University of St Andrews

School of English

Background to Scottish Literature

1. Geography

The four main areas of Scotland are:
 1. The Southern Uplands (The Borders) - mainly hill country, much rough moorland. Sheep grazing, textile industry.
 2. The Central Lowlands - fertile farmland, grain crops; coal deposits; main centres of population. Heavy industries, now replaced by electronics.
 3. The Highlands - mountains, forests, lochs and rivers; now sparsely populated. Cattle-rearing; tourism.
 4. The Islands - from south-west to far north, large and small. Fishing, small farming.

Until about 250 years ago, it was easier to sail round the Highlands than travel through them, and as easy to sail to Ireland or Norway as to walk or ride to England.

2. Languages

1. Gaelic - a Celtic language closely related to Irish Gaelic, from which it developed. Indeed, up to the seventeenth century the Gaelic part of Scotland was essentially part of the same culture and language area as Ireland. At its peak around the ninth century Gaelic was the language of most of mainland Scotland and the Western Isles, and well into last century was still spoken throughout the Highlands, but has now shrunk to about 80,000 native speakers, the largest group living in Glasgow (there are still some Gaelic speakers in eastern Canada). There has been a revival of interest recently, with more teaching and learning Gaelic, and more government funding for Gaelic television.

2. Scots - a development of a northern form of Old English which by the fifteenth century had become a distinct language, used by the court and throughout the Lowlands and southern Scotland. Though it remains the common speech of many Scots, from the sixteenth century onwards it began to be replaced by English in government, religion, education and literature. In the eighteenth century, however, its use in verse was revived (by Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns), and again in the 1920s (by Hugh MacDiarmid), and recently the literary use of urban Scots has become significant (Leonard, Kelman, Welsh).

The main differences from English are in phonology and lexis, e.g.:
 Old English  Scots  Modern English
 sutere  souter  shoemaker
 hus  hoose  house
 niht  nicht  night
 stan  stane  stone
 cunnan  ken  know
 circe  kirk  church
 bearn  bairn  child
   lug  ear
   gowan  daisy


3. English - actively adopted by the Scots for formal speaking and writing, first by their choice of an English translation of the Bible after the Reformation, and then by their efforts to exploit the Union with England in the eighteenth century. Until the middle of this century Scots and Gaelic were forbidden in schools.

3. Early History

1. Though Scotland was invaded by the Romans in AD 80, it never became a permanent part of the Empire. By building the Antonine Wall between the Forth and the Clyde in AD 142 the Romans attempted to hold southern Scotland, but fifty years later fell back on Hadrian's Wall (built AD 120 between Newcastle and the Solway Firth), leaving Scotland to the people the Romans called the Picts, the 'painted people'. Not much is known about the Picts, who seem to have been partly Celtic, mixed perhaps with some other people. What little of their language that survives is very hard to interpret. Their main monuments are monoliths carved with strange symbols and pictures.

2. From the fourth century on, the Scotti or Scots of northern Ireland, a Celtic people, began migrating into western Scotland, forming a colony called Dalriada, and pushing eastwards against the Picts, whom they absorbed into their own kingdom by the middle of the ninth century. They were assisted by the spread of Irish Christianity to the Picts, after the arrival of St Columba at Iona in 563. The Gaelic-speaking Scots established a kingdom stretching from the Western Isles into the Lothians round Edinburgh, and thus Scotland was first created.

3. But from the ninth century onwards Norse Vikings raided and settled in northern and western Scotland (and south into Ireland). For several centuries these parts of Scotland belonged to the Norwegian kings. Norway retained control of the Western Isles until the thirteenth century, and of Orkney and Shetland until the fifteenth.

4. While the Scots were expanding from the west, the Angles of Northumbria advanced from the south east, establishing English-speaking rule in southern Scotland in the ninth century before, weakened by Viking raids on northern England, they were pressed back by the Scots. But the Scots failed to secure territory south of the Solway Firth and the river Tweed (still the border between Scotland and England), leaving Scotland vulnerable to English invasion, especially into the Lothians, since there is no strategic defence line on the east coast of Scotland south of the Forth.

4. 1050-1550

1. King Malcolm III Canmore (reigned 1058-93) married St Margaret, an English princess, in exile after the Norman Conquest, 1066, who introduced English ways in court and church, while her husband began the introduction of Norman feudalism. In the next hundred years Scotland became a feudal state, with an English (or Scots) speaking ruling class, many of Norman origin, linked with the Normans in England.

