”. Any study of Scottish Literature cannot be just a study of Scottish literature.

The editors, Gerard Carruthers and Liam McIlvanney, are right to warn that there is always the temptation to tell the story, not the history, usually triangulated around the key dates of 1560, 1603 and 1707 (and, one might add, 1926 – the publication of MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle – and either 1981 – the publication of Gray’s Lanark – or 1997 with the devolution vote).

For the most part, their conspicuously “open” canon avoids this. It highlights that other critical clichés are in the process of being challenged. Two periods have traditionally been seen as lacking much in the way of literature – the “long 17th century”, from the death of Sir David Lynsday and the Reformation up to Allan Ramsay’s first publications, and the “Victorian hiatus” ­after Scott’s death in 1832. ­Sarah Dunnigan’s contribution, draws attention to the work of William Drummond, David Murray, Robert Ayton and Alexander Craig among others. There is more work to be done, I think, in terms of the prose tradition in the 17th century. Thomas Urquhart is mentioned en passant, as is the re-appreciation of Knox’s prose. The work of Samuel Rutherford or David Calderwood still await scholarly appraisal. In terms of the 19th century, Andrew Nash’s essay makes a strong case for William Alexander’s Johnny Gibb Of Gushetneuk and the work of Margaret Oliphant. The major figure, Thomas Carlyle, perhaps ought to have been given an entire essay.

Carlyle is problematic in many ways, and Carruthers and McIlvanney identify a major question for the future of Scottish literary studies. While noting the rise in interest about “diaspora” Scots – figures such as Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod and Les Murray – there is a striking silence about Scots who took the opportunity of working in England. James Thomson, the poet of The Seasons and Rule Britannia has long been a stumbling block. Carlyle presents a similar dilemma. It does not seem to me coincidental that MacDiarmid’s programme for a “Scottish Renaissance” (what Gibbon called “literary fascism”) was announced just at the point where Scots – Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Compton Mackenzie, JM Barrie, Andrew Lang were dominating the popular London publishing scene.

The literary histories of Scotland and England are too intertwined to be mentally – or bureaucratically, in terms of university curricula – isolated. That this is a two-way street was brought home to me when reading for this year’s Granta Best Of Young British Novelists: there is a resurgence in English localism which is not unconnected with the more self-confident Scottish voices of writers like Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Janice Galloway and AL Kennedy.

Another change is that popular fiction is given serious academic study – here represented by David Goldie’s essay on detective novels and thrillers from Holmes to Rebus. It is worth mentioning that Goldie is unabashed in making qualitative judgments: his description of Christopher Brookmyre’s work as possessing “the charmless sense of invulnerability that comes from always being in the right” is acute and accurate. There is no academic hedging in these pieces. There are a few odd omissions: I would have thought the work of David Lindsay ought to have been considered in the piece on Scottish gothic – for The Haunted Woman, Sphinx, Devil’s Tor and The Witch rather than his science fiction A Voyage To Arcturus (indeed, one could extend the topic to cover Emma Tennant and Alice Thompson as latter day practitioners).

Likewise, the chapter on Scottish poetry could perhaps have benefited from a closer analysis of the work of poets associated with the magazines Verse and Gairfish.

Murray Pittock contributes an excellent essay on the false polarisation of “Enlightenment” and “Romantic” approaches, mostly through a close reading of Scott’s Rob Roy. And he includes my favourite factoid of the entire collection. Teyoninhokovrawen, otherwise known as the Mohawk chief John Norton, translated parts of The Lady Of The Lake into Mohawk (during Scott’s lifetime). That Scottish literature has such an international dimension ought to dispel any residual anxieties that it is a mere adjunct to English literature. «