Monthly Archives: November 2016


Disappearing Glasgow: A Photographic Journey

All cities are inchoate, none more so than Glasgow. Since its origins in the sixth century, when it was founded by St Mungo with the establishment of a church on the Molendinar Burn, it has been in a state of flux, as the bucolic Dear Green Place metamorphosed into the thrumming Second City of the Empire.

The immense wealth of its ‘merchants’ was reflected in its architecture. To stroll today through the city centre is a thrilling, uplifting and enlightening experience. However, in the aftermath of the Second World War and the decline of industrialization, Glasgow’s problems were writ large in its buildings, with the replacement of ragged tenements with estates and high rises that promised a modern and bright future for the inhabitants of what had become slums. But a lack of proper investment, a dearth of amenities and the poor build quality soon lead to neglect, despair and anger. Photographer Chris Leslie, in Disappearing Glasgow: A Photographic Journey (Freight Books, £20), edited by Johnny Rodger, Professor of Architecture at Glasgow School of Art, documents this decline and fall with steely-eyed honesty and unsentimental empathy. The result is both distressing and beautiful, an essay in what might have been and a lesson to learn for anyone involved in the planning process.





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Who do you love?

You can assume that the ambiguity in the title of this dense, lyrical and thrillingly intelligent book has been carefully mused over. I should disclose immediately that I’m in the end credits, along with some other usual suspects, as an early adviser.

I can confirm Madeleine Bunting has made a beautiful construction from her sources. But we live in a period where the very mechanics of patriotism and nationalism are being laid bare, and often reengineered. So the question of what you love, and how you love, when you love your country, has more than a Hebridean significance. For all the stirring blues and reds of Murdo MacLeod’s sumptous, touristic pictures of Uist on the front cover, Bunting – formerly a Guardian columnist, at the weightier end of the spectrum – is very much alive to these issues.

The main travel paths of Love of Country seem to have been conducted in the summer months leading up to the September 2014 independence referendum (though the whole period of engagement is over a period of six years). In quite a strange position – after the bibliography and index, and deep into the acknowledgements – Bunting admits to being ‘torn’ on the question of Scottish independence. She is strung between her ‘sympathy for a nation deciding its own destiny and finding in the quest for nationhood a solidarity, sense of purpose and political engagement which has eluded Britain over much of the last generation’. But Bunting admits that she is ‘for better or worse, British, and believe that identity would be impoverished in countless ways by Scottish independence – this book is a bid to surface this issue’.

Yet how it is ‘surfaced’ – itself a telling term – is fascinatingly odd, in a stylistic sense. There are many stretches here which are pure nature writing – rapturous exultations upon rock, machair and sea, on spaghnum moss and red-flecked volcanic rock. However, these erupt -– often disconnectedly and randomly – in the midst of tricky though judicious explorations of topics like land, capitalism and politics, or where the identity boundaries of Britain, Scotland, Empire or the Gaidhealtachd lie.

It is as if Bunting wants to stake the claim for one form of ‘love of country’ – what the evolutionist E.O. Wilson might called “biophilia” – against another form, more power-laden and world-historical.

Her question is not explicitly stated, but it presses throughout: Can she be allowed to love the countryside of north-west Scotland, while maintaining a complex and non-committal position on the politics of Scottish patriotism itself? Of course, that’s allowed – indeed, that’s a turbo-charged necessity. Vast marketing campaigns from agencies like Visit Scotland are constructed on exactly this basis. What has been branded a peaty and sparkling ‘ScotSpirit’ – a meme not visibly connected to politics or current affairs – aims to coil itself round the Visa cards of the weary, high-disposable-income workers of the world.

In the same way as the often excellent potted histories of cities and countries in books by Rough Guide or Lonely Planet function, I would unhesitatingly recommend Bunting’s book to any of my more learned global peers planning a holiday visit to the Hebrides. Their consumer experiences would certainly be more resonant, and respectful, as a result.

Bunting makes it touchingly clear that her Scottish ‘love of country’ is as much about love as it is country. She is clearly fuelled by intense memories of family holidays – sleeping with siblings in the back of a overnight van from London, waking up to what they called the ‘Promised Land’. And then a vacation of plowtering around in burns and hills – not in the Hebrides, but in Amat, near Strathcarron on the north-east coast. Bunting also tells us she met her second husband, while both of them were at Buddhist retreats, meditating in caves on the Holy Isle. And she is wholly wry about the tangle of religions and spiritualities that coil across the island, now a destination for hardcore spiritual tourists.

Indeed, you couldn’t fault Bunting for her well-researched awareness about what she is encountering in the Hebrides and ‘where she is coming from’, as she italicizes the words herself. What is a delight in the book is the way that she understands the central historical, cultural and political struggles lying behind the greens, browns and blacks of the Hebridean vista. But she is also quirky enough to note where the flows of the world – whether from the Gulf Stream or plutocracy, literature or Hollywood – have fetched up on these island beaches and grounds. We discover that the island of Harris, at its most moon-like, provided a Jupiter backdrop for Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

She also describes, in detail and with a quiet contempt, the playground excesses of Empire-era landowners such as George Bullough on Rum, and Lord Leverhulme on Lewis. The former, the son of a Lancashire cotton baron, was a rank mix of libertine, game-hunter and botanist, the latter a Robert-Owen-like planner and ‘improver’, who found the locals weren’t for being improved. As Bunting wanders around with her family, she regularly changes her route, to circumnavigate one privately-owned shooting ground or another.

She is a lefty, is Bunting, no doubt about it. I loved her account of how Gaelic has been a ‘resisting force’ to a capitalism that ‘turns place into abstract space’, and ‘human relationships a calculation of self-interest’: ‘Gaelic provides a language in which to experience how the living and the dead are connected and held by relationship… [It relieves] the burden of individualization, with its often neurotic quest for affirmation and recognition, in which all forms of relationship and solidarity – whether of family, neighbourhood or nation – become brittle and provisional.’

In her account of Iona, where the late MP and lamented leader of the Labour Party John Smith is buried, Bunting tries to force (a bit too hard for me) the inspiration of the island’s religious community on current politics, as a series of ‘moral projects’. Her citation, in this regard, of smoking wrecks from New Labour – like Alastair Darling, Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander – is hardly persuasive. However, she is sharp enough to always keep in mind how a ‘Romanticism’ about Hebridean life has almost always been functioning in someone’s power game. Bunting notes acutely the nineteenth and twentieth century shift (effected via the Ossian poems) of the image of the Hebridean – from childlike savage to noble warrior, who then enlists in wildly disproportionate numbers for imperial military duty. But she has also talked to revisionist historians, including James Hunter and Tom Devine, to know how the native betrayal of lairds, as much as metropolitan dispossession, is as much part of Hebridean history.

In those closing pages, she states that ‘the real challenge that lies ahead is for England, to reimagine itself and to move finally beyond its histories of empire and domination of Celtic neighbours, to develop new political structures to share this multinational archipelago’. Now, a Nationalist would respond that without Scotland’s endless constitutional challenge, would this question even be asked in the first place?

The sovereignty question will morph and change, as it may. But I doubt that any contending party could find a more reflexive, adaptive and open-hearted and adaptive Briton than Madeleine Bunting, in this impressive book. As the stushie of self-determination continues to intensify, we may come to value her rich and nuanced love of country highly.

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Making a Murderer

Despite failing to win this year’s Man Booker Prize, Graeme Macrae Burnet won what you might call the popular vote, dominating media coverage before the actual winner was revealed as The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

‘A little-known novelist with a tiny independent publisher in Scotland,’ as the Guardian described Burnet and his publisher Contraband, had made it onto the Man Booker shortlist, leapfrogging rejected heavyweights like J.M. Coetzee and Ian McEwan and the major London-based publishing houses. Before its shortlisting, Burnet’s second novel His Bloody Project had been reviewed by a handful of critics in uncelebrated places such as Crime Review, A Novel Bookblog, Shoshi’s Book Blog and The National. The ‘David versus Goliath’ narrative wouldn’t have gained as much traction, however, if it hadn’t also gone on to sell in enviable numbers, trouncing the other books on the shortlist.

Its sales are no doubt related to the third element that appeals to hacks: His Bloody Project is a ‘psychological thriller’ and isn’t what you might call ‘Booker-ish’. This decade the Booker has been experiencing an identity crisis, no longer certain of its mission. Choosing the best novel written in English by an author from the Commonwealth and Ireland is a baggy criterion which depends on the discernment of its judges as much as it does the quality of books submitted. There was no surer sign of the Man Booker’s lack of self-confidence than when it widened its purview to include American novelists. The National Book Prize, the Pulitzer, etc, have not, it goes without saying, felt the need to reciprocate.

Recent Man Booker panels have been variable in their judgements, culminating in the controversy that greeted the shortlist produced in 2011. Then, the chair, the former MI5 chief Stella Rimmington, was criticized for declaring she was looking for ‘readability’ and novels that ‘zip along’. In place of the ideological, creative and sometimes personal tussles that marked previous Booker seasons, the past few years have, whether explicitly or implicitly, pitched ‘readability’ against more traditional literary virtues – a honed prose style, deep exploration of character; in essence, a strong voice that expands and refreshes the possibilities of the novel.

His Bloody Project benefitted from the contemporary Man Booker’s uncertainty over what kind of book it wants to champion. Burnet’s prose, for example, is serviceable, prioritizing plot over style. It is also ‘readable’ whatever that means. All of which lies some distance from the row that erupted when the Booker’s so-far sole Scottish winner James Kelman took the prize for How Late It Was, How Late in 1994. Whatever you think of that novel – one of the judges Julia Neuberger called its victory ‘a disgrace’, while that imperishable chump Simon Jenkins described it as ‘literary vandalism’ – its success forced a debate to take place on class and language that illustrated the prejudices of numerous Londonshire-based writers and critics.

What of His Bloody Project itself? Blurbed a ‘literary thriller’, it is atmospheric, smartly assembled, even gripping in parts. With its rural and historical setting, it has nothing in common with the authors and titles associated with ‘tartan noir’; it owes no debt to the godfather of ‘tartan noir’, McIlvanney, or at least the McIlvanney of Laidlaw. There are certain broad resemblances to the McIlvanney of Docherty: the village, the punishing work, the lack of opportunities to better yourself. I read His Bloody Project while confined to bed with a hellish cold, and it distracted me from my lurgy. It is, however, a far cry from Man Booker alumni such as Midnight’s Children, Disgrace or The Line of Beauty.

Set in a remote Highland village during the nineteenth century, His Bloody Project comprises a murderer’s confession, witness statements, a chapter from the autobiography of a ‘Criminal Anthropologist’ and newspaper reports of the trial. Burnet’s conceit is that he is merely an editor of documents uncovered while researching his genealogy. His novel’s most obvious antecedent is James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. If that makes it sound as if it is merely a latter-day reworking of Hogg’s masterpiece, much like James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack, you’d be mistaken. There’s very little, for example, in the way of the supernatural or spiritual. Quite the opposite.

If His Bloody Project is a crime novel, it’s not a whodunit. The reader knows from the first page that the killer is Roderick Macrae, a seventeen-year-old crofter who lives in his native village Culduie in Ross-shire. One day in August 1869, Roderick murders three people. To begin with, Burnet is careful to let the reader know only the identity of one of the victims: Lachlan ‘Broad’ Mackenzie, the local ‘constable’. We learn the identity of the other corpses at the climax of Macrae’s account, which is written in Inverness Castle, where Macrae awaits trial, at the behest of his lawyer, Andrew Sinclair. Burnet dangles the possibility that Macrae didn’t write the memoir; it is, as one sceptic argues, ‘quite inconceivable that a semi-literate peasant could practise such a sustained piece of writing’. Some believe Sinclair wrote the memoir.

The dispute over authorship picks at the historical backdrop to the novel. Some journalists covering Macrae’s case – for as we learn, the trial was a media sensation – object to the depiction of Macrae as a ‘noble savage’. For his critics, the murders prove ‘the terrible barbarism which continues to thrive in the northern regions of our country (and which all the efforts of our dedicated presbytery and the great improvements of the past decade have failed to eradicate)’. The great improvements alluded to are the continuing consequences of the Highland Clearances, a second wave of which began in the early nineteenth century, breeding an intolerable strain of uncertainty about the future that plays on the minds and nerves of the residents of Culduie, not least Roderick and his dour, violent father. The book asks: was Roderick not only a killer, but also a victim of a ‘cruel system which makes slaves of men’?

The precariousness of life is underlined when a new constable for the area is appointed by the land’s factor, who himself works for a laird rarely seen unless entertaining fellow aristocrats on grouse shoots. Unfortunately for the Macraes, the new constable is Lachlan Mackenzie. He and Roderick’s father have a longstanding grudge, the origins of which are hazy to the teenager: it may be personal, it may be related to clan. The reader, however, soon deduces the origin of the dispute is Roderick’s mother, a local beauty and popular character who appears in most respects to be a complete contrast to her husband, ‘the Black Macrae’.

Her death in childbirth the year preceding the murders is thought by neighbours to be the moment Roderick began to change. Opinion is divided as to his character before his mother’s death. Some, like the Reverend, the stonemason and Mackenzie’s cousin, thought Roderick was ‘a queer boy’, little more than an imbecile who was said to have tortured animals, that predictor of future psychopathy. Others, though, like his teacher, thought he was intelligent and sensitive, while Roderick in his memoir writes that if he spoke little as a child it was because he considered himself smarter than his peers. The closest he has to a friend is his sister, Jetta, who inherited their mother’s beauty.
Roderick, who it goes without saying is something of an unreliable narrator, seeks to portray his murders as a response to his family’s victimisation at the hands of Mackenzie. The constable levels fines for misdemeanours, forces Roderick and his father to work on the laird’s land for free, and appears to want to evict the family.

Mackenzie runs a small rural police state where informing on your neighbour is encouraged. Reading between the lines of his memoir, however, one can see the small community, not solely Roderick, suffers from a repressed and disturbed response to sexuality. There is a hint that after his wife’s death, Macrae senior starts sleeping with his daughter Jetta, to whom Roderick may also be attracted. If those disturbing thoughts exist at the level of suggestion, Roderick discovers Mackenzie in flagrante with Jetta. Far from suffering embarrassment, a malicious Mackenzie hints he also slept with Roderick’s mother, leaving open the possibility Roderick and Jetta might be his children. There is also a question of whether Jetta consents to sleep with Mackenzie or has been coerced as part of some creepy arrangement between Macrae and Mackenzie, possibly to keep the constable off their backs for a period.

In Roderick’s memoir, he reveals himself to be a surprisingly modern character. He neither believes in religion nor superstition, arguing instead that when one is afflicted, it isn’t punishment; we suffer for ‘no reason’. He reveals himself not only to be alienated from God, but the class structure that constrains him. He is critical, for example, of the gentry that rules over his community. And yet, try as he might, he cannot escape. A failed attempt to flee Culduie is the precursor to his acts of violence. After he is forced to return home, he appears resigned to his fate, no matter how bloody. In his prison cell, awaiting execution, Roderick reminds the reader of no less a character than Meursault, the protagonist of Camus’s The Outsider. Like Meursault, his malaise begins when his mother dies. Others distrust him because he doesn’t react to events in the manner they would expect. The motives for his murder are somewhat mysterious and as he tells his story from his prison cell, he appears resigned to death.

If that sounds a stretch, then consider Burnet’s first, less successful novel The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau, where the protagonist Manfred Baumann writes about The Outsider for a school essay. Later in life, Baumann, like Macrae, comes under suspicion because he is a loner whose behaviour attracts suspicion. Although set in a small French town in the early 1980s, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau rehearses many of the themes Burnet would explore more successful in His Bloody Project. Baumann and his nemesis, Inspector Gorski, are provincials who long to escape their crushingly provincial hometown Saint Louis and yet are incapable of it. ‘For years,’ Baumann thinks, ‘he had told himself that there was nothing he could do about his situation, that circumstances, his temperament, dictated how he behaved.’
The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau reads like a faltering first attempt at the themes Burnet returns to in His Bloody Project. It’s burdened with long, stodgy passages about the Inspector’s unhappy marriage and Baumann’s domestic arrangements. Burnet also amuses himself if not the reader by pretending he is merely the translator of La Disparition d’Adèle Bedeau, going so far as to add a gratuitous ‘Translator’s Afterword’ in which he provides a biography of the supposed author Raymond Brunet. Why, it’s unclear; it does nothing to deepen the themes of the book.

Burnet is on surer ground teasing out Roderick’s story across a mosaic of documents. One might venture that His Bloody Project represents a literary response to the contemporary phenomenon of podcast series like Serial or television shows like Making A Murderer, where the viewer is presented with witness testimony and forensic reports, and asked to make his or her own mind up not just about what happened, but why it happened.

Burnet introduces the figure of J. Bruce Thomson, a nineteenth-century criminologist (and real historical figure), in order to parody science’s pretensions to diagnosing the condition of men’s souls. From a chapter supposedly taken from Thomson’s own memoir, we learn more about the criminologist’s snobbery and egoism than we ever do about Roderick’s inner life. Thomson subscribes to then-fashionable phooey such as physiognomy and describes Highlanders as being of ‘low physical stock’. Thomson’s chapter reveals the ways in which an expert’s knowledge trains them to think in certain directions only; in other words, to serve their biases.

Where Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner examined the way in which faith and doctrine work to stymy reflection, His Bloody Project suggests contemporary methods of measuring a man’s soul would also benefit from self-criticism. Which in turn might be no bad thing for the Man Booker to consider too.

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Water, Water, Everywhere

Islands fascinate us. Skye, for many, was indefinably devalued when at last, two decades ago, linked to the mainland by bridge. Many of our islands, once inhabited, are today deserted and forlorn. Scarp and Taransay, for example, off the coast of Harris, supported families into the 1970s.

I myself am a direct descendant of the last family to live on North Rona, forty-four miles north-west of the Butt of Lewis. Surveys as to health and well-being regularly see the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland as, apparently, the happiest places to live in Britain and the desire to own one’s personal island – a small, smug, sea-kissed kingdom – is a common fantasy. Even the SNP have an island – Eilean Mòr, one of the MacCormaig Isles in the Sound of Jura, bequeathed to the Nationalists in 1978 and run by a charitable trust. And when that late and fabulously corrupt Irish politician, Charles Haughey, snapped up Inishvickillane, one of the Blasket Islands, in 1974, it was an early sign of the avarice, bordering on the delusional, that two decades later sank his reputation.

We are apt to associate little islands with innocence; even nobility – or, at least, a certain incorruptible peasant cunning. Scotland was first effectively evangelized from Iona, by Columba and his acolytes. St Kilda continues to intrigue millions the world over (even though the St Kildans were very strange folk) and everyone sides with the crofters of Todday as they battle Captain Waggett in Compton MacKenzie’s Whisky Galore. And the clever subversion of the trope in The Wicker Man – when the intruder, Edward Woodward’s stuffy Sergeant Howie, is a good man making landfall among pretty evil people – is one of the tricks that has lent that film abiding, unsettling power.

Malachy Tallack’s worthy book, though, is no winsome gazetteer of assorted Hebrides or Bounty Bar paradises. It is about islands that no longer exist – and, indeed, for the most part never were: the island less as sanctuary, or some realm of ocean-girt uniqueness, than as an ideal: a place looked to, or keened for, as something vital to your own identity. A noted parallel in modern literature is the ‘greenwood’ trope in the novels of EM Forster. Maurice, he lamented of the novel he refused to publish in his own lifetime, belonged ‘to an England where it was still possible to get lost. It belongs to the last moment of the greenwood…

‘Our greenwood ended catastrophically and inevitably. Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation which the public services adopted and extended, science lent her aid, and the wildness of our island, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley for those who wish neither to reform nor corrupt society but to be left alone…’

In like manner, Tallack – native of Shetland, author and singer-songwriter – writes for the most part of islands of the heart, in a book of silky covers and striking physical beauty, decorated deliciously by Katie Scott. The Gaels of Scotland and Ireland, for instance, historically believed in blessed islands far to the west, just over the horizon, where the just would live for ever in a place without age, sickness or death. The most famous of these is Tír nan Óg, the land of eternal youth – viewed not just as an afterlife but as a place the mind can go, in nostalgia not just for a where, but a when.

