Here’s my notes from the Summer School course on Scottish literature that was held over two days.  Make yourselves comfortable.


Literature steps in as a surrogate for politics.

Nation as ‘imagined community’

Question of Language: English, Scots, Gaelic.

Robert Burns and his legacy

No other literary figure has international societies

“This Heaven-taught ploughman” cultivates role of national bard

Burns is the starting point of romanticism described by Wordsworth as “incidents and situations from common life [described] in a selection of language used by men…Low and rustic life”

Tension between rationalism, and credulity and supersticion, see Tam o’Shanter and Halloween

1785-1786 First edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect

1787-1796 Dedicated to folksong

  • Scot Musical Museum 1787-1803
  • Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs 1793-1818


  • 1560 Scottish Reformation: No Scottish Bible until Twentieth Century
  • 1603 Union of the Crowns: Courtly Patronage moves to London
  • 1707 Union of Parliament: Public Life and Politics

Some things can be better said as poetry than prose.  Higher level of literacy in Scotland than England.  Circulation of manuscript such as Address to Beelzebub during his lifetime rather than publication.

Would Burns have been successful in an open and tolerant society?

Becomes the new literary orthodoxy for 120 years.

The use of Scots in proportion to English in poetry is dictated by decorum, i.e. subject matter and genre — see The Dream or The Two Dogs.  Code switching between prestiage and colloquial.

Tam o’Shanter, a lengthy narrative poem could be recited by James K. Baxter, or R. A. K. Mason, or Liam McIlvanney at the age of six.

Imagining the Highlands

James MacPherson (Ossian): Stadial or conjectural history.  “There are four distinct stages which mankind pass thro: first, the Age of Hunters; secondly, the Age of Shepherds; thirdly, the Age of Agriculture; and fourthly, the Age of Commerce” (Adam Smith)

So Conan the Barbarian at one end, and the End of History at the other.

Has anyone compared McPherson and Tolkien?  Both are involved in national myth-making.  The difference is that Tolkien is deliberately writing fantasy.

Scott elevated the novel in English out of the hands of the languid reader of Jane Austin spread upon the chaise lounge; and invented the digression.  Thick description.

Leave Waverley Station where the Scott Memorial rises up like Thunderbird 1 and enjoy an Antiquary Whisky at the Abbotsford Pub, perhaps watching the Heart of Midlothian in a soccer game (take that, Wellington Phoenix!)

Walter Scott choreographed the visit of George IV in 1822 to Scotland, the first monarch to visit in a hundred years, codifying the highlandification of Scottland, later followed by the Balmorality of Queen Victoria.  A map Scotland from King George’s visit shows the Highlands as a splash of tartans; the Lowlands as blank white Terra Nullius.  While the border between England and Scotland can be crossed in a parintheses, crossing from the Lowlands to the Highlands, a journey in Space and Time, can take three chapters.

“These laws of the ring…were unknown to the race of warlike mountaineers; that the decision of quarrels by no other weapons than those given every man must to them have seemed as vulgar and perposterous as to the Noblesse of France.  Revenge, on the other hand, must have been as familiar to their habits of society as to the Cherokees or the Mohawks.” The Two Drovers

Hugh MacDiarmid and the Twentieth Century Scottish Renaissance

Thrawn (contrary) — Caledonian Antisyzygy: The Union of opposites

“The Free Kirk, the wee kirk, the kirk without the steeple;

The Auld Kirk, the cauld kirk, the kirk without the people”

He spent a lot of his time exorcising his religion.

Defamiliarisation or estrangement; the task of art is to make the stone stoney.

“Doric economy of expressiveness is impressively illustrated in the first four lines of Mr M‘Diarmid’s poem.  Translate them into English.  That is the test…It has a distinctly Scottish sinisterness for expression is too seldom found nowadays.” C. M. Grieve a. k. a. Hugh M‘Diarmid

Use words to experiment with language creating Lallans into Synthetic Scots, a synthesis of dialect.  As-if language compiled together, continued by Sydney Goodsir Smith, a New Zealand-born Scottish poet.

Interwar period as peak period of Scottish emigration: exported, diluted, crisis.

Writing the City

An urbane silence to the life of Scotland’s large cities.  Pioneering fictions of other metropoli — Arthur Conan Doyle; Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Kaleyard: S. R. Crockett, Iain MacLaren, J. M. Barrie, A. J. Cronin.  The Lad of Parts goes to the City, returns to die.  The Kaleyard is beyond the branchline, in the vicinity of Brigadoon: Literature for the diaspora.  The reaction to the Kaleyard didn’t tackle the City: Proletarian novels in the 1930s; Urban novels in 1970s.

“The urban culture, from which the medium derives, is notoriously inarticulate…the handful of Glasgow love-lyrics in print make almost a fetish of embarrassment.”

Language is never a neutral medium.

Contemporary Scottish Poetry and Writing

Rise of Scottish Nationalism and Scottish Parliament.  Autonomy preserved Religion, Law and Education.  Unionist Nationalism: Where was Young Scotland in the uprisings of 1848: the Union guaranteed their autonomy.  They raised monuments to their heroes of independence: Wallace and Bruce in the 1840s to 1870s.

The Disruption of the Church of Scotland in 1853 was a schism in Scottish Christendom.  Welfare and Education went out of the Church to the Westminster state.  What united the English and the Scots were War (against the French and the Germans), Empire and Protestantism.

The Scottish Nationalist Party, 1934.  When the S. N. P. sent 11 M. P.s to Westminster in Labour and Conservative became national parties.  Then came Margaret Thatcher, who killed off the Conservative Party as a Right of Centre Party in Scotland.  At Westminster Scotland has 72 seats out of approximately 600 seats.  Scottish Parliament 1989.

Tartan Noir: Scottish Crime Fiction

Preoccupation with crime genre, it’s that Primitive Barbarism versus Civilisation motif from Sir Walter Scott again; Duality and split personality — respectability versus serial murderer (often the same person); the pleasure of violence (try reading Robert Louis Stevenson).  Aristotlean focus on the incident: telling the whole story of the crime.  Crime fiction takes place where it is least expected, and we’re back to literature as a surrogate for politics again.

Congratulations if you read this far.  I make dense notes.  Final comments:

  • The course deserved more people.  It had minimum numbers.  Maybe it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t signed up for it on the last day.  Literature deserves better than to be the poor sister of Scottish Studies’ family history course.
  • The course deserved more time.  I think it could have gone on for another half day at least.  That would have allowed more teasing out of discussion by both the participants and Pr. Liam McIlvanney.
  • Scots like diminutives even more than New Zealanders.  Trust me on this!
  • Next summer school we are promised a week-long immersion course in Scots Gaelic.  Tempting!