The relevancy of cultural icons, perceived or otherwise, to the modern writers of Scottish Highlands and Islands

Length: 1155 words

As the opening poem to the ASLS website proclaims, ‘Forget your Literature, Forge your Soul’. This is very true and its veracity can only be understood by patrons of literature who assimilate its refined aesthetic in the very fabric of their personhood. Just as literary art seeps through to the soul of the patron, so also the aura of iconic authors make a personal connection with the audience. This is true of literature in general and by extension applicable to the Scottish literary scene, which has seen a renaissance of sorts in modern times. For this essay, the term ‘modern’ is applied in its broad sense, covering all the artists and movements witnessed in the Scottish Highlands and Islands during the twentieth century continuing till today. What follows is an evaluation of the relevancy of cultural icons, perceived or otherwise, to the modern writers of the region.

It used to be the case that Scottish literature was not taken seriously by highbrow academics in Oxford and Cambridge. But this is no longer the case, and Scottish literature, especially that which is rendered in English, has gained respectability, readership and critical appreciation. At the centre of this transformation is

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a reversion to authenticity, whereby, Scottish authors focussed on issues and subjects closer to their hearts as opposed to aping the dominant popular currents in England and North America. But this authenticity was challenging given the social, political and economic conditions that prevailed in the region for much of its history. For example,

“The Highlands and Islands’ rest-and-recreation based economy is predicated upon gross inequality: at one end the Skibo Castle people, at the other a post-professional, underpaid, servitor class, tenuously connected by a politics of quick profit and conspicuous consumption. Not far, in fact, from that of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine in the French Restoration between 1815 and 1830. Fathoming the place requires the detective-work of his Vautrin, but the sleuth can also, like Vautrin, be changed by it.” (Harvie, 2003)

Hence the foray into serious literature was bold as it is the right approach. As the oft quoted maxim states, ‘The more ethnic a work of art is, the more universal is its appeal’. This is precisely what modern writers of the Highlands and Islands appear to have done since the beginning of the twentieth century. In specific, they brought to the fore the influence of cultural icons, indigenous and foreign, and made their persona bear upon the written word. The rewards for this enterprise are for all patrons of good art to be enjoyed. Writers of such renown as Alasdair Gray, Carol Ann Duffy, Irvine Welsh, etc serve as stellar examples of this success. And as interviews and analysis of modern Scottish writers makes clear, their works are informed and inspired by key cultural icons, native or foreign. (Horwich, 2002)

In an interview with Kathy Acker in 1986, Alasdair Gray mentions key personalities that influenced his artistic development. Among the books he read early in life are those by George Orwell, Franz Kafka and James Joyce. Timeless classics such as 1984, The Trial and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man made a big impression on the formative mind of Gray. These writers were cultural icons in their own right as they were recognized for their socio-cultural comment as much for their literary genius. Today, their thought is well-assimilated into Scottish public discourse. Gray’s influences go further back in history, as he even drew inspiration from the Greek classics and epic folk narratives. Considering that ancient Greek thought is integral to Western academia, it is not unfair to claim that the intellectual traditions of the Highlands and Islands have drawn considerably from the former. Likewise, Gray’s adaption of key literary genres, forms and devices from across history says something of Scotland’s literary culture. Reminiscing of his stylistic development, Gray notes,

“I was scribbling notes or passages for a Kafkaesque novel set in a modern vision of hell. Then, when nineteen or twenty, I read a very good book by Tillyard on the Epic. In discussing the Epic genre he started with the great poems of Homer and Virgil, but said many works of prose were planned as epics: Herodotus’s Histories, for example, Bunyan’s Holy War, and Gibbons’ Decline and Fall. He thought that the Scottish novels of Walter Scott, read together, amounted to a Scottish Epic.” (Gray as quoted by Acker, 1986)

Poets Marion Angus and Violet Jacob are key figures in early twentieth century Scottish literature. Speaking for herself and on behalf of her contemporaries, Marion Angus noted in 1920 that capturing the ‘spirit of place’ and ‘giving voice to Scotland’s great adventure of the soul’ should be the primary preoccupations of writers of her generation. This comment indicated that she felt Scottish literature had not yet flowered to its full expression. Angus also felt that the natural scenic beauty of the Scottish Highlands and Islands are proper material for literary exploration. In a way, she assigned iconic status to the geographic setting of Scotland, and urged fellow writers to celebrate this aspect of Scottish culture. It is in direct response to this clarion call that she and Violet Jacob produced several poems that

“explored the ‘spirit’ of North East Scotland, revealing the ‘elusive glamour’ of its landscape. Their poetry, read together, reveals the richness of their individual poetic careers and sheds light upon an important period of Scottish literary history. Writing mainly in the interwar years in both Scots and English, they looked forwards in their psychological portraits of people in conflict; they also were keenly aware of the rich tradition of Scots-language literature, integrating folk traditions and the language and imagery of the Scottish ballads into their poems.” (Gordon, 2006)

From the careers of Angus and Jacob we learn how history, tradition, geography and the vernacular combine to serve as icons of Scottish culture. But as scholar Ryan Shirley, who has done extensive critical analysis of literature from the Highlands and Islands, reminds us, the idea of what exactly constitutes Scottish culture and what are its icons can be a contested subject. This ambiguity, though, has played a constructive role in the past, as it made way for experimentation and evolution of the Scottish historical novel in the modern era. Equally, it has created anxiety for many writers who felt obliged “to advocate for a defined, scrupulously coherent cultural history. It is this impulse that has led to Scottish studies being more focused on canon-building and the construction of the national tradition, and too immersed in tradition-inspired approaches to take account of such theoretical developments as post-modernism.” (Shirley, 2007) In this sense, a strong identification with the cultural icons of the Highlands and Islands can be limiting if not stifling to creative development. Further, this tendency to identify what constitutes national literature by way of eliminating what is perceived as extraneous can lead to a form of cultural nationalism. This too is problematic, for

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