There is a near-untranslatable Gaelic word for that yearning – ceanalas; very similar in concept to the Welsh hiraeth – but, as Tallack details, such Islands of the Blessed have mythological roots far broader than Gaeldom. In Homer’s Odyssey, we read of Elysium; and by Plato’s time this was evidently understood as an island (or group of islands) somewhere in the western ocean, where ‘he who has lived all his life in justice and holiness shall go, when he is dead… and dwell there in perfect happiness out of the reach of evil’. The Welsh, too, had Ynys Affalon, ‘Island of Apples’, and it was in this Avalon – in later, broader medieval tradition – where Excalibur was forged and from whence, one day, King Arthur may return.

Indeed, despite centuries of Christendom ‘the idea of a promised land on Earth never left the European imagination,’ observes Tallack. ‘The fruitful isle remained on the western horizon. In England, the blissful land of Cockaigne was the subject of countless stories and poems. In Germany it was Schlaraffenland, the land of milk and honey; and in Spain it was Juaja, a name now attached to a small city in Peru…’

No doubt this to some degree drove the Conquistadores, and other European adventurers, in their bold voyages across the Atlantic – though, as we now know and as Tallack details, the Vikings had made it as far as Newfoundland; and many (not least the Irish) believe St Brendan had made landfall on America before even them. Some fantasy islands, though, are cherished not as the saints’ everlasting rest, but the motherland of a hazy history. From their earliest dealings with the first Europeans to come to New Zealand, the Māori insisted – and insist still – that it was not their original home: that their forebears had come from Hawaiki – and not that long ago either. There is considerable and hard evidence that the Māoris did indeed colonize New Zealand from eastern Polynesia, ‘especially the Cook and Society islands. Which might provide a simple answer to Hawaiki. Except that it doesn’t. For Hawaiki is not simple at all. In traditional stories it is a multifaceted idea that cannot be pinned down to a single location. This island was not just the migrants’ point of departure, it was part of their luggage – that rich, mythical tradition with which they arrived.’

Much of the impact of this book lies in the extraordinary facts tossed out almost casually by Tallack – for instance, the startling discovery that eastern Polynesia itself was only populated within the last 1,500 years or so (by which time the Callanish Stones, in Lewis, were thousands of years old and already obsolete). For its size, though (and price) there are not many words for your buck; and a touch of humour here and there would make the going far easier.

The Ma‘dān, or ‘Marsh Arabs’, of southern Iraq – their rich culture detailed only in recent decades by the likes of Gavin Maxwell and Wilfred Thesiger – had likewise a mystical realm, a beautiful island, Hufaidh, of which they spoke and which they were certain existed. But, since Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against them after the first Gulf War – including the deliberate draining of almost all their priceless wetland – the Marsh Arabs and their world barely survive. Thule, an island in the far north written of foggily by the ancient Greeks and later celebrated in slushy Celtic Twilight fiction, is another island that never was (much as one might like it to have been). Did Pytheas – who claimed to have visited it around 330 BC – speak of Shetland, or Iceland? Could he have made the Faroe Islands? Had he ever actually ventured out of the Mediterranean at all?

Some islands were simply invented. As recently as 1910 the International Dateline had to be shamefacedly redrawn, when it was belatedly established that two islands on the map – Byres Island and Morrell Island, north-west of Hawaii – did not actually exist. The Treaty of Paris, in 1783 – wherein, with teeth-gritted reluctance, the British finally accepted defeat and acknowledged the new United States of America as sovereign and free – also, in its second and very involved Article detailing the boundary between the States and Canada, made mention of islands which in due time proved to be fictitious.

Then, of course, there are those islands that most disobligingly sank. A volcanic eruption in 1456 almost overnight removed Gunnbjörn’s Skerries, a useful halfway-house for longboats sailing between Norway and Iceland. In 1830, Geirfuglasker also likewise vanished, which was rough for the Icelanders but still more unfortunate for its population of Great Auks; inaccessible to hunters, it was their last safe breeding-ground. Within fifteen years the Great Auk was extinct: the last, in local lore, beaten to death by a boatload of those weird St Kildans convinced it was a witch. In the Cook Islands, Tuanaki also disappeared, much to the vexation of a missionary expedition determined to convert its natives.

Tallack ends with a list of islands that have, basically, been abolished. In 1875 Captain Sir Frederick Evans was put in charge of revising the Royal Navy’s charts of the Pacific, and eventually deleted 123 phantom islands from the globe. (Three of these, Tallack mischievously records, turned out to exist after all.) And as late as August 1989 the Terra Nova Islands – ‘discovered’ in Antarctica only in March 1961 – were found first to have disappeared and then, in cold fact, never to have been. It was concluded that the unfortunate 1961 surveyor had taken two vast icebergs for portions of land. What a pity, though, we are told nothing of Surtsey, a brand new island born by volcanic eruption of the south of Iceland in November 1965 and of huge scientific interest.

Malachy Tallack is an engaging and fluent writer of essential kindliness – the Alexander McCall Smith, it would seem, of bedside topography, and who grasps from the start that the very idea of a given island can be as vital as the land-mass itself. ‘In the end it matters little,’ he concludes, as to the whereabouts or even the veracity of Thule. ‘For the legacy of [Pytheas’s] voyage has not been the discovery of an island, it has been the creation of a space: a mysterious, unfathomable hole into which, for two millennia and more, dreams of the north have been poured. And while the desire to erase uncertainty has now wiped it from the map, Thule still exists in the cartography of the mind…’

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Our best specimen

It was the opinion of an eminent Scotsman of the times that Lady Anne Barnard was ‘the best specimen Scotland ever sent to London’. This was no small compliment, the roads south clogged with ambitious and talented Scots keen to get ahead by leaving home.

Lady Barnard’s was the age of James Boswell and Dr Johnson, in whose circles she mixed, and of Henry Dundas, ‘the uncrowned king of Scotland’, whom she twisted around her little finger. To be singled out by Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, for such a distinction says much about this extraordinary woman, one of the period’s most original characters, of whom it is safe to say most of us have never heard.

Nor would there have been much to know had Barnard not been an incorrigible writer with an eye for a good story and no qualms about sharing it with her closest companions. In pursuit of his subject, Stephen Taylor, a professional writer of biography, history and travel, found the historian’s holy grail. In Barnard’s ancestral home, Balcarres in Fife, there lay, along with countless of her gifted drawings and paintings, six volumes of unpublished memoir. These were written in her last years, and depict a highly intelligent, headstrong, troubled and kind-hearted woman who lived and busied herself at the heart of political society. Her own life was the stuff of drama, and seemed to reflect the turbulence of the wider world, this being an age of radical, scandalous and sometimes violent upheaval in Europe and beyond.

Written solely for private consumption, these memoirs came with the injunction that they must never be published, even after her death. For Taylor, unearthing Barnard’s account of her exploits must have been like lifting the lid on an old trunk in the attic, and watching the past shake off the cobwebs and dance around him clicking its heels. They form the bedrock of Taylor’s work, but he is too skilful a raconteur to reprint screeds of Barnard’s words verbatim. Like many eighteenth and early nineteenth-century writers, she could be verbose, her memorable bon mots and cutting lines embedded among sandbanks of detail. Yet in one respect she was rare: ‘At a time when literary legacies were almost invariably pruned of anything too close to the bone,’ writes Taylor, ‘hers could be utterly raw.’

It is that rawness that distinguishes Barnard, and gives her life a zest and poignancy that confounds the impression most of us have of women of her class and position in Georgian Britain. Taylor is to be commended for handling his material with a sensitivity that means his subject’s quirks and oddities emerge not as peculiar or perverse, but as the natural expression of a personality that jibbed against stifling convention, knowing it would crush her.

From the outset, Barnard’s situation was less than ideal. The eldest child of the bookish James Lindsay, the Earl of Balcarres, who married late, and a young, ill-tempered mother, she was born in 1750, and by the time she was 14 had ten siblings to watch over. Her upbringing in rural Fife was not without its pleasures – riding on a pig’s back, reading in her father’s library and above all the company of her sister Margaret, two or so years her junior, with whom she formed an intense, lifelong bond. But her description of the ramshackle, isolated way they lived, ‘like castaways’, is double-edged. ‘Though our prison was a cheerful one,’ she writes, ‘yet still it was a prison.’ It became considerably less cheerful when Lady Balcarres came under the influence of the children’s governess, Henrietta Cumming, who took a spiteful dislike to Anne, and made things as miserable as if she were the heroine of a Brontë novel.

Girls of Anne’s class were expected to marry, and marry well. She could not bring a fortune to the altar, but she did possess an abundance of intelligence and charm. When a retired merchant offered for her hand when she was 16, her mother’s warning about refusing him is chilling: ‘You must be sensible that you are not very young… You also have to consider very calmly whether you would be contented to find yourself at 50 an old spinster like Sophy Johnston, your old friends dead, on a scanty income, which would scarcely afford you a bone of mutton and potatoes.’

For the well-being of all, the lively Anne and her beautiful sister were sent to Edinburgh to live with an aunt. There they enjoyed the finest intellectual society, mingling with the likes of Adam Smith and David Hume. Margaret was congenial, but Anne was the one everybody remembered for her wit, vivacity, and clever pen. In these years she wrote profoundly poignant lyrics to the folk song ‘Auld Robin Grey’, immortalizing Margaret’s broken heart at not being able to marry the man she first and most loved: ‘The woes of my heart fa’ in showers frae my ee/ Unkent by my Gudeman wha soundly sleeps by me.’ Years later, Walter Scott published it, and publicly revealed her identity as its author, thereby assuring her literary acclaim. It is by far the best thing Anne ever wrote, revealing a woman of high attainment who would never willingly submit to dreary domesticity.

