An Introduction to
Scottish literature holds a unique position among literatures in and around the English language -- a 400 year history in which it has passed back and forth between national and regional status, depending on the conditions of state politics and national culture. It is the original "other" literature of the English tradition, the oldest continuous practice of a tradition within the tradition. Its practice has been at times oppositional, at times collaborative, almost always conflicted. Its dialogic texts are exemplary and its ability to shape-shift according to a reader's point of view or desire can be downright dizzying. In its history, other writers who by choice or circumstance find themselves on the margins of literary empires may find a mirror, a map, and a damned good time.
Scottish literature entered the twentieth century at one of its lowest ebbs, but reached the twenty-first in a full-voiced, multi-voiced Renaissance. In keeping with the subject of this course--which excludes poetry in translation--the introduction which follows emphasizes poetry in only two of Scotland's three languages: Scots and English. (Sources for Gaelic poetry are included in the bibliography and the multi-lingual anthologies cited there will lead you to many individual Gaelic poets.) You will also find here a rather lengthy passage on Robert Burns and the 18th century. Bear with me: Burns' legacy is as important to Scottish poetry today as Whitman's and Dickinson's are to American.
Extant written poetry in what is now Scotland dates to the 6th century, with the Latin poetry of Irish monks on the island monastery of Iona. In the centuries following, about half a dozen languages were written and spoken in what is now Scotland. Oral Pictish literature has not been preserved, but Welsh, Old English, Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon (forerunner of Scots), Old Norse, and Old French each produced written poetry that has survived, while Gaelic poets continued an oral bardic tradition that dated from the 2nd century. By the early days of the modern Scottish nation, the 13th & 14th centuries, Scots was the literary tongue of the Lowlands, Gaelic of the Highlands. Since the late 17th century, most Scottish poets have written in English, but a counter-movement of Scots poetry and a small but vigorous and combative Gaelic tradition have kept lingustic and aesthetic choices both various and politically charged.
who think of “English” as one language will miss much of what is best in
Scottish poetry. The
The Modern Scottish Renaissance
In 1919, T.S. Eliot, then resident in England, wrote: “The first part of the history of Scottish literature is part of the history of English literature when English was several dialects; the second part is part of the history of English literature when English was two dialects--English and Scots; the third part is something quite different--it is the history of a provincial literature. And finally, there is no longer any tenable distinction to be drawn for the present day between the two literatures.” Note 1
Both his history and his philology were faulty, yet Eliot’s statement reflected the views of his day. Indeed, in 1948 Hamish Henderson would write: “In the first decade of this century Scotland presented a daunting spectacle of cultural ruin. To any observers it seemed unlikely that the country could much longer maintain even a facade of national identity. The English imperialist Ascendancy had consolidated itself, with the full acquiescence of the Scottish bourgeoisie, during the course of the nineteenth century, and its domination in academic circles was virtually complete. The indigenous traditions of the people, both Gaelic and Lallans [Lowland Scots], seemed to have been left tattered and defenceless before the big battalions of alien aggression.” Note 2 Henderson wrote of this condition in the past tense, of course, because by 1948 everything had changed.
Scottish poetry had two founding fathers (and no founding mothers). Together,
We base our belief in the possibility of a great Scottish literary Renaissance, deriving its strength from the resources that lie latent and almost unsuspected in the Vernacular, upon the fact that the genius of our Vernacular enables us to secure with comparative ease the very effects and swift transitions which other literatures are for the most part unsuccessfully endeavouring to cultivate in languages that have a very different and inferior bias.And, in the same article, he drew not only a linguistic but a moral parallel between the “potential
uprising” of Scots to the “prodigious, uncontrollable...outpouring” of Joyce’s Ulysses. Not only poetry, but the nation could be remade by language, a project deemed possible because:
The Vernacular is a vast unutilized mass of lapsed observation made by minds whose attitudes to experience and whose speculative and imaginative tendenceis were quite different from any possible to Englishmen and Anglicized Scots today. It is an ichoateThis is, as Douglas Dunn has observed, a huge leap, obliging the poet to make a new Scots poetry as if history had never happened, or to write in such a way that history, including the Union of 1707 and all its resultant cultural and linguistic changes, would be “rewritten, and unknitted, in the work.” Strange though that may seem, it is no stranger than Ezra Pound’s attempts to create, through eccentric scholarship and formal virtuosity, a new, whole history of civilization and value in The Cantos. Nor does its ambition exceed that of William Carlos Williams, who sought in American language and “the American Grain” a redefinition not only of poetry but of national identity.
