2007 - 2021

Scotland’s Stories: A pre-review of ImagiNation: Stories of Scotland’s Future


What role will “story” play in the emerging Scotland?  It’s a question Gerry Hassan asks once again in his most recent Scotsman column (10th Sep 2011) to coincide with the publication of a new anthology.

Gerry Hassan argues that “story” – those of ordinary individuals and the communities they live in – matters.  Beneath the shiny façade of party politics, driving opinion, story has been one of the primary influences on the changing political map of Scotland.  It  also presents a challenge for the brave new emergent Scotland.

In the landscape of story, writers, poets, folk singers, musicians and creative artists of all shade and form, have constructed an alternative grounded map of identity and culture distinct from that of the dominant narratives writ large by government, education establishments, political parties, and the all-pervasive mainstream media.

This landscape is not writ large as “national culture” but is to be found in the multitude of loves, lives, struggles, joys and inter-connections of individuals and communities in day-to-day conflict and harmony with themselves and outside forces.

Hugh MacDiarmid wrote in his poem, ‘Scotland’:

So I have gathered unto myself

All the loose ends of Scotland

And by naming them and accepting them

Loving them and identifying myself with them

Attempt to express the whole.

Such is the challenge.

The stories that arise from the individual and the local are, by their very nature, going to be significantly different from those that are promoted by institutional Scotland.  The importance of these everyday stories is paramount and it will take individual as well as collective will to ensure that they are heard, and given the space they deserve, for these stories are continually battling for legitimacy above the clatter and din of the dominant narratives.

Individual stories are continually shaped, confined and silenced by institutional Scotland.  Outside the individual or family home (and within it too) the great institutions of government, state, and corporations bear down relentlessly on the life of an individual.

Gerry Hassan points to the “anxiety, doubt and worry” at the heart of modern life. “We live longer, have richer, more full, wealthier lives, and yet deep down many of us are filled with remorse, anger and bewilderment.”  Few would disagree with this. It cuts to the heart of a deep malaise within our society.

It is more critical than ever, as Scotland prepares for Independence and a fresh start, that we question the value and role of the dominant institutions.  Not from the perspective of an entrenched knee-jerk or ideologically-driven basis but from lessons learnt by listening to individuals’ stories.

Take the banks and corporations.  Of course they are the bogey men of the left.  But how exactly do they affect the everyday story of individual Scots?   Do they make life better, simpler, or more stress-free? Do they provide much needed work? Or do they crush individuality and enterprise and frame economic hardship, debt and misery?

Sure, for the ideological left this is a no-brainer.  But the point of story is that it coaxes out individual experiences into the collective narrative.  Leftists are only a small part of the bigger picture.  In this respect there is much value in creating space to allow everyday story to emerge.  It can be the supporting structure of a future Scotland.

From story comes policy and self-determination.  How this works in practice is one of the great challenges of Independence.  Will taxation alone be powerful enough to match story with policy?  Will democracy itself need to be overhauled?

Questions also need to be asked of the necessity and strictures of institutional government and state.  Both at local and national level.  What are individuals’ actual experiences, articulated as everyday story, in relation to dealings with every aspect of the state?  Is centralised power and bureaucracy making modern life worse?  Is the state for wiping arses or facilitating individual and collective independence?

The barbarians in Downing Street, who seek to rein in state spending whatever the cost, are not interested in how individual stories will be affected by ideological-driven cost-cutting measures.  Yet paradoxically, in response, some of those who oppose any shrinking of the state do so out of self-interest.

Scotland is at an exciting juncture in our collective history.  Our future is unwritten.  Political parties do not have all the answers.  Most are struggling with the questions.  But as we move into a possible post-Union future, with the ability to reconstruct or devolve power, or redistribute wealth if that is the wish of the Scottish people, then we’re going to have to listen to and help encourage and facilitate the stories of ordinary individuals, and with open ears.

“ImagiNation: Stories of Scotland’s Future” edited by Gerry Hassan & Bryan Beattie is now on sale.  (A review to follow).

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  1. Ray Bell says:

    Great stuff Kevin. I’m currently trying to work on a novel, and a play just now. God knows where they will end up (on the scrapheap or in success), but just now, I enjoy the hard slog.