Taylor hints at the regular unwelcome attentions the sisters endured at the hands of an old family friend while at Balcarres. The fright or revulsion this caused might in part explain the reluctance with which Anne viewed the many offers of marriage that came her way in her Edinburgh years. One by one eligible, and not so eligible, suitors were cast aside, and she earned a reputation as a callous flirt. Meanwhile Margaret married a handsome rogue, whose speculating brought down a bank and dragged them to the edge of ruin.

By this time, Edinburgh had become claustrophobic, and Anne decamped for London, where her sister had set up home. It was here that over the years she became by turns a curiosity, with her outlandish clothes, and a figure of respect who had the ear of not just of politicians but, as a friend of the Prince of Wales, of royalty too. As Taylor writes, ‘Lobbying powerful men had become an alternative to marrying one of them.’ Few were more powerful than Henry Dundas, the libertine MP, whom she had known since she was young, and who for many years believed she would make an excellent second wife. As so often, Anne did not agree.

It was a thrilling period, but rackety too, and she mixed not only with men of influence, but with aristocratic mistresses, charlatans and gamblers. Only barely did she keep her reputation as a woman of upright morals. In some quarters she was forever persona non grata for a bizarre episode, in which she went travelling across Europe with her friend, Mrs Fitzherbert, with whom the young Prince of Wales had become smitten. His stratagems in trying to make Fitzherbert his mistress, she wrote, ‘however allowable for a lover in a modern comedy, were not those of an honest man’. It was hoped his ardour would cool while they were gone, but the effect was quite the reverse, and eventually they were secretly married. This illegal liaison brought the country close to a constitutional crisis, since Mrs Fitzherbert was not merely a widow but Catholic. Anne strove to persuade court and parliament that her role was not as abetter but as counsellor, and that her advice to both parties to have nothing more to do with each other had gone ignored. In a codicil to these events, Taylor describes a visit made to Mrs Fitzherbert in 1833, when she was in her late seventies, by the Duke of Wellington. He and his companion had come to burn the incriminating evidence about her marriage to the man who became George IV. ‘I think, my lord, we had better hold our hand for a while or we shall set the old woman’s chimney on fire,’ said Wellington. It is a reminder of the stakes with which Barnard, and her friends, played.

Anne was in her late thirties when she fell for an adventurer and explorer, William Windham, and thought she had found her man. When that proved cruelly wrong, she surprised everyone by accepting an offer from an army captain, the son of the Bishop of Limerick, with little to his name except debts. Andrew Barnard, invalided out of the army, was 13 years her junior when they married in 1793. Contrary to appearances, though, he was no money grubber, but a tender-hearted – perhaps too tender-hearted – romantic. When, with his wife’s help, he was given the post of secretary to the Governor at Cape Town, she sailed with him, and despite his occasional flaws – a couple of bastard children were the most tangible evidence of his roving eye – he was a kind, devoted husband, who treated her with tender respect. There is no doubt that theirs was a most contented union. ‘The Cape of Good Hope gave Anne the happiest years of her life,’ writes Taylor, who describes the fraught climate in which she became a brilliant hostess for those passing through the Cape. The joy her marriage brought her, however, did not last. Andrew died a few years later, leaving her bereft. Only after his death did she learn of the child he had had by one of their black servants, a daughter she took into her care in London as if she were her own.

The romantic turbulence and unorthodoxy of Barnard’s life would be interesting enough in its own, but placed as she was at the very centre of Georgian England, amid the troubling currents following the French Revolution, her connections and her insights and influence are a sensational archive. If Taylor had not unearthed her, you feel someone would have had to invent her: a woman who tried to dictate her own terms, who made her way in a patriarchal society without a fortune, and nothing more than pleasing looks, and emerged true to herself despite all her travails. Defiance seems too aggressive a title for her dragonfly personality, but perhaps it is intended to evoke a Jane Austenish air, for in her novels a woman like Lady Barnard would have been seen as little short of scandalous. What Scotland made of her career remains unrecorded, but one can perhaps guess, given that on her return in late middle age, she reflected on the country’s ‘illiberality of thinking on every trivial point, such as to render the society quite odious to me’.

Defiance reads at times like a Who’s Who of all who walked the Regency stage, and the plethora of figures who enter its pages can be dizzying. Nevertheless, Taylor is an expert navigator of this crowded scene. He holds the tiller steady to present an absorbing, eye-opening history that combines equally the personal and the political. The woman herself, you suspect, would have been even more entertaining.

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Making Scotland great — again?

Shortly before the second general election of 1974, the late John P. Mackintosh attempted to explain the rise of the Scottish National Party to a predominantly left-wing English audience in an essay for the New Statesman.

‘The New Appeal of Nationalism’ contained much that remains pertinent more than four decades later, not least Mackintosh’s realization that the various devolutionary schemes then being bandied around all missed the point. The idea, he wrote, that SNP fires were ‘fuelled’ by the desire for a ‘subordinate assembly’ was a nonsense. Rather, since 1967 (when Winnie Ewing won Hamilton) the SNP had skilfully ‘manoeuvred’ Scotland’s other political parties into having to ‘assent to this proposal’ (a Scottish Assembly) or risk appearing ‘totally insensitive to the situation in Scotland’.

Should devolution prove successful, meanwhile, Nationalists could claim to have forced its creation while arguing that full independence would be even better. And if it failed then they would simply claim to have always said that anything less than independence ‘would be a farce’. ‘They have forced the other parties to fight on ground chosen by the SNP,’ concluded Mackintosh, then a Scottish Labour MP as well as a respected political scientist, ‘namely, what can these parties do for Scotland?’ But, more to the point, anything the Unionist parties suggested would ‘always be inadequate, be it more regional economic advantages or assemblies or a percentage of oil revenues’. It would all be inadequate ‘so long as there is no proper pride in being British’.

Sir Tom Devine quotes this line in his recent book, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present, without exploring it further. Perhaps, to misquote Zhou Enlai on the French Revolution, it’s simply too soon to gauge the significance of 2014 and all that, although most political scientists and commentators are agreed that everything that has occurred since – the 2015 general election, the 2016 Holyrood contest and of course the EU referendum – has done so within its inescapable frame. In Iain Macwhirter’s memorable phrase, ‘Unionists didn’t quite win’ the 2014 referendum and the ‘Yes campaign didn’t quite lose’. Indeed I argued at the time that a Better Together victory would likely be pyrrhic, for the fact that a ballot even took place presented an existential challenge to the Union. For years, opponents (and even many proponents) of independence invoked the complacent ‘it’ll never happen’ mantra, but an SNP majority in Edinburgh and a Section 30 Order from Westminster made it possible, and that was half the battle.

To return to Mackintosh’s point, Unionists also failed to advance any compelling argument for the status quo, instead operating on the SNP’s preferred terrain – an endless debate about devolution and more powers – while highlighting the downsides of the independence proposition. To deploy the argument of Michael Hechter, the American political scientist, about ‘internal colonialism’, they continually strengthened the Celtic periphery while neglecting the Westminster core, promoting pride in being Scottish (via a devolved parliament) but generally fudging the British aspect of what Mackintosh called Scots’ ‘dual nationality’.

So where does that leave a Scotland currently in the no man’s land between a majority Brexit vote in June and the planned triggering of Article 50 next March? The more confident Nationalists believe the Unionist game is finally up; another referendum is only a matter of time, they argue, and this time it’ll be won. I have a degree of sympathy with that analysis, although it’s a value-free zone: just because independence can win next time round does not mean it deserves to. If, meanwhile, Unionism was in better shape intellectually and politically, then the vote to leave the European Union wouldn’t really make much difference. But given the EU has suffered death by a thousand cuts since the 1960s, Brexit is widely perceived as a potentially fatal laceration. It was, after all, a UK-wide vote, something the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon implicitly accepted when she belatedly joined the Remain campaign, although she’d also taken care to establish the prospect of a differential vote shortly after becoming First Minister in late 2014.

One can’t really blame Nationalists for spotting an opportunity to advance their cause and running with it, as the First Minister has done since June. Brexiteers were warned several times that achieving British ‘independence’ would likely rejuvenate the Scottish variety, but while the smarter ones took that point on board they had no idea how to deal with it. For while Euro-scepticism is by no means absent in Scotland, its dominant strain is English rather than Scottish. For the sort of Tory who regards the UK as England with bits added, their focus was naturally on Albion. However, for some Nationalists to behave as if Brexit has removed every objection to independence is a nonsense. Sure, in 2014 Better Together argued that the only way to keep Scotland in the EU was by voting No. That, in light of the referendum, was patently absurd, but then so too was the SNP’s spurious argument – now essentially abandoned – that Scotland would ‘automatically’ retain membership of the Brussels bloc following a Yes vote, a contention supported by few EU leaders or experts. Two wrongs, in other words, don’t make a right.

In interviews promoting his book, Devine epitomized this muddle. He’s said more than once he’d find it difficult to vote Yes at a second referendum given the ‘intellectual hole’ that now exists in the independence proposition, chiefly the tricky trio of currency, border and deficit, but that same intellectual hole existed two years ago. Brexit hasn’t altered that, indeed it makes already difficult issues even more so. Two years ago there was an argument of sorts for a sterling currency union and an open border between Scotland and England, but under the SNP’s preferred scenario – Brexit sans Scotland – both are virtually impossible. Since June, therefore, Unionists such as Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, her personal ambitions bruised and battered by the unexpected Leave vote, have made such points ad nauseam, combined with the similarly pertinent observation that declining oil revenue leaves Scotland more reliant than ever on fiscal transfers from Westminster.

Heady days: But has anything really changed?

So they are empirically sound arguments, just not very effective ones. As Mackintosh realized more than four decades ago, Unionism of this sort is reactionary and therefore ‘inadequate’. Even the preferred strategy of offering the Scots a bit more autonomy – a mainstay of Unionist strategy going back to the creation of the Scottish Office in 1885 – is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Between the Calman and Smith Commissions, both of which devolved more powers to Holyrood, all the low-hanging fruit (as Labour’s Alistair Darling once called it) has been picked. If another referendum does come, the Unionist ‘offer’ in this respect will be threadbare.