Unlike Pound or Williams, though, MacDiarmid had to make not only his poetry and his
national vision, but language itself. “Synthetic Scots” (which went by many names in the course of
McDiarmid’s career) was built not on colloquial speech, but on the rediscovery of lost and dead
words--from dictionaries, poems, field collection, and memory. In common with fellow modernists of other nations, MacDiarmid argued that poetry was not created by shaping experience in words; rather, it originated entirely in words. (from Lucky Poet, quoted by Dunn xx) The resulting language of his early poems is undeniably Scottish, but also undeniably artificial, an attempt to make Scots break completely not only from its own immediate past but from its close relationship with English.
Stane” is an oft-cited example of MacDiarmid’s early impact--a thoroughly
modern image presented in archaic diction. Similarly, “Empty Vessel” presents
a decidely 20th-century vision of the power of absence. These poems demonstrate
the excitement of what Douglas Dunn has called “a
MacDiarmid gave up writing in synthetic Scots by the early 1940s and went on to produce major works in English and in a more colloquial Scots (including his greatest work, the book-length sequence A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle), but he never gave up his belief in language itself as the material of thought. “On a Raised Beach” repeats in English some of the virtuoso performance of “Water Music,” while later English poems like “The World of Words” make explicit the lifelong themes of his work.
that MacDiarmid enjoyed argument would be one of the great understatements
of literary history. He frequently and delibertely took positions that
were not only contrary to those held by his peers but designed to enflame
opinion. Among his more unpopular beliefs: that imagination hampers thought
and prevents us from being attentive to reality; that a poet should cultivate
a Nietzschean solitude and elitism; that anything popular is damaging to
literature. His political beliefs also were extreme, anti-democratic, and
marked by ill-will toward just about everybody. He was expelled from the
Nationalist Party for being a communist, and from the Communist Party for
being a nationalist, then rejoined the Communist Party after the USSR invaded
Hungary in 1956--precisely when other
One means by which MacDiarmid's excesses may be somewhat domesticated is by contextualizing his public provocations within the Scottish tradition of flyting. Flyting, which translates (from Scots) literally as scolding, is a tradition of hyperbolic and satirical public argument between poets. In a flyting, poets traditionally attack each other's craftsmanship, character, knowledge, and sexual prowess in terms both extreme and artful. Flyting dates to the earliest records of court poetry in Scots and is believed to have evolved from similar practices among the Gaelic poets who for centuries made their livings by the patronage of kings and chiefs--notorious for their professional jealousies and viper tongues. One of Macdiarmid's most famous public exchanges was a series of letters now known as "the folksong flyting", exchanged with Hamish Henderson and other writers in the pages of Scottish newspapers. Flyting also provides a uniquely Scottish context for the very public battles the concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay has fought with both cultural and taxing authorities regarding the artistic, religious, and financial status of the garden temple at his farm, Little Sparta.
nemesis (and the man I’m calling the second father of modern Scottish poetry)
Every genuine literature, in other words, requires as its condition a means of expression capable of dealing with every thing the mind can think or theUncongenial though these assertions may be to those engaged in building a national literature, they
pose a series of problems and arguments that poets writing in Scots or English must come to terms with, just as they must come to terms with MacDiarmid. Nor has it been clear until recently that Muir would be proved wrong. Only in the last fifteen years has the viability of modern literature in Scots-- that is, literature of a modern sensibility--been demonstrated. Nor has the divided linguistic consciousness Muir so succinctly diagnosed been healed or solved. Rather, in the best new Scots poetry in Modernist and postmodernist modes this issue is kept at the surface, a lens of various translucency and opacity through which all words pass.