2. Edward I of England (reigned 1272-1307) tried to create one kingdom out of England, Wales and Scotland, but first William Wallace and then Robert the Bruce led Scots resistance to him. In 1314 Edward's son Edward II was defeated by Bruce at Bannockburn, near Stirling, ensuring Scotland's independence from England. Robert's son David was succeeded in 1371 by Robert II, the first Stewart king. By the middle of the sixteenth century the Stewarts ruled what amounts to modern Scotland, having gained control of the Highlands and Islands and set up a centralised monarchy. The courts of James IV (reigned 1488-1513) and James V (1513-42) were housed in splendid Renaissance palaces at Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Falkland and Stirling, with a growing tradition of poetry, music and drama.

5. Modern Scotland

1. By the sixteenth century the Scottish Church was notably corrupt and when the Protestant Reformation began in Germany and Switzerland it soon had an effect in Scotland. Led by John Knox (1505-72), who was a follower of Calvin, the Scots rejected Roman Catholicism in a movement which was driven as much by popular feeling as by the political ambitions of the nobility. The main effects of the Reformation in Scotland are these:
 1. Popular enthusiasm for reformed religion and the influence of Calvinism led to a severity of religious discipline and rejection of worldliness that was hostile to the arts, including literature. The Church assumed control of social life and imposed a repressive morality. It also insisted that this applied to all classes, which often brought it into conflict with monarchs and nobles, and left a legacy of political egalitarianism, supported by the Church's presbyterian government, in which the laity has a share with the clergy. The Reformed Church, in which Bible reading was central, promoted literacy and tried to introduce a national education system.
 2. The Reformation took place in the Scots-speaking part of the kingdom; the Gaelic-speaking Highland and Islands, still culturally close to Ireland, remained Roman Catholic, so that the cultural and linguistic division became also a religious one, leading to nearly 200 years of internal war.
 3. Because England also became Protestant, the Reformation brought greater English influence in Scotland and the two nations were drawn into the same religious and political struggles, especially after James VI succeeded Elizabeth as ruler of England in 1603, thus uniting the crowns of Scotland and England.

2. In England the religious wars of the seventeenth century were ended by Parliament's deposition of James II, who was a Roman Catholic, in 1688, but in Scotland (and Ireland) this caused continuing conflict. James's supporters, called Jacobites (after the Latin form of his name), repeatedly rebelled in attempts to return him to the throne, now occupied by his daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange. In an attempt to stifle this opposition in Scotland, and bind the Scots to the English arrangements for a Protestant monarchy, which meant giving the crown to the Elector of Hanover as the nearest Protestant claimant, England arranged the Union of the Parliaments of the two countries in 1707, creating a single British government in London (in 1800 the Irish parliament would be added to this).

3. But though the Lowland Scots came to accept the Union, and the Hanoverian succession in 1714, Jacobite resistance continued in the Highlands, culminating in the 1745 rebellion, in which James II's grandson, Charles Edward Stuart, leading an army of Highland clans, captured Edinburgh and marched on London. But he turned back, and was defeated in the following year at Culloden, near Inverness. The British government then systematically destroyed the clans as a military threat, and with them the economic stability of the Highlands.

4. The Union left Scotland its own church, laws and education system. Though its effects are disputed, it was followed by a growth in Scotland's prosperity and intellectual life. The Scots were prominent both in the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment and also in the agricultural and industrial revolutions. By the end of the eighteenth century Scotland was a leading industrial nation. In the following century Scotland became increasingly industrialised, especially in heavy industries like ship-building, and increasingly urbanised; Scots also played a large part in the expansion and running of the British Empire. The collapse of the clan system and other factors meant that emigration, especially to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, increased considerably. At the same time, the romantic image of Scotland developed, and when Queen Victoria and her husband Albert build a holiday castle at Balmoral (50 miles west of Aberdeen) they established the fashion for Scottish holidays, hunting, fishing and enjoying the outdoors, and for 'traditional' Scottish food, drink, dress, music and much else. This completed the process (begun by Sir Walter Scott) by which the Highlands and Highlanders became the typical image of Scotland, leading to the adoption of Highland symbols, such as tartan, as badges of Scottish identity. For the upper and middle classes, at least.

5. In the industrial cities of Glasgow and Dundee, however, the urban workers of the nineteenth century often lived in overcrowded slums, with much poverty and disease. By the end of the century this caused a political reaction and Scots were prominent in the rise of British socialism and the formation of the Labour Party. There were also the first signs of modern Scottish nationalism, but although the Scottish National Party was formed in the 1930s out of various smaller nationalist groups it had little success, partly because it was seen as too middle-class. In the 1960s, however, the SNP began to appeal to young people, perhaps because it was different from the old British political parties. The discovery of oil off Scotland's east coast also boosted the nationalist cause because it made it conceivable that Scotland could be economically viable and it gave the SNP the argument that the exploitation of the oil by British and international interests was depriving the Scots of a national asset. The SNP now achieved success in elections, both for Parliament and for local government, so that the other, British parties felt nationalism was a threat to them. In 1979 the then Labour government first tried to divert the Scots from the SNP programme of full independence by promising a separate Scottish parliament, but the referendum to decide on this rejected it by a narrow margin. Soon afterwards the Conservatives led by Margaret Thatcher came to power. Not only were they opposed to Scottish devolution, they also acquired a reputation for favouring English interests and ignoring Scotland, with the result that the Tories rapidly lost support in Scotland, until at the last election in 1997 not one Conservative was elected as an MP for a Scottish constituency. The new Labour government quickly organised another referendum, which approved the setting up of a Scottish Parliament, for which there were elections in 1999. Whether this will be enough to persuade the Scots not to demand complete independence from England is however not clear.

6. North Sea oil brought new prosperity to northern and eastern Scotland, especially Aberdeen and Shetland, but at the same time there was a continued decline in the heavy industries that dominated the Scottish economy in the nineteenth century. The closure of shipyards, steelworks, engineering factories and coal-mines across the Lowlands, especially in the old industrial centres in and around Glasgow, created high unemployment and its attendant social ills in Scotland. The decline, still going on, in fishing and agriculture, and the textile industry of the Borders, added to this. Scotland has had to transform its economic base from industrial production to service industries and assembly work. In the last twenty years there has been notable success in attracting multi-national electronic companies to set up factories in Scotland ('Silicon Glen'), but many parts of Scotland outside the Lowlands increasingly rely on tourism as a source of income. Like other parts of the developed world, Scotland has had to face the consequence of the shift of manufacturing industries to other countries where labour and material costs are lower. With a population of around five million, mostly living in the cities of the Central Lowlands, Scotland, like other small nations, is confronted with the need to preserve a sense of its own identity while securing a favourable position in relation to the larger nations and international forces that will influence its future. In many ways, this has always been Scotland's case.

6. Literary History

1. The early struggles of the Scottish kingdom meant a slow development of the arts. Gaelic culture was primarily oral, and at first dominated by the Irish, and not much that is specifically Scottish survives. The culture of the Scots-speaking Lowlands looked to the rest of Europe, but was ravaged by the English wars. By the fourteenth century, however, the arts, including literature, emerged, and they were strong in the next century. There was a close association with the Church and the court; for example, the University of St Andrews was founded at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and an important Scottish poem, The King's Quair, is attributed to James I (1394-1437). Despite the wars with England, there was a strong English influence on Scottish poetry, especially from Chaucer (see Robert Henryson's Testament of Cresseid), but there was also a patriotic spirit, begun by John Barbour's Brus, an epic of the Wars of Independence, matched by Blind Harry's Wallace, both of course in Scots. The greatest of the court poets was William Dunbar (1465?-1530?). Sir David Lindsay's morality play Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (1552) is the best evidence of early Scottish drama.

2. Much literary activity was suppressed by the Reformation, with its hostility to the frivolity of the arts. Church decorations and music were destroyed, secular entertainments banned and traditional pastimes ended. For over a century the energy of the Scots went into theological and political dispute, not only on paper. Much poetry was lost and what survives is found in only a few manuscript collections. It is true that James VI was himself a poet and encouraged others to write, but after his court left for London in 1603 Scottish poetry entered a lean century.