    I think one of the problems is that a lot of Scottish writers tend to get pigeon holed. We’re all supposed to be like Irvine Welsh, Walter Scott/McCall Smith, Ian Rankin or even Jim Kelman right now (although strangely not like JK or Alasdair Gray.) I couldn’t see myself as writing like any of these people.

    Another problem is that there is a very philistine element in the SNP. I date this back to when John MacCormick chased out a lot of the artistic elements. (Ironic, given that his great uncle wrote the first Gaidhlig novel, “Dun Aluinn”, and that the SNP wouldn’t exist without the Scottish Renaissance.) Like most English speaking countries, a lot of Scotland seems to think that poets have to be fey, effete creatures, and there’s a very damaging anti-intellectual element right now, particularly in the working class/lower middle class.

    I wish there was a proper Scottish equivalent of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, during its heyday, or a more strident literary scene. I know people are working to try and sort this out, and there have been successes (e.g. The Cheviot & the Stag, Writers for Independence etc), but we just don’t seem to have something that’s completely joined up right now. Maybe that’s just me. I hope to be proven wrong in the near future. Don’t even get me started on the Edinburgh Festival(s).

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Good luck with the play and novel Ray. Your writing is always clear and thoughtful. When you’ve finished a draft you’re happy with give me a shout.


      1. Ray Bell says:

        Thanks! 🙂

  2. Frankly says:

    “Collective identity necessarily is always fictional. There is no ‘given’ identity other than a personal identity which in turn is a creation of the mind. Collective identities are, however, necessary for any social group in order to survive. As social beings, humans interact and form allegiances. The creation of a collective self, of a social entity, works through definitions; the basic concept is that of ‘otherness’: we are that which the others are not. In order to achieve this consciousness of ‘being what the others are not’, a group has to decide on what makes them different from the ‘other’. This definition will be based on language, past events, shared geographical space or common physical appearance. Once decided upon, the group then finds a way to reiterate this story of what makes them what they are; in short: they create a narration of themselves. Identity is, thus, fictional; it is the result of a group’s invention, of its idea of what it stands for.

    (…) in the creation of this cultural identity, literature plays an important role, because it preserves the elements of cultural identity in a written form. It creates a source for the social entity’s cultural memory (…) Literature can be said to form the base for any cultural identity, not only because it preserves a culture’s artistic achievements and serves as a source for its language, but also because it gives proof of the culture’s historic tradition and its influence by and on other cultures.” (Christian Kucznierz, Imagining Scotland, 2008: http://epub.uni-regensburg.de/12281/)

  3. bellacaledonia says:

    And yet because human beings are essentially social animals, who have created a social environment, these constructed identities are vital to our survival, to our advancement, to our individual and collective security, to facilitate our need for self expression, and therefore to our enjoyment of life.

  4. Stewart Smith says:

    I’ll be interested in reading Hassan’s book, but invoking MacDiarmid and his claim to ‘express the whole’ is problematic. MacDiarmid had very strong and misguided ideas of what Scotland was and wasn’t. His brand of blood and soil nationalism was based very much on the past, a romantic conception of a lost culture and nation that never was. His flirtation in the 1930s with Mussolini should be a warning to all nationalists. Thankfully we’ve moved on from these outdated views of nationhood. The consensus now, thankfully, is that nationhood is civic and multicultural. However, while recognising the plurality of civil Scotland, critics still try to find unity, thus reinstating stable readings of nationhood.
    I’m sure we’d all agree that there are many different stories to be told in a postmodern, globalised, post-devolutionary Scotland, so why try to reduce them to some mythical whole?

  5. bellacaledonia says:

    MacDiarmid,said and did a lot of things. Many of them contradictory. But he gave Scotland a right good kick up the arse when it was needed most. Job done. But as you say these are different times, in an age of civic rather than ethnic nationalism, and with different stories.

    1. Ray Bell says:

      Yes, this is right. MacDiarmid even took an interest in Catholicism once.