Still and all, there are poets for whom MacDiarmid might never have written, poets, for the most part, who continue the indigenous Scottish tradition of demotic verse built on spoken rhythms. This tradition dates from the 15th century, when a group of poets at the court of James IV known as "The Makars" -- Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, & Gavid Douglas, most famously -- developed early modern Scots into a literary instrument of subtle virtuosity. This Golden Age was cut short by the death of James IV at Flodden in 1513, followed shortly by the Reformation's attack on the secular arts. The union of the crowns and removal of the court to London in 1603 put an end to court patronage in Scotland. The 18th century saw the so-called union of parliaments (actually the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament and submission of government to the English parliament), followed by the Jacobite rebellions of 1719 and 1745. Scottish culture was bitterly suppressed after the '45, particularly markers of Highland culture such as the bagpipe, kilt, and Gaelic language--the use of any one of which became a criminal offense. Though not criminally proscribed, the Scots language was, by Burns’ day, relegated to second-class status: school and university instruction was in English, educated Scots Anglicized their names, and the term Scots Literature (despite a history as long as the English) was deemed an oxymoron.
No substantial resistance emerged until the 18th century, when Allan Ramsay's collections of Scottish songs (The Tea-Table Miscellany, first editon 1763) and of his own poems in Scots initiated a rebellion against English-language domination. The master poet of the resistance was Robert Furgusson, who published, among other works, "To the Principal Professors of the University of St. Andrews on their superb treat to Dr. Samuel Johnson," a lexical masterpiece directed at the great English poet and dictionary-maker, still celebrated in his own tradition as a proponent and shaper of standard English.
Most famous of the vernacular poets, though, is Robert Burns, who carried the mantle of linguistic nationalism after Furgusson's death. Like most poets who earn the title “national bard” Robert Burns displayed a breadth of interests and abilities, allowing admirers of varying aesthetics, temperaments and politics to identify with his work and shape their own “Robert Burns”-- love poet, libertine, satirist, teller of tales, egalitarian, nature poet, innovator, preserver of tradition, spokesman of the working class, technical virtuoso. His complexity is important today because it allows poets of widely different tendencies to find in him a historical claim to Scottishness and tradition.
As a self-educated
farmer, Burns occupied an uncomfortably marginal position in the world
of letters, one which he learned to exploit with a rare level of sophistication.
Notice in the poems how the content of the poem claims humility, marginality,
a lack of great ambition, while the form is sheer
He is the great poet of the canon of the disadvantageous beginning, middle, and end, and his metric, his resonance, his irony, the forms he used, are intimate and expressive aspects of his struggle with himself and his society. Note 3Thus, Burns’ own “intimate sociology” is a dangerous subject, play underwritten with seriousness, earnestness even; satire underwritten with a grim fear of failure and defeat. “Keenness of insight keeps pace with keenness of feeling,” as Carlyle said of him--which is, says Dunn, a matter of technical control, the versification of insight and emotion, not its mere disclosure.
