Take for example the publication of last year’s Unstated; a collection of essays by writers on independence. Its contributors spent a lot of time bemoaning a low, mean political debate and the lack of space for the arts within it.
Like two estate agents trying to sell rival properties for £500 less than the other, the rival camps seem to only deal with culture in the most crass terms. The volume also pointed out that the wider creative scene had been branded to death by Creative Scotland. In short, with exceptions, there wasn’t that much to get excited about.
Of course ideas, the arts, and writing are what have brought Scotland to this juncture (slow in germinating though they may be). The very fact that there is a canon of Scottish writing that looks at our national identity – in all its heroin scarred, wee free, tartan clad glory – must imply that there is something better. It simply wouldn’t be worth writing about otherwise.
We’re very cautious as a people (for good reason) when it comes to proclaiming easy links with culture, identity and politics. Yet, simplistic thought it might sound, those of us who want independence need to state more and more clearly, even within a shallow debate, that the poets, by and large, are on our side.
I assembled this list because I realised that if every undecided voter in Scotland read these five books, there would be a resounding Yes in next year’s referendum.
Looking back, I think there is a lot for contemporary Scottish cultural figures to reflect on. Our intelligentsia should not be cheerleaders for Yes Scotland, but perhaps they do need to get over a post-modern coyness about politics. After all a nation is really just a form of narration.
In any argument, it’s interesting to look at the language that is used, not just in terms of content, but also quality. So much of the existence of the union is premised on ignorance, on leaving aside this ultimate anachronism in the development of the societies that sit side by side on these isles.
To my mind, each of these works points clearly, whether explicitly or not, to Scottish independence. I’d dearly love to find a supporter of the union who has read all five of these works and who would be prepared to engage with them and discuss the ideas they provoke. I suspect that such a person doesn’t exist but if they do I hope they get in touch.
For at the end of the day, writing about Scotland, engaging with it, is about uncovering its possible future direction. A worthy subject must have possibilities. It’s about imagination.
Scotland and Nationalism: Scottish Society and Politics, 1707-1994,
Harvie explains with great clarity the historical oddity of Scotland as a stateless nation and the historical factors that led to its re-emergence. The author shows the substantial historical roots of the events that we are now witnessing. For those who see the politics leading up to the referendum as some kind of aberration, Harvie’s book is compulsory reading. Focusing very much on the institutions that continued as carriers of a Scottish identity Scotland and Nationalism demonstrates that the union has been a far more contested and turbulent marriage than most history books would dare to tell us.
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
The Hungarian critic and philosopher György Lukács famously argued that the realism of Sir Walter Scott was revolutionary due to his ability to portray the affects of big historical changes on the lives of ordinary people. In this sense Welsh is to the last days of the union what Scott was to its earliest. Trainspotting tapped into the post-Thatcherite zeitgeist and showed the reality of the death of industrial Scotland and its effect on life in our cities with a searing clarity. No country could have a novel like this written about it and not want to change.
A Scots Quair, Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Gibbon was ambivalent about the nascent Scottish nationalism of the 1930s and preferred to stick to his own distinctive brand of Trotskyism (which would see him expelled from the Communist Party). Remarkably, his novel of rural life in the Mearns, Sunset Song, remains the nation’s most popular, and the sweeping ambition of this trilogy is testament to the genius of an author who died far too young. A Scots Quair looks at the Scotland of its day with an uncompromising vision that celebrates the language, culture, and the life of one woman earthed to a native soil. It’s a story of her endurance and of Scotland’s in an age just a tumultuous as our own.
A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, Hugh MacDiarmid
It could be argued that more than any other figure, the poet Hugh MacDiarmid planted the seeds of a century long revival of Scottish identity. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle is an enthralling modernist epic poem about Scotland, the moon, sex, the cosmos and much more. In reclaiming for Scots the status of a literary tongue MacDiarmid reversed centuries of genteel Anglicisation and revived a culture and a nation that thought itself in terminal decline. His key call to all Scots living and dead: “To be yersel’s – and to mak’ that worth bein’,/Nae harder job to mortals has been gi’en” remains as potent today as it did in the 1920s.
Why Scots Should Rule Scotland, Alasdair Gray
This thin pamphlet may well be bettered by Gray’s forthcoming book on independence, but it remains a highly influential document. Its many assertions such as that of an inclusive nationality identity (everyone who lives here) and of a geological/ecological sense of who we are, have found their way into the language of mainstream Scottish politics. The fact that Gray has been vilified by the mainstream press for his more recent contributions to the debate in Unstated only demonstrates how craven and duplicitous our sorry excuse for a national press is. Their refusal to engage with the eloquence of Gray’s language and the logic of his arguments is indicative of a conservative establishment with its head lost in the sand. (Unionists with a taste for more risqué writing should read 1982 Janine – Gray’s novelistic re-imagining of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle).