literature, Scottish

literature, Scottish
   For many, James Kelman’s Booker Prize victory in 1994 with How Late It Was, How Late and the popularity of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (published in 1993 and becoming a household name with the 1996 release of a film version) announced the arrival of Scottish literature. Their impact in the mid-1990s was in part due to the directness of their novels, frankly depicting disenfranchised urban Scottish communities at a time of political torpor at the end of a long period of Conservative rule in Britain. The use of urban vernacular gave their novels a raw authenticity, but this masked Kelman and Welsh’s formal inventiveness; such as the unremitting precision of Kelman’s 150-word ‘Acid’ (1983) or Welsh’s typographical games in ‘The Acid House’ (1994) and Marabou Stork Night-mares (1995). By the mid-1990s, the Scottish novel was recognized for its combination of unsentimen-tal working-class politics, accounts of urban degradation and violence, and black humour.
   The recent history of Scottish literature is one of politically conscious innovation. The publication of Hugh MacDiarmid’s modernist classic A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle in 1926 had set the tone for much that followed. Writing in ‘Lallans’ (a literary language formed through careful and eclectic reappropriation of Scottish dialect words and archaisms as a self-conscious rejection of the linguistic dominance of English literature), MacDiarmid gave those who followed both a method and a political stance: he was at once a Scottish nationalist, Communist and modernist elitist. The use of Lallans (still viewed by some as the ‘proper’ language for Scottish literature) fell out of favour, though the lexical ingenuity and range of poets like W.N.Herbert and Robert Crawford in the 1980s can be seen a continuation of the tradition. From the 1960s, a keen sense of linguistic difference was demonstrated in a growing variety of experimental and vernacular modes of writing: Edwin Morgan’s ‘Instamatic’ and sound poetry, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s concrete poems, W.S.Graham and Norman MacCaig’s development of Dylan Thomas’s lyrical ‘wordfloods’, the explorations of their native Gaelic by Iain Crichton Smith, Sorley MacLean and Derick Thomson, and George Mackay Brown’s evocations of his Orkney island community. Scottish writers also used ‘standard’ English to their own ends: a sense of the breadth of Scottish writing in English can be felt in the contrast between Muriel Spark’s novel about a genteel Edinburgh girls’ school (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1961) and the gothic violence of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory (1984), or between Douglas Dunn’s 1985 Elegies to his dead wife and Banks’ science fiction (including Consider Phlebas, 1987). In effect, Scottish writers created a single literature of many languages: English, Gaelic, Lallans and, increasingly, ‘urban phonetic dialect’.
   The urban focus can be seen as early as 1962 in Edwin Morgan’s The Second Life, but gained significant impetus from the weekly reading group set up by Philip Hobsbaum in Glasgow from 1971. There, writers like Alisdair Gray, Kelman, Tom Leonard and Liz Lochhead were able to meet and discuss their work; in the wake of the failed 1979 devolution referendum, Gray’s postmodern epic novel Lanark (written and rewritten over some three decades) was finally published in 1981, Polygon produced Kelman’s short-story collection Not Not While the Giro (1983), and in 1984 Leonard and Lochhead both published collected editions of their poetry (Intimate Voices and Dreaming Frankenstein). Leonard’s work had promoted the suppressed voice of the urban working-classes as a literary language since the early 1970s, sustaining a subtle and relentless critique of class-based prejudices against non-standard English. Attacks on the hegemony of English were also made through satirical linguistic reversals, exemplified by Gray and Welsh’s tran-scriptions of upper-class Oxbridge English or Cockney accents (pointing up the tacit assumption that the written word has a southern English accent) or Leonard’s pointed poster-poem, ‘An Oxford English Dictionary of an English Language’ (1996, quoted here in full).
   That the self-conscious privileging of specifically Scottish (rather than merely non-English) voices has not led to a stultifying parochialism is a testament to the internationalism of Scottish literature. Significantly, Gray’s Lanark (the principal device of which is the pairing of a ‘realist’ workingclass Glasgow with its fantastical mirror-image Unthank) includes a playful ‘index of diffuse and imbedded Plagiarisms by Sidney Workman’ which not only includes Hobsbaum, Kelman, Leonard and Lochhead, but cites a whole network of previous writers and thinkers (with Scots like Burns, Hume and Adam Smith listed alongside Ibsen, Freud, Blake and Kafka), effectively placing contemporary Scottish writing in a simultaneously Scottish and international context. Tom Scott’s dialect versions of the French medieval poet François Villon, W.L.Lorimer’s translation of the New Testament into Scots and Morgan’s prolific translations from Italian, Russian, Spanish, German, Hungarian, French and Anglo-Saxon are examples of the wide-ranging literary influences that were brought into Scotland from abroad. Morgan also joined Finlay in introducing concrete poetry to the English-speaking world from Latin America in the 1960s, underlining a receptiveness to avant-garde and experimental approaches at that is at odds with the formal conservatism of mainstream English literature.
   This openness to influence is helped by the proximity of many Scottish writers to their audience, partly through the maintenance of linguistic communities (notably for the Gaelic poets) but also through a commitment to performance, in many cases involving authors in writing for theatre (such as Liz Lochhead with Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, 1989). Social changes have also had an effect on the literary scene, once depicted as gathering of old men in an Edinburgh pub; increasing numbers of women writers have come to the fore since the 1960s. The poets Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay, and prose writers Janice Galloway, A.L.Kennedy and Candia McWilliam are among the most prominent. Kay— daughter of a Nigerian father and Scottish mother, adopted by white Glaswegian parents—has also demonstrated the scope of contemporary Scottish literature, exploring notions of self- and genderidentity through the poems of Adoption Papers (1991) and the novel Trumpet (1997).
   Further reading
    Crawford, R. (1992) Devolving English Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    Dunn, D. (ed.) (1992) The Faber Book of Twentieth- Century Scottish Poetry, London: Faber & Faber.
    Kravitz, P. (ed.) (1997) The Picador Book of Contemporary Scottish Fiction, Basingstoke: Macmillan.
   SIMON COPPOCK

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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