...Burns is a poet of the virtues of excess, the comforts of going over theSo though self-effacement, community-building through addresses to other poets, and “an ironically subsumed indignation” are markers of his work, so too are aggressive self-definition and “a self-conscious knowledge of where his power and distinctiveness came from.” In the stanza named for him, the so-called Burns stanza (stanza form of To a Mouse, To a Louse, Holy Willie's Prayer, Address to the Devil, To a Haggis, and many others) we can see these conflicting qualities embodied and marvelously highlighted, carved into time and sound. Note 4
To invent or perfect a poetic stanza is the equivalent of inventing aThis stanza, which originated as an aristocratic form in Provence, had already been democratized in Scotland before Burns' time, and adapted as an instrument for ritualized speech. Its tempo is too quick for meditation, so the voice of the poem stays close to a social surface, demanding an
audience predisposed to appreciate a combination of naturalness and inventiveness in rhyme and diction. Note 5. To quote Douglas Dunn again:
Much of the pleasure of [this stanza] derives from the flow of a speaking voice riding over the obstacles of rapidly-disclosed rhyme and line lengths... Performance, that is, lies in the audible presence of a voice, the sustained inventiveness of rhyme, and anIn subject, the Burns stanza tends toward the low-brow: the carnivalesque, the daily, the comic, the marginal. As a precursor of the Modern sensibility, it might be seen as one of a series of aristocratic or highly conventional forms made over to anti-authoritarian uses--Dickinson’s common measure, Millay’s sonnets, Moore’s elaborate nonce forms. What distinguishes Burns' case, and casts it in the domain of "identity poetics", is that his use of the form was not idiosyncratic, but took shape in a small but remarkably vital and self-aware tradition.
As you read Burns, note too the yoking together of spoken Scots and a sometimes quite highbrow English. (I mean, what is "timorous" doing with that "wee, sleeket, cowran beastie?") Some have observed disapprovingly that while Burns often translated materials from the folk tradition into an English idiom, he never performed the reverse. Nonetheless, by means of his genuine sensitivity to both idioms and traditions, Burns bequeathed to our times a heritage not of opposition between demotic and high art but one of integration and mutual enjoyment. This is underscored by the fact that despite both critical and commercial success with his poems Burns turned increasingly to songwriting and to the collection and revision of traditional songs and airs--which was, in fact, his sole literary occupation by the time of his premature death in 1796. Note 6
Burns' efforts in this line were part of a broadly felt desire during his time to record what was regarded as the ancient and vanishing tradition of orally-transmitted folk song, particularly the ballad. Besides Ramsay's volumes, important collections were assembled by Sir Walter Scott and by Thomas Percy in London. Other collectors, working in the early 19th century, transcribed ballads from singers middle-aged and older who had learned them in their youth. Thus, though some of the Scottish ballads are much older, their forms and genres as we know them today are largely a product of 18th century singers, scholars, and poets. Burns did not concern himself with ballads as much as he did with other song genres, but like most collectors of his day he routinely "improved" texts that came his way. Unlike most collectors, though, Burns was a poet of exceptional talent, so in his case perhaps the quotation marks can be omitted.
century was not a triumph in Scottish poetry. A dehistoricized sentimentalism
dominated addresses to the nation, while grandiloquent Victorian diction
sat poorly on traditional Scots sensibilities. In such conditions, the
tools used so brilliantly by Burns--localism and a simple diction--degenerated
into so-called “kailyard” (cabbage patch) poetry, described later by Hugh
In parallel with poetry’s development in America, this void of both taste and talent would add even greater intensity to the modern revolution when it finally came. Still, among the many were the few: poets who grappled with social and linguistic issues that would inform the more vigorous poetry of the 20th century, including the bitterness of the Highland clearances, the blight of industrialization, and the need to find a viable poetic idiom within and among the languages of the nation. From those seeds, rejected by MacDiarmid, grew the early 20th century poets of demotic Scots and English--including (from your reading list) William Soutar, Robert Garioch, and Norman MacCaig.
of women poets includes several archetypes known only too well to feminist
few weeks we have to devote to Scottish poets we'll concentrate on three
themes: language, "Scottishness," and the modern city. Our introductory
readings will introduce you to some of the 20th century poets mentioned
above and to a few contemporary poets writing in Scots and English. Poems
by Hugh MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan, Robert Crawford, and
Kathleen Jamie will be featured. We'll then look at work by Tom Leonard,
who embodies his sense of the city of Glasgow and of working class identity
in the spoken language, and contrast this embodiment with other poems "about"
Glasgow working class life. In our last set of readings we'll tackle David
Kinloch and W.N. Herbert, two younger poets who, among other aspects of
their work, have taken up the mantle of "dictionary Scots." We'll concentrate
on Herbrert's short lyrics and some of his funny poems. In Kinloch's work
we'll consider how he uses his "literary" and "artificial" language as
a sounding intrument -- a very Scottish one -- to navigate some of the
most intimate and difficult areas of life -- love, sex, and grief.
