Scottish PEN's Lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival has become a highlight, and this year, the 80th anniversary of the organisation's founding offered an opportunity to reflect.
As Jenni Calder, PEN's current President pointed out, few are as able to do so with as much clarity and pertinacity as Professor Douglas Gifford of the University of Glasgow. Professor Gifford's theme was nothing less ambitious than a reassessment of the 'Scottish Renaissance' of the early and mid-twentieth century.
Professor Gifford argued that recent moves to expand the scope of study of the period ought to be further expanded. He felt the very concept of a 'Renaissance' required to be more inclusively interpreted, and to recognise that while writing of the period is celebratory of re-birth and renewal, it also regrets and mourns what is passing - a 'positive negativism' which is a frequent aspect of Scottish writing of the period.
Scottish literature at this time ought to be studied diachronically, and to be seen as much a continuation of the work of late nineteenth century writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson as wholly representative of a new modernism. Too many interpretations of Scottish literary achievement 'celebrated' under-achievement rather than the innovation and actual creativity of Scottish writers at this time.
Scottish writing between the turn of the twentieth century and the outbreak of the Second World War reflects a quest for roots, respect for tradition and especially a search for identity. Writers explored folklore and the oral tradition as well as the opportunities of modernism - M'Dairmid and Lewis Grassic Gibbon being prime examples of this.
Experimentalism abounds - prolexis and analexis (prior and post narratives) features in Neil Gunn's 'Highland River', while the poetic styles and voices of Marion Angus and Violet Jacob prefigure the work of Hugh M'Dairmid. M'Dairmid himself is at least in part responsible for those lacunae which exist - having, for example, edited the mature nature poems of William Souter out of the standard canon. This instance is one amongst several of history being re-written by those anxious not to be written out of it themselves. Edwin Muir's modernist manifesto provides its own wry comment in the line 'Out of that desolation we were born.'
There are unavoidable contra-dictions all screaming to be heard as individual writers contend to define a consciousness greater than their own - M'Dairmid's 'Drunk Man', a modern-day Tam O' Shanter, cannot decide whether the weed he contemplates represents the positive or negative aspect of Scottish consciousness. What can be discerned, dimly and sometimes through a half-empty glass, is the through-line from Stevenson, via J. D. Hendry to the work of Robin Jenkins and on to such as 'The Proclaimers', whose own cry of 'Methil no more, Lochaber no more', is as neat a summation of positive and negative aspects, yearning for an imagined past and recognition of its awfulness, as one is likely to find in late twentieth century Scotland.
In such ways, the Scottish Renaissance may be said to have transcended itself, but it's still fair to ask whether it could ever have been a possible programme for its own time. Based on efforts to define Scottish nationhood in terms of race, it became, however lightly, tainted with notions of racial essentialism and simplification of the complexities of Scottish ethnicity and multiple identities. Unlike Ireland, which remained largely rural for much of the twentieth century, heavily industrial Scotland looked largely elsewhere for concepts of identity.
In order to arrive at a better understanding of the Scottish Renaissance, it is necessary to appreciate that the deaths of Scott, Hogg and Galt left a gap unfilled in the mid-nineteenth century, except perhaps by Hugh Miller, whose untimely death in the 1850s left the stage bare till Stevenson.
'Kailyard' predominated, although the repeal of the Stamp Act led to the rapid growth of local newspapers and magazines which in spite of their own kailyard tendencies, preserved spoken Scots by printing it. There is still much to explore, both in the period before the Scottish Renaissance and during its upsurge, but the question it's most pertinent to ask what does a national literature do?
In its exploration of social and cultural phenomena it points up the dilemmas, the real moral questions which we all face. A national literature is called in to identify the moral sicknesses society may suffer from. Literature of the Scottish Renaissance identifies a sense of personal alienation, a recognition of personal responsibility and autonomy in an age of authoritarianism, a growing awareness of gender politics, and an awareness of an international dimension.
All of these are themes which writers are continuing to examine but with an awareness of the contribution to ongoing debate made by the writers of the Scottish Renaissance.
Gifford went on to deplore the dearth of knowledge and understanding evinced by the Scottish teaching profession with regard to Scottish literature, but noted approvingly that Scottish school students were 'voting with their feet', even if their votes were for Irvine or Louise Welsh.
One of the first acts of the newly inaugurated Scottish Parliament was to drop the requirement for Scottish school children to study Scottish literary works, so it must be heartening to know an appetite still exists, even if, as Gifford put it, 'sham education and sham politics' continues to do their best to level our future generations into cul-de-sacs of consumerist culture and naive ignorance.
Robin Jemkins berated his contemporaries for making Scotland a 'sad wee dump' of a country. It's a faint hope, but hope nonetheless that the effort of Gifford and his colleagues may make it less so.