School of English
Background to Scottish Literature
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.
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,
The main differences from English are in phonology and lexis, e.g.:
|Old English||Scots||Modern English|
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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