      But he was WAY ahead of his time in other regards. It wasn’t just “blood and soil nationalism”, it was also internationalism that runs through most of his poetry. Some of his more obscure books also anticipate anti-colonial/imperial theory as well. He was talking about things that only really began to be looked at seriously in the 1960s and 1970s decades before. Unlike a lot of people at the time in Scotland, he spoke his mind, and said things that others wouldn’t dare to. It’s only in the past fifteen years we’ve seen many people express these views in public, although even the SNP steers clear of certain issues.

      I think MacDiarmid’s interest in Stalin could also be said to be disturbing, but he wasn’t the only one. George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells etc, even Sorley MacLean all had misguided appreciation for him. I *do* give all of these folk some leeway, because I don’t think they knew everything that was going on. Sorley MacLean later disowned Stalinism, when he saw it for what it was.

      “The consensus now, thankfully, is that nationhood is civic and multicultural.”

      I’ve nothing against multiculturalism when it includes Gaidhlig, Broad Scots and other aspects of older Scottish culture like folk music etc. For too long, Scotland has been under monocultural Britain, which has hammered all of these into the ground. The mark of a true multiculturalist is whether or not they intend to do the same. Gaidhlig and Broad Scots need extra support, because there is nowhere else that they are supported (with the possible exception of Nova Scotia)

      incidentally, was I the only one who noticed the “One Scotland, Many Cultures” campaign of a few years ago was entirely in English? Guess they didn’t practice what they preached. Never saw any of their ads in Urdu, Polish, Italian or Chinese, let alone Gaidhlig.

  6. Stewart Smith says:

    I wouldn’t seek to deny MacDiarmid’s internationalism, but I do think he lost sight of this in later years, as his cultural nationalism became more entrenched and he made more and more reactionary outbursts, particularly towards younger writers who were unwilling to be conscripted to the cause of literary nationalism. Sadly, all too many of his followers neglected the modernist and internationalist sides of the Renaissance to pursue a narrow cultural nationalist agenda. Ok, MacDiarmid was a controversialist, a contrarian, but that doesn’t mean we can’t interrogate his ideas. His radical ideas have to be balanced against his loony ‘Celtic Idea of the North’, his snobbery towards Glasgow and its culture, his pointless and hypocritical hostility towards the Folksong revival etc. By all means celebrate his achievements, not least the great poetry, but be careful when holding him up as a hero.

    Multiculturalism should of course include all of Scotland’s cultures, old and new, and also recognise hybridity and change. I think it’s important to recognise our interdependence with other cultures, including that of England. All too often, Scottish discourse essentialises England as something it defines itself in opposition to. Time we moved on.

    1. Ray Bell says:

      “All too often, Scottish discourse essentialises England as something it defines itself in opposition to. Time we moved on.” – There’s an historical, economic and social reason for that. It’s very simple. We’ve been more or less absorbed into it, and ruled from there, so that’s why there’s the main resentment. We can’t actually “move on” as part of the UK.

      But that said, the most Anglophobic people I know tend to be Unionists! Odd that… must be some kind of Freudian thing.

      1. Ray Bell says:

        “all of Scotland’s cultures, old and new” – ALL? Sectarianism is part of those cultures, and whether we like it or not, is very much part of a cultural dynamic. There are certain aspects of culture we probably shouldn’t perpetuate.

  7. Stewart Smith says:

    I’ll accept that up to a point – I wouldn’t deny that there has been a dominant culture and political establishment, but Scotland’s relationship to that has always been more complex than straightforward colonial rule. After all, many Scots were enthusiastic colonisers of other countries. Of course, that doesn’t negate the suppression of Gaelic culture etc. I just find a Scotland vs England binary too simplistic. If we paint it in class rather than national terms, then we can see that there are plenty of people across the UK and commonwealth whose stories are left out of the dominant British narrative. Any books, films etc which try to tell some of those stories are to be welcomed therefore.
    I wouldn’t want to perpetuate sectarianism either – multi-culturalism inevitably throws up ethical dilemmas, but it’s worth pursuing nonetheless.

  8. Ard Righ says:

    I remember when this now flourishing Bella Caledonia, had balls and made statements.
    All we need to to now is follow it through, simple.

    With regard to the above comments:
    Language is culture.

    Multiculturalism is a non-sequitur

    It is normal to oppose that which is wrong, alien and oppresses.

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