Monthly Archives: September 2014

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SRB Diary II

There’s a story David Hayman tells audiences. He and I talked after an independence conference at the end of last year and he suggested that I write a piece for him on the subject of independence. Then he says he hears nothing from me for several months, gives me a nudge and over a weekend I write a script.

I wish. David is not only a terrific actor, he’s a gifted storyteller too.

The development of The Pitiless Storm was a deal more problematic than that. It involved numerous discussions over many pints of Guinness. What exactly did we want to say about the referendum? How were we going to say it? Another round? Who should be involved? Nuts or crisps?

By the time we’re actually up and running there are controversies with local councils and Telegraph journalists, visits from former shadow cabinet ministers, last-minute script changes, invitations to extend the run, tears, coffees instead of Guinness. To put the record straight, here is the writer’s scrapbook of the journey.

BEFORE THE STORM (October – June)

Working with a powerful and acclaimed actor and director, the founder of the international charity Spirit Aid, and a prominent opinion-former was always going to be exciting. Or terrifying. David and I had worked together before – he voiced my BBC documentary An Anarchist’s Story, and we have been collaborating on a film script. But this was going to be proper hot-housing. Our positions on the referendum were not identical. I had come late to the movement; David has been an activist for many years. I changed my opinion (thanks, mainly, to the arguments of my weans, one studying medicine, the other international relations and history – I didn’t stand a chance) because it became clear that Westminster will never deliver what Scotland needs or what the majority of its people wants. The Labour project has failed not only Scotland but the whole of the UK. At least we can fix it here.

There was a further complication: I have never written an openly political play. In fact I have an allergy to them, squirming in theatres thinking, I’ll sign the petition, go on the demo, but please don’t make me sit here watching something I already agree with. But this was different. Scotland is on the verge of a momentous decision – surely theatre has a part to play in that?

David and I were very focussed from the get-go on what we wanted our play to do. Certain groups are reportedly in danger of automatically voting No. Under 25s, women, and middle-aged male Labour supporters. Didn’t take a genius to know which demographic David and I should tackle. We had to deliver something more than a simple rallying cry, and monologues don’t lend themselves to agit-prop. This had to be a piece about an individual. We had to bring him to life, make that life bigger and more textured than simply why he decides to vote Yes. Our political decisions are not made on the basis of policy alone. Background, family and friends, our experiences, even our spirituality and sexuality play under the surface of seemingly rational decisions.

So we hit upon the idea of a trade unionist, towards the end of his career, being given an award for his commitment and solidarity, but realising that what he had set out to do as a young man was further than ever from his grasp. The first lines that came to me for Bob Cunningham’s speech were: ‘Why are you here? Everything I ever believed in is in retreat; everything I feared is on the rise.’

I worked on drafts; rehearsed sections with my students at Glasgow Caledonian University. David is right in that some of the bits finally came together over a weekend in March and the draft he received the following Monday had most of the elements we needed for a show. David’s son, David Hayman Jnr came on board as a director (and hats off to him for dealing so authoritatively with two old codgers who think they know it all). Then, as ever in Scottish theatre, we hit the road under-funded, under-rehearsed, the writer still making stuff up on the hop.

STORM BREWING (July)

We opened in Rutherglen on Friday 25 July, ragged edges everywhere. The working title was forced on me at the last minute: a nod to David’s King Lear at the Citz. David’s entrance as Bob wasn’t going to work in most venues the way I’d envisaged. A couple of key turning points would need an extra voice, and David Jnr came up with some last-minute snazzy lighting effects. We’d hoped to use a piece of Martyn Bennett’s music but couldn’t clear the rights in time. I suggested that, as a stop gap, I record a piece of fiddle music. Nicola Benedetti I ain’t but there’s a storyline in the play of Bob’s ex-wife learning to play violin. The make-do-and-mend solution kind of worked and we kept it throughout the run. 

David – busy with TV and two plays for the Fringe – wasn’t yet ‘off the book’ and had to rely on strategically placed notes. My nerves were in bits… But I hadn’t taken into account the Hayman factor. People turn up to see him wherever and whatever the play. He gave a stunning performance. It was the first time I’d seen Bob Cunningham come to life before my eyes. At the end the audience gave a four-minute standing ovation, then settled down for a conversation with the star of the show. David had decided, given the importance and timing of the play, to follow each performance with a question and answer session. We knew that could pose problems and indeed, on the first outing there was a speech from someone who was clearly a plant from the Better Together campaign. Fine. It made the discussion edgier and trenchant, which after all was the point.

STORMS AND TEACUPS (August)

Free speech and open debate became murkier matters as soon as we reached Edinburgh. Playing from the first to packed houses we got involved in two rammies conducted in the press. Argyll and Bute Council suddenly dropped all publicity for the show. Whether because of the subject matter or good old fashioned inefficiency, and whether or not Labour or Better Together had a nefarious hand in it, were disputed in the Scotsman, the Herald, and Sunday Herald over the entire first week. Halfway through another squabble broke out. Jenny Hjul, Daily Telegraph columnist, blogged contemptuously about ‘luvvie nationalists’ moving in next door to her. When David understandably objected Hjul upped the ante in her next column.

All good knockabout stuff and free publicity but the show was selling out anyway. Still, David had to get up on stage each day while people who knew neither him nor our play were calling us liars, and David in particular ‘the enemy’ and a cybernat. David couldn’t tweet even if his feathers were ruffled, which they weren’t. But why is it when Yes voters say anything, in this case in self-defence, we’re accused of being trolls? In fact, a friend of David Jnr’s told us that Twitter had been full of pretty scary insults and threats against us since before we opened. Social media inhabits some lower level of Dante’s hell. In my experience the independence debate has been open, passionate certainly, but serious and sincere on both sides. Throughout David’s post-show debates we’ve had Yesses and Nos, switherers, don’t knows, interested non-Scots, Scots exiles without votes, all engaging in civilised conversation.

Some folks, though, prefer just to listen. Had Jack Straw been tipped off that he got a mention in the play? Bob, nearing his nadir, spits out a litany of demons, and the Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq war gets it in the neck. Give him his due, Straw sat through the debate, by all accounts inscrutably, and put a tenner in the collection David had organised for the people of Gaza. If our purpose, since the day we met at the conference nearly a year ago, was to get people talking, maybe even thinking, it was working. In the theatre, in the cafes outside, among politicians and in the newspapers.

The Assembly Rooms had programmed us next to Alan Bissett’s The Pure, The Dead, and The Brilliant, a wise and wisecracking proper bit of agit-prop with hilarious performances. Perhaps just as well. It’s interesting how a play develops over time. In the last week of The Pitiless Storm, and as we neared the referendum itself, a sizeable percentage of the audience were – in a good way – reduced to tears. Not out of a sense of impending defeat. Perhaps the opposite. The referendum has always been about both the head and the heart. What we’ve lost, what we may yet lose – whichever way the vote goes. Who we are, and our relationships with those around us. If, at the end of the play Bob Cunningham gives his answer, he raises questions for the rest of us. Questions not just about policies and statehood but about what it is to be a nation, how we struggle towards justice and decency in our government and in ourselves.

ANY PORT IN A STORM (September)

Naturally I don’t read reviews, so I simply cannot account for the fact that I know there have been to date exactly nine very positive crits, six ecstatic ones, and a couple of mean-spirited wee sneers. The Herald managed to dismiss four independence plays, between them embracing such Scots talents as Elaine C. Smith, George Gunn, Libby McArthur, Jimmy Chisholm, Bissett and Hayman, in a throwaway foot-of-the-page review by someone who was never going to listen to what any of us was trying to say. Partisan? Well, it’s a free country.

The Fringe had heartened us, but as we set off to play pre-booked venues from Inverness to Dunoon, we were a bit sad too. We always knew Pitiless had a short shelf-life. Basically it would die on the night of the 17th. But the minute I finish this I’m translating the script into Spanish. Catalonia votes – unofficially as far as Madrid is concerned – on 9 November.  Bilbao is pushing for a referendum of its own. Whatever our result  here both the issues and the process are of significance to others. Australia’s showing interest too, constitutional matters being of ongoing concern. So it’s not the end of something, but just the beginning. Because a chance of renewal is rare, profound, moving and crucial.

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Mr Finlay’s Casebook

WHEN eventually you put down this exchange of letters you feel not only that you’ve got to know Ian Hamilton Finlay personally, but that you’ve actually slipped inside his mind, watched him think, and got as close as any outsider could to the deeply troubled personality out of which his creativity emerged. It is  a vivid insight into the working processes of one of the most original artists of the latter half of the twentieth century.

The letters cover a crucial five year period during the artist’s early forties when he was struggling, with ‘a slow agony’, to find new forms of expression, transforming himself from a concrete poet into an artist of words and a creative gardener.  Throughout this period, Finlay suffered from what he called his ‘nervous anxiety’, profoundly unpleasant, frequently recurring panic attacks which prevented him from travelling.  All the letters were sent from just four locations: an Edinburgh flat, a rented cottage on a Highland estate and another in Fife, and finally Stonypath, in the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh, where he took the first steps towards creating his famous garden.

Letters were Finlay’s main means of communicating with the outside world.  A sense of his isolation hangs around his correspondence with Stephen Bann – an academic and aspiring poet – like a haar.  Only the Finlay side of the exchange is included here, but it has required merely the briefest, very occasional, typically self-effacing note by Bann to make every meaning clear.  Thus the book reads like a long, discursive monologue.  Finlay needed a listener he could talk to about what interested him most: himself.  And yet there was genuine warmth in the relationship.  Though he begins by signing off ‘aye’, Finlay soon resorts to ‘love’.

William Blake’s epigram ‘a spider his web; man friendship’ is peculiarly apposite to Finlay.  He returns to this subject repeatedly throughout this correspondence: ‘One imagines friendship as an abiding form, but it does seem that it’s not a form accepted by society in general, so that when people are unfriendly, they don’t at all realize that they are abusing a form. It has gone out, like the idea of chaperons (spelling?).’

Finlay needed Bann’s friendship in a general and specific way.  He writes repeatedly about his desire for ‘the sense of a shared task, of discussion from common ground, of (even) friendly understanding… just so my heart can get a breath of delight (something it has not had for a long time).’ More specifically, he confesses: ‘Many a Finlay poem is due to the enthusiasm aroused by a Bann letter.  Life can easily become a porridge of lethargy….Your letters are a good context for hope.’

Bann threw a lifeline to Finlay quite simply by being nice to him.  Nice may not be a word one associates with Finlay, but it catches light through these letters like pleas for ease from pain.  It is the first thing he says in his opening letter: ‘It was lovely meeting you…and good to remember, because nice people are quite rare (or perhaps not, but I think so).’  Why then, if he valued niceness, did Finlay so often turn vicious?

This correspondence contains many tales of eruptions.  Finlay admits: ‘I simply should not fly off the handle as I do, but somehow that is my way of getting over things.’  These disputes weren’t solely personal – although the waspish, abusive tone with which he dismissed many of his friends and supporters is striking.  MacDiarmid was ‘awful’ and ‘a stupid “Marxist”’;  Edwin Morgan, who did his best to help him, had ‘the cottonwool of complacency in his ears’.  And John Willett, the brilliant assistant editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who also supported him (though not uncritically), was ‘just silly’.

Finlay’s abusive sallies were sorties in the battle he was fighting to have his new art form accepted and understood.  Concrete poetry continued to have its fair share of vituperative ridicule, but Finlay wanted to go one step further: to compose poems that wouldn’t just have a physical presence, but would be valued as works of visual art.  His long-running row with ‘Mr Montgomery of the fucking Fulcrum Press’ stemmed not merely from the way the publisher had abused his trust but, more hurtfully and essentially, from its utter misunderstanding of and implied contempt for the visual aspect of Finlay’s art.  ‘I don’t know if you know just how perturbed I am about the matter,’ he tells Bann. ‘It involves something basic to my whole conception of poetry – namely, that however imperfect we may be, we must still make the attempt to approach, with honourable objectivity and good will, the world of fact.  Our associations cannot be based wholly on expediency or self interest.  I see poetry as being precisely the manifestation of that good will, and for someone to use poetry as means to his own ends, is particularly (in my view) wicked.’  He explains a little more what he means by ‘fact’ in a later letter, quoting G.K. Chesterton: ‘Vanity is self getting in the way of fact.’

There are always disputes at borders, but Finlay’s frontiers were particularly problematic.  He wasn’t an artist, yet he was venturing into an artistic domain.  This meant that he had to use craftsmen to realize his ideas.  A few of these creative relationships were harmonious, but others became fraught, especially when his collaborators claimed part-ownership of the work.  These feuds came mainly at a later period, but several artists had the experience of being drawn by the silken threads of deeply-felt appreciation and praise into the web of this isolated artistic arachnid of the hills, only to be spat out with ferocious venom when they crossed his will.

