AS the First Minister, Jack McConnell, reminded us at the opening of the Holyrood parliament, we are a disputatious nation. Argument comes easily to us. There is something in our psyche, something deeply rooted in ours souls, something in the pugnacious northern air, that propels us to take issue, dispute, query, pull apart, debate, criticise. We Scots, as one commentator acknowledged, are apt to wag a finger at ourselves or clap ourselves on the back. It is second nature to us. We are ferrets in a bag, boxers in a ring. No sooner is a proposition put up than someone must do his damnedest to knock it down. We can’t help ourselves. It’s what we are.
Nor is there anything wrong with that. In fact, it ought to be a matter for celebration. Nations which do not continually question things are in a rut, condemned to small talk and chitchat. In contrast, the archetypal Scot is an irascible, unignorable, intrusive fellow, who has no respect for conventional mores. In a Glasgow bar, noted the novelist William McIlvanney, you never know where the next assault on your privacy is coming from. Total strangers have a way of worming themselves into your company and hijacking your evening. In Scotland, it may not be advisable to talk about religion or politics or football but it can very hard not to do so.
We have an untranslatable word for this called ‘flyting’, which is the verbal equivalent of brawling. Down the decades there have been many bonnie flyters, the heavy-weight champion being Hugh MacDiarmid. Nowadays, it is fashionable in some quarters to deride MacDiarmid and denigrate his contribution to Scottish culture. Nothing is easier to do since, as he himself conceded, he was as likely – as a human volcano – to emit rubbish as flame. Yet almost single-handedly MacDiarmid dragged Scottish culture into the twentieth century and so far we have not seen his like again.
He was a man on a crusade who was impatient with those who did not agree with him. Among those he picked flytes with were Edwin Muir, who argued that only English could further the literary aspirations of modern Scotland, Hamish Henderson, whose love of folk songs he did not share, and Alexander Trocchi, whom he dismissed as “cosmopolitan scum”. None of it was personal; nor was MacDiarmid always right. But where he did not err was in articulating his case and making matters of cultural importance into public debate. In MacDiarmid’s day, the letters pages of newspapers did not resound with complaints about the cost of a building but over issues such as the status of the Scots language, the parochialism (or not) of Scottish literature, the teaching of our history, and the place of art in society.
Such things were important, and still are. Post-devolution, Scotland is less inclined to blame its next door neighbour for its perceived ills, and for the second-class status of its indigenous culture, but the debate is ongoing. How do we see ourselves? Can we judge? Are we inclined to over-praise and under-criticise? Is our culture in crisis, as the headline writers invariably describe it, or is that simply scare-mongering in the hope of squeezing fatter cheques from the Executive? Who among us is truly world-class? Does being dubbed a World City of Literature make Edinburgh one? Was Timothy Clifford, the Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, accurate when all those years ago he suggested that Scottish art is “a lesser school with a few high points”? And what are we to make of Dr David Starkey’s recent insistence that “Scotland matters for a single reason – its involvement with England from 1707 onwards”.
This first issue of the Scottish Review of Books does not attempt to answer all of these questions. It is, however, the beginning of what’s hoped will be a continuing dialogue in which flyters whether at home or abroad are invited to participate. It is long overdue. We look forward to receiving your comments and suggestions. Letters for publication are welcome, whether sent by e-mail or snail-mail. Publication of the SRB will be quarterly with the next issue due in spring 2005. The deadline for copy is New Year’s Eve.