Given the pattern of events since the Scottish Parliament was established (rather than ‘re-convened’) in 1999, some Unionist warhorses feel rather smug, not least the veteran Labour politician Tam Dalyell, whose short tract The Question of Scotland: Devolution and After might have been called ‘I Told You So’ given its understandably vindicatory tone. But the trouble is that such analysis only gets you so far, for it assumes that Tony Blair could somehow have U-turned on his party’s long-standing commitment to devolution in 1997 and got away with it. Dalyell doesn’t address this inconvenient point, preferring to identify several episodes from his six-decade career in which Scottish nationalism could have been nipped in the bud. Shrewdly, he first detected Mackintosh’s point about the unquenchable nature of support for independence while fighting the West Lothian by-election in 1962, indeed the two knew each other and perhaps even discussed it. What Dalyell doesn’t advance, however, is any coherent promotion of Britishness or Unionism.

In one section he quotes from his diary of a Labour Party Scottish Executive meeting on 17 August 1974, one of the most important when it came to the party’s approach to rising nationalist support: ‘Brian Wilson, our Ross and Cromarty candidate…just thought the party should square up to the challenge of the SNP and not run away, instead of sheltering under the umbrella of a Scottish Assembly. He thought it would lead to the destruction of the Labour Movement.’ It is a prescient view, and one Wilson held to throughout his subsequent career, despite a tactical acceptance of devolution in the late 1980s. By that stage Labour, hungry for power after a decade of Thatcherism, had fallen into the trap of framing its Scottish strategy in small ‘n’ nationalist terms. Toryism was ‘alien’ to ‘Scottish values’ they argued; the Conservative government had ‘no mandate’ to govern Scotland; a Scottish Parliament would ‘protect’ enlightened, egalitarian Scots from the worst ravages of that wicked woman, and so on.

I recall being cynical about most of these arguments even as an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen in the late 1990s, even though I voted Yes/Yes in the referendum of September 1997. My motivations were partly youthful and partly pragmatic: it was difficult to resist the general momentum towards endorsing a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, for all the apparently intelligent grown-ups seemed to be doing so, while I accepted (and still do) the practical argument that giving the Scottish Office some sort of democratic legitimacy simply made sense.

Those were heady days, at least in the context of the 1980s and 1990s. Half way through my undergraduate career came the 1997 (New) Labour landslide, swiftly followed by the aforementioned referendum. The month I prepared to leave Aberdeen, meanwhile, the first Scottish Parliament elections took place and, the following month, elections to the European Parliament. I remember watching the opening ceremony on Edinburgh’s Mound that July and getting caught up in the excitement of it all; my then SNP-supporting brother even cheered the Queen as she went by in an open-topped carriage.

You could feel the centre of political gravity shifting from London to Edinburgh, but to what end? As a journalist based at the Scottish Parliament from 2001 it was a question I never stopped asking myself, although rarely aloud, for to question devolutionary orthodoxy would have appeared blasphemous coming from a thoroughly green young television reporter. It remains true to this day, and while I have no truck with abolitionists like Dalyell who quixotically maintain that a majority of Scots could potentially vote the Scottish Parliament out of existence, the prevailing view that devolution has been a triumph rests upon shaky assumptions. It is often said, for example, how profoundly Scotland has ‘changed’ since the 1990s, but has it really? Measured in terms of economic growth, educational attainment and social inequality, it’s certainly changed, but for the worse. Successive Scottish Executives and Governments have been so reticent in using the Parliament’s (at first modest) fiscal powers that all their modest legislative achievements – the smoking ban and introduction of Single Transferable Vote for local government stand out – could have been enacted via the old Scottish Office. Sure, there would have been less democratic accountability (and for some that is the most important argument), but the outcomes would have been much the same. And uncomfortably for the SNP, were some sort of university tuition fees still in place, access for students from less-affluent backgrounds might be better too.

Yet in modern Scotland it’s remarkably difficult to make such points, so strong is the received wisdom to the contrary. So where does this leave the independence proposition post-Brexit? To answer that one must differentiate between the political and intellectual cases. Politically, June’s Leave vote arguably strengthens the SNP’s hand, for anything that weakens the UK (as Brexit surely will) is grist to the Nationalist mill, but intellectually things have barely moved on.

Nicola Sturgeon is doubtless a gifted politician, but her strength lies more in style than substance. Briefly a solicitor before becoming an MSP, she retains a lawyer-like ability to persuasively argue a case no matter its merits. Indeed, so slickly does she ‘stand up for Scotland’ that many suspend their critical faculties, apparently content that the First Minister has everything in hand. It is a convincing pose (even London-based commentators, a cynical bunch, swallow it most of the time), but right now Ms Sturgeon’s ‘plan’ doesn’t look much more convincing than Mrs May’s. Rather the First Minister is falling back on the usual combination of anti-Tory rhetoric, virtue signalling and assertions of Scottish moral and political superiority, which admittedly Brexit makes easier. After nearly a decade of SNP government, meanwhile, it’s now pretty clear that its basic worldview and desire for ‘social justice’ differs little from the Third Way fudges of the New Labour era, something the authors of an enjoyably contrarian take on contemporary Scottish politics, Roch Winds: A Treacherous Guide to the State of Scotland, call ‘social nationalism’. In other words, the surprising degree of continuity between the small ‘n’ nationalism perpetrated by Labour in the 1980s and 1990s and that championed by the SNP more recently. Indeed, for those with longer memories capital ‘n’ nationalists have basically appropriated the old arguments for a Scottish Parliament (that it would boost economic growth, protect ‘Scottish values’ and act as a prophylactic against Toryism) and re-appropriated them in support of independence. But then Marx was well aware of an elite tendency anxiously to conjure up past spirits to contemporary service, ‘borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language’.

Unionists did something similar in defending the status quo back in 2014, or at least attempting to, deriving battle slogans (‘No Thanks’) and strategies (we’ll give you more powers!) from the Quebec referendums of 1980 and 1995. A new edition of Joe Pike’s Project Fear: How an Unlikely Alliance Left a Kingdom United but a Country Divided charts all this in gossipy detail, revealing just how seat-of-the-pants the ironically-named ‘Better Together’ campaign was. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the Union survived in spite, rather than because, of that unholy alliance’s efforts. At the risk of repetition, Better Together was essentially defensive in its approach, and looking forward to another independence referendum in 2020 or 2021 – the Scottish Government is clearly playing the long game in this respect – it’s hard to see a second cross-party alliance taking shape. Ruth Davidson heading up a Tory-led No campaign (or Yes, if Unionists were brave enough to re-orientate the question) might excite certain commentators, but it would be a political gift to the SNP.

Perhaps I am a little too prone to detecting parallels between the independence battles in Ireland and Scotland, but there is much that chimes historically. Ronan Fanning’s new biography of Éamon de Valera, A Will to Power, makes the incisive point that while in his pursuit of (full) Irish sovereignty de Valera was ultimately successful, when it came to forging an Ireland worthy of the progressive 1916 Declaration to say he was a failure would miss the point: the father of modern Ireland didn’t even try. For him, freedom was everything, transcending (to paraphrase Nicola Sturgeon) passing political fads such as a sustainable economy or humane system of welfare.

And that’s the point. The independence proposition might pay lip service to utilitarianism but remains fundamentally existentialist, a conclusion in constant pursuit of an argument. From an overly-rational Unionist perspective, that makes it a slippery enemy, but even so the two camps currently find themselves engaged in constitutional trench warfare, occasionally progressing an inch or so across enemy lines, but unsure of their next big push.
What, meanwhile, of that contrary case? Attempts such as Gordon Brown’s, while briefly prime minister, to promote pride in being British – pace Mackintosh – came too little and too late, while the only possible alternative to full independence, a federal UK, has only been tentatively promoted by academics and on the Liberal fringe. In his disappointing memoir, Power and Pragmatism, the former Scottish Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind argues that ‘in a classic British way’ the UK now finds itself ‘stumbling into a new constitutional, quasi-federal system’ that in his view could persuade most Scots to remain part of an older political union even as it’s on course to depart another. That, however, strikes me as wishful thinking, for arguably Scotland has already moved on; that constitutional ship has sailed.

When the Conservatives were reduced to just ten Scottish MPs following the 1987 general election, Sir Malcolm recalls sending Mrs Thatcher a memo suggesting that their stance on a devolved Scottish Assembly might need to be ‘reconsidered’. She of course rejected such treacherous talk, but it is an interesting ‘what if?’: what if Edward Heath’s (arguably half-baked) commitment to devolution had been maintained by his successor and prosecuted as part of the Thatcherite revolution? If nothing else, it might have removed much of what fuelled small and large ‘n’ nationalism over the past thirty years.
Famously, Tam Dalyell referred to devolution as ‘a motorway to independence with no U-turns and no exits’. In the wake of Brexit and, more damagingly, the ongoing failure to develop a compelling Unionist narrative, that may still be true. Back in 1974, John P. Mackintosh referred in his New Statesman essay to a ‘point of conversion’, moments in which ‘different individuals’ suddenly wondered if ‘this nationalist idea which they have first ignored and then belittled does not make some sense after all’. Without even knowing it, for the past few decades Unionists have been furnishing Scots with more and more such points of conversion.

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Castles and ‘Carbuncles’

In 1965, accompanied by his formidable permanent secretary, Evelyn Sharp, Richard Crossman, the then housing minister, visited the emerging new town of Cumbernauld.

In his diary, the Cotswold-dwelling Labour left winger waxed ecstatic. Lanarkshire’s brave new model of ‘urbanity’, planned in the 1950s, he wrote, was a ‘tremendously austere, exhilarating, uncomfortable concept. The kind of thing which Dame Evelyn and I are excited about, in contrast to the cosy, garden-suburb atmosphere of Stevenage or Harlow or Basildon [about which] the Dame, of course, was contemptuous. She loves Cumbernauld’. This lofty pronouncement may be read as a footnote to the detailed appraisal of Cumbernauld in The Buildings of Scotland: Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire. It is a small but significant reminder of how inseparable from the stuff of human beings are the bricks, stone and glass piled up in these islands over the centuries. Cumbernauld, as much as Paisley Abbey or Bothwell Castle, helps make up the living archaeological record of the nation, in all its vaulting ambition, ingenuity, sublimity, idealism, flair, naivety, vanity, and self-delusion.