Curiously, personal details are almost entirely absent in these letters. ‘Sue and I had a wee boy on Monday morning’ merits the briefest mention, between technical considerations of photography and perspex.  Artistic integrity, which for Finlay equated with personal integrity, was something to live by and fight for.  He revealed his true feelings to Bann: ‘I’m not sure I feel very keen on this idea of “involving” people in works of art… a coolness is nicer.  Not a coldness but a respectful distance.’  This was a peculiarly isolationist stance for an artist who was entirely dependent on others for the realisation of his ideas.  His solitary domain on the moors, which depended on the support of like-minded admirers, became a battleground.  He renamed his garden Little Sparta, after the militaristic state of Ancient Greece, and placed an image of a machine gun to guard its entrance gate.  His heartfelt plea – ‘if only I could believe that there was a good which did not depend on people’ – rises like a will o’ the wisp through the painfully submerged feelings embedded in many of these pages.  

Initially, this seems to explain why he took to gardening: plants grow independently, and don’t talk back.  But that was not the case.  Gardening, like visual art, was not an easy or natural undertaking for him; he had no sympathy for, nor much interest in vegetation, and his wife Sue did much of the planting.  ‘Till one starts a garden,’ he wrote, ‘one has NO idea of the amount of work and time involved – things have to be tackled in terms of “next year” or the year “after next”, and even then there is a feeling that one is rushing them… Also the uncontrollable nature of grass and so on, has to be experienced to be believed.’

Only the hesitant beginnings of the garden are recorded here, but from the first it appeared that Finlay wanted to make it a nice place, sheltered from the fierce winds by trees and shrubs, an isolated idyll of lawns, terraces, arbours and ponds, a friendly setting in which he could nurture his art.  This art was in essence cerebral, not organic: it consisted of condensed poetic thoughts.

There are beautiful evocations in this book of ideas in gestation, which alone make  worthwhile.  For example, his thinking about an ‘autumn poem’:

o-

ver

This ‘arose from digging in the earth, which I always think is so beautiful when it is turned over – so much more promising than any crop it bears could possibly be, too.  There is also the idea of digging the earth, while the earth, the world, turns over away from the sun into winter… plus a shadow of the French words for green and for winter.’

Many of his best works are unashamedly lyrical, musings in a pleasant lea.  But the most abiding memory one takes away from a visit to Little Sparta is that of a brush with mortality.  Before he went to live at Stonypath, Finlay had studied photos of Mahler’s tomb, and noted how ‘terribly impressed’ he was with the incised lettering.  One of the first carvers he used was a local monumental mason, whom the poet had difficulty convincing no one had died.  The effect of his inscribed poems, on slabs precisely placed among the garden’s growth, is of a slew of little gravestones, standing against trees or lying in the grass.  Little Sparta now reads like an elegy for a country churchyard, for a departed age when death was an urgent, encompassing reality, and life a pleasant interlude to be shared and enjoyed with friends.


Midway: Letters from Ian Hamilton Finlay to Stephen Bann 1964-69

Edited by Stephen Bann

Wilmington Square Books, £25, ISBN 9781908524348, PP426pp

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The SRB Interview: Andrew Greig

Andrew Greig was born in Stirling in 1951. He spent his adolescence in Fife, before gaining a degree in Philosophy at Edinburgh University in 1975. Growing up in the late 1960s, he played guitar, wrote songs and encountered the Incredible String Band. When he was seventeen he first met Norman MacCaig. He published his first poetry collection White Boats in 1973. His second, Men on Ice, was published in 1977. It became a cult favourite in the climbing world, and led to him joining a series of climbs in the Himalayas in the 1980s. The first of these produced the prose work, Summit Fever (1985). He then tackled ‘The Unclimbed Ridge’ on the Tibet side of Everest, which resulted in Kingdoms of Experience. Both mountaineering works were shortlisted for the Boardman-Tasker award for mountaineering literature. 

The steep ascent into prose continued, and he published his first novel Electric Brae in 1992, following by the first of his two adventure stories written in the vein of John Buchan. The Return of John MacNab arrived in 1996; the second is Romano Bridge  (2008). His other novels include When They Lay Bare, the Second World War love story That Summer, and In Another Light, set in Orkney and Penang, which won the Saltire Book of the Year Award. During his prose excursions he was still publishing poetry, including a return to the frozen territory of Men on Ice with Western Swing (1994), and the short lyric poems of Into You (2001).

In 2010 he published At the Loch of the Green Corrie. Before his death, Norman MacCaig requested that Greig fish for him at the Loch of the Green Corrie – if he could find it. The resulting bookis part memoir, part fishing adventure, and part homage. His most recent prose work is Fair Helen (2013), a novelistic re-imagining of the border ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkonnel Lea’. The oral tradition of the ballads are ideal territory for a writer who still plays music and writes poetry. He is currently working on a co-memoir with founder member of the Incredible String Band, Mike Heron, and a prequel to Fair Helen

As Andrew Greig lives in Orkney through summer, Nick Major corresponded with him from Edinburgh over the course of a week in late August. Their exchange delved into rock of the musical and geological kind, climbed into the dangerous territory of misinterpreted poetry, and swam in the waters of other writers who have made their impact on Greig and the wider Scottish culture.

Scottish Review of Books: What first lured you to Orkney, and what keeps you there?

Andrew Greig: I first came to Orkney in 1979, after a summer doing an archaeological dig in Shetland, so I still think of it as a green, kindly place to the south. I soon knew I needed to be involved in it for the rest of my life: the big sky, the open land, water all round and the inland lochs are very healing and clarifying for me. And some of my dearest friends are here. We play music, sail, fish, and talk. I need mornings alone to work, and after that a degree of company for stimulation, relaxation, normalcy. In Edinburgh I meet friends by arrangement; in Orkney I drop by, they drop in, or we meet in the street. I don’t mind people knowing or guessing my business, and rumour is one of Orkney’s principal industries. My inner world – what Leonard Cohen calls my secret life – remains mine.

Writing from Edinburgh, one thinks of Orkney as a remote place, but also as somewhere that has been inhabited for longer than most of Scotland because it is home to Neolithic settlement Skara Brae.

Rather than think of Orkney as remote, when living here it is Edinburgh, London, and Glasgow that are remote. Orkney is its own centre, as each of us is. Being at a meeting of many sea-roads, it is historically very non-insular. Orcadians have moved all over the world, trading, whaling, sailing, settling, and the world seems to come to it. It is a true mongrel population, a mixter-maxter in George Mackay Brown’s phrase.

Orkney has a distinct literary heritage in authors like George Mackay Brown and Eric Linklater; do you feel a descendant of that?

I’d read George Mackay Brown (GMB), Edwin Muir and Eric Linklater before coming here. I came to know George enough to chat in the street, and watch television with him on occasion. It is impossible to see Assynt unaffected by MacCaig’s eyes and mind, and the same goes for Orkney and GMB. Each time I return I visit George’s headstone to pay respect. The self-composed epitaph reads: carve the runes then be content with silence. I cannot go along with his near-wholesale rejection of the present in favour of pre-Reformation life, his preference for icons and types over individuals, but his absolute dedication to writing, and prioritizing of the work over worldly ambition, remain inspiring. I have written a number of poems about and set in Orkney, and it appears crucially in Electric Brae, In Another Light and Preferred Lies. That said, I don’t see myself as an Orcadian writer – that would be impudent – or even in an Orcadian tradition.

What is the political mood like in Orkney at present, especially in relation to the referendum?

Orcadians accept they are technically Scottish, but know they are more truly Orcadian. This rather colours both Yes and No takes on the Referendum. Edinburgh and London both seem far away, and not terribly relevant. There is a growing interest in working more closely with both Shetland and the Western Isles, to make common cause when it comes to negotiating with whatever central authority lies Sooth.

In At the Loch of the Green Corrie you wrote that as teenager your ‘inner life was mostly informed by music’, particularly the songs of Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and Leonard Cohen. In 1968 you went backstage at The Lyceum to meet The Incredible String Band (ISB). You obviously had an interest in poetry, but was your main aspiration to live the bohemian life of a folk troubadour?

As a Sixties teenager, I was certainly more excited about music than literature. I liked and was affected by the usual poetry: Keats then Yeats then Dylan Thomas then Eliot; the younger, madder Eliot particularly appealed. But it was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, Dylan and Cohen that really mattered to me. They were of me. It’s not coincidental that the first thing I ever made was a song: ‘Summer Isles’, aged 10. It was sung endlessly out the car window (at my family’s insistence) during summer holidays in Assynt.

At seventeen you were also reading Norman MacCaig, and sent him some of your poems. He wrote you a note: ‘come and see me’. Why did you get hooked on his poetry?

I love things I know well: the mile or two around Bannockburn, the brae, the laurels, the trees out back. But I am also lit up by things that are different, like Polish and modern Greek poetry, and poets like Anselm Hollo and Miroslav Holub. The Western Highlands we went to every summer were a revelation: Kintyre, Kishorn, Ullapool, Gigha, Lochinver. But I think I would have loved MacCaig’s poetry anyway. The combination of life-celebration and acute death-awareness were irresistible, but the Assynt connection sealed it. Perhaps that’s what gave me the nerve to send some of my schoolboy poems to him c/o The Scotsman, which led to our first meeting. ‘I quite like some of your poems,’ he said, ‘but then I would, because they’re quite like mine. Perhaps you should write some like your own.’ Funny, acute, waspish, generous. Norman had an ego, and his vanities were as real as his humility, but he wasn’t looking for imitators or disciples. He influenced me by his insistence a poem should make clear sense.

But it was still music that won you over at that age?

The music of the Incredible String Band struck deep. It was utterly strange and, well, incredible. It wasn’t rock ’n’ roll, but it wasn’t earnest folk. It was far out and it was Scottish. It had the effect on me that Lanark would later have on young wannabe Scottish novelists: it is possible to be Scottish and cutting edge. I wanted to make something like it. So me and my school pal George Boyter formed Fate & ferret (the ampersand was important, as was the inconsistent capitalization), and started writing our songs with modal wailing and daft jokes. Essentially, I wrote poetry by default. I wanted to be a singer-songwriter but I wasn’t good enough, and gradually I came to concentrate on what I could do.

MacCaig ‘intensely disliked displays of feeling, particularly in art.’ As opposed to poetry, is one of the distinguishing factors of song writing that it can afford to be flagrant with the emotions?

I still like writing and playing songs. There’s a physical and emotional dynamic in playing music. It opens out the throat, the hands, and the heart. Even poetry is cerebral in comparison. I love it that Pound, the Modernist writer of often impossibly complex works, admitted ‘what lasts is emotion’. MacCaig likewise had both a real and an affected disdain of emotion in poetry – but his greatest poems glow with emotion, with yearning, sorrow, loss, and thankfulness.

In At the Loch of the Green Corrie you wrote: ‘after a certain point life presents itself not so much as a mosaic of lyric moments as the unfolding of one thing after another, that is to say a story’. You published your first prose book, Summit Fever, in 1985. It recounts a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas. Why did you decide to capture this in prose rather than poetry?

Norman would often greet me with ‘not writing prose, I hope Mr Greig?’ For years I had no desire to write prose. My friends and peers like Ron Butlin, Brian McCabe, and Liz Lochhead all wrote poetry. We all met regularly people like MacCaig and Sorley MacLean, Robert Garioch and Hamish Henderson, Iain Crichton Smith and Eddie Morgan. Then Liz wrote a play, and Brian McCabe turned up at a Lost Poets rehearsal and said: ‘I’ve written a story.’ Soon enough Ron, Brian and Alan Spence were publishing short stories. But I was still able to assure MacCaig I wasn’t writing prose. Then in 1983 I met a real Himalayan mountaineer in a pub; he had read my book length poem Men On Ice, assumed I could do what it talked about, and asked me to come and climb the Mustagh Tower in the Karakoram Himalayas. I hadn’t done any technical climbing, I was just interested in it as a bank of imagery and metaphor. I have always been and remain averse to heights, But after some hesitation I had a winter’s training in Glencoe and went on that trip. I wrote Summit Fever about it because a prose account was part of the deal.

In that book you admit you had ‘always hungered after one big adventure’; you also refer to writing in At the Green Loch as a quest.

I am drawn to quests, in writing and in life. They satisfy some basic need for meaning and purpose, and gift us brings heightened experience and new perspectives, unpredicted encounters and consequences. The goal – Ithaca, the Grail, romantic love, to sail to Cava and back, find a loch and land a fish, or climb the Mustagh Tower – is essential, yet the meaning and value reside in the going rather than the getting there.

And you were not put off by that first icy adventure into prose?

I discovered I enjoyed telling a story. Prose allowed a degree of factuality and of discussion and reflection, of thinking, that I tried to keep out of poetry. It’s also good for narrative, and for presenting people. I enjoyed having a bigger readership, and an almost meaningful advance. That expedition led improbably to another, high-profiled, climb: the last remaining unclimbed route on Everest. Kingdoms of Experience had a bigger advance, and a bigger readership. Above all, it got me writing steadily in a way that seemed alien to poetry. As a poet you feel a fraud because most of the time you aren’t writing it. Whereas prose is an occupation, requiring a good sustained five days a week with overtime when it’s going well or deadlines loom.

