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The Case for Culture – Scottish Review of Books
by Cairns Craig

The Case for Culture

September 15, 2014 | by Cairns Craig

It has long been a commonplace that the protection of Scotland’s key institutions – religion, law, education – was the cause of the nation’s survival after 1707. Scotland, however, did not simply acquiesce in its new subsidiary status: it took the opportunity of the British Empire to create new Scotlands around the world. Wherever Scots migrated they set up presbyterian churches, but since protestantism required literacy the Scottish educational system also had to be imported, initially to what became the United States, where the earliest universities, like William and Mary and the College of New Jersey were founded by Scots, and then to the rest of the Empire. 

To sustain these Scotlands in their foreign environments, medical schools were needed – a person cured was also a person ready to believe. Scottish universities were producing far more trained doctors than could be employed at home (ten times more than Oxford and Cambridge from 1750 to 1850), so that Scots made up a huge proportion of the ship’s surgeons and army doctors in the Empire, with the result that the Scottish medical schools became the model for medical schools in all of the settler colonies.  Since medicine depended largely on the properties of herbs, a medical school required a botanic garden, and Scots founded botanic gardens throughout the Empire, from Robert Kyd in Calcutta in 1787, to Alan Cunningham in Sydney in 1816 and James Hector in Wellington, New Zealand in 1865.

This Scottish migration was not a ‘diaspora’, with its implication of people driven out of their homeland and dreaming of return, but rather what in Greek is named xeniteia – people migrating in order to build a new version of their homeland. Scottish philosophy, whether Thomas Reid’s ‘Common Sense’ or Edward Caird’s Idealism, dominated a discipline fundamental to curricula based on the Scottish model; the Encyclopaedia Britannica, founded in Edinburgh in 1768, gave prominence to the Scottish contribution to universal knowledge, and the most influential magazines of the nineteenth century, the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, promoted the literature of Burns, Scott and their successors as the standard by which all literature should be judged.

This vast international Scottish network allowed individual Scots to be globally mobile and produced huge economic benefits. William Roxburgh’s analysis of the properties of jute at the Calcutta Botanic Garden, for instance, made possible the jute industry in Dundee. But it was a network which also promoted Scotland as the spiritual core and justification of British imperialism. In 1819, Blackwood’s Magazine suggested that ‘while London is the Rome of the empire . . . Edinburgh might become another Athens in which the arts and sciences flourished, under the shade of her ancient fame, and established a dominion over the minds of men more permanent than even that which the Roman arms were able to effect’. By 1914 this expectation might easily have been judged valid: Scotland was the core of an intellectual, spiritual and literary empire of even vaster extent than the British Empire, since it still included the United States. It might be imaged in the figure of John Muir, Scottish environmentalist in California, visited by American presidents to learn from a Scot how to protect America’s natural environment.

This Scottish spiritual empire was destroyed by the First World War and its aftermath. It was displaced by the centralisation of cultural power in Britain – the BBC was founded in 1922 – and by the rise of American popular culture, as well as by the drive to cultural independence in its old territories. The Encyclopaedia Britannica moved to Chicago in 1920; In 1929,  the Edinburgh Review ceased publication.

The diminishment in Scotland’s sense of its global significance was catastrophic.  Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Scottish Renaissance’ movement of the 1920s required a ‘rebirth’ because Scotland was effectively dead. Neil Gunn, major novelist of the Renaissance, declared that ‘artistically in the modern world Scotland doesn’t exist. No music, no drama, no letters, of any international significance. Why is this all round sterility so complete, so without parallel in the life of any modern nation?’ This loss of world leadership initiated a period of ‘nostophobia’ – of revulsion from the nostos, from homecoming; a revulsion, too, from the nostalgia for that spiritual empire that was still purveyed by Burns clubs, St Andrew’s Societies and the debates of the Church of Scotland Assembly.

Nostophobia dominated Scotland’s cultural life in the twentieth century: MacDiarmid pilloried the country’s version of Robert Burns in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle; Edwin Muir dissected the failings of Walter Scott as symptomatic of the failings of the nation in Scott and Scotland; the major studies of Scottish culture from the 1930s to the  1960s – John Speirs’ Scots Literary Tradition: An Essay in Criticism and David Craig’s Scottish Literature and the Scottish People, 1680–1830  – underscored that Scottish literature was a story of relentless decline into irrelevance. 

Scotland was a failed culture. The announcement in 1945 of a possible festival in Edinburgh to which ‘every distinguished composer and executant might be attracted’ was greeted by Hugh MacDiarmid, in his journal The Voice of Scotland,as an occasion which would only ‘emphasise the absence of their peers in Scotland itself and the better the programmes the more ghastly would yawn the abyss between them and the utter inability of the Scottish people to assimilate and profit by anything of the sort, let alone be stimulated even to try to produce anything of comparable worth on their own part’. MacDiarmid set a nostophobic agenda which dominated Scottish culture in the 1960s and 70s, given artistic expression in films such as Bill Douglas’s My Childhood and reflected in the major journal of the period, Scottish International, which in its second issue in 1968 published Edwin Morgan’s ‘Flowers of Scotland’:

Yes, it is too cold in Scotland for flower
people; in any case who / would be handed a thistle? / What are our flowers? Locked swings and private rivers – / and the island of Staffa for sale in the open market, which no one  / questions or thinks strange – / and lads o’ pairts that run to London and Buffalo without a backward / look while their elders say Who’d blame them

Nostophobia peaked in Scotland in the years after the 1979 referendum: those who had been in favour needed an explanation of why the rest of the population had been so lacking in enthusiasm; those who were against needed to justify that the country was not up to governing itself. In 1981, the self-abasement was focused by Murray and Barbara Grigor’s Scotch Myths exhibition, which presented kitsch images of Scotland as farce, and then by Grigor’s film of the same name, parodying the ways in which Scotland’s national identity had been perverted by the romantic fictions of James Macpherson and Walter Scott. Scotland, according to Tom Nairn, represented a ‘freak by-product of European history’. Normal societies went through a ‘nationalist’ phase in the nineteenth century: because of Empire, Scotland did not, and as a result failed to produce a ‘real’ national culture, giving birth, instead, to a ‘tartan monster’.

