The coming Scottish independence vote has given new energy to the would-be national literary culture
The crowd were restless, whipped up by the words of the first minister, Alex Salmond. Leader of the Scottish National Party, head of the Scottish government, figurehead of the independence campaign.
“For 50 years they have polluted this country with missiles and bombs and told us it was all for peace. For a quarter of a century they have promised us progress, but delivered us the fourth most unequal society in the developed world.”
The fight is against the great and the powerful, he warned them. It will be an uphill battle. But a vote for independence would be the ultimate act of self-confidence. By voting yes they could reclaim the reins, he said, and ride off into a better future. How were they going to vote next year?
The crowd answered as one. “YES!”
Ten-thousand of them at least, maybe twice that. Dressed in blue and white, flag waving, face painted. Drunk with possibility.
Next year the people of Scotland will go to the polls to decide whether their country will stay in the United Kingdom or strike out on its own as an independent country. The crowd were gathered on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill to mark one year to go until the referendum, held on the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn – the legendary Scottish victory led by Robert the Bruce.
Although the referendum itself could go either way (latest polls gives 47 percent for the no’s, 38 percent yes and 15 percent “don’t know”) what is clear is the resurgence in national self-confidence it has brought. With discussions of Scottish culture and identity at the top of the agenda, it has brought clarity and purpose to many young Scots.
And it is outside politics, in the arts, where this transformation has been most marked. In the bookshops and in the bars, there has been a surge of enthusiasm for Scottish writing – poetry, prose and polemic alike – quietly consumed, circulated online, or called to crowds atop stages and soapboxes.
No longer is Scottish literature the preserve of the tartan-clad elderly, the public-spirited librarian, the council-funded initiative, nor the staid set-texts of Scottish school curricula, but a thriving literary scene. These writers are modern, relevant, speaking to their neighbors and friends. Voices of a generation, all of them, and excited to find themselves living through a monumental cultural event. For what is independence but the escape of a culture from the dominance of another?
Back on Calton Hill, the novelist Alan Bissett took the stage. “I don’t know how tae tell you this, Scotland, but I’ve changed ma mind. I had a visitor tae the door last night fae Better Together [the unionist campaign], and what can I say? He brought me round. With... logic.”
Laughter from the crowd. Someone catcalled from the back. Better Together, lapdogs of the English, are always good for a laugh.
“I’ve written this poem,” Bissett continued, glint of mischief in his eyes, “to try tae show you the error of your ways. It’s called Vote Britain.”
Bissett is one of a number of Scottish writers to have emerged as significant new voices of the independence movement. Their words, from a platform provided by the publishers Word Power Books, the National Collective arts movement and blogs like Bella Caledonia, spread like wildfire among activists.
Vote Britain, a fiery ironic poem sending up common Scottish stereotypes, went viral among Yes campaigners last year. In it, Bissett blasts the most pressing and painful issues of the campaign: the appropriation of Scotland’s oil money, the presence of the UK’s nuclear deterrent Trident in Scottish waters, Britain’s imperialist past, the overwhelming Englishness of Scotland’s landowning class.
He recalls how Scottish soldiers are dying overseas, fighting wars declared in London, referencing Rupert Brooke:
"Vote for foreign wars.
Yes, sadly, some of you will die. But you will return to a hero’s welcome Jock
the Union Jack, proud symbol of integrity and honour, draped across your coffin
while your mother, dabbing at her eyes, recalls the words she learned in school
‘There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.’"
Political, provocative, Bissett deals with contemporary issues in a Scottish accent – literally. The characters in his books speak with a strong Falkirk twang, like Bissett himself. The Hallglen housing scheme where he grew up formed the setting for his debut novel Boy Racers, a coming-of-age tale in which book-smart teenager Alvin considers leaving his friends and working class family behind to go to university. In Pack Men, Alvin rejoins his childhood friends to travel to watch Glasgow Rangers (soccer team) play in a European final, only to watch the celebrations dissolve into chaos and public disorder.
