by Christopher Harvie

Virgin Soil Upturned

September 4, 2009 | by Christopher Harvie

srb logo

Virgin Soil Upturned – Christopher Harvie


ONE SMALL VIGNETTE, of personal interest. In the fifth chapter of Intending Scotland, Cairns Craig turns his analytical beam on the mechanics of communication: the voters hanging on the issue “When would Gordon Brown make contact with Alex Salmond?” – thus implying the closing of a particular communications circuit. But were they hanging on it? And did Craig get the history right?

I can pass as a direct witness, because I was there at Bute House on 30 May when the call came through, at 8.45 on a Friday morning. Brown was Chancellor at that time, not Prime Minister: but Tony Blair had not been in touch. “He never phones, he never writes”, as Alex Salmond put it. Brown had actually treated Salmond well in comparison to his predecessor Jack McConnell. McConnell had apparently been in office over a year before Brown made contact with him. Such were the animosities of Scots politics, and their ability to triumph over any degree of technological inevitability. To be borne in mind.

Nothing of this is likely to be foreign to our author. Those who have, like your man, known Cairns Craig over the last three decades are aware that, in the economic life of the time – he was engagé: perhaps closer to the entrepreneurial Principal Robertson or Lord Kelvin than to scholarly types like Hume Brown or David Masson. As well as  his labours editing the four-volume History of Scottish Literature, Craig also became a software entrepreneur during the 1980s, representing ‘a road not taken’ in Scotland, which Ireland was subsequently and lucratively to concentrate on. This was a time when, as he complained to me in an Edinburgh café, the Scottish Development Agency had staked nearly all its resources on attracting computer hardware firms, but had only one specialist in software. As such his defeat in this enterprise was probably more traumatic for Scotland than it was for him. Whatever problems Ireland is currently going through it retains strengths in pharmaceuticals, software and, most notably, a young and well-trained industrial elite, “…and thirty years before they start to fall ill” as Prof. Joseph Lee has remarked.

So what is odd about this collection – of value to the philosopher and intellectual historian, but hard going for us empirical primitives – is an absence of ‘materialist’ depth to Craig’s essays save as advertisement in the first ‘horticultural’ discourse: Intending Scotland is really a series of discourses on the rise and sustainability of an academic research area analogous to Jane Austen or Henry James studies. In such material is processed through a series of machines. But where does this get us? One has the sense in the first piece that Craig as ‘material boy’ is on the point of intervening to frog-march academe into constructive, hands-on social work – not, come to think of it, much different from David Lodge in Nice Work, his industrial novel – then thinks better of it and changes the subject.

The problem with Craig on gardens is his impatience with history. The employment of the ‘in tending Scotland’ pun never goes beyond a pun, and thus prevents him from exploring an employment which is in so many respects a true simulacrum of the Scottish condition. One of the first significant figures of the scientific enlightenment was the botanist Sir Robert Sibbald (1641- 1722), founder of Edinburgh’s Botanic Garden. The Scot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) invented the English garden of picturesque naturalism in rather an intriguing parallel to Robert Crawford’s notion in Devolving English Literature of the Scots creating Eng Lit. Thereafter Scots gardeners are stock characters, from Mr MacGregor, Peter Rabbit’s near-nemesis, to PG Wodehouse’s Angus McAllister, original of “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotchman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine”.

More materialistically, the gardening Scot was a key figure in the imperial reorganisation of Earth’s fertile places, acclimatising profitable plants to the resources of newly-won territory, and then supplying malleable migrants (usually Indian or Chinese) to do the intending. See the great botanic gardens of Peradinya near Kandy or Singapore, with their essential role in the tea and rubber trades. Walter Scott, always game for a shrewd inference, makes Douce Davie Deans in the Heart of Midlothian a gardener and sets the novel’s melodramatic yet socially satisfying end – the mutual destruction of Staunton and Donacha – in the wilderness-turned-garden that Deans creates in Argyllshire.

 

Ian Hamilton Finlay

Arguably, Robert Louis Stevenson was alive in an even subtler way to the further argument that the garden was symbolic of the division of cultivation between market, nature and art, particularly in his most portentous book Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The plot came from Hogg’s Justified Sinner which Stevenson encountered in the early 1880s, but the name Jekyll was taken from family friends in London, one of whom, Gertrude Jekyll, exemplified the carefully naturalistic utopianism of the arts and crafts garden. Dr Henry Jekyll’s experiment to secure his ‘good self’ is a physiological-psychological parallel to the working-out of imperialism and Voltaire’s abstention from vulgar politics: “Il faut cultiver notre jardin”. At the other end of this process was the jungle from which the ape-like Hyde sprang, later on to figure in his contemporary Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

In this sense, Craig’s point of departure, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta garden at Dunsyre, stems from a much more fundamental critique of Scottish society than Craig allows for. By ignoring this, Craig neglects a preoccupation which his discourse initially promises, the equation between Enlightenment and Improvement.

This shows up in his second chapter, in which the concentration on contemporary controversy – from Hugh Trevor-Roper to the present – means that the whole scientific element falls out of sight. An earlier generation, the clerical contributors to Sinclair’s Statistical Accounts (1790s, 1830s), took a view of society and culture that was perforce holistic. They would have recognised that the Revs Thomas Reid, William Robertson, Thomas Chalmers and Thomas Guthrie, were socio-political actors, as much as the fact that Adam Smith, David Hume and Adam Ferguson were paralleled by James Watt, John Rennie, Joseph Black and Thomas Telford. William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, was not only a scientist but a wealthy industrialist, whose steam yacht, the ‘Lalla Rookh’ (someone had read Thomas Campbell’s epic) combined pleasure sailing with being a floating laboratory. As consultants, Glasgow scientists were businessmen, speculators, sportsmen, making and being propelled by wealth.