And did those non-fiction mountaineering books lead to your first novel, Electric Brae, or was the route slightly different?

One climbing off-season, 1986 I think, I noticed I’d started writing my journal in the third person, and wondered if it might be the start of a novel. Electric Brae was powered as a kind of riposte. I had certain beefs at the time: angry, ‘gritty’ urban fiction was all the rage. I couldn’t relate to the cities, or to the anger, or the male characters entirely lacking in emotional self-knowledge and expression, other than anger. I had gay and bi-sexual friends, and close women friends who were neither martyrs nor mothers nor unobtainable objects of desire and none of these appeared in the Glasgow novels. Nor did small towns, villages, islands, the places I related to most. I wanted to get in something of the diversity of Scotland and its languages. Because of my background, I don’t have a stable, set accent, vocabulary, or dialect. What I did have was standard Scottish English, with additional Doric, Lallans, an awareness of Gaelic, and a dose of American from poetry, songs and films, so I consciously explored and used that.

 Your most recent novel, Fair Helen, is a prose reflection on the Border Ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkonnel Lea’. What first interested you about the Border Ballads?

The Border Ballads are part of the DNA of Scottish literature: part song, part recitation, narrative poems. The first song I sang in public was ‘The Twa Corbies’, and I wrote When They Lay Bare after a haunting dream where I lay behind a dry-stone dyke waiting for a young man on a horse whom I knew I would kill. I knew the novel would involve a sense of Fate, the supernatural, and the necessity of revenge – none of which I believe in, but which seem lodged deep in the bone.

Why did you pick ‘Fair Helen’?

A friend drew my attention to that ballad, and said he lived by Kirkconnel Lea. He asked me to visit. He took me round the ruined kirk, the graveyard with the lovers’ stones, and filled me in on the folk tradition that surrounds the ballad. I was struck that these were real people of the late sixteenth century, with specific names, families, places. We explored the peel towers and lands of the Bells, Irvines and Flemings. The English Lakeland hills loomed dimly across the Solway. Horsemen could arrive within an hour, often by night, to take everything you had. The precariousness of the reivers’ existence suddenly seemed very real.

I hesitate to use the phrase, but is a problem when writing a ‘historical novel’ in modern English that you might inadvertently introduce modern, and so incongruous, concepts into a fictional world that is four hundred years old?

The greatest challenge in historical fiction is not research or imagination, but establishing the voice. How to voice the narration? How to present dialogue? I absolutely did not want the archaic ‘Prithee’, ‘my liege’ and ‘God’s a mercy’. To write it in sixteenth century Scots – it really would have been in Latin, with a load of French – would be beyond me, and virtually unreadable. Driving home from Kirkconnel, I realised the Elizabethans did not believe Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet the Dane all spoke English iambic pentameters. All the narration had to do was carry character, and convince, and make the past feel real and happening. Art deals in seems and feels, not verisimilitude (even if we could establish it). Above all, I must remember the past is the present to the people in it – they did not sound archaic to themselves! Then a narrator appeared, Harry Langton, and with the name, his voice, his tone, his background. I wrote his narration, and the dialogue, in ‘normal’ English with a good sprinkling of Scots Doric and Lallans, and the odd bit of French and Latin, like salt on porridge to give it flavor, and remind you of provenance. I tuned Harry’s voice as you would a poem or a piano. He was the key, familiar enough with the Border life to get it, but outside it enough to pass comment, be critical or astounded or amused.

Harry Langton is a sort of factotum. Was part of the allure of writing a novel about a ballad that you could have a fully-formed narrator, and this meant you could investigate the role of the author in the late sixteenth early seventeenth  century?

I’d long wanted to write a novel from the position of a sidekick, an assistant, someone ambiguously a pal and a paid hand. He is narrating the story of Helen Irvine, many years later. He is Leith-born, a cooper’s son. The Guild would have paid for this clever loon to go to the Tounis College (Edinburgh University). He is not gentry, but related to Helen Irvine by marriage. He would have met the hero Adam Fleming, son of a heidsman, at university. Harry is sardonic and sceptical, nursing a secret passion and trying to survive.

I thought the epigram, taken from Michel De Montaigne, was a wonderful choice: ‘I have gathered a garland of other men’s flowers, and nothing is mine but the cord that binds them’. It captures the storyteller’s dilemma in the ballad tradition.

Montaigne’s Essays in John Florio’s translation was a sensation of the time, influencing Shakespeare and many others. Harry would alight on that passage because his voice and history and mind, like mine, is full of other people’s best offerings. In retrospect I can see much of my writing works on existing templates, like The Return of John Macnab, or the core story of The Twa Corbies, or the template of historical events, like the Battle of Britain in That Summer. The originality, if any, is in the cord that binds one’s sources and influences and traditions. The newness is in the selection and incorporation.

What was it about Montaigne that made you want to include him in some form?

I love Montaigne for his wit and insight, but above all his humanity, his absence of shame, self-puffery and conviction. The Essays are truly explorations, open-ended, and not aimed at a pre-determined conclusion. I love his Mais que sais-je? I respond to art that comes not from fixed belief but its joyful, openly-admitted absence. Montaigne and Lucretius were both highly current in Harry’s time, and allowed me to prefigure elements of the Enlightenment. Scepticism, the distrust of accepted narratives and authorities, even of Reason itself, the call for evidence, was germinating in his time, amidst the darkness of religious fundamentalisms and vicious power struggles. It later flowered in the Enlightenment, one Scottish movement of which I am unambiguously proud.

Geology is also a product of the Enlightenment in Scotland. You were familiar with the Lewisian gneiss of Assynt from an early age, and have returned again and again to that region. How do you think your understanding of landscape and geology has informed your work?

My father was very interested in Hugh Miller, the Moine Thrust, and the controversies of Creationism versus geological time. He was an atheist/agnostic who believed strongly in the Enlightenment and in the nobility of the project of Science, the submission of authorities, traditions and theories to evidence. This is something I share. I studied and enjoyed physics, chemistry, maths and biology at school, and only in my final year dropped them all to do more English, French and learn typing. My father gave me the outlook that processes are the key to understanding what you are looking at, and where you stand now. I explored some of this in Loch of the Green Corrie. I also enjoy the language and metaphors geology offers, of layers and shifts, drifts and above all dynamic change, endless process of deposit, upthrust, breakdown, and reformation. It embodies materially my quasi-Buddhist, part Lucretian, outlook on transience.

The idea of transience and that drip-feed sense of time reminds me of your poem ‘Down by the Riverside’: ‘the bank, the branches bead/ and something stops./ It comes clear: time/ doesn’t flow, it drips/ And here’s eternities between the drips’. It is meditative and expansive. Your earlier poems, like those in Men on Ice, also have a Zen aspect to them, although perhaps adopt more of a comic approach to Buddhism.

I have read around Buddhism and Mindfulness, and practised simple meditation on and off for the last forty years. I distrust anything that presents itself as The Way, or asks me to follow a guru without question, or that costs money. (The word secret is usually a give-away. If it’s for sale it’s not a secret.) I’d not call myself a Buddhist. I think reincarnation is incoherent and wishful thinking as anything other than metaphor. I’m neither vegetarian nor a complete pacifist. But the core teachings boil down to a psychology that suggests a great proportion of our suffering is self-created and self-perpetuated, and its core aims are Mindfulness and Compassion. I won’t argue with that. I tend to avoid the B word, because it may well put people off or mislead them. But those concerns and contexts are probably the one thread that runs through all my different writings.

When you were at university you dropped out of studying English Literature and took up Philosophy. Why?

Pulling wings off butterflies was killing my writing and reading. Fortunately my years of studying Philosophy gave me enough critical faculties to stop me signing up to any one belief system. My true instincts and interests are existential rather than political. I mean aspects of being alive, being conscious, being mortal, that are universal. No matter what kind of society one lives in, it’s the same stuff we have to deal with: the arising and passing of everything and everyone we know and love; knowing we will die but not when; how we create meaning in what I view as a meaning-neutral universe, and then often lose it again; the reality and the insubstantiality of who we think we are; how we suffer from desire, yet know it powers our life; how separate we are, and how conjoined. That’s my stuff.

But you wrote that ‘MacCaig’s anti-politics, his stress on the reality and value of individual life, as against abstract ideas and causes, may be his one big political idea’. This suggests that literature, however hard it tries, cannot be apolitical. How do you square you own political views with what you write?

Of course I have political values and emotions. I have notions of the kind of society I would like, and the kind of society we actually live in, and even some ideas about why it is as it is. I vote, always. So far, so political. However, there is nothing original or of value or interest in my political ideas. They don’t much interest even me. They are shared by many, and disagreed with by many. I resist and resent being lectured by novels and poems, so I try not to do it in my own. In essays it’s okay, because then they’re not masquerading as something else, and I can choose to read it or otherwise.

Do you think an independent Scotland would be able to nurture its own culture more so than it does at the moment?

It is probably more accurate to say ‘self-governing’, for surely independence is a chimera? The failure of the ’79 Devolution vote, and the Thatcher years, were tremendous stimulants for creativity in my country. It gave us a point, a position, and a role. A self-governing Scotland might give rise to further creative outpourings and explorations. Or not. I’d like to find out!

So you do not fear a ‘no’ vote?

I will vote Yes. It will not be for tribal or ‘patriotic’ reasons but because it gives us a chance of resisting the neo-liberal economic agenda, which I loathe. It is also more grown up to be responsible for yourself rather than blame others – ‘the English’ – for our difficulties. I intensely dislike that reflex anti-Englishness we still carry. I hope we outgrow it. I have a strong sense that whatever the outcome of the Referendum, we are at the early stage of a process. It will not stop here. We are part-way round a long blind corner. Lately we are asking ourselves who we are and how we want to live, and that is good. We have managed to get to this point without an armed struggle, without blood on the streets, and that is something to be proud of.

In At the Loch of the Green Corrie you wrote: ‘For MacCaig and his peers…poetry was not a career’. Can you map out more fully this change in an approach to writing you detect?

Writing has perhaps become more professionalized, something like a career – which is what I wanted to avoid! When the writers I have known much of my life meet up we toast dead friends and mentors, then celebrate that we are still here, still writing and still being published. Not bored, nor sold out (as if that were an option!) Through the crucial first decade our writing lives were made possible by the Scottish Arts Council, plus signing on fairly unmolested, and doing casual money-in-hand jobs. Though I do not have the solid pension of my geologist brother or my Forestry Commission brother, through more than forty years and twenty books, I have got off with it, and for that I am deeply grateful. Though writing is deeply self-communing, I have always felt part of some unspoken collective endeavour. My wife who has never felt herself to be an English writer, or part of anything, says she envies my sense of belonging and connection. When times are tough and you write nothing or write badly, it helps to have something other than personal neurosis, ego and financial necessity to keep you going

So you identify strongly with the Scottish community?

I strongly self-identify as a Scot, though my mother was from Newcastle, which is a different kind of England. But I have never had the kind of roots and consistency and loyalty to any one part, language, dialect or culture of my country. I was born in Bannockburn, suffered in Dollar, had my teenage years in Anster, went to Edinburgh for some ten years, then lived in South Queensferry, then Stromness, then Sheffield, then Peebles and I’m now back in Edinburgh and Orkney. That diversity, that sense of multiplicity of countries and cultures that make up this one small and large country, affects me still and is reflected in my writings

And of the current community of Scottish writers, who most appeals?

Among younger Scottish poets I respond to Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, Jen Hadfield, John Glenday and John Burnside. All of these make writing poetry seem both possible and utterly desirable. Like most writers, I read selfishly, in hope of being prompted to write. My current most inspirational Scottish novelists are probably Alan Warner and Ali Smith. I will never tire of These Demented Lands or The Sopranos. And I love Ali Smith’s writing, especially the latter, increasingly experimental books that play with essay and novel forms. They are experimental yet direct, subtle and simple, honest and sly. I love their humanity and wit. Still, I cannot write like her, nor like any of the many writers I enjoy and admire. So I return to Norman MacCaig’s 1969 suggestion that I write some like my own. It’s the only thing I’m any good at.

And you have recently been performing poems from your new collection Found at Sea, which concerns a sailing trip from Stromness to the Isle of Cava out in Scapa Flow?

I have come to play guitar and banjo with this narrative poem sequence, and/or do performance readings with what I regard as proper musicians, as well as doing shows with Mike Heron, where I get to play and sing with him, and do my own stuff. It feels like some full and utterly improbable circle back to my origins.

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The ‘Tragedy’ of Gordon Brown

FEW profiles of Gordon Brown omit the word tragedy. The choice of language is odd, even in the devalued currency of magazine headlines. He might not have won every prize he sought, but the member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath could surely claim to have done a bit better than most.