1 "Was There Ever a Scottish Literature?" The Atheneum, 1 Aug 1919. Quoted by Douglas Dunn, "Language and Liberty," the introduction to The Faber Book of 20th Century Scottish Poetry. Of this quote, Dunn says: “Seldom can Max Weinreich’s famous aphorism -- ‘a language is dialect with an army and a navy’ -- have found such a classy illustration.” xvii Return to text
2 "Flower and Iron of the Truth." Henderson is a poet, critic, song writer, field collector of folksong & story, and a founder & former director of The School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh. Return to text
3Douglas Dunn, "'A Very Scottish Kind of Dash’ Burns’ Native Metric," in Crawford's Robert Burns and Cultural Authority p74 Return to text
4 The Burns stanza (known more properly in Scotland as the Standard Habbie, after an influential poem of the 17th century) is an iambic tetrameter sestet with two lines of dimeter and only two rhyme sounds. Tetrameter is the dominant line of Scottish poetry so there is from the outset a national stamp about the form--no tetrameter stanza so complicated and culturally significant exists in the English tradition. Here is the basic form--
4 a / 4 a / 4 a / 2 b / 4 a / 2 b
with only two rhymes per stanza requires some virtuosity and--essential
to this form--a healthy irreverence toward rhyme and diction. The short
lines give it an odd little flip, and the form overall is well-suited to
recitation. The form is clearly audible, hence delightfully anticipated
in each stanza, so the audience can feel included in the fun even as it
relishes the poet’s dexterity. This is all the more emphasized as each
stanza is generally a single sentence, with 40-46 syllables (depending
on the use of masculine or feminine rhymes). Dunn calls it “the triumphant
pursuit of an awkward
5 This combination of sensibilities often arises where an audience is familiar with both oral and written traditions. A comparable sensibility can be observed in some African-American poetry. Return to text
6Compare Wordsworth, who was influenced by Burns but afflicted by the English tradition of separating the high and low arts: his real speech of real men never comes near Burns'. In fact, some aspects of English Romanticism can be read in retrospect (not in its practioners' intentions) as the co-option by a literary establishment of the genuine arts of "real men" -- folksong, folk tale, and the 18th century entry of working men and women into literacy and the art of poetry. Return to text
Quoted by Crawford & Imlah. Return to the text
With the exception of Burns, I have not included volumes by individual poets.
Burns, Robert. Poems and Songs of Robert Burns. Harvard Classics, Harvard UP, editions of 1909-1914. Representative Books on Line. http://www.bartleby, com/6/indexl.html
Crawford, Robert. Identifying Poets: Self and Territory in Twentieth-Century Poetry. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.
Crawford, Robert. Devolving English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1992.
Crawford, Robert & Mick Imlah. The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, London: Penguin 2000.
Dunn, Douglas. The Faber Book of 20th Century Scottish Poetry. London: Faber, 1992.
Glen, Duncan, ed. Twenty of the Best. Galliard, 1990. [Young Scottish poets.]
Catherine, ed. An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets (with Gaelic
translations by Meg
Helen. “Writing Near the Fault Line: Scottish Women Poets and the Topography
of Tongues,” in
Tom. “The Locust Tree in Flower, and why it had difficulty flowering in
MacNeill, Kevin and Alan Finlay. Wish I Was Here: A Scottish multicultural anthology. Edinburgh: Pocket Books, 2000.
Dorothy. “Twentieth-Century Poetry I: Rachel Annand Taylor to Veronica
Daniel. Dream State: The New Scottish Poets. Polygon, 1994. [A new edition
is due out in
Derick. Introduction to Gaelic Poetry. London: Victor Gallanz, 1974.