After more than forty years, The Buildings of Scotland series has realized its ambition to encapsulate the legacy of Scotland’s built environment and, in the current buzz phrase, its ‘sense of place’. Since the publication in 1978 of Lothian, written by the first series editor, the late Colin McWilliam, the volumes have arrived at irregular intervals averaging every two and a half years. In fifteen chunky, shiny black instalments, they have pored over all of Scotland’s notable buildings. Each volume, it’s claimed, contains the equivalent of six PhD’s worth of research.

Almost every non-residential building in Scotland, plus every (even mildly) interesting house, has been described, and placed in the context of national and international equivalents. The series has meticulously organized the chaos of accident and inspiration, from palaces to post offices to park drinking-fountains, into a lucid, accessible and impressively consistent scheme of reference. Neil Baxter, secretary of the Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland asserted recently that Scotland ‘now has the best recorded architecture in the modern world’, partly because of this series, but also because of the RIAS’s own series of regional guides, and David Walker’s online Dictionary of Scottish Architects.

These in turn are part of a long and distinguished historiography stretching back more than two hundred years to the work of Robert Billings, a Londoner whose gorgeously illustrated Baronial and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Scotland (4 vols, 1845-52) was the first systematic record of Scotland’s crumbling heritage. Later came MacGibbon and Ross’s even more comprehensive The Castellated and Domestic Architecture of Scotland (5 vols, 1887-92) and The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Scotland from the Earliest Times to the 17th Century (3 vols, 1896-97). These pioneers were architects, scholars and internationalists, and fervent conservationists, who worked tirelessly to save our relics from the Victorian wrecking ball. Like all of Scotland’s great architects – the Adams family, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, Robert Rowand Anderson, Rennie Mackintosh et al – they were steeped in the European context from which our proudly distinct ‘national style’ derived. Their focus, needless to add, was on the haunts of prelates and noblemen, not in the quotidian or anything ‘of the people’.

Which brings us back to the rigorously democratic ethos of The Buildings of Scotland, and to Cumbernauld. Although not much visited these days by VIPs, Cumbernauld is described here as being ‘of special significance… the only place in this volume that was recognized, at the time of its construction, as of international architectural standing’. This advocacy of one of Scotland’s least-loved places shows The Buildings of Scotland at its best, 31 fact-packed pages complete with maps, plans and a building-by-building guide. As with all of the hundreds of thousands of individual entries in the series, it gives the intentions of the place, and its original architects their due, with a light dusting of subjective aesthetic appraisal, occasionally amounting to good and bad marks for effort and achievement.

Where Cumbernauld is concerned, in place of the usual ‘carbuncle’ sneers, messrs Close, Gifford and Walker prefer analysis and sober assessment. They carefully consider the ‘prima donna cosmopolitanism’ of the town centre, and the surrounding oval of houses, roads and walkways ‘knitted together into a strong sense of genius loci by robust landscaping’. So far so dispassionate. But given that the entire architecture and planning scheme was predicated on social transformation, even a book such as this must address the fact that society has remained untransformed. For unlike its predecessor, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld has not flourished. Indeed, the authorial triumvirate believe its downward slide can be traced to 1981 and the filming of ‘Gregory’s Girl’, which showed the town ‘in an optimal state of lush maturity’.

It went ‘subtly off the boil’ soon afterwards when the ‘New Town ethos of aspirational mobility gradually began to work against Cumbernauld’s social cohesion’. Being ‘uncomfortable’ may have excited intellectuals like Crossman and Sharp (and architects — Cumbernauld won a number of major international awards) but it did not appeal to the people who had to live there. They didn’t take to its militantly Spartan aesthetic of now-abandoned tower blocks scattered amid small-windowed terraced housing that was apparently ‘in keeping with Scottish tradition’. Without the kind of housing and neighbourhoods that people like to wake up in each morning, even the ample green space and the child-friendly separation of roads and pedestrian areas did not make the New Town attractive. So they moved on, ‘leaving behind an ageing residue’.

Bothwell Castle: ‘Amongst the greatest of all Scottish castles.’

Appraisals of this scale are of course the exception. Mostly the microscope is applied to individual buildings and landscaped settings, of which Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire possess an embarrassment. Even a list of highlights must be brutally selective. There is William Adam’s Chatelherault, Bothwell Castle (‘amongst the greatest of all Scottish castles’), Newark Castle, Paisley Abbey, Wemyss Bay Railway Station, Ian Hamilton’s Finlay’s Little Sparta (‘a Poet’s Garden, in the tradition of Pope’), the art deco India of Inchinnan tyre factory, the miners’ rows of Coatbridge, Craignethan Castle (‘Tillietudlem’ in Scott’s Old Mortality), Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Windyhill at Kilmacolm, Alexander Thomson’s Holmwood, the Dollan Aqua Centre in East Kilbride, Cummins Diesel Engine Works at Shotts, the Hamilton Mausoleum, the Coats Memorial Church and Oakshaw Trinity Church in Paisley, Greenock’s outrageous Municipal Buildings – at one time ‘the grandest municipal building’ in the land – and its now abandoned St George’s North Church.

What is it that stimulates the long entries that denote ‘importance’? It is worth noting that New Lanark merits just six pages, which in turn is about a third of the space allotted to the volume’s star medieval pile, Paisley Abbey. Although the mill town may be ‘the largest and best-preserved example in Scotland of a Georgian industrial complex’, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it appears there is not a huge amount of purely architectural interest to linger over. What is being assessed is not historical or cultural resonance, but architecture, design and town planning. It takes iron editorial discipline to maintain this distinction so consistently.

The book is haunted by ghosts. It contains perhaps the longest list in the whole series of buildings that have long since been demolished or have fallen into ruin, as industries and the fortunes attached to them have come and gone. Many have left no trace, such as Milton Lockhart House near Larkhall, which was transported stone-by-stone to Japan where it is used as the World Santa Museum in Gunma prefecture north of Tokyo. The biggest loss is Hamilton Palace which was at least as vast, classically grand and stuffed with Old Masters as Chatsworth. Designed, built and rebuilt by illustrious hands, including Sir Christopher Wren, between the 1690s and 1840s, it was torn down in 1927, the most grievous blow to Scots heritage since Glasgow University’s renaissance old college made way fifty years previously for a railway marshalling yard. How different the tourism map of Lanarkshire and of Scotland would have looked had this temple of Scots plutocracy not been literally undermined by the Duke of Hamilton’s own coal works.

Thus it is that the way we neglect our past, as well as the way we preserve it and repurpose it, betrays who we are as a nation. The evidence of The Buildings of Scotland series is that, in place of a vague sense of moral superiority, our ‘cultural conceit’ in Tom Devine’s phrase, we could find a more solid basis on the extraordinary built heritage which graces the landscape, and which in turn feeds into our disproportionate strength and confidence in contemporary architecture. We can all point to contemporary carbuncles. But as the RIAS’s 2016 Year of Architecture has shown, Scotland has a wealth of world-class architectural practitioners eager to learn from the past and build brilliantly for the future.

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Bob and the Bard

‘Much of the Village,’ wrote New York Times critic, Robert Shelton, of the emergence in September, 1961, of Bob Dylan, ‘reacted with jealousy, contempt and ridicule.’ Shelton, however, was not one of the baying, reactionary herd. In an article of no more than a few hundred words he foresaw what so many others then and since have failed or refused to recognize.

Looking like ‘a cross between a choir boy and a beatnik’ and wearing clothes that ‘may need a bit of tailoring’, Dylan, then just 20 years old, was already creating the kind of impression that is indelible, imperishable. ‘Mr Dylan,’ added Shelton, ‘is both comedian and tragedian. Like a vaudeville actor of the rural circuit, he offers a variety of droll musical monologues: “Talking Bear Mountain” lampoons the over-crowding of an excursion boat, “Talking New York” satirizes his troubles in gaining recognition and “Talking Havah Nagilah” burlesques the folk-music craze and singer himself.’ The review concluded with the observation that ‘it matters less where he had been than where he is going, and that would seem to be straight up.’

Shelton’s prophetic piece came to mind when news broke last month of Dylan’s award of this year’s Nobel Laureateship in Literature. While the usual begrudgers condemned his so-called inability to sing and refused to acknowledge that song lyrics may without music have separate lives as poems, I couldn’t help but think of another man who arrived in a big city from the boondocks and created a storm. William Shakespeare, born and bred in Stratford, materialized in London as if from thin air some time in the 1580s. Like Dylan, the reception he received from his peers and rivals was less than flattering. One, the playwright Robert Greene, described him as ‘an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers’, adding, he ‘is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you…in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.’ Ironically, Greene is best remembered today, if he is remembered at all, for his anti-Shakespeare barbs.

Bob Dylan is our age’s Shakespeare. I have a long-standing habit of putting together lines from both of them – even more so since Dylan’s en-Nobelment – and marvelling at how well they fit.

‘Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright:/ The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.’

Like Shakespeare, Dylan writes words to be uttered aloud, in public, in front of audiences disinclined to sit in silence. What Dryden said of Shakespeare – ‘he is always great’ – is equally true of Dylan. But do not take my word for it. Among his many admirers was the now lamented Leonard Cohen who, in the days when I covered the Glasgow music scene and had easy access backstage at the Apollo Theatre, I met on a couple of occasions. On the first, we chatted about the process of writing and recording songs, and I asked Cohen to place Dylan in the pantheon. ‘The master – I sit at his feet,’ he said. Some time later at the same venue I had the opportunity to talk to him again. ‘Dylan’s body of work is broad musically but what is not apparent to many people is how deep he goes. He takes truths from the ages and refashions them for our, often darker, era.’ To judge by recent interviews, Cohen’s opinion – and eloquence – had not changed one iota. Learning of the award of the Nobel, he said it was ‘like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain’.