The themes in his work – modern masculinity, Scottishness, alcohol, the travails of the working class – are very much the questions facing a country that is dogged with sectarianism, poor heath, social inequality, and addiction. But like Bissett’s characters, Scotland has not been cowed by its position as the “poor brother of Britain”: it’s sense of identity is keener than ever, clearly differentiating itself from England, our rich relation south of the border.
In contrast, the English media has been dominated in recent years with questions of what ‘Englishness’ and ‘Britishness’ has come to mean, as the popularity of the far-right soars. The English flag, the St George’s Cross, is now most commonly associated with the racist, thuggish English Defence League; the British Union Jack tarred by its adoption by the tub-thumping British National Party.
Bissett explained, via email: “Obviously everyone feels their identity differently, but because the arts in Scotland have long been associated with the struggle for self-determination against hostile, right-wing Westminster governments, and because the assertion of the Scots language and social values against imposed values are such a prevalent theme of our literature, I would definitely say that most writers identify as Scottish rather than British. ‘Britishness’ is an almost inherently right-wing concept – bound up with imperialism, elitism, and the glorification of war – that most of us reject.”
Like much of the rest of Scotland, the independence campaign is tribally left-wing – with huge support for high taxes and strong public services, particularly in funding for the arts. And some of the loudest and angriest voices on the left are not politicians, but authors.
James Kelman and Alasdair Gray, both established novelists, are also notable for their political essays. Kelman, who won the 1994 Booker prize for How late it was, how late, is a committed socialist, and when he outed himself as pro-independence in an essay for NY Arts last year, he couched his reasoning in the same terms: “I am not a patriot. A ‘patriot’ is one who accepts national identity as grounds for a primary solidarity. It is patently absurd that the majority people should expect solidarity from the ruling elite and upper classes....The bourgeoisie tend to go with the colonisers and the imperialists as a means of personal and group survival, and advancement...”
Kelman’s protagonists in his fiction, too, are often preoccupied with the disenfranchisement of Scotland’s working class. From his short story ”talking about my wife”:
“Cath watched from the safety of the sheets and duvet.
But it is a serious thing, I said, we are talking here about working-class representation. Bloody joke.
Yes well write yer book, she said, ye’ve wasted enough time.”
Gray, who has been at the forefront of the arts scene in Scotland for 40 years, created a splash when an essay written for a recent anthology (Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence) described English people working in Scotland as either “settlers” or “colonists.” He singled out named individuals who, he felt, used jobs in the Scottish arts administration as stepping stones into a more lucrative career in England – despite understanding little of the prevailing tides within Scottish contemporary culture. Of a controversial appointment to the funding body Creative Scotland, he wrote: “The appointed director was not Scottish, admitted to knowing nothing of Scottish culture, but said he was willing to learn. Ain't Scotland lucky?”
But Gray’s anger was neither alone nor impotent. In October last year, 100 leading artists and writers – including the bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin and the makar (national poet) Liz Lochhead – signed an open letter criticising the management’s “lack of empathy and regard for Scottish culture.” The new director, Andrew Dixon, subsequently resigned; a shake up in the funding priorities announced. The artists’ rebellion was the act of an empowered, well-defined body of artists, whose Scottish identity and concern for the larger Scottish community runs like a seam through their work.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the referendum itself is in large part bankrolled by a bequest by Edwin Morgan, the former makar who died in 2010 leaving nearly £1m to the SNP, a sum Salmond described at the time as “transformational.” For the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 2004, Morgan wrote words that could just as well apply today, directed to the politicians as they marshall their troops for the final push:
“Dear friends, dear lawgivers, dear parliamentarians, you are
picking up a thread of pride and self-esteem that has been
almost but not quite, oh no not quite, not ever broken or
And the rumbling amongst the writers and the artists and the songwriters is growing only louder now that the referendum is in sight. Everywhere there is an overwhelming sense that this is happening. That this is happening now. You get the feeling that this is an issue that touches an entire creative generation, as the Spanish Civil War once commanded Hemingway, Gellhorn, Orwell to its cause.
For what could be more inspiring than the grandest of narratives: the struggle for freedom? It provides a framework for everything from the kitchen sink drama to the most sweeping of visions. Braveheart sentimentality or hoarse-throated socialism; freedom or self-determination. However you like to write it.