 Until hell sent a bankers’ handcart for the global economy, James Gordon Brown was reputed to have been one of the most adept Chancellors of the Exchequer Britain had seen. Until an accumulation of disgust for his predecessor and former friend, Tony Blair, overwhelmed him in 2010, the son of the manse occupied the office of prime minister, for most of three years, with his usual, fastidious attention to detail.

 That’s not how the story goes, however. In the usual tale Brown is a brooding figure condemned to pay the price for hubris and obsessive ambition. As often as not, this Achilles in a baggy suit sulks in his tent. He is depicted as a man so consumed by the politics of petty rivalry and personal advancement that he forgets why he became a politician – a socialist politician – to begin with.

 A coward who still denies ownership of the words will add that this figure was, perhaps still is, ‘psychologically flawed’. ‘Gordon,’ they will tell you even now, ‘is a bit, you know…’ For the sake of a mere career a fine mind was forfeited. In office, by this legend, Brown lost sight of the famous big picture. He plotted and schemed against Blair relentlessly, to the detriment of the national interest. He threw phones around. He was, they say, a bully. In the end, all the spin left him reeling, disoriented, lost.

 The fables of political failure lean heavily on myth. Brown has suffered deep personal sadness in his life, but his political career was hardly tragic. His premiership was blighted by the bankers and New Labour’s superstitious devotion to finance, but he caused no havoc – and launched no criminal wars – while in 10 Downing Street. He was less the hero laid low by overweening pride than a Labour leader too busy being clever to see that a snap election in the autumn of 2007 would have saved his skin and his government.

 As ever, history has been rewritten, in this case to the point of absurdity. Who now remembers the general relief when the increasingly odd Blair gave up the political ghost? Who is prepared to say that for the first half year of his tenure Brown was a popular PM? When – and why – was it forgotten that the acclaim for his handling of the great banking crash was a global phenomenon? Amid the carnage, governments around the world listened to the Scot in Downing Street. He seemed to know – arguable though the proposition was – what he was talking about.

 Still: the man who now lectures Scotland of pensions threatened by independence laid waste the pensions industry. As Chancellor, he allowed the bankers to run amok. His bizarre decision on the 10p tax rate in 2008 and the exposure of institutionalised corruption among MPs in early 2009 reeked of moral failure. Above all, Brown got to Downing Street when the pretences of new Labour, the enterprise of which he was a parent, were exhausted. If literature is relevant, irony applies. In the end, Brown got the blame for Blair, the estranged and erstwhile brother in arms.

 The tale has another layer. This Scot, never accomplished at making close friends, had made enemies without number in London. Some hated him because he had trodden them underfoot. Some could not – still cannot – retire from the Blair-Brown wars. Some who demanded preferment were denied. Some thought, as they would say, that he was bonkers, or brutish, or simply incapable of understanding that he might ever be wrong. And some just loathed the Jock.

 Even when things were at their worst for Brown, when it had become routine in the London press to call him ‘the worst Prime Minister since’ (take your pick), his popularity among Labour voters in his own country did not falter by much. There was a sense, in fact, that he was being picked on because of his origins, because he continued the hope of ‘real’ Labour, and just because he was thrawn. Like us, supposedly.

 In Scotland, James Gordon Brown has long been regarded as a kind of representative man. Even his allegedly curious inability to smile effectively on demand for the press cameras is treated as a mark of his authenticity. His father was a minister of the Kirk. He was a student of history, by all accounts a brilliant one, at Edinburgh at the age of just 16. He was devoted to work for its own sake and for the sake of others. Back then, in the middle of the 1970s, he gave us The Red Paper on Scotland.

 By the end, when he walked out of Downing Street with his family in May 2010, the disdain in London was palpable. Back in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, he had just been returned with 64.5 per cent of votes cast. The voters of Britain couldn’t wait to be shot of him, so it was said, but Scotland didn’t feel that way. This might be called Brown’s Paradox.

 In his 63rd year, he fights to preserve a United Kingdom founded on what he would call Labour’s values. He publishes a book, My Scotland, Our Britain, that attempts to explain both the arguments and the man. In the name of ‘A Future Worth Sharing’, as his sub-title runs, he refuses to share a campaign platform with Tories. In the volume there are autobiographical passages which make a near-explicit connection between a man’s life and the recent history of his country. Or countries.

 For Brown, the argument over independence is personal. That’s as it should be, no doubt. But a volume such as My Scotland, Our Britain is as much an attempt to vindicate a life as it is an effort to justify a 307-year-old constitutional arrangement. What will it all have been about for Brown, and for others in the cast of Scottish Labour, if the vote is Yes? The country that rejects their party will also be rejecting them, as people and as politicians. They will be judged, and judged to have failed.

Brown’s bulwarks can be found in what he calls ‘A Sharing Union’. Others might simply call it the Labour tradition. He places Scotland in the context of a globalised world and reasons – for he does reason – that interdependence is an advantage waiting to be exploited, not a barrier to progress. He recalls the history of redistribution within these islands in the face of de-industrialisation. He invokes the Scots who were architects of the NHS. ‘Pooling and sharing’, these days Brown’s favoured shorthand, is everywhere in his pages.

 Unlike some in the Better Together campaign, the former prime minister does not deny or deride the Scottish tradition from which he sprang. He does not waste time on the fatuous notion that there is no important difference in attitudes north and south. He writes instead of ‘Scotland’s deep commitment to social justice, which is not only asserted through our commitment to fairness within Scotland but also in our desire to be an outward-looking nation and good global citizen in a post-imperial world.’

 Brown believes, nevertheless, that another – still another – constitutional rearrangement is required. Each previous offer was presented as the last word on the matter, but the senior voice of Labour in Scotland, at the final hour, speaks again. He has a new contract in hand, one designed to fix a problem that was not supposed to exist. Why – the question is not even slightly serious – now?

 A Holyrood parliament made permanent? Brown seems to think the institution needs protection. Equality as the ‘guiding mission’ of the Union? Apparently some don’t share our ‘deep commitment to social justice’. Enhanced powers for Edinburgh, an end to the House of Lords, devolution all round for the UK? The question is simple and direct: if the need for these reforms is pressing, why did new Labour’s second among equals and paramount Scot not mention them before?

 In his final words, Brown states: ‘I vote for Scotland leading Britain – not leaving it’.

That has a more noble ring, no doubt, than the retort: You had your chance. Labour, Scottish and British, had many chances. One aspect of the fact is that many in its ranks never cared much for home rule, far less for independence, and would still rid themselves of the Holyrood nuisance if they could. As with Brown, the Westminster connection has justified their careers. As with Brown, they cannot conceive of an existence for themselves or their country that does not have London as its terminus and pinnacle.

 The former prime minister traces a family history co-existent with the Union. He comes – and very few do not – from farming stock. That connection was severed, finally, in the middle of the 1930s. Brown’s statement of the fact counts as an inadvertent metaphor: ‘For my family, as for so many, the only connection to the land we once farmed is handed-down memories’. You could say the same – I would say the same – about the husbanding of democratic power in this country. What once was ours was lost. Why not take it back?

 The architect of new Labour would call that unwise in a globalised world, the world that came within hours of collapse when financial systems fell apart. At times, his notion of ‘pooling and sharing’ sounds like a huddling together for little islands too small to cope with a big, dangerous world. Ultimately, nevertheless, his prescriptions for Scotland read like a last attempt to make sense of a career defined by London’s power.

 In the early days of Holyrood, it was common to hear people wondering why so many of Brown’s generation had not the slightest interest in a career in Scotland’s parliament. For them it was, in every sense, subordinate and secondary. The former prime minister has not changed his mind about that. That is, to stretch the word once more, another sort of tragedy.


My Scotland, Our Britain – 

A Future Worth Sharing

Gordon Brown

Simon & Schuster, £20, ISBN 978 1471137488, PP336

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SRB Diary

Tuesday, 5 August

Our Italian friends arrive, just in time to see the first Darling-Salmond clash on STV. I say Italian, but Margaret is actually Scottish, though she has lived and worked in Italy for over forty years. Her husband Antonio is quintessentially Italian, a retired Rome businessman. He speaks excellent English and is gracious about having to watch our very Scottish spat.

I’m fascinated to hear how he, a genuinely objective outsider, assesses it. He reckons that Salmond just wins, by the narrowest of margins. (The next day, the nay-saying media strongly disagree.) He also says that Salmond comes over as a much more pleasant personality.

Tuesday, 19 August

My intention, at this time of reflecting on the future of my country and of course its past as well, had been to reread my three favourite Scottish novels: Flemington by Violet Jacob, Witch Wood by John Buchan and Gillespsie by J. MacDougall Hay. Each has a tremendous amount to say about the Scottish psyche. And each is very dark, though Flemington is written with a supple, light touch. All of them are of course historical novels; Flemington and Witch Wood  go quite far back. Whereas Hay wrote Gillespsie in 1910-13, and set it in the Tarbert (the Loch Fyne Tarbert), of about thirty or forty years earlier. 

But I suddenly decide to go for something that is as far away from Scotland as possible. I once read that The Asiatics by Frederic Prokosch was the favourite novel of Albert Camus. I was vaguely aware that  it is an eccentric picaresque written by a young American, educated at Yale and Cambridge in the 1930s, who became a minor but respected novelist. The thought occurs: Could this elusive novel provide the necessary diversion, and some elegant escapism? It does, and how.  Having tracked down a copy, I’m soon entranced and indeed mesmerised.  The style is lush and dark. I’ve never read anything like it; smooth and beguiling, yet, as you come to realise, deep and disquieting too.

Thursday, 21 August

Lunch with Seonag Mackinnon and Rob Flett, two excellent journalists who left the BBC to put some much needed smeddum into the Church of  Scotland’s communications effort. As a long time critic of the Kirk’s inadequacy in this area, I’ve been impressed by their efforts. Yet at this time of all times, can the BBC in Scotland afford to let two such good journalists go? The organization seems to be constantly cutting back rather than expanding in Scotland, which is peculiar.

Friday, 22 August

To Fife, for the funeral of a distant relative, a 98-year-old farmer’s widow who had a contented and useful life. The service is pleasantly and warmly conducted by the Rev Liz Stenhouse. It is a pleasure to record this; too often folk are upset by what they regard as the inadequacies of ministers taking funerals. I have some sympathy with the clergy. Funerals cannot be planned; sometimes two or three or even four have to be taken  in the same week. And folk who may not have darkened a church door, to use that peculiar phrase, for many years can be very critical indeed – sometimes far too critical – when the minister does not get every detail of a life exactly right. At the purvey the proceedings are enlivened by one of the guests (not myself) going round asking people how they intend to vote on September 18. Few seem prepared to tell him. Of those who do, more say Yes than No. But he admits  later that he suspects that some No voters may be reluctant to admit their intentions publicly.

Saturday, 23 August

To Perth to see my team, Aberdeen, playing St Johnstone at the trig and pleasant McDiarmid Park. I’ve been supporting the Dons for over fifty years and cannot really complain; there have been some fine teams, and plenty of memorable moments. But there have also been plenty of dull, dispiriting periods. I sometimes wonder exactly how a football club can take such a hold of its long- suffering supporters,  why its performances and results matter so much. Surely in few other aspects of life would you tolerate for so long so much mediocrity, so much frittered-away potential. Is a Scottish football club the ultimate lost cause? But then I’ve been lucky: as I say, I’ve been privileged to see some magnificent  players and at least one superlative team.

On the other hand Pittodrie on a freezing February afternoon must be one of the grimmest places on God’s earth. I’ve sometimes told the story of how, when I was quite young, we hovered near the Merkland Road End, not knowing whether to leave or not (there were about 15 minutes of an excruciating game against Clyde remaining). An ancient  Dons supporter  was more decisive. He shuffled angrily past, cast a final rancid glance at the pitiful proceedings, and then enunciated a single bitter word: ‘Putrid!’.

Then he spat, spectacularly. The snell wind caught the globule, which described a parabola of unlikely beauty and then splattered definitively against the granite wall of the old Merkland stand.

Right now the team remains on a cusp; it has potential, but it doesn’t seem to know whether it can improve or just sink into mid- table lethargy. This particular game at Perth is marginally better than dour. The home team win 1-0, with a well taken late goal. The crowd is just over 6000, which is disappointing, especially as almost half of  those present are Aberdeen supporters. McDiarmid Park is a splendid place, situated a mile or so west of the old Muirton Park, where I used to watch great St Johnstone players such as John Connelly and that underestimated and very wily winger Fred Aitken playing inventively against Aberdeen in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was my favourite away ground. There were some really great games at Muirton. Often the Dons struggled at Pittodrie but played with far more confidence and flair away from home. For some reason they tended to play particularly well at Dens Park, Dundee, and Muirton.