3. For this reason Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) was right to see himself as reviving Scottish poetry when he published collections of old Scottish verse, to which he added his own poems in Scots, in the 1720s. He was also consciously asserting a Scottish poetic tradition in the wake of the Union with England. Robert Fergusson (1750-74), another Edinburgh poet, also wrote in Scots to maintain a national tradition, but of course it was their greatest successor, Robert Burns (1759-96), who wrote a body of poems in Scots worthy of a national bard. At the same time, other Scots were writing in English in order to attract a British readership. James Thomson (1700-48), poet of The Seasons and of 'Rule, Britannia', and the novelist Tobias Smollett (1721-71) both went to London to make literary careers. The Enlightenment thinkers David Hume (1711-76) and Adam Smith (1723-90) had London as well as Edinburgh publishers, and James Boswell (1740-95) became famous as the biographer of the Englishman Samuel Johnson. Many Scots, like Hume and Boswell, sought to purge their writings of Scottish words and phrases, even though they still spoke Scots themselves.

4. More successful than any earlier Scottish writer was Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), who, first in verse and then in the novels named after the first, Waverley (1814), portrayed Scotland to the world. This was a great achievement, a powerful, though selective, view. Scott attempted to give a coherent picture of all Scotland, but much of this was inspired by memory and regret and set in the past. He created a literary and historical Scotland which fosters the kind of escapism represented by Balmoral Castle. Scott set up a tradition of historical fiction which influenced many writers in other countries, for example Fenimore Cooper in America and Pushkin in Russia, but ironically, whereas the historical novel in other countries was usually part of a romantic nationalism, in Scotland Scott's novels seemed to encourage nostalgia rather than political ambition. He was followed by a tradition of Scottish historical fiction, including Robert Louis Stevenson, John Buchan and, in modern times, Nigel Tranter and Dorothy Dunnett.

5. The influence of Burns, as a rural poet, and Scott, as a historical novelist, on nineteenth-century Scottish literature diverted it away from the urban and industrial experience of the time and encouraged sentimentality and escapism. By the end of the century, however, there was a strong reaction to this, notably in George Douglas Brown's tragic novel, The House with the Green Shutters (1901). This was continued later in the work of the poet and controversialist Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) and the novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901-35), both nationalists, both communists, who experimented with forms of writing in Scots. They led a literary renaissance in Scotland between the wars which included the Orkney poet Edwin Muir (1887-1959) and the Highland novelist Neil Gunn (1891-1973). All these writers combined a direct concern with Scotland with wider, international interests: MacDiarmid's politics gave him a strong interest in modern Russian literature; Gibbon was an expert on historical anthropology; Muir, with his wife, was the translator of Kafka into English; and Gunn became a Zen Buddhist. They all saw Scotland as part of a wider world than the United Kingdom. In Gaelic literature their counterpart was Sorley Maclean (1911-97), whose poetry expanded traditional forms and themes to respond directly to the international events of the 1930s.

6. Thanks to the iconoclasm and daring of MacDiarmid in particular, Scottish writers in the second half of the twentieth century have had the confidence to develop a national tradition of writing that includes a great range of voices, from the daring experimental sound poetry of Edwin Morgan to the dry metaphysical wit of Norman MacCaig. The international outlook of modern Scottish writing is evident in the novels of Muriel Spark, while in contrast the concentration of the novels and poetry of George Mackay Brown on his native Orkney islands show how universal human truths can be expressed through a very local concern. Tom Leonard's use of phonetically-rendered Glasgow Scots also shows a combination of a very Scottish content with powerful comment on the lives of ordinary people in any modern city. Two modern developments merit attention. First, there has been an increase in women's writing in Scotland. Liz Lochhead's poetry and drama, the novels of Janice Galloway and the short stories of A. L. Kennedy are only the most notable examples of many. Second, Alasdair Gray's epic fantasy-cum-bildungsroman Lanark (1981) sparked a resurgence of the Glasgow novel, leading to such works as James Kelman's The Busconductor Hines (1984), and later to the fiction of Edinburgh's underclass by Irvine Welsh. What is notable about these works, and indeed about much contemporary Scottish writing, is that while it clearly strives to speak for and of Scotland it has left behind much of the historical concern of traditional Scottish fiction and verse, and it hardly troubles itself contending with English literature. Scottish literature seems already to have left the union with England and to have lost its obsession with national identity.

General Bibliography

Mairi Robertson (ed), The Concise Scots Dictionary, Aberdeen, 1985.

T C Smout, A History of the Scottish People, 1560-1830, London, 1969.

-- A Century of the Scottish People, 1830-1950, London, 1986.

Roderick Watson, The Literature of Scotland, London, 1984.

-- (ed), The Poetry of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1995.

Christopher MacLachlan

July 1998

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