Shakespeare – as his fans know – is one of the many inhabitants of Dylan’s lyrical metropolis, as are Romeo, Ophelia, Othello, Desdemona and, obliquely, King Lear. (His song, ‘Tears of Rage’, for example, has been likened to Lear’s soliloquy on the blasted heath in Shakespeare’s tragedy, while ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ is a direct borrowing). All are cited in Dylan’s early, astonishing outpouring of song. Some thirty years on, in his 1997 album, he evoked in ’Time Out of Mind’ Mercutio’s speech in Romeo and Juliet:

Her chariot is an empty hazel-nut
Made by the joiner squirrel or old grub,
Time out o’ mind the fairies’ coachmakers.

Mercutio, leading Romeo on a midnight ramble through Vernona, imagines Queen Mab, ‘the fairies’ midwife’, as she drives her carriage across the sleeping world and through the minds of dreamers to witness their fantastic visions of love and war or the banalities of everyday life. Was Shakespeare here describing his own muse, and is Dylan doing likewise, with a wink to his Elizabethan predecessor? Whether or not ’Time Out of Mind’ is a conscious lift, it is a reminder of another inescapable similarity between Shakespeare and Dylan, namely their sponge-like ability to absorb, wittingly or otherwise, dramatic potential and poetic inspiration from a wide range of sources. In Chronicles, his first volume of autobiography, Dylan describes the eclecticism of his reading and his eagerness to learn more. Once, he recalls, he sought out Robert Graves, with whose book The White Goddess he was impressed. On a brisk walk round London’s Paddington Square, the conversation turned to Balzac, of whom Dylan was a perceptive devotee. ‘Balzac,’ he wrote, ‘was pretty funny. His philosophy is plain and simple, says basically that pure materialism is a recipe for madness. The only true knowledge for Balzac seems to be in superstition. Everything is subject to analysis. Horde your energy. That’s the secret of life. You can learn a lot from Mr. B.’

Such omnivorousness, such shameless appropriation, was also a Shakespearian trait. Shakespeare borrowed extensively from his contemporary, Raphael Holinshed, author of Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, which was the basis for his Histories as well as Macbeth and King Lear. The works of Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney were also ripe for plunder, as were Plutarch’s  and Chaucer’s. Like Dylan, Shakespeare wrote quickly and, unlike Dylan, often to order. Both men’s output was phenomenal; on average Shakespeare wrote a play every nine months, often while also performing on stage with his company of players, the King’s Men. Dylan was similarly fecund and a compelling image, captured in DA Pennebaker’s 1965 documentary, Don’t Look Back, is of Dylan frenetically clattering out lyrics on his typewriter in breaks between concerts, a phenomenon also described by Robbie Robertson of The Band in his new memoir, Testimony.

Perhaps this almost manic creativity was fuelled in both Shakespeare and Dylan by the intuition that they lived at decisive historical junctures. In Shakespeare’s lifetime, England – soon to be united with Scotland – established its first American colony. The British Empire had its toehold on another continent and the English language – and Shakespeare’s masterpieces – crossed the ocean with it. Dylan’s youth, meanwhile, coincided with the emergence of the USA as the world’s preeminent superpower , with a cultural empire that included the movies and popular music, both expressed in English, by then a truly global language.

For Dylan, though, sound was as critical as meaning. Music came to him via America’s many specialist radio stations to which he listened as a teenager in Duluth, Minnesota. As he demonstrated when DJ-ing on his Theme Radio Hour, which ran for more than a hundred episodes, Dylan’s taste is admirably eclectic, covering the scale of the American songbook. His knowledge of and affection for all genres is remarkable, allowing him to move seemingly effortlessly from folk to rock, gospel to country and western, blues to jazz and even, as we have seen of late, embracing Sinatra standards. Who, when he was writing the likes of ‘Rainy Day Women’ and ‘Leopard-Skin-Pill-Box Hat’, could have foreseen that?

Moreover, Dylan’s emergence came at a time when the technology was changing, allowing artists such as himself who were constricted by what could be put on a 45 rpm record to produce long playing albums which could accommodate a song like ‘Desolation Row’, which, on the 1965 album ’Highway 61 Revisited’, took up more than eleven minutes. Such epics allowed Dylan to explore themes that had animated Shakespeare: thwarted love, jealousy, the viciousness of war, the loneliness of power and – pace Dante, whose Inferno he read in those formative days in Greenwich Village, and the aforementioned Balzac – the divine, human comedy. Indeed, Dylan reshaped the form of popular music so radically that he could fuse the Scottish ballad ‘Lord Randall’ and the ‘Book of Revelation’ to deliver, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis, ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’.

To date, Dylan has produced an estimated 522 songs, a prodigious output by any standard. Of course, not all of them are of the highest quality. Shakespeare, who was at least as productive, was similarly inconsistent. But, as his contemporary, Ben Jonson, said of him, he redeemed his vices with virtues: ‘There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.’ It is a mark of geniuses that they are ever ahead of public taste, defying expectations, flouting rules and challenging norms. Artists such as Shakespeare and Dylan don’t look back, they’re always moving forward.

Coincidentally, Robert Shelton and I both worked for the Sunday Standard, and we sat together when Dylan played Earl’s Court in 1981. Before the show we chatted about his appetite for reinvention. Shelton referred to Shakespeare’s capacity to be rediscovered anew by each generation – forever young, you might say. He added: ‘Dylan also keeps re-imagining himself and the world. What’s fascinating is how the world keep turning out the way he imagined it.’ An hour later Dylan sang ‘Maggie’s Farm’, the song that had got him booed off the stage by outraged traditionalists when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. The reaction of the Earl’s Court audience was ecstatic because of another new and wrenching context. A woman prime minister, also called Maggie, happened then to be imposing her doctrine on an increasingly disunited kingdom. ‘It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor,’ Dylan rasped. The crowd roared its approval. ‘See what I mean,’ said Shelton.

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The Outsider

In Edinburgh of yore, many moons before it was dubbed a ‘city of literature’, it was a common occurrence in one of its many frowsty watering-holes to encounter late of an evening the editor of a literary magazine hawking her latest issue to dour drinkers clinging mollusc-like to the bar.

This was how I was first introduced to Chapman and Joy Hendry. Founded in 1970, the soi-disant ‘little’ magazine had a difficult birth and an even more troublesome upbringing. Some issues were healthily fat, while others verged on the anorexic, which seemed to reflect its changing circumstances. It was serious, print-heavy – one, 100-page issue I have before me, number 49, published in the summer of 1987, has just three black and white illustrations – and by and large bereft of advertising. Of its few adverts several are for other magazines, such as Radical Scotland, Cencrastus and Wales-based Envoi (‘the poetry magazine that cares’), which suggests no cash changed hands.

Much of the content is given over to hymning Edwin Muir. ‘At meal-times,’ recalls one memorialist, ‘Edwin was often quite thoughtful, or, as we said then, would fall into a dwalm.’ There is also, however, a generous amount of space given to the work of other writers: poems by Kathleen Raine, Meg Bateman and Sheena Blackhall; an innovative short story about a disruptive pupil by Anthony Duffy; a diary by playwright Tom McGrath; and eight pages of ‘edited highlights’ – no one then had heard of attention deficit disorder – from a feisty, formative conference on the need for a national theatre. A further fifteen pages are devoted to reviews which are printed in a point size readable only by those with magnifying glasses. Subsidy came from the Scottish Arts Council, predecessor of Creative Scotland, while support – what form this took is unspecified – was given by the City of Edinburgh District Council.

The real support, however, was that supplied by Hendry who, from its inception until it ceased publication with its 110th issue in 2010, nurtured her precocious, bawling bairn with maternal devotion. How she, let alone it, survived for so long is one of the wonders of late twentieth-century Scottish literature. Throughout those four decades, while helpmates came and went, Hendry soldiered on, like a Salvation Army conscript flogging copies of The War Cry to all and sundry. Once, the magazine’s finances were in such a parlous state that she had to foot a £600 printer’s bill from her own dwindling savings. Never did she manage, throughout the magazine’s whole history, to pay herself what might be called a living wage.

Such devotion, and such longevity, is unusual if not unique. Such publications come and go like football managers. It is no small achievement then to keep one breathing for twenty years and more, as Gerry Cambridge has The Dark Horse. It was born, as he recalls in The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine, in the autumn of 1994, as are so many such ventures, in a pub, The Goldberry Arms in Kilmarnock, where, ‘surrounded by empty glasses’ and enveloped in clouds of smoke, he and a drinking buddy decided to take the plunge. Seed money came from the Scottish Arts Council, which had given Cambridge, a 35-year-old autodidact with ‘psychological peculiarities’, a writing bursary. At the time he was living in a caravan on the Cunninghamhead Estate in Ayrshire which, from the photographs reproduced here, was not the most salubrious or comfortable place to live. In winter it was an icebox while in summer – believe it if you will – it was an oven. This was Cambridge’s garret, his Parisian atelier, for two decades. ‘Gerry,’ asked Philip Hobsbaum, critic, connecter and encourager, ‘how on earth can you expect to keep a woman? You have no property, you have no degree, you have no financial resources, you don’t even have a driving licence!’

The name for the magazine, Cambridge recalls, came without too much forethought. ‘Briefly, The Corncrake was also a possibility; I liked it, as a lifelong bird person, for its unfashionable unexpectedness and its pastoral note. Then I began thinking that calling a poetry journal after a rapidly declining land rail likely to become extinct in Britain might not be the most auspicious idea. The Dark Horse – the outsider, the unknown quantity, the unexpected winner – gradually asserted itself in my mind.’

From the outset, Cambridge was eager, like countless editors before him, to produce the kind of magazine he wanted to read. His aim was to publish poetry with a ‘taste for the genuine’ but that was also ‘lit with anarchic energy and humour’. He was keen, too, to run prose written ‘with some of the virtues of higher journalism’ and took Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age as his model. In a riff on ‘Editors & their magazines’ he mentions various kindred publications, including Eddie Linden’s Aquarius, but, curiously, not Chapman or other indigenous magazines published concurrently.

