• Colin Burnett

Scottish Contemporary Literary Renaissance

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Alan Riach (2009) is the head of the Department of Scottish Literature at The University of Glasgow and describes Scottish literature as one of the oldest European vernacular literatures, while Beveridge and Turnbull (1989) maintain that the Scottish literary imagination has become polluted by a parochial mentality or the Kailyard school (Scots for ‘cabbage patch’) and Tartanry which has reinforced an aura of backwardness, nostalgia, inferiority and dependency within the Scottish national character. The Kailyard school of fiction was popular in the 1880’s and 1890’s and centred around the works of authors such as J.M. Barrie (1860-1937), William Robertson Nicoll (1851-1923), Ian McLaren (1850-1907) and S. R. Crockett (1859-1914) whose ‘cultural products’ focused upon depicting God-fearing Protestant rural Scotland (Harvie 2004). Harvie (2004) alludes to the Kailyard school of fiction being utilised as a marketing exercise to increase the exposure of the literature in the wider UK and to emigrants in the Scottish diaspora in North America, proving to be an effective technique. The Kailyard author ‘Ian Maclaren’ at the time of his death had dispersed millions of copies of his books including The Days of Auld Langsyne (1893) on both side of the Atlantic (Harvie 2004).

Fenton and Mackay (2013) reports Tom Nairn heavily criticised Kailyard fiction for its refusal to address the harsh realities of the urbanised and industrialised Scotland and the macro-social processes that Scotland was undergoing at the time and its miss-representation of Scotland as a kind of timeless rural nirvana. Thus, the Kailyard school of fiction rejected realism by by-passing the urban areas of the country and by doing so highlighted how Scottish literature walked away from reality and chose to be concerned with fantasy. One of the main criticisms of Kailyard literature is that it prevented Scottish literature from inquiring into the individual consciousness and the social change Scotland was undergoing. Scottish literature through the encroachment of the Kailyard school failed to produce a novelist of the realism of Charles Dickens, for example, who engaged his readers with the harsh social conditions inflicted upon the working class in England including overcrowding in slums, high levels of crime and disease (Ledger and Furneaux 2012). Kailyard authors were commercially successful as their representations of Scotland as a nostalgic rural paradise was embraced by middle-class readers (Blake 1951, cited in Gifford 1988, p 312-3).

The contemporary novel by Alasdair Gray Lanark (1984) captures the damaging effect the neglect of novelists in illustrating the realism of the society they reside in by stating ‘’if a city hasn’t been written about, not even its inhabitants live there imaginatively’’ (1984, p. 243). This statement alludes to Bourdieu’s point that society exists twice: firstly, as an objective reality and secondly, in its members’ imaginations and minds as a series of representations; so, that Scottish society has been ignored by its writers, guiding the natives to enter a false consciousness whereby their own social realities become distorted by becoming contaminated through false depictions of their society which has no connection to their own experiences.

The school of Tartanry fiction emerged in the late eighteenth and early ninetieth centuries and drew inspiration from European Romanticism and the Ossian affair and was largely begun by the literary works of Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832) who romanticised the Scottish Highlands and helped transform-come-domesticate Scottish national identity (Leith and Sim 2014). The Tartanry literary discourse is closely associated with the Jacobite cause and the heroic pre-modern clan era connected to the Romantic imagining of Scotland (Mazierska and Rascaroli 2003). Scott’s novel Waverly (1814), for example, which focused upon an Englishman’s experiences in Scotland during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 (Riach 2009) with Scott typically focusing his writing on the portrayals of the Highland hero surrounded by the settings of the Highland glens and mountains.

Scott is traditionally depicted as having bridging the divide between the English monarch and his Scottish kingdom thanks to his friendship with George IV during his visit to Scotland in 1822, and Scott advising him to dress in tartan and which altered the perception of Scotland’s national symbols (Mitchell 2014), with some exaggerated claims that Scott single-handedly inflicted Tartanry upon Scottish literature and forever associated Scotland with national symbols (tartan, the kilt, bagpipes, the fearsome Highland warrior) which still to this day are seen as quintessentially Scottish.

The reluctance to discourage such misrepresentations of Scotland is said to lie with its appeal to the global audience with the Scottish tourist’s industry providing 140, 000 jobs and constituting 10% of the Scottish economy (Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies 2016). This argument proposes Scottish culture and its literary representations through Tartanry have been functional to economic ends, instead of a reflection of the true Scotland.

Since the 1980s, however, Scottish literature is said to have undergone profound change thanks to the works of authors such as James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, and Alasdair Gray (Mauder et al. 2010), which follows on from the first Scottish literary renaissance inspired by Hugh MacDiarmid, Fionn MacColla, Compton Mackenzie, et al. in the 1920’s who sought to represent a new Scotland as it entered modernity (Riach 2009). In contrast to Tartanry and Kailyardism, this new Scottish literature embraced realism by delving into the darker side of the Scottish psyche and locations, so that these authors did not shy away from the social conditions found in working class communities, including the effects of unemployment and high levels of crime.

Harnes (2012) argues that following the failure of the Scottish devolution referendum (1979) Scotland could forge cultural autonomy through its novelists; something its politicians were unable to do. The global prestige contemporary Scottish authors have harnessed including James Kelman becoming the first Scottish author to win the prestigious Booker Prize (1994) for his novel How Late It Was, How Late (1994) and the literary phenomenon that was Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) (McGuire 2009) highlight the popularity of the contemporary Scottish novel and the readership that wants to engage with the darker side of Scottish society that was for so long ignored by literary authors. The modern Scottish renaissance from the 1980s came at a time when Scotland was becoming culturally and politically distinct from the rest of the UK (McGuire 2009). Writers such as Kelman and Welsh intervened into Scottish culture and gave representations to working class communities of themselves and gave a sense of value to working class culture. What make novels like Trainspotting so appealing to readers is that it represents the return of the repressed as it lifts the lid on the harsh social realities of working class culture but with humour and pathos (Denlise and Woodsworth 2012).

In this regard, a genre known as Tartan Noir has exploded onto the scene over the course of the last 30 years, being embraced by readers at home and abroad (Wickman 2012). Writers associated with this genre include William Mcllvanney, Ian Rankin and Val McDermid whose novels are focused on crime fiction (Wickman 2012). One author of Tartan Noir Ian Rankin through his novels about detective Rebus highlighted the dark side of modern Edinburgh which was eagerly consumed by readers worldwide (Christie 2014). The global success of ‘Tartan Noir’ corresponds an earlier comment that the modern Scottish novel is marketable and alludes to audiences wanting to see realism in Scottish literature and not the fantasy of Kailyardism and Tartanry, signalling a paradigm shift in the perception of the Scottish novel.

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