Rt Rev Mark Dilworth (1924-2004), priest, nominated
James IV (1473-1513)
Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)
Nominating the greatest Scot in history was not easy. So many were outstanding in some facet of Scotland's story, but were they the greatest in the history of the nation as a whole? James IV, who ruled from 1488 to 1513, at least stimulated the life of Scotland from the centre.
The Spanish ambassador at the time considered that Scotland had made enormous advances and he implied that James was largely responsible. James personally was intelligent and well educated, with a lively mind. As well as Lowland Scots, Gaelic and Latin (the language of education), he was said to be competent in French, Flemish, German and Spanish. Certainly he took a keen interest in the affairs of western Europe and played a part in them. His efforts to set up a new Crusade against the power of Islam revealed his view of Europe as a whole, with Scotland playing an important role.
At home he aimed at having a renaissance court like other rulers on the continent. This had to be cultured but also lively. Court life under James was colourful and marked by pageantry, with scholars and entertainers alike at home in it. But he was no stay-at-home. He travelled over much of Scotland, including the Western Isles. Two favourite destinations were St Ninian's shrine at Whithorn on the Galloway coast and St Duthac's shrine at Tain in the north-east Highlands. Devout pilgrim though he was, James expected to be entertained wherever he went and was generous with alms and rewards for his entertainment.
James knew his kingdom and clearly took an interest in its welfare. During his reign the processes of justice were improved, the fishing industry was stimulated, there was solid development in the economy and the organisation of burghs. His building up of a navy not only helped Scotland by reducing piracy, but his great ship Michael earned admiration abroad.
What specially marks out James's reign, however, was the flourishing of literacy and the arts, including literature and music. Visitors from the continent praised Scotland's notable churches; James added Holyroodhouse and the great hall of Stirling Castle. Craftsmen of various kinds were brought to Scotland, from France and Flanders particularly. Liturgical furnishings and artefacts were imported for the major churches. As for music, it clearly played a part in the life of the nation: song schools flourished, new musical works were composed, organs were imported and professional organists appointed. James on his travels gave drinksilver to many a clarsair [harper] and minstrel – and incidentally also to masons working on notable buildings.
James IV's reign was the golden age of Scottish literature, and literature cannot flourish without a foundation of literacy and education. Scotland's third university was founded at Aberdeen in 1495. Literacy among lay people made great strides and was greatly encouraged by legislation in 1496 obliging barons and lairds to have their sons educated. Scots seeking an academic career went to continental universities and took up academic posts either abroad or back at home. There was a thirst for learning, and, what was new, among lay people as well as clerics. As printing became more common, Scots scholars sent their works abroad to be printed for an international readership; then in 1507-08, a printing press was set up in Scotland.
The most important feature of this Scottish renaissance was the growing use and prestige of the Scottish tongue, though Gaelic bards were also prolific. Scots became the language of the court and of the nobles among themselves. Literary works from abroad were translated into Scots and printed, enhancing Scots vocabulary. Well-known scholars began to publish in Scots as well as Latin. The crowning glory was the output in Scots of three of Scotland's most celebrated poets: Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas. The continued publications of the Scottish Text Society in our day are proof of the quality and quantity of this literary renaissance.
Although much of the foregoing is the story of a reign rather than an individual, so much of what was achieved in James IV's reign was stimulated by him, made possible by him, given prestige by him. Faults he undoubtedly had, and his reign ended with Flodden, one of the greatest disasters in Scottish history. Nevertheless the cultural achievements lived on. It has been said too often that Mary Queen of Scots, brought up in sunny, cultured France, returned in 1561 to a cold and rude Scotland. The Edinburgh weather may not have been to her liking, but in so much else Scotland was akin to France and in music and zeal for education could even out-rival France.
It was even more difficult to choose the greatest Scot of the 20th century. There has been immense development of Scottish self-confidence over the last few decades, culminating in the massive vote in favour of a Scottish parliament. Hugh MacDiarmid's literary productions have, in my opinion, been a considerable factor in stimulating this self-confidence. He is therefore significant in the story of the nation as a whole and not merely in literature.