And where the writers go, the politicians follow. Salmond, as canny as he is charismatic, will often quote from literature in his speeches. At the SNP party conference last year, he read The Nonsense Ends by little-known Edinburgh comic poet George Robertson (“Not I and more are yet content / With just a devolved parliament”), the year before recalling Robert Burns’s A Red, Red Rose when he promised that “the rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.”
He has even gone so far as to suggest he will be asking “one of Scotland’s great literary talents” to compose the Scottish Government’s keenly awaited white paper on independence, due to be published later this month.
And while the Yes campaign trails in the polls – rarely, among the general population, tipping over 40 percent – the overwhelming majority of writers, artists and other “creatives” are declaring themselves pro-independence. This has brought a growing sense of optimism, a sense that, with the wildest imaginations and most powerful persuaders on board, that the side of the separatists might, just might, prevail.
Ross Coulquhoun, director the grassroots arts movement National Collective, explained: “It's self-confidence that drives support for an independent Scotland - confidence that Scotland can succeed. Scotland's creative community has that self-confidence, and that must help support a political self-confidence.”
This sense of empowerment stands in sharp relief to the worries and frustrations of 15 years ago. Around the opening of the Scottish parliament it was widely feared that devolution would be the death of separatist fervour. Give it enough rope, they said, it’ll hang itself.
Around that time, the poet Magi Gibson penned Scotland oh Scotland:
“And still - to trawl those tourists in,
you package up your sense of nationhood
in shortbread tins, in haggis skins,
in cozy tartan rugs, in highland toffee bars,
in football teams, in bull-necked rugby stars -
while behind this pseudo-culture kitsch and keech
you try to hide the awful truth
that no-one dares to utter -
you are the lion rampant
and never ventures from its den -
the David that never leaves his bed
to face Goliath with his stone and sling -
beaten before you begin”
It was, she told me, a “real cri-de-coeur written in total frustration at the apathy I saw around me.” But last year, in the Unstated anthology, she found herself in good company – almost all of the 27 contributors declared themselves in favour of home rule.
Gibson’s essay compared Scotland’s relationship to the UK as that of a “scared, wee, moanin-faced woman trapped in an unequal marriage,” the independence campaign as the supportive friend, telling her to end the relationship:
"‘I might end up with less that I’ve got now,’ she mutters.
‘There are different ways of having less,’ you say."
She said: “In Scotland we have grown tired of voting time and again for a more socialist, co-operative political agenda, and because of the UK democratic system, we end up with a government in Westminster we didn't vote for, and which seems to ill understand our needs and sensibilities. Of course, once we have that independence, we might mess up. That's the challenge. But whether we succeed right away, or go through a bumpy and difficult transition, we will be forced to grow as a nation. It's the only way to gain self-respect and maturity.”
Next year, in the run up to the referendum in September, there will be an outpouring of new writing engaged with the current political dialogue. This will include new work from the pro-independence playwright David Grieg, whose play The Events will transfer to New York after winning the Edinburgh Festival’s Carol Tambor Award, recently commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland to write a lively “political variety show” titled The Great Don’t Know Show.
Grieg told me: “It's primarily an attempt to discuss all the questions raised by the referendum except which way to vote. We want to create a space in which to to talk about what sort of Scotland we want to live in never mind which way the referendum goes. Think of it like a travelling ceilidh, changing every night, boisterous and rambunctious but always ending with a drink and a dance.”
Like many of the artists on the Yes side, Grieg is cautious of the negative side of patriotism and hangs back from nationalism: “I'm not that arsed about being 'proud' of my nationality. Pride is an emotion I'm not drawn towards, certainly not for accident of my birth... If there was a democratic revolution on offer throughout the UK maybe we'd focus on that. But it's happening here so, this is a once in a lifetime chance to shape the future. That's inspiring.”
And more broadly, amongst the pamphlets and poems, there is a growing call for fellow Scots to put down the anger and bitterness of the past, and concentrate instead on forming a brighter future as a small country, alone in the world, but happy.
As Hebridean-born writer Kevin Macneil commanded last year in The Edicts of Jock Tamson:
"Let us foster compassion for all sentient beings.
- Even the English?
- Even the English."