Monday,  25 August

The second TV debate, this time on the BBC. These debates are much trumpeted and discussed, but in the long run, are they really significant? Nick Clegg did very well in the TV debates prior to the 2010 UK general election, and look what’s happened since. Anyway, my wife Julie, who has been a thoughtful supporter of Scottish independence for much longer than I have, and is both ardent and balanced in her commitment to the cause, is no doubt a little biased. I, a later convert, most certainly am. But even allowing for all that, our mature conclusion is that Salmond utterly trounces Darling, who is poor in the debate and sour in his demeanour.

This is, more or less, the verdict of most of the media over the next twelve  hours or so, but the admission that Salmond won is often grudging. There is also much emphasis on the bad temper, the shouting and the interrupting, as if these somehow diminish Salmond’s victory. Have these ultra-fastidious critics never listened to or watched Prime Minister’s Questions at Westminster, when the House of Commons becomes an unedifying and grotesque bear-pit, with the massed ranks of demented MPs baying, jeering, chanting and screaming, totally drowning out the words of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition? And have they never contrasted the egregious behaviour at Westminster with the comparatively douce behaviour at at Holyrood? But then some people think Westminster must be superior, because it’s not in Scotland.

Thursday, 28 August

Old friends from Tillicoultry visit us for lunch, and a long and invigorating blether. Both are retired educationists. George is a former professional footballer (with Partick Thistle) who then found a new career in education and worked his way up to become a head teacher. Fiona first taught English, then became a special needs teacher, and from all I have heard, a very good one. They are on either side of the current great divide, George being a convinced No voter and Fiona being very much in the Yes camp. But there is no bitterness in their banter. Away back Fiona’s father was the solitary, and brave, SNP councillor in Aberdeen. He was a flamboyant figure, but I’m not sure how effective he was as a local politician. Even so he – and others like him up and down Scotland – deserve enormous retrospective credit for keeping the SNP flames burning when they seemed, so often, to be about to sputter out, the final forlorn flickers of a lost cause.

Such men and women were giants. We are where we are today because of them. I salute them. Of course the current Yes Campaign is about much more than the SNP and we are not going to be voting for a political party. Nonetheless, the SNP must take much of the credit for getting our nation to the exciting place it is at today. So too, I believe, must the late Donald Dewar. Of course he did not believe in Scottish independence. But he did believe fervently in the necessity for a devolved Scottish parliament, so much so that he was prepared to take the risk that it might just pave the eventual way to independence. He was a truly great man, though I have my doubts about the statue of him at the top of Buchanan Street. And if there is ever to be a statue of Alex Salmond, where should it be placed?

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Say Not Soft Things

IN their garden in East Lothian, my parents sat in the sun a few weeks ago, watching a plane leave a trail of vapour, like an e-cigarette, across the sky. Instantly, my mother was back in wartime London, recalling the sickening sound bombers made as they began to dive before dropping their load. Whenever she hears a plane’s engines change their tone, she thinks of those times. 

Her irascible uncle, with whom she was evacuated to Shropshire, had fought in the First World War. When he came home from work and settled in his armchair for a nap, she and her aunt would have to sit reading or sewing in absolute silence. Even a book falling off a lap would rattle him, his nerves still raw from the guns and bombs that had destroyed his peace forever.

My father followed the plane with more of a trained eye. As a schoolboy he had been in the Royal Observer Corps, before being conscripted into the army and reaching India some time after VJ Day. Even now, he receives a letter every Christmas from his former batman. My father’s father had been at the Western Front, in the Royal Army Service Corps, taking munitions to the front line, since in civilian life he worked as a chauffeur,  but could handle nervous horses as well as temperamental engines. He was decorated for bravery by both the French and the British, but never spoke of what he had seen or done, though he did not fully recover from the effects of gas on his lungs.

The airplane disappeared, and the summer air quietened, but we were all aware that if my grandfather had died in France, or my mother’s London terrace had been hit, none of us would have been here. Because of that, as for so many families, the First and Second World Wars still feel personal. They are too close to be consigned to history alone. Many of us can trace a direct link to those who served in one if not both conflicts, and mentally follow the path our relatives took during those terrifying years, while wishing we knew more. 

Details of what servicemen endured, or how those left at home felt as they waited for them to return, emerged only slowly from the Great War. Now, a hundred years later, the most vivid record left is from war poets, on whom schoolchildren of the mid-twentieth century were weaned as their forebears once were on Greek and Latin odes. However, in Isn’t This All Bloody? Scottish Writing from the First World War, Trevor Royle eschews poetry, and instead gathers prose in an attempt to recreate the mood of that war, from its early and unthinking gung-ho days, to its embittered end. In so doing, he also shows the influence of 1914-18 on Scottish literature, that conflict acting as a hinge on which the country’s almost moribund fiction and poetry swung from torpor and tweeness towards a new tone and vigour.

Royle’s absorbing selection – gleaned in part from earlier of his anthologies – takes its title from poet Charles Hamilton Sorley’s letter to a friend on the outbreak of hostilities: ‘Isn’t all this bloody?’ wrote Sorley, who had just returned from studying in Germany, a country he was beginning to admire. ‘I am full of mute  and burning rage and annoyance and sulkiness about it. I could wager that out of twelve million eventual combatants, there aren’t twelve who really want it.’

Not all those who appear in this collection were as cynical or thrawn. JJ Bell, creator of Wee MacGreegor, starts the book with a typically pawky piece of humour about a soldier who, thinking he is about to embark for Flanders, commits the grave error of jettisoning his inhibitions and telling his auntie he loves her. John Buchan is given lavish space, including three extracts from his novel Mr Standfast, in which Richard Hannay is brought back from the front  and goes undercover as a pacifist to flush out a German spy. Buchan is always readable, but in this guise his tone is that of an adventurer breezily recalling his exploits. It is only in his poetry, of which more below, that his deeper feelings and perceptions, and his understanding of sorrow, are given voice.

Fiction offers a filtered, or nuanced light on events, as in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s searing portrait of a deserter’s fate at the end of Sunset Song, but while first-hand accounts can also be tailored to the writer’s purposes, they nevertheless offer a more immediate window on events. One of the outstanding such pieces is by archaeologist-turned-nurse, VCC Collum, a member of the dauntless all-women staff at Royaumont Hospital, near Paris, founded by surgeon Elsie Inglis, which became a benchmark for humanitarian aid and selfless courage. Returning to her post from leave, Collum’s ship was torpedoed as it crossed the Channel, and she was badly injured. What follows is an extraordinary description, written from hospital as she convalesced, of passengers trying to save themselves, and in the process nearly scuppering any chance of survival. Remarkable too is the sang froid of some on that stricken ship, such as the bejewelled Frenchwoman, fearing the worst, ‘who said some brave words about death coming to all, only coming once, and being soon over’.

There are gruesome recollections here, from medical staff detailed to hunt for the wounded and finding scenes of unimaginable horror, to ordinary soldiers, keeping a tight grip on their fear. Among the most memorable, because so undramatic, is novelist Saki’s sketch of wildlife in war-ravaged France, a simple evocation of a world turned upside down. As well as observing that the northern French owl is thriving, thanks to the abundance of ruins tenanted by mice, he notes that the rook is now so used to noise, he barely flinches. ‘I have seen him sedately busy among the refuse heaps of a battered village, with shells bursting at no great distance, and the impatient-sounding snapping rattle of machine-guns going on all round him; for all the notice that he took he might have been in some peaceful English meadow on a sleepy Sunday afternoon.’

Royle’s scope is comprehensive, including reports from the home front, as by gushing novelist Rebecca West on a secret tour of a powder keg of a munitions factory manned by women – ‘they face more danger every day than any soldier on home defence has seen since the beginning of the war’ – or the Red Clydeside rumblings against the war. More variable in interest are diaries, letters or memoirs of those who, in later life, will become influential literary figures. There is Eric Linklater’s entertainingly told tale of how a bullet made a furrow in his head (his dented helmet is now held in the National Museum of Scotland); Neil Munro’s amused discovery of censorship, as rumours of Russian troops passing through Scotland run amok and scepticism is quashed; or Hugh MacDiarmid’s letters from the Salonika front: ‘It is a wonderful place this ancient city… So many Scotsmen are here that it has been suggested that it should be called not Thessalonica, but Thistleonica.’ Few could have guessed from such lines that his full-throated literary roar would soon set the stars spinning over Scotland.

Illuminating as this prose record is, it can only rarely match the intensity of the work gathered in From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945. Although much has been made of the influence on Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon of their meeting at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland produced few poets in the Great War of their calibre or enduring popularity. The flourishing of poetry that this cataclysm produced has never been equalled, though much of it was forgettable. As the editors David Goldie and Roderick Watson remark in their introduction, so many were feeling the muse that the Glasgow newspaper, The Bailie, opined in October 1914 that ‘everyone appears to be hammering out verse to the best of his, her or its ability’ and offered to provide a recipe to help them compose their thoughts.

Those who wrote well, however, leave readers forever in their debt. Putting aside the patriotic, whizz-bang response more typical of the war’s early stages, as found in the likes of Neil Munro’s ‘Hey, Jock, are ye glad ye ’listed?’, most of the poems in this superb and revelatory collection take one to the heart of war, and show its unbearable miseries. John Buchan bares his soul in rich lowland Scots, as if the patrician language of his day-job cannot begin to express the pain he has experienced, on his soldier son’s death, and also seen in others. ‘A’ the warld was a grave’, he writes blackly in ‘On Leave’: ‘Loos and the Lammerlaw,/The battle was feucht in baith,/Death was roon and abune,/But life in the hert o’ death.’ Before his death in battle in 1915, Charles Hamilton Sorley found a brief outlet for his fury, in works such as his famous ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’. ‘Say not soft things as other men have said,/That you’ll remember. For you need not so.’ Had he lived and written more, his reputation might have rivalled Sassoon’s.

The second half of this anthology refutes the common assumption that the Second World War did not produce much notable poetry, or none that compares with writing from the trenches. What might be more true, perhaps, is to say that these works, from the fields of war and the beleaguered home front, no longer have the elegaic tone of their predecessors. There are no anthems here, no solemn or outraged hymns. The note is more of resignation, or a determination not to lose perspective or humanity, rather than the mourning of a lost Elysium and shattered hopes. This is not very surprising. In the years between the wars, life had been grey, not golden, and many certainties as well as convictions had been lost by the time Germany invaded Poland. Unlike some in the previous war, no one doubted that this was a just cause. This gives an air of world-weary acceptance, as in Maurice Lindsay’s ‘The Trigger’ (‘I simply move my finger/ and a bullet will pierce a hole in my enemy’s breath’), or William Montgomerie’s ‘The Edge of the War’  (1939- ): ‘On the esplanade/the deck-chair hirer/watches his summer/shovelled into sandbags…’ 

Naomi Mitchison’s ‘London Burning’ is a study in resilience and affrontedness: ‘Going to work tired, blitz talk in bus and office,/ Re-filling buckets, blitz talk in shop and kitchen./ Going with a history book to a library./ Hoping to look up a reference,/returning books to the library there is no:/ There is no library.’ One wonders, though, what mood would have been struck, and if these writers’ thoughts might have moved in an entirely different direction had they known the full horrors of Hitler’s regime as they wrote. Would Sorley MacLean have been as philosophical in ‘Going Westwards’? ‘There is no rancour in my heart/against the hardy soldiers of the Enemy,/ but the kinship that there is among/ men in prison on a tidal rock.’ Or  would Hamish Henderson have written so feelingly of ‘Seven Good Germans’, whom he sees killed in the desert, like fish in a barrel? Actually, one suspects they and others would still have felt profound sympathy with the common soldier, under orders as were they, and nothing like their  psychopathic leaders.

As if picking up the thread of Royle’s work, Goldie and Watson’s collection gives ample space to those writers who were to prove pivotal in the literary renaissance of the mid-twentieth century. As well as the two just mentioned, there is Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan and above all Hugh MacDiarmid, who recognised the subversiveness of his art in his railing rant, ‘The Kind of Poetry I Want’: ‘The poetry that is scheduled as a Dangerous Occupation,/ The most dangerous occupation in the world today.’ By 1939, MacDiarmid was already a leading nationalist, but is it fanciful to wonder if younger writers’ war-time service led them also to recognise the importance of protecting, and indeed bolstering, a country’s  identity against the engulfing tide of global alliances? If so, such heightened national self-awareness is only one of the enduring legacies of that all-consuming war, which set half the world at the other’s throat. Yet one is obliged to marvel, and be glad,  that ‘the little white rose of Scotland’ that MacDiarmid extolled, was not destroyed in the raging storm. Nor did it wither in the long winter of the cold war. Fragile though it was, it clung on, and today it flourishes, as if indestructible.   