This bleak account of the Scottish past was to be challenged at the second Edinburgh Festival in 1948 by a production of Sir David Lindsay’s The Thrie Estaites, a play last performed in 1554. Its director was Tyrone Guthrie, one of the most innovative of his generation, who used the fact that the play was being staged not in a traditional theatre but in the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland, to create an auditorium in which the stage was surrounded by the audience.  The combination of pre-Reformation Scots speech and a radically experimental theatrical practice was the sensation of the Festival.

Revived at regular intervals, The Thrie Estaites proved to be a continuous inspiration to literature in Scotland: many Scottish people might not think of themselves as speaking Scots but they heard it in their daily environment. The Thrie Estaites helped create an aural community of Scots listeners which underpinned the experiments in vernacular in the poetry of Edwin Morgan, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead, and later in the prose of James Kelman, Irvine Welsh and Anne Donovan.  The vernacular, which had been taken as a sign of Scotland’s inadequacy in the world of modern English, had become the symbol of its distinction – both of its difference and its excellence.

James Kelman’s speech on winning of the Booker Prize in 1994 for How late it was, how late claimed that his work was part of an international movement committed to ‘the validity of indigenous culture’: ‘My culture and my language have the right to exist’. In the 1980s and 90s, writing in vernacular Scots became an assertion of resistance to the culture promoted by Mrs Thatcher’s and John Major’s governments, and in those decades of apparently suspended Scottish politics, Scottish writers and artists began to imagine alternative Scotlands, as Edwin Morgan did in his Sonnets from Scotland:

Scotland was found on Jupiter. That’s true. / We lost all track of time, but there it was. / No one told us its origins, its cause. / A simulacrum, a dissolving view? / It seemed as solid as a terrier / shaking itself dry from a brisk black swim / in the reservoir of Jupiter’s grim / crimson trustless eye

If politics couldn’t change Scotland, art could: from the publication of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in 1981, Scottish writers created many alternatives to a Scotland trapped in an apparently unmoving history. This upsurge in contemporary Scottish creativity was matched by an equally radical transformation of Scotland’s past. No one in Scotland’s nineteenth-century imperium had heard of a Scottish Enlightenment. It came into existence in the 1960s because American scholars found the origins of their nation in the works of eighteenth-century Scots. Adam Smith had proved that free markets are the only basis of free societies; the drafters of the American constitution had infused it with Scottish Common Sense philosophy; the modern (and enlightened) United States was the fulfilment of eighteenth century (enlightened) Scottish thought.

That the very foundations of modernity, as now represented by the world’s only superpower, had been developed in Scotland, meant that Scotland was no longer the marginal, irrelevant extension to England that had been its apparent role since 1914. Scotland had become the lens through which modernisation and modernity were to be understood. The lost imperium of the nineteenth century was re-established: Scotland became again an Athens – this time to the modern Rome of the United States.

Having recovered the independence of its ‘voice’ and having recovered the sense of the significance of its own history, Scotland was ready to re-imagine its past: the four volume History of Scottish Literature published by Aberdeen University Press in 1987 was followed in the 1990s by Duncan Macmillan’s Scottish Art 1460–1990, John Purser’s Scotland’s Music, Charles Jones’s Edinburgh History of the Scots Language, Douglas Gifford’s and Dorothy McMillan’s History of Scottish Women’s Writing, Bill Findlay’s A History of Scottish Theatre. These re-readings of the Scottish past were accompanied by a huge number of texts recovered from near oblivion by the Canongate Classics series in the 1980s and 90s.

By the late 1990s, Scotland’s cultural past had been transformed from one of threadbare insignificance – Edwin Muir described it in the 1930s as a ‘temporal Nothing’ which was ‘dotted with a few disconnected figures arranged at abrupt intervals’ – into a cultural continuity overflowing with riches.

It was this tide of cultural regeneration rather than political urgency that gave impetus to Scottish devolution in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, the SNP failed to advance in the general elections of 1992 and 1997 and Labour’s commitment to devolution, once it had a majority large enough after 1997 to govern without its Scottish votes, remained ambiguous, as witness the last minute introduction of another referendum to test whether there really was a ‘settled will’ for devolution among the Scottish people. The outcome was by no means certain. Andrew Neil, editor-in-chief of Scotsman Publications, thought ‘devolution was a preoccupation of the Scottish chattering classes – a body of about 1,000 people – and was not an issue that the Scottish public really cared about’.

The overwhelming vote in favour of devolution in 1997 was not produced by the political parties – they were small boats rising on a tide of cultural nationalism that went from the rediscovery of the art of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ and the ‘Scottish Colourists’ to the music of the Proclaimers and Runrig, from the writings of Nan Shepherd to Ian Rankin’s Rebus.

The building of the Scottish Parliament was preceded by that, nearby, of the Scottish Poetry Library, an institution founded to resist the threat of cultural extinction after the failure of devolution in 1979: where poetry leads, politics follows. The Parliament was not an achievement of Scottish politics and politicians but the product of a cultural revolution that had given Scotland a significant past, a creative present and a believable future, and made it a ‘nostos’ worth coming home to.

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