'Literature and Union, Scottish Texts, British Contexts,' edited by Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd (Oxford University Press)
This is something of a cat among the pigeons book. In fact there are two cats: the editors (who are also contributors) Colin Kidd, professor of modern history at St Andrews University, and Gerard Carruthers, professor of Scottish literature at Glasgow University. The 'pigeons' are those whom Professor Carruthers, in the closing sentences of the book, calls the Scottish 'literary intelligentsia' – meaning the scholars, critics, and writers who make up the current literary establishment of Scotland.
Kidd and Carruthers have put together this important collection of essays in the belief that the well-established and widely accepted view of the fundamental nature of Scottish literature and its history is a seriously misguided one.
The book is made up of 16 chapters and just who their authors are provides a clue as to what it is that the editors see as the crucial flaw in the current critical understanding of Scottish literature. Strikingly, in a book about Scottish literature, only eight of its 15 contributors are literary scholars – the other seven are historians. Historians have such prominence here because a misunderstanding of Scottish history is the source of the problem that the book sets out to challenge and remedy.
In an opening introductory chapter entitled – not I think particularly helpfully – 'Union and the Ironies of Displacement in Scottish Literature' – Colin Kidd sets out the basic reasons why a reassessment of the role and meaning, or meanings, of the Union of 1707 leads to a challenging of the current orthodoxy over the history and focus of Scottish literature. So I feel there is no better way of clarifying for the reader exactly what this book is about than by quoting at some length from what Professor Kidd says.
'Traditionally', he writes, 'literary historians have assumed that Scottish writers became nationalistic and defensive after the Union of 1707, which induced an 18th-century crisis of identity and the emergence of a vernacular renaissance in Scots championed by Allan Ramsay, Fergusson and, of course, Burns. These assumptions are questionable. Party identities – Whig-Presbyterian and Jacobite-Episcopalian – were, if anything, stronger than national identity, and certainly more ubiquitous in Scottish literature until the 20th century.'
Hence 'in place of the dominant existing mode of literary interpretation that assumes a close relationship between Scottish literature and Scottish nationhood, this project will challenge received ideas about the "national" basis of the Scottish literary tradition.' Rather 'in this volume, we shall look at the way in which union influenced Scottish self-fashioning in the fields of poetry and the novel' and 'contrary to the assumed run of literary analysis – Scottish writers reshaped English culture and identity.'
Professor Kidd is also prepared to offer explanations for the dominance of such mistaken views on the Union in current literary critical discourse. The meaning of nationhood is the heart of the matter. Ever since the appearance of Benedict Anderson's influential book 'Imagined Communities,' the notion that nationhood is some kind of given historical reality, fixed and essentialist, has been increasingly questioned. Postmodern theorising is equally hostile to any unqualified endorsement of the concept of nationalism. But Scottish literary scholars have taken little or no account of such developments. Thus their own emphasis on a questionable notion of nationhood, and the salience of the Union, has 'been back-projected willy-nilly onto the past.'
Scottish politics is also involved. Since its origins in the 1920s, the SNP has always enjoyed the support of major Scottish writers. Hugh MacDiarmid, Neil Gunn, and Compton Mackenzie, for example, were early members. Nothing has changed in recent times, and like myself, Colin Kidd was much struck by how far, during the 2014 referendum debate, 'Scottish writers were outspoken in their commitment to a future outside the Union.' And the same was true of Scottish scholars – including many good friends of mine – in the fields of Scottish literature and history. Just how far this phenomenon was due to a commitment to political nationalism or cultural nationalism, or a combination of the two, is hard to say. But it is abundantly clear that a commitment to Scottish independence necessarily means a rejection of the Union of 1707.
MacDiarmid and the rest were outspoken in their condemnation of the Union, seeing it as a lethal threat to traditional Scottish culture. That view prevailed in subsequent years. It was articulated in the clearest of terms in the devolutionist manifesto published by the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly in 1988. Of Scottish culture, it said, 'Since the Union, the strength of that culture has fluctuated but there is no ground for any claim that, overall or even at any particular time, it has benefited from the Union.' Therefore 'the Union has always been, and remains, a threat to the survival of a distinctive culture in Scotland.'
The reference here to 'any particular time' hints that the post-Union cultural achievements of Adam Smith and David Hume might – mistakenly – be seen as worthy of celebration. In recent years the SNP has come round to the view that the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment is indeed worthy of celebration – but that in no way alters its view of 1707.
What this volume of essays attempts to do is to show that the essentialist- nationalist, negative view of the Union of 1707 can be corrected by a more synthetic, less confrontational, either-or approach. The contributors seem largely to be comfortable with such an approach. To my mind the one exception is the essay entitled 'England's Scotland' by St Andrews University's excellent poet and scholar, Robert Crawford. In his text he argues that three works by Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, and Virginia Woolf agree in depicting Scotland in a deeply negative light – and he makes much of the fact that major English writers rarely, if ever, choose to locate their stories within a Scottish context – so England's Scotland remains a very dismal place. Perhaps so, but if one chooses to look at accounts of Scotland, particularly after the emergence of the Romantic movement, by writers from a range of nationalities including English, the result would surely be very different.
In any event, the rest of the contributors appear to go along with the view that the post-Union Anglo-Scottish relationship should not be seen reductively as either 'synthetically British' or 'antithetically Scottish.' There are other more nuanced, more complex alternatives. The nature of this more rewarding approach is set out – in somewhat theoretical terms – by David Goldie near the opening of his essay called 'Unspeakable Scots.' Literary culture, he writes, should be seen as 'a dynamic system: not a dialogue between two relatively well-defined subject positions… but a dialectic in which the subject positions themselves are dissolved, reformed, made discontinuous by their encountering of each other and their products; a model that insists that all subject positions and notions of identity are contingent and contextual rather than fixed and essential.'
This notion of hybridity, of the dissolving and reforming of Scottishness and Englishness and Anglo-Scottish identity after 1707, keeps emerging as the basic, conceptual underpinning of this book.
However let me end by making it clear that this is not an academic text weighed down by theoretical gobbledygook. These essays are the outcome of impeccably solid historical research. Over and over again they open up new areas of research – on a strikingly broad range of topics. Major works of the established literary canon are all here – 'Humphry Clinker,' 'Waverley' and other Scott novels, 'The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner,' the poetry of Ramsay, Fergusson, Burns and James Thomson – the author of 'Rule, Britannia.'
But there is much that is unfamiliar: 18th-century representations of the English John Bull and the Scottish Sister Peg, the statuary of Robert Burns, the plethora of 19th-century magazines published by Scottish churches, the dominance of Scottish editors, journalists and literary agents in 19th-century London, the Scot responsible for establishing the Royal Historical Society, the major literary figures in 19th-century Presbyterian Ulster. And a great deal more.
What such topics perhaps indicate is that – in a book that frequently draws attention to a range of ironies in the post-Union Anglo-Scottish relationship – the essays that make up the main bulk of the book are, ironically, much less controversial than its central argument. However, such concepts as Professor Carruthers' 'Jacobite Unionism' and Professor Kidd's 'banal unionism,' meaning 'a union so well established as to need no defence or justification,' are bound to provoke responses.
Indeed it seems inevitable that there will be defenders of the current orthodoxies in the study of Scottish literature who will be determined to rebut the challenge this book represents. What is not in doubt is that 'Literature and Union' is a major work pointing up new directions in Scottish literary studies.
Return to ambit homepage