The Dark Horse’s unique selling point was, and to an extent still is, its affinity with American poetry, in which Cambridge was youthfully immersed. In his first, bullish editorial, he stated that his was not a magazine for ‘partly-achieved work among which the occasional fine poem glints like a diamond; nor is it intended only to be interesting to those who appear in its pages; nor will it feature backslapping and only partially sincere reviews’. He subscribed to a sect known as the New Formalists, an American-inspired movement which promoted a back-to-basics approach to metrical and rhymed verse. Indeed, as he relates, one of its high priests, Dana Gioia, agreed to become a ‘conduit’ for work from the US, with the proviso that The Dark Horse aspired to be ‘of more than local interest’. Intriguingly, Cambridge readily assented to this imperial edict, reasoning that ‘it helped lift the magazine clear of what is often a problem in any small country’s literature – parochialism of the worst kind (there is a best kind), nepotism, lack of self-criticism and self-evaluation. And, in its early loose alliance with New Formalism, it helped give the magazine an identity’.

It is one of the marks of Scottish culture and its promoters that, in desperation to avoid being smeared parochial or insular, they veer the other way, embracing and inviting and subsidizing the efforts of those from afar often at the expense of local artists. This is all very well and worthy, not to mention generous – especially in these cash-strapped times – but one can’t help but wonder if the same selflessness pertains elsewhere. Is there, for instance, in the US a magazine that is as welcoming to Scottish poets as The Dark Horse has been to their American counterparts? It is, needless to say, a question of which Cambridge is aware and which he perceives may have caused Scotland’s ferrety and peppery poetry ‘community’ problems.

In saying so, this is not to denigrate the quality of the material published in The Dark Horse. From the beginning it published work of a generally high standard and added a teaspoonful of paprika to our literary broth. Apart from the fore-mentioned Gioia, a regular presence in its formative years, it championed contributors such as Kirkpatrick Dobie, William Neill, Douglas Dunn (‘at the time of writing, Scotland’s pre-eminent senior poet’), X.J. Kennedy (‘one of my favourite American poets’), Wendy Cope (‘greatly admired by a number of the New Formalist Americans’), the aforementioned Hobsbaum and Edwin Morgan, whose dismissive review of Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters ‘was one of the few… of that book by an equally gifted contemporary’.

The obliteration of New York’s Twin Towers on 11 September, 2001, Cambridge acknowledges, changed The Dark Horse’s relationship with its transatlantic partner to a degree. In the aftermath of the tragedy there was ‘a great sense’ of the US closing its borders, which made him less inclined to venture west. While after 9/11 what he calls the ‘American element’ of the magazine continued, he believes that in retrospect the loosening of the connection was for the better: ‘the magazine had been in danger latterly of seeming only the vessel for a clique of favoured writers’. This coincided, he adds, with an ‘episode still sometimes referred to with amusement’ in Creative Scotland, the successor of the SAC. When he applied for a grant to what was known as the Grants to Magazine panel, The Dark Horse was awarded an ‘additional’ sum – on top of how much is not disclosed – of £1,360 a year, on the understanding that it should be ‘strictly ring-fenced’ for paying the contributors. ‘I refused the money,’ writes Cambridge. ‘For one thing, I hadn’t asked for it. For another, I wrote that “the funding body was simply assuming my willingness to be its unpaid administrator”. I suggested that “it supply extra funds for such administration or, ideally, administer such payments itself”.’

One admires his chutzpah and his cussedness. It is illustrative of the stress involved in producing a publication that is unlikely ever to reward its editor with anything other than the occasional, patronizing pat on the back, an honorary gong from a third-rate institution of learning and a footnote in the literary annals. As the years marched on Cambridge began to review his own performance. By 2009 and issue 23, for instance, he noted ‘a new lively note’ which was ‘perhaps influenced by recent positive developments in my private life’, though what these were remains unspecified. Marketing, he concedes, was never his strong point, and we are not told how many copies The Dark Horse sold or sells. Nor, indeed, does he reveal whether contributors are paid. What is apparent is the development of his skills as a designer. Typographically, The Dark Horse is a covetable object. By 2010, the same year Joy Hendry pulled down Chapman’s shutters, Cambridge believed his magazine had ‘entered its maturity’ and was ‘firmly established as one of the longer-running poetry journals’. As its editor, he insists on receiving two copies of any book under review, not so he can purloin one but so he can keep an eye on his reviewers. ‘Writers can be extraordinarily slapdash… in the accuracy of their quotations from source texts, so all quotations are checked against their originals.’ As for himself, Cambridge is confident that the deluge of submissions and review copies screaming ‘ego! ego!’ and ‘listen to me!’ has not impaired his own work as a poet. At the last, however, he offers an insight into the petty politicking of the poetry world. Not long after he started editing the magazine he took a call from a fellow editor who informed him that a collection of his poetry had been sent out for review. What the unnamed editor wanted to know was whether, quid pro quo, his own book would be reviewed in The Dark Horse, which of course it was not.

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Hugh MacDiarmid: The lost Interview

Forty years ago Hugh MacDiarmid, poet and provocateur, was interviewed by pupils of Hillhead High School, the result of which was published in their school magazine. It was found ‘by chance’ by Professor Donald Gillies of the University of the West of Scotland.

In 1976, MacDiarmid was 84-years-old; he died two years later, a year before the first devolution referendum. No mention is made of this interview in the only biography to date of him by Alan Bold. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who is referred to in the course of the interview, is perhaps best known for his autobiographical novel, One Day in the of Life Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962, which describes a typical day in the Gulag, the Stalinist labour camps to which millions of Russians were condemned for political deviation. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 1974 his citizenship was revoked and he was expelled from the Soviet Union. Therafter he sought refuge in the United States. He died in 2008. Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901-35), author of Sunset Song, shared MacDiarmid’s communist sympathies if not his enthusiasm for nationalism.

You are known to have strong political views. How would you describe these?

I am a Marxist-Leninist, and as such a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Is it possible for a state to exist that would satisfy you completely? Can you describe such a state?
No Communist would claim that either the Soviet Union or any other of the Communist countries has yet achieved a perfectly satisfactory state – but we do claim that the USSR has solved, or is solving, many of the greatest problems of any modern country, and has evolved a state, whatever its imperfections, which is very much better than any country has achieved under Capitalism.

What do you think of the views expressed by Solzhenitsyn on television recently (i.e. that we have lost many of our freedoms and also that Russia is not sincere about detente)?

I think Solzhenitsyn is a malignant enemy of the Soviet system, exploiting purely personal grievances, and deliberately playing into the hands of the enemies of the USSR. He tremendously overstates whatever case he has, and is not a writer of real quality. Naturally he has been boosted by the anti-Communist forces as a great literary genius and the equal of Tolstoy. He is not. He is simply a sensational reporter and if he had attacked the United States of America, or France, or Germany in terms similar to his attack on the Soviet system he would have been sentenced to a long term of imprisonment and treated very much in the same way as he alleges he was treated in Russia. He is a purely temporary phenomenon and of no lasting importance at all.

You have a strong interest in Scotland. How would you describe yourself – patriot, nationalist, chauvinist?

I am a Scottish Nationalist and Internationalist. The two things go together and I would not be the one without the other.

Can you reconcile nationalism with international socialism?

You cannot have internationalism without nationalisms to be inter with. There is no question of the strong nationalist feelings in the Soviet Union – and in China. Both have encouraged the languages and cultures of the minority elements in their populations, as the English Government, for example, has utterly failed to do. I have been in Russia and China and seen how the minorities are treated, and only wish the Scots and the Welsh and the Cornish, to say nothing of the Irish, were treated in the same way. The Communist Party is on the side of the nationalist liberation movements.

Would you like to see an independent Scotland? If not, how far would you like to see devolution go?

I have no use for any measure of devolution. I want complete independence and the complete disjunction of Scotland from England. The Westminster Government can never give us independence. Independence is not given but taken.

Do you think there is a Scottish culture? Do you agree with Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s claim that almost all the writing done by Scots is in the English language and tradition?

Harold Acton, the historian, has said that no small nation in the history of the world has had a greater impact on mankind at large than the Scots have had. That influence flowed from the national character which is utterly different from the English. To analyze that national character is to discover the factors comprising our Scottish culture. L.G. Gibbon was taking too short a view when he declared that almost all the writing done by Scots has been in the English language and tradition. This has only been true since the Union with England and the suppression of the Scots and Scottish Gaelic languages by English imperialism. But no Scottish writer, writing in English, has succeeded in achieving first, second, or even third degrees of importance or contributed significantly to the mainstream of English literature. English literature has had no good influence on Scottish writers and while English literature has owed a great deal to Scottish practice – in, for example, descriptive writing, in ballads and song lyrics – Scottish literature has no similar debt to English literature. It is precisely in the things that English literature is most conspicuously lacking that Scottish literature, alike in Scots and in Scottish Gaelic, has excelled.

Is, say, a poem about Scotland, written by a Scot, in a Scottish dialect, Scottish or English literature?

Anything written in English is a contribution to English literature, speaking in the broadest sense, but is unlikely, as our literary history shows, to be able to compare favourably with the genuine article – i.e. with writing by someone whose native language is English.

Do you still stand by your statement in ‘Hymn to Lenin’ – ‘What maitters ’t wha we kill?’

Yes. I still stand by that statement. Progress demands that recalcitrant or reactionary elements must be swept away. This has always happened throughout history. The USSR, under Stalin, is no exception and indeed in sacrifice of life compares favourably with the USA or UK.

Do you wish to be remembered for your short lyric poems or for the longer ones where you formulate your ideas?

Whatever the value of my early lyrics I think my later concern with long poems was necessary. Two great European poets – Heine in Germany and Pasternak in Russia – both masters of the lyric were agreed that life has today become far too complicated and full of change to be adequately reflected in the form of short lyrics and that much longer poems, i.e. epic, are called for in the modern world.

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