ISN’T ALL THIS BLOODY? SCOTTISH WRITING FROM THE FIRST WORLD WAR

Edited by Trevor Royle

BIRLINN, £14.99 ISBN 978 1 78027 224 5 307PP

FROM THE FRONT LINE: SCOTTISH WAR POETRY 1914-1945

Edited by David Goldie and Roderick Watson

ASLS, £12.50 ISBN 978 1 906841 16 4 232PP

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A Highland Life: Remembering Neil Gunn

LET us not waste time speculating on how Neil Gunn would have voted. He would have voted Yes. He was all his life a committed Scottish Nationalist. He defended nationalism against the idea that it was intrinsically bad, that it was anti-internationalist and the fundamental source of evils such as Nazism. He would have been irritated, in the present debate, by the endless criticisms of ‘narrow’ Scottish nationalism and bemused by the unquestioning acceptance of British nationalism, which to many of those same critics is either completely invisible or, at times for example of Olympic achievement, marvellously wholesome and entirely benevolent.

In his 1935 book Whisky and Scotland Gunn noted that ‘any effort on the part of any section – such as Ireland or Wales or Scotland – of the Celtic fringe to form itself into a nation is not merely opposed but bitterly resented as if it were something in the nature of a betrayal of human progress.’ Eighty years on, the story is the same. From the Prime Minister of Australia to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen we have been warned that the enemies of freedom and justice around the world will applaud a Yes vote, that the ‘forces of darkness’ will be cheering from the wings. I suppose it is reassuring to know that they care so much.

Neil Gunn does not strike me as having been a nationalist of the flag-waving, drum-beating variety. He took a more considered, and perhaps also a more long-term, view. When Gunn was born, in 1891, the Union of Parliaments was not two hundred years old. Now it is more than three hundred years old. That makes a difference. When he was a boy growing up in Caithness, there were almost certainly people living whose grandfathers had been born in an independent Scotland.

In a film made in 1971 to mark the writer’s eightieth birthday, Neil Gunn: Light in the North, George Bruce questions him about his interest in matters ‘beyond’ the common life of the community – or what Gunn calls ‘profounder states of mind’. Second sight is mentioned, and Gunn’s interest in Zen is also implied. ‘Is there not a danger,’ Bruce asks, ‘in becoming interested in strange experience, that you detach yourself from the central experience of life?’

‘There is actually none [i.e. no danger],’ Gunn replies, ‘because there is always a compensating balance…’ He goes on to talk about his concern with the unity or wholeness of life. He had never, he says, written two novels on the same subject because there was such a variety of life in the Highlands – a greater variety, he believed, than was generally experienced in, say Edinburgh or London. He then speaks of the contentment that comes from having, as he puts it, entered the region of light, and the sense of freedom that come the further you go into the light. He admits that this is difficult territory, and that he is self-conscious about speaking of it lest he be accused of going ‘mystical’ – a word he has never understood because the state of mind he is describing is accompanied by an intense clarity. ‘All the complications of that kind of philosophy must lead – or you fail – to an ultimate simplicity. And this simplicity has the freshness of a lovely morning when you’re in perfect health and you think it’s marvellous to be alive. Or, as one Zen master put it, I fetch water; I break sticks: miracles.’

When he gave that interview Gunn was not in good health. He was lonely, missing his beloved wife Daisy who had died in 1963, and nearing the end of his own life. Yet you hear these things spoken in his beautiful Highland voice and you know he means them. To agree with him that he never wrote two novels on the same subject is not to deny that certain incidents and situations occur more than once in his fiction: the ascent or descent of a cliff, the storm, the boy and the salmon, the poaching foray and so on. Some of these also occur in his last work, The Atom of Delight,the nearest thing he wrote to an autobiography. These are often the moments of heightened experience alluded to in that interview. And although it is certainly true that no two Neil Gunn novels are the same, despite surface appearances, there is a unifying subject, of course: it is life, the wholeness of life.

When I return to one of his books I am struck by the depth of both intelligence and kindness in his writing. I warm to him. I was fourteen when he died and his name was unknown to me then. I was in my mid-twenties when I first read him. He is one of many writers of his generation whom I would like to have met, and one of the few I would love to have known. It seems that it was necessary for Scotland, and the Highlands in particular, to produce a Neil Gunn in the twentieth century. So long as people exist who value quality of thought and expression, and a commitment to good art, Gunn will last. People born long after his death can and do and will come across one of his books and find themselves in it. I don’t mean that they say, of one of his characters, ‘That’s me!’ I mean that they can recognise, in his words, their own search for meaning in life. And this may apply especially – not exclusively but especially – to those readers who are also from the Highlands and have, like him, a Highland sensibility. This idea of recognition seems important.

Gunn came out of a place. He was rooted, and acknowledged the values of that place and its people, but that rootedness did not narrow his outlook. When Lewis Grassic Gibbon read Butcher’s Broom, Gunn’s novel of the Clearances, he wrote to him: ‘After I finished the book last night I went a walk and thought about it and forgot aesthetic appreciation and was merely filled with anger and pity for those people of yours – detachment in these matters is impossible for me, I’m too close to those folk myself. Great book.’ Those people of yours: there is something fierce in that. The Gaels, the dispossessed, the glen-dwellers reformed as fisher-folk: this history was in Gunn’s blood and spirit. He is a great example of why the culture of any country – of any part of a country – matters, and why patronising attempts to tell us that such local or national engagements are irrelevant diversions from the big questions of our time must be resisted. It is always worth reminding ourselves of the embedded parochial arrogance that so often disfigures the cosmopolitan mind, and of the cultural barrenness of multinational globalism which seeks to make customers, the same kind of customers, of us all.

Society changes, and the ways communities are organised and operate change. Many of us no longer have the rootedness that Neil Gunn had. But even if your roots don’t go deep it is not an easy thing to do, in Scotland or anywhere – to pull them up, shake off the soil and go. You always take some of the soil with you, whether to the coast or to the city or to some other part of the world. For much of Scotland’s modern history, that is what millions of people did. They went away from their origins to make new lives elsewhere. They did this, usually, because they had to, or because the prospect of staying was so much poorer than the possibilities offered by leaving. In recent years there has been a change. Many still leave, but far fewer go away never intending to return. More of us stay because the prospect of being here is better than what is on offer elsewhere. And people arrive here from other places for that same reason. There is a future here and, as far as we can look into the future, it looks good. Does that prospect look better or worse if, in a week’s time, we decide to rearrange our present relationship with the other parts of the United Kingdom, this kingdom that is not so united or together as is sometimes claimed?

Here we are in Inverness, just round the corner from Larachan, the house in Dochfour Drive which was built for Neil and Daisy and where they lived in the 1930s, and just round another corner is the referendum. In his many articles in the Scots Magazine and elsewhere Gunn clearly and calmly made the case for independence – and if nothing else they remind us just how long this debate has been going on. He wanted independence not just for Scotland but for communities and individuals: he wanted political and economic power devolved as far as they could be devolved, not just to Edinburgh but to – his special interest – the Highlands and Islands, to bring sustainable employment and decent living standards to ordinary people. He discussed farming, fishing, forestry, land ownership, transport links, hydro-electricity, appropriate industries – the arguments have not changed that much in seventy years – but he had a wider context, which was self-belief, a spirit of confidence that he thought was often absent from Scotland.

At first glance there seems to be a contrast between the straightforward, down-to-earth tone of his journalism and the occasionally opaque difficulties of some of his fiction; the grasping for meaning that goes on in the novels. But if you accept what he said in that 1971 film, there is no mismatch between the two: Gunn dismisses any danger of detaching oneself from the central experience of life; there is the compensating balance between, if you like, the practical demands of life and reflection on what life is. Most of us cannot live without reflection. Certainly we cannot reflect without having lived.

In their biography, Neil M. Gunn: A Highland Life, published in 1981, Francis Hart and John Pick write: ‘The deeper Neil penetrated into the Highland landscape of heart and mind, the more his books implied that “other landscape” which is seen so simply when the “second self” wakes up and looks at this world, alive in all its dimensions, in its depths and vividness. For the “other world” is “this world” seen by one who is fully awake.’ When Neil started exploring Zen, it was not that it influenced him. ‘It was of value to him because he recognised it. Zen joined him companionably in the place where he was.’

Note that heart and mind are not here an either/or pair. They are not fighting one another. We are often told – or it is implied – that the Yes/No vote in the referendum is a battle between heart and mind, feeling and thinking, emotion and rationality. Not so. You cannot separate out such key elements of human consciousness. It is a false way of looking at how we behave, both as individuals and as a group.

Yet consider the referendum campaign. Why has the debate been conducted so overwhelmingly in terms of economic and social benefit or detriment? Have politicians shied away from questions ‘beyond’ facts and figures lest people think they have ‘gone mystical’? Are they afraid of stirring up unhealthy or unhelpful passions? Perhaps. ‘Civic’ nationalism as espoused by the Scottish National Party has the great advantage of not being about ethnicity, creed, colour or language. Scottish independence is not predicated on arguments of blood and soil. Yet, however coolly rational we may think ourselves, none of us will go into the ballot box without that ‘other’ landscape and life having an influence. Behind the question, ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ is another question ‘What kind of country do you want Scotland to be?’ And behind that one lie more questions: ‘Who are we?’ ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I doing here?’ ‘What is the truth of my experience, of my existence?’ How can I reconcile myself to life?’

Barely seven of the 670 pages of the Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, are concerned with culture. The strength and vibrancy of Scottish culture are, however, flagged up  so maybe it was felt that there was no need to go on about it. Arguably ‘culture’ underpins everything else that is in the White Paper. If Scotland were not Scotland, with its own national attributes and institutions and its people having a sense of collective identity, there would be no SNP, no devolution and no referendum. It is a curious absence nevertheless.

In the Depression years of the 1930s, in Whisky and Scotland, Gunn wrote: ‘Even Nationalists shy clear of anything so unpractical as a spirit. The material things of life are the deciding factors, the “drift south of industry,” the unemployment, the slums, the classing of one’s country as a “derelict area.” Agreed, with sad cheers. Yet when we see a man beginning to go down at heel and learn his business is going to the devil, we do not form societies to put heels on his boots and charitable money into his affairs, we merely wonder what has happened to him, knowing instinctively that if we can get him right, the rest will follow.’

 ‘That seems simple, yet doubtless it is very difficult,’ Gunn concludes. His point, though, is that if spirit, or culture, or a sense of who we are, are excluded from any vision we have of the kind of country we want, then the vision will be incomplete.

Here he is again, in his final novel, The Other Landscape: ‘For when all aspects of living are narrowed to the economic, the complexity that makes the whole pattern of living… is vitiated if not quite lost.’ Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. A Yes vote or a No vote cast solely on the basis of the likelihood of material gain or loss, whether to the tune of £500 or any other sum, is not a vote for a better country, but a cold and selfish calculation which – it should be said – is utterly uninsurable in either case. We cannot know the future. We can only go towards it, and whether we do so in hope or in fear it will not be without risk.

Later in The Other Landscape, the narrator is returning, hung over, from a night of serious drinking and serious talk: ‘It was a rare summer morning, chill and sweet. A morning for standing grasses and still bushes, wild flowers and a piquant air, earthy and sharp, elusively scented. Hopping slowly, a hare appeared round a bend below. When it saw me it stopped. Its ears went up. Pointed ears of the morning. I could not remain still long, and when I moved it vanished back down the dell..

‘The hare’s world. The innocence of the morning. The freshness. The forgotten, the secret landscape. I was light-headed and liked it. No more thought, that dark disease, that inner cancer.’

This does not suggest to me that Gunn had ‘gone mystical’, that he had abandoned thinking in favour of woolly-headed mysticism – the myth, as his biographers Hart and Pick put it, that in later life ‘Neil Gunn had retreated into esoteric nonsense’. Rather, the opposite: I think he was trying to anchor philosophy to tangible, sense-laden nature. Compare that passage in Gunn’s last novel with this one, from David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature: ‘Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

‘Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium… I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.’

For Hume, the anchorage lay among his friends, in conversation and amusement. For Gunn, it lay in nature, and perhaps in the other landscape which lay within, or as a mirror to, the Highland one he inhabited.

In one of Gunn’s finest works, Highland River, the hero Kenn, in middle age, having been through the hell of the trenches of the Somme, comes home and follows the river of his childhood up onto the moor to its source: ‘There was nothing one could do with the tragic conception of life except acknowledge it…Bow to it, giving nothing away, and pass on the moor like sunlight , like shadow, with thoughts hesitant and swift as a herd of hinds. In this way one is undefeatable – until death comes. And as death is inevitable, its victory is no great triumph.’

‘In the end,’ as Rory Watson has written of this passage, ‘there is no end, and no goal, only the quality of the moment.’ Life is made up of many moments, and most of them are not of great quality or clarity. But the ones that are, the ones that come into perfect focus, these are the remembered ones, and if we are fortunate in our lives they are the ones that make us who we are. I came upon myself sitting there, is how Gunn tried to describe the first time he experienced one of these moments, as a boy sitting on a boulder in a river, cracking hazelnuts. This isn’t just about having the experience: it is about recognising it.

We do not have to be a David Hume or a Neil Gunn to experience these moments, to touch the elemental. Ordinary life is extraordinary if we recognise it. This indeed is precisely what Gunn believed and what he tried to express in his writing. So let me propose that something elemental and extraordinary may happen when we go into those polling booths on 18th September and put our Xs in one or other of the two boxes on that ballot paper. ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ It is a big question, certainly, one loaded with possibilities, but in essence it is very simple. How will we answer it?