There remains a ‘material’ distinction between the two concepts: enlightenment usually comes after improvement and may in a sense negate it. The Florentine Renaissance was founded on the wealth of the Peruzzis and Bardis as bankers, it did not stimulate it. In Scotland the dialogue of both forces seems closer, ironically until the time that preoccupies Craig in the latter part of his book.

Craig’s two middle chapters ‘Beyond Reason’ and ‘Intended Communities’ discuss the postmodernity of the Enlightenment by placing its discourse in the post-1945 period. But by doing so, evidence of earlier research (Henry Grey Graham’s engaging Scottish Men of Letters in the Eighteenth Century and Gladys Bryson’s The Scottish Enlightenment as well as the scholarly history of Henry Hamilton) fall away. Not only this, but thinkers who preserved into the nineteenth century the concerns of the literati, such as Sir William Hamilton, Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, J F Ferrier and James Lorimer, Hamilton’s executor (in some ways the centre of George Davie’s Democratic Intellect and a ‘nationalist intellectual) are rarely mentioned. Perhaps, to put things at their most crudely materialistic, scientific and social innovations flourish in boom periods, philosophers and poets in periods of economic contraction. So that figures such as John MacMurray and R M MacIver spent relatively little time in the country.

‘Telephonic Scotland: Periphery, Hybridity, Diaspora’ is about the internationality of the intellectual, from the Philippine novelist José Rizal to Raymond Williams, in the arbitrary designation of national identity in both cases. With the decline of socialism, even metropolitan intellectuals have opted for nationalism, often of a very ‘constructed’ sort. Citing Homi K Bhaba: “In the modern world… the writing of the core is no less disrupted and fractured by the communities of migrants which are the veritable consequence of the population flows released by capitalism and imperialism”.

This could be seen in, for example, the Guardian during the latter half of 2008, when the fascination with Barack Obama in metropolitan London with its complex mix of incoming intelligentsias outweighed any consistent interest in the problems of galloping financial crisis in the British community and its fissile consequences particularly for Scotland. Intriguingly, though, Craig hasn’t read Dai Smith’s A Warrior’s Tale, which took Williams’ biography up to the publication of Culture and Society and Border Country: the second essentially being a bildungsroman based on the first. It also showed the further complexity in the dialogue of identity that Williams represented, as the son of a railway signalman: an occupation – practical semiotics – that mediated between the different types of community that industrialisation created.

‘Identifying Another Other’ begins with an argument about Yeats as an ahistorical poet, only to subvert this with a quote from Yeats which begins with a remarkable salute to Carlyle: “When once a country has given perfect expression to itself in literature, has carried to maturity its literary tradition, its writers, no matter what they write of, carry its influence about with them…”

Carlyle’s quote, from his essay on ‘Walter Scott’, gave this a religious parentage: “A country where the entire people is, or even once has been, laid hold of, filled to the heart with an infinite religious idea, has ‘made a step from which it cannot retrograde.’ Thought, conscience, the sense that man is denizen of a Universe, creature of an Eternity, has penetrated to the remotest cottage, to the simplest heart.

That poor temple of my childhood is more sacred to me than the biggest cathedral then extant could have been; rustic, bare, no temple in the world was more so; but there were sacred lambencies, tongues of authentic flame which kindled what was best in one, what has not yet gone out”.

The origins of both quotations lie in Adam Ferguson, central to Carlyle’s ‘Characteristics’, a more confident pendant to ‘Signs of the Times’, and his notions of ingroups and out-groups. Carlyle accepted this, but posited the transforming power of religion: a much more dynamic role than he is usually associated with, but with an otherness which was hybrid and therefore tradeable.

I come into view with a rather slighting (though deserved) reference to my treatment of the later nineteenth century, but it is unfortunate that Craig quotes from the 1994 revision of Scotland and Nationalism: two subsequent editions added a new, subtler interpretation of what I have called the ‘Second Enlightenment’, and Floating Commonwealth explores the international implications of this. In some respects it crystallises the adaptivity of the Scots, in combining nostalgic if lucrative patriotismwith active involvement in their host communities; in other respects, it deploys what Craig remarks on: the force of a social pessimism about Scotland’s industrial society, rooted in the absence of a functioning democracy, which thus invested heavily in the transformational categories of Britishness.

Arguably this was a period when the synthesising ease of the ‘common-sense’ philosophy moved from the pulpit to the editorial desk and showed a real facility in cultivating a wide public with decentlyedited didactic material. Craig’s concentration on the neo-Aristotelians has a compactness in terms of logical consistency but neglects the success in major if unorthodox fields, particularly of mass-literacy projects: J A Hamerton and Harmsworth’s Home Educator, the Reverend William Robertson Nicoll and the Bookman,Woman and Home, and indeed the genius of Patrick Geddes, not just at having brilliant ideas for cultural education (but making these coincide with millionaires undergoing pangs of guilt), or of the Hegelian R B Haldane MP’s meticulous conversion of the London establishment to higher education.

Such philosophical briskness lies in direct descent from the practical energy of Thomas Reid. We need it as much today as Scotland did then.


srob

Intending Scotland: Explorations in Scottish Culture Since the Enlightenment
Cairns Craig
Edinburgh University Press, £60
pp288, ISBN 9780748637133

From this Issue

A President and a Pope

by Owen Dudley Edwards

Blog / Discussion

x
2
Posts Remaining