No opinion pollster in the world can tell us exactly what transaction of heart and mind will take place, perhaps as many as four million times, on that day. Nor can I, and nor am I going to predict the outcome. But here is my proposition: at that moment, in the privacy of the polling booth, calculation – based on all that information, all those facts and figures, that throughout the campaign people have been saying they need – will be supplanted by something else: a gut instinct or feeling. This may make people decide to vote one way or the other, but it will be an elemental choice; reason, as David Hume might have put it, acting as it should, as the ‘slave of the passions’. This is not a grievous or irrational error, by the way: this is being human. If your gut says, I cannot say no to the idea of my country’s independence, or if it says, I cannot make that risky step into the unknown, then your gut is probably telling you a truth about yourself.

Neal Ascherson, in his book Stone Voices, writes of a public meeting here in Inverness, at the Town House, on the eve of the 1997 referendum, when a Scottish parliament was voted back into existence: ‘Then an old man in the front row, grasping his stick, began in a sonorous voice: “Never again will this chance come. Your fathers and your grandfathers look on at you.” I heard a hiss of indrawn breath all around me. He went on: “This is a moral and even a spiritual decision. Let politics look after themselves!”  And the grave men and women in the room began to clap their hands and to cry out in agreement.

And here is something from near the end of my first novel, The Fanatic. The scene is Leith Walk in Edinburgh, on 2 May 1997, the day after the General Election which ended nineteen years of Conservative rule and which, although that other referendum was still to happen, effectively guaranteed the establishment of Scotland’s modern Parliament. A homeless woman, who is not on the electoral roll and who therefore hasn’t voted, is walking towards Leith, aware that some big political event has happened. She reads the billboards and she understands. The sun is shining. She is heading to Leith because she wants to see something down there: ‘There was an old ship due to come into Leith any day now. Or rather, it was a new version of an old ship. Captain Cook’s Endeavour, that had sailed to Australia in seventeen something or other. Somebody had reconstructed it, and was sailing it round the world as a kind of tribute. Or to see how Cook had done it, or maybe just to prove he’d done it. Something like that. She wanted to see the tall ship. If  it wasn’t in today she’d have to come back for it.

‘That was something to look forward to anyway. The thought of it: the tiny wooden shell that men had stepped into two hundred years ago and taken to the end of the earth. You’d feel your way along familiar coasts and then you’d be off into the unknown. You’d go blindly but you’d keep an eye out. If you kept going forward you would eventually get to a place you recognised.’

I think, when we vote next Thursday, it will be as whole people, choosing a future from and for the wholeness of our lives. We will choose without violence, and the next day we will start to live with the choice that has been made. We may choose in hope, or in fear, but either way there will be risk and either way there will be uncertainty. Before we enter the booth, we will have weighed up the arguments, the calculations, the ifs and buts, maybes and howevers, and all of that debate and deliberation may have prepared us to make our mark in one box or the other. Yet, as the pencil hovers over the paper, the arguments will leave us and we will be alone with that big, simple question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’

I think that will be a moment worth savouring; a moment of recognition. Savour it. Recognise it. Be in it.

And then we will have voted, and life will continue. And if we keep going forward into the future, as we must, we will, eventually, get to a place we recognise.


Extracted from the text of the 

Neil Gunn Lecture, given by
James Robertson 

at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, on Thursday
11th September 2014.

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Then and Now: A View From the Fourth Estate

THE old Scotsman headquarters, which occupied the entire west side of Edinburgh’s North Bridge, managed simultaneously to exude squalor and splendour. At the time I first became acquainted with it, in the late 1980s, it was home to three newspapers, the Scotsman, the Edinburgh Evening News and Scotland on Sunday, the most recent addition to the portfolio, which was launched in August 1988. Editorial staff entered not by the grand, mahogany-panelled public entrance but furtively, as men in dirty macs used to slip into sex shops, through an unmarked, litter-clogged door near the top of Fleshmarket Close.  Once inside, you found yourself in a long, white-tiled corridor, down which exposed pipes ran like those in the bowels of a ship. There seemed to be doors everywhere, some glassed, others not; all were closed, adding to the sense of intrigue and clandestine activity. 

Before you came to the Scotsman’s newsroom, there was a grand marble staircase up which few had licence to ascend. You could have been forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a mausoleum. This led to a hall floored in yet more marble off  which were several offices. The largest of these was the lair of the managing director, a mystical figure who came and went usually without exchanging a grunt with the ants and beavers who produced the papers and the profits. Once, I was summoned to his presence and I feared the worst, for he had a formidable – and justified – reputation as a cheeseparer. As his brogue suggested, he was from the north of England and declaimed rather than spoke. The conversation was short and, from my point of view, inconclusive. ‘I just wanted to see the whites of your eyes,’ he said, at which point he broke a few bones in my hand and enquired of his secretary the nature of his next appointment. We never exchanged a word again.

In those days the Scotsman and its sister titles were owned by Thomson Regional Newspapers, based in Newcastle. In common with the city of its birth, the Scotsman had an innate sense of its own superiority. Though it was part of a stable full of nags and also-rans, it regarded itself as a thoroughbred. It was not parochial; nor did it dumb down. It was too sophisticated to follow that route. Though its circulation – then around 80,000 – was insignificant by the standards of the behemoths of Fleet Street, it felt as if it were the market leader. But however few its sales, it made up for them in intellectual heft. Its thistle-bedecked masthead evoked gravitas and authority and a prickly sense of place. It was Scotland’s voice in the world and endeavoured where possible to ‘put a kilt’ on stories, i.e. introduce a Scottish element. Moreover, it was read from front page to back by what were known as ‘opinion formers’: politicians, bankers, industry leaders, lawyers, and, a little further down the income chain, lecturers, teachers and arts administrators.

No one who then worked for it felt that it was other than a national newspaper. As the preferred reading matter of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie, it spoke for a class that expected to run things and take important decisions. In general, these were people who, by nature, were inherently cautious and wary of change and did all in their power to delay it if not thwart it. This was seen at its most raw in 1993 when it was proposed to close the National Portrait Gallery in Queen Street and remove much of its collection to a new gallery of Scottish art in Glasgow. As one, Edinburghers rose in revolt and, at a stormy, standing-room only meeting at the College of Art, let it be known that the very idea was unconscionable and clearly the ravings of unstable minds. Then, when the paper went from one section to two, and in so doing separated news and features from sport and business, readers vented their ire on the editor. The crossword, it transpired, had been placed with sport and business, which the breadwinner stuck in his briefcase when he departed for his office. This left his wife without the crossword to do, which by force of habit had become the main focus of her morning’s activities. How now was she to spend the livelong hours? By twiddling her thumbs? Or by initiating an affair? Under considerable pressure, the hapless editor buckled, his brow beaten out of shape, and restored the crossword to news and features.

Despite its desire to keep such a constituency sweet, the Scotsman had since the 1960s been an advocate of devolution. In this regard it had some strange allies. One such was Malcolm Rifkind who, wrote Andrew Marr in The Battle for Scotland, ‘has always been too clever for a real Tory’, because he was rumoured to read books, and made speeches without notes in the House of Commons. By 1969, Rifkind had become chairman of the Thistle Group, ‘a ginger group for federalism’, which envisaged that a future Scottish parliament could raise its own taxes and look after its own monetary policy. This was appealing to the Scotsman and its then editor, Alastair MacTavish Dunnett, husband of historical novelist, Dorothy Dunnett. Under Dunnett, arguably the paper’s greatest editor and surely its most dynamic,  it published a series of articles collected in a pamphlet titled How Scotland Should Be Governed and drip-fed editorials advocating constitutional change. ‘Government of the people by and for the people,’ ran one, ‘should to the largest possible extent be where the people are, so that they can keep an eye on it and take an interest in it.’

Dunnett’s successors maintained the Scotsman’s position and throughout the 1970s it was a staunch – if occasionally myopic – advocate of a devolved parliament. Eric Beattie Mackay was the first and most influential. Hailing from the north-east – he was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University before cutting his journalistic teeth on the Aberdeen Bon-Accord and Elgin Courant – he viewed the re-establishment of Edinburgh as a legislative centre as beneficial both to Scotland and the Scotsman. Under his editorship, more so even than Dunnett’s, the paper became a forum for those whose first thought on waking was to pen a letter to a newspaper on the relative merits of independence, devolution and the status quo. When in 1979 the chance of re-establishing a parliament was rejected – albeit after the cynical intervention of an Islington-based Scottish Labour MP – the Scotsman, doubtless reflecting Mackay’s personal dismay, referred to ‘the doubting cries of the faithless’.  Two years later, when Andrew Marr joined the paper it was still, it seemed, suffering from a humungous hangover. Mackay, he recollected, was ‘not unlike Corporal Fraser from Dad’s Army’, like whom he was ‘unrelentingly pessimistic’. Why, asked Mackay, did Marr want to join the Scotsman? When the rookie muttered something about ‘quality journalism’, the editor leapt from his chair and looked out of his window and across Waverley Station to a crowded Princes Street and waved an arm. ‘Quality journalism! Quality journalism! Laddie, no one out there is interested in quality journalism. D’you not understand? It’s over. It’s all over…’

And so it must have seemed. In 1985, Mackay retired with the prospect of devolution as far distant as it had been when he became editor. Ironically, it would fall to another Scotsman editor, Magnus Linklater, to revive hope of it. The son of novelist Eric Linklater, he was not a natural devolutionist, let alone sympathetic to independence. Educated at Eton, he had spent much of his early career in London, including stints at the Sunday Times, Rupert Murdoch’s milch cow, and the short-lived London Daily News, which was owned by the rapacious bully, Robert Maxwell. Always eager for publicity which might in turn boost sales, Linklater decided – following a suggestion by Alex Salmond, recently elected leader of the Scottish National Party – in 1992 to hold ‘a great debate’ at the Usher Hall on the country’s constitutional future. Fatefully, the date chosen for this was 19 January, just days after British Steel announced the closure of its steel works in Lanarkshire with job losses of 770 and an estimated further 10,000 jobs affected as a consequence. The speakers were Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, Scottish Democrat leader, Malcolm Bruce, Donald Dewar for Labour, and Salmond.

It was to prove a cathartic few hours. In the days running up to the debate, Dewar was sceptical about how many people were likely to turn out on a Saturday night to a venue with a capacity of 2,500. In the event, it was packed and two times that number and more were turned away. They need not have worried for Radio Scotland broadcast it live. For those of us used to having our eardrums shattered by the likes of Jethro Tull and Fleetwood Mac in the venerable hall, it felt distinctly odd to be looking down from the gods at four besuited men, none of whom seemed particularly at his ease in front of a microphone. Ultimately, it was Salmond who was deemed to have performed best and whose voice was dominant. But the most remarkable thing of all was that a debate long thought to be as moribund as Arthur’s Seat had been reignited. If nothing else, it certainly energised the Scotsman’s indefatigable army of letter writers.

At the time I was at Scotland on Sunday which, after a promising start, was struggling. Circulation was in freefall and morale was low. Some industry pundits, high on schadenfreude, gave it no more than a few months, after which it would most likely go the way of the Sunday Standard, which despite having a cadre of stellar journalists, lasted just two years from 1981 to 1983. In the hope of avoiding a repeat of this, the management had recruited Andrew Jaspan, who had previously been on the Sunday Times. Jaspan was rare among editors, being as obsessed with how a paper looked as well as how it read. Though an incomer – his roots were English – he was more informed – and in many cases more interested – about Scotland than many people who had lived here all their lives.  He wanted every section to sing, and he was especially keen to introduce writers who wrote not only for newspapers. Thus he agreed to the suggestion that we ask James Kelman to visit Ravenscraig immediately after its closure was announced and record his impressions.

‘And what will happen if the steel workers’ struggle for survival fails and this last bastion of industrial Scotland collapses?’, Kelman wrote presciently. ‘Perhaps it is simply time to move into another industry, culture for example, or waste disposal. This is 1990 and it is difficult to avoid cynicism if you live in Glasgow which might be described as the cultural capital of Strathclyde Regional Council as well as European City of Culture. Last Wednesday, in common with many thousands of other people involved in the campaign against the Poll Tax, I received my warrant notice at last: fortunately for myself, being a writer, the sheriff officers acting on behalf of Strathclyde Regional Council won’t poind the word-processor on which this is being composed, it is a tool of my trade.’

Kelman was not alone. Scotland at the outset of the 1990s felt embattled, under-valued, put upon, second-rate, patronised, victimised, deprived. Underlying all of this, too, was a sense of frustration and impotence, and anger. Labour, then in opposition, felt comfortable in espousing a cause which has dominated this past quarter of a century. ‘The status quo is, I believe, untenable,’ said Donald Dewar. ‘No matter what the Tories say, the great problem for the Scottish political system is why someone like Ian Lang is Secretary of State, calling the shots…when almost no one votes for him.’ At the time, however, did one really feel that fundamental change was in the wind, that come a Labour government in Westminster Dewar and his colleagues would alchemically transform the rhetoric into action? My memory suggests otherwise. Many were those in the Labour Party, such as Robin Cook, Brian Wilson and Tam Dalyell, who viewed devolution sourly, as the slippery slope to independence. But, by 1995, and with the prospect of a Labour government led by John Smith looking ever more of a possibility, George Robertson, as Shadow Secretary of State, felt confident in predicting that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Well, whatever it has done it has not – yet – achieved that.

Inside the portals of the Scotsman, the struggle was less to do with the state of the nation than to build and retain readership. At Scotland on Sunday, which had begun to thrive, we were painfully aware of the strictures under which we were working. Strategic decisions were taken elsewhere by who knows whom. Planning was like throwing darts at a board in the pitch dark. Were there any profits, we never saw their fruits. Reinvestment in the ‘product’ was minimal. Our London rivals, moreover, were infinitely better resourced with seemingly bottomless marketing budgets. But Andrew Jaspan, as mercurial as he was entrepreneurial, was adept at finding the wherewithal to resource projects or ‘up-page’ or send journalists to far-flung places. With his blessing, I went back and forth regularly to New York where I had carte blanche to interview writers such as Philip Roth and John Updike, Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison. From the Macallan whisky company, we got £50,000 to underwrite a short story competition, among whose early winners were Dilys Rose, Ali Smith and Michel Faber.

In hindsight, the sudden death of John Smith in May 1994 proved a watershed. Who knows what manner of a prime minister he would have been. One used occasionally to bump into him in the bar of the sleeper as he returned north on a Thursday night after Westminster shut up shop for the week. Owlish, gregarious, with a devilish wit, his tie undone and a glass of whisky at his side, he never struck me – as he did so many – as a bank manager, for those I knew made undertakers look like hippies. While attempting to make Labour electable by persuading the denizens of the City of London that they had nothing to fear from him and his colleagues – and how right they were in that respect – he was happy to pour ordure on the SNP and independence. Come a separate Scotland, insisted Smith, there would be a £7 billion black hole in the national budget in the first year. Even then scare stories were the common currency of those who regarded independence as an impertinence. Were it ever to come to pass, Scotland, it was intimated, would be worse off, an economic basket case, better to stay in the United Kingdom for good or ill.

That, certainly, was the view taken by many men and women of influence as the 1990s slid by. In his book, The Hollow Drum, Arnold Kemp, a former deputy editor of the Scotsman and editor of the Glasgow Herald from 1981 to 1994, wrote: ‘For myself I remain a Scottish nationalist of the John Buchan or the Lord Cooper variety. I believe Scotland is a nation with its inalienable rights vested in the Treaty of Union. It is neither a region nor a province. But I value also the Union and our new connections with Europe. When I look at resurgent nationalism in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and elsewhere I am reminded of the value to be placed on order and good government, and the ability of different races and peoples to live together in a complex modern state. . .

‘Like most Scots I am confused about the political consequences of our national identity. For almost 300 years we have lived in a Union with a bigger partner which has often had the irritating fancy that it has absorbed us. We resist this fate. Indeed our very resistance and his very presence sustain our sense of nationhood. But where does our resistance lead us?’

Kemp, who died in 2002 aged 63, wrote that some twenty years ago. It is, if nothing else, a reminder of how fast things have changed in the intervening period. As far as the road to the referendum is concerned there were several significant factors in the 1990s. The first was the resurgence under Salmond’s leadership of the Scottish National Party and the rise in support generally of parties in favour of some form of Home Rule. Another was the collapse of the Tory vote which hovered around 25 per cent. In 1992, a poll in the Daily Record suggested that at least 50 per cent of Scots were in favour of independence, which may have prompted the SNP to adopt one of those slogans – ‘Free by 1993’ – which was not only fatuous but also fantastical. But in defiance of expectations John Major was returned to Downing Street and yet again the march towards independence had reached another impasse. In his autobiography, in a chapter entitled ‘The Union At Risk’, Thatcher’s less hated successor recalled: ‘I felt that the case for the Union needed to be put in a way that would be relevant to the future as well as the past, and would present it as the natural choice for those who were proud to call themselves Scottish. I determined to do this in three ways. First, by bringing the Union to Scotland, giving more practical demonstrations of its value in the modern world by staging national and international events there. Second, by listening to Scottish concerns and ensuring that where possible decisions about Scotland were taken in Scotland – “bringing the Union alive”, we called it. And third, by going to Scotland as often as I could to put the case myself to the Scottish people.’

Major neglected to mention a fourth way he could thwart those determined to dissolve UK Inc, by remaining prime minister. But, as he acknowledged, it was not the constitution that did for him in 1997, ‘but the Conservative Party’s problems generally’. As ever, it was bedevilled by Eurosceptics within its own ranks and other destabilizing events, such as BSE, which have a habit of arising when least expected. Then there was what used to be known as ‘sleaze’, which accounted for Tory grandees such as Allan Stewart and Micky Hirst.  In April 1995, the Tories failed to take a single council in local elections in Scotland. A month later, at a by-election in Perth and Kinross, prompted by the death of Nicholas Fairbairn, a peacock among politicians, the Tories came a distant third, behind Roseanna Cunningham and an ambitious whippersnapper called Douglas Alexander. On one of those visits which Major hoped would cool nationalist ardour, he realised the game was a-bogey. He was not wrong. ‘Defeat duly came, and every Tory seat north of the border fell, though [said he, determined to find some comfort where there was none] the swing against us was not as large as in Britain as a whole. We won just 17.3 per cent of the vote in Scotland.’

Thus commenced the reign of Tony Blair, the people’s prime minister, and the age of spin. Should independence become a reality Blair’s role in its passage cannot be underestimated. Whether it was the outcome he desired in allowing a referendum on devolution is another matter. Like many in his party he assumed that it would cork the desire for the dissolution of the UK. He was not an enthusiast for it but allowed  himself to be persuaded of its efficacy. ‘Devolution,’ noted his biographer, John Rentoul, ‘has rightly been described as Blair’s inheritance rather than his passion.’

Three years before that I joined the Scotsman at the invitation of Andrew Jaspan who had been wooed from Scotland on Sunday. Jaspan was in favour of a Scottish parliament, and saw it as the first step towards independence. But after just six frenetic months, he was offered the editorship of the Observer and left Edinburgh for London.  His replacement was James Seaton who lived and breathed the Scotsman but his tenure, too, was short lived. In 1995, the paper had been bought by David and Frederick Barclay, identical twins born in London to Scottish parents. From humble beginnings – in their youth they had been painters and decorators – they had accrued vast wealth and had recently bought the Ritz Hotel. It was either there on in another of their hotels, the Howard, that I had one of my only two meetings with them. Over a frugal, alcohol-free lunch, neither said much of substance and gave no indication why they had bought the newspaper or what they intended to do with it. They enlisted Bert Hardy, a Fleet Street veteran through whose veins ink oozed but who was then in the autumn of his career, to oversee the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, and the Evening News. He, in turn, appointed Andrew Neil as editor-in-chief of the three titles in 1996. At this point, James Seaton decided to spend more time with his family and add a few more Munros to his collection. To his obvious displeasure, he was piped from the building by a busker who was normally to be seen regaling tourists in Princes Street Gardens with his excruciating interpretation of ‘Campbeltown Loch’.

Neil arrived with the reputation of  a bruiser with a volcanic temper. Born in Paisley, he had attended Glasgow University, whereupon he hastened south. His great achievement was as editor of the Sunday Times where circulation soared and sections multiplied. In concert with Rupert Murdoch, he had confronted the print unions at Wapping and championed the use of new technology. For many people in Scotland, however, he personified Thatcherite values – or the lack thereof – and was therefore deemed to be unsympathetic towards the Scotsman’s traditional stance on the constitution.

For those pro devolutionists, his arrival on the North Bridge could not have come at a more inopportune moment. Blair’s election in 1997 guaranteed a two-question referendum the same year. Neil appointed Martin Clarke, formerly in charge of the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail, as Scotsman editor, and the paper’s tone changed markedly, alienating many readers. New columnists were introduced, several of whom seemed more keen on psoriasis than a Scottish parliament. Then as now the naysayers did what they could to scare the horses. Businesses threatened to leave, oil was running out, individuals would be impoverished, a reconvened parliament would be Strathclyde Regional Council writ large. Sundry ‘experts’ added their tuppenceworth. Allan Massie predicted that a Yes, Yes vote would consign Scotland to ‘a granny flat within the UK’. Peter Jones insisted that there must be an answer to the West Lothian question. Neither came to pass. The overall implication was that, left to their own devices, Scots were incapable of running their own affairs, that within a few years we would be begging to be allowed to return to the way things had been, and that we should stick with what we had.

However, there were as many commentators in favour of devolution as there were against, notably Ian Bell, Iain Macwhirter and Joyce McMillan.  The No-camp were a visionary lot, opined Bell, irony dripping on to the page like wax from a candle. ‘They know, as for a fact, and in every detail, what a devolved Scotland will be like. They have seen the taxes go up and the inward investment fall, the Nationalists rampant and the socialists (as they still call Scotland’s centre right) with their hands in the till. They understand the nature and ambitions of the new parliament even before its members are elected.’ There was more, much more, in a similar vein, much of which can be read in What a State!: Is Devolution for Scotland the End of Britain?, edited by myself. But perhaps because Andrew Neil was the most prominent anti-devolutionist, the notion took hold that the Scotsman had lost its enthusiasm for change. ‘An Edinburgh parliament,’ Neil thundered, ‘will be run by the outdated collectivist consensus that still dominates Scottish politics. It will want to spend, spend, spend. But instead of having to go to the Scottish people to raise the money, it will rattle the begging bowl loudly in London; and when Westminster refuses to stump up any more cash, the Nationalists will have a field day. Imagine the rumpus when a Scottish parliament has to preside over the closure of some school or hospital or bankrupt company because London was too mean to come up with the cash to save it. A system more designed to exacerbate tensions between London and Edinburgh would be hard to conceive.’

It was a strange and rather listless campaign, interrupted less than a fortnight before polling day by the death of Princess Diana in a Paris underpass. For a few frustrating and suffocating days, canvassing came to a halt. Tam Dalyell, ever the opportunist, was not alone in calling for the referendum to be postponed if not abandoned. Donald Dewar, described by one pundit as looking like ‘a dyspeptic heron’, treated that with the contempt it deserved. It would not be long before he received his ‘Father of the Nation’ certificate. Prompted by Peter Mandelson, Alex Salmond, realising that a sprinkling of stardust might not go amiss, called Sean Connery in to the fray and had him recite the Declaration of Arbroath for the cameras. Notwithstanding the hamming, it was curiously moving.

Inside the Scotsman, the runes were almost indecipherable. The editor, Martin Clarke, felt he knew which way the wind was blowing but deceived himself into believing that he had enough puff to alter its direction. ‘We,’ he said, ‘can still turn things round.’ Who the ‘we’ were he did not specify. On the day before the vote Clarke, Neil and I discussed what the leading article should say. Should it be Yes to a devolved parliament but No to one with tax-varying powers? Neil was initially inclined to that view but conceded eventually that it would look weaselly.

Thus, on 11 September, 1997, the Scotsman carried the following leader which I wrote: ‘No is a small and bitter word. It contains no optimism, implies no change. In this debate it has been a word used to refuse the future and all its manifold possibilities. We have preferred “Yes” from the beginning and prefer it still. Yes to the future: yes to risk; yes to renewal, yes to democracy, yes to pride, yes to Scotland. Yes twice, indeed, if that is what it takes to prove we understand what a real parliament must be late in this 20th century.

‘We arrive at this day because Scotland has endured down the centuries against all the odds and with its sense of itself, that kernel of nationhood, intact. Today we make a claim, as of right, to our own future. If we have lied to ourselves we will deserve no more of the world’s respect. Children and grandchildren to come will wonder what we thought, and why we failed. “The name of my native land,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson once to a compatriot, “is not North Britain, whatever may be the name of yours”. It is a truth we must prove again.’

Does what a newspaper says pull any weight when individuals make their mark on polling day? No one truly knows. By then, as I have often been assured, those in favour of devolution had abandoned the Scotsman, scunnered by its constant carping at ‘the cause’. One erstwhile reader told me he had taken to calling it the Midge, in honour of our ineradicable pest. What is indisputable is that come the hour Scots voted overwhelming for the re-establishment of a parliament which had lain dormant for nigh on three hundred years. ‘This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves,’ said Donald Dewar at its opening on 1 July 1999, catching perfectly the mood of the moment. ‘There is a new voice in the land, the voice of the democratic Parliament.’ But even as he spoke he surely knew, as we knew, that we were not on the story’s last page. There would yet be a few twists and turns in the plot before the denouement could be revealed.

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