There has never been a more auspicious time for Scotland – nor a more tempestuous one – than now. A case of classic SWOT – strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Head and heart, past and future, oil and fish, jobs and jabs – the melting pot, or as some see it, the melting plot. The perennial quest for Scottish identity is dish of the day.
We have been here before. The 1930s were such a time, emerging from the Depression, facing the prospect of war, a time of tumult and torment. It was at such a time that Scottish writer and poet Edwin Muir went for a long drive around Scotland, described in his Scottish Journey
(1935) – a book still in print today and well worth reading.
Edwin Muir (1887-1959) was an Orkney-man and all his life treasured memories of his childhood there. In his poem, One Foot in Eden
, he speaks of having 'one foot in Eden still' as he stands 'looking across at the other land' where 'the world's great day in growing late', and little can separate 'the corn and tares compactly grown'. The 'famished field and blackened tree / Bear flowers in Eden never known'.
He felt nostalgia for community and wondered where it had gone. This is something many of us do today, and the more feisty among us use as a stick to beat what they regard as the sentimental tribalism of Scottish and English nationalism.
Muir admits his ambivalent feelings – he says he tried to seek his soul, but his 'soul did not believe him', perhaps a sign that this journey was for Muir an outer one (going from place to place in a battered old car) and an inner one (trying to find an elusive Scottish identity, and his derived place inside it).
He describes this as a search for the story (what we see and find) and the fable (what we imagine and dream). His poem Lost and Found
speaks of 'a broken Eden within'. The journey was, then, one of self-discovery, and one readers can still share even though it is long ago, even though they may not share his views.
Themes of searching and not finding come through the Scottish Journey
. Much is disillusioned scrutiny. He liked little of what he saw of Edinburgh – the unemployed stalking the Canongate, the whores and wild drinking, the gulf between rich and poor. The Glasgow slums provoked deep anger.
Near Motherwell, 'forlorn villages looked like dismembered parts of towns brutally hacked off, and with the raw edges left nakedly exposed'. He speaks of slag-heaps threatening 'bloated and scabbed villages'. Today, it might be retail parks, car lots, high rise and litter, the paraphernalia of places we're glad to leave.
Driving into the Highlands, he found the farms no better – grasping landowners and poorly paid labourers; the hotels no better – macabre stuffed deer in dining-rooms, loud tourists from England; the landscape made barren of folk and crops first by Clearances and then by English capitalism – a theme-park Scotland run by outsiders and incomers. He starts to wonder whether there really is something that he could call distinct Scottishness.
This is a question anyone with a perceptive sense of place goes on asking in a world more and more culturally generic, and where a sense of place means more than tartan, pipes and haggis. 'I could not think,' he says, 'of any Scottish way of life that would embrace all the ways of life that I had observed since I left Edinburgh… I had seen a great number of things, but no thing'. He wonders whether nationality is 'real and yet indefinable,' that 'it can be grasped at most in history, which means that it cannot really be grasped at all'.
Muir is a poet whose views were – and are still – not to everyone's taste. His study Scott and Scotland
(1936) remains controversial for his view that Scottish literature could only become world class if it was written in English. In saying this, he differed markedly from Hugh MacDiarmid, for whom Scots Gaelic was a key part of Scotland's sense of – and journey towards – true independence. Language as political reality.
Because of this, admirers of MacDiarmid and critics of Muir suggest that Muir never really took Scottishness seriously at all, for all his advocacy and fame as an internationally recognised writer and, with his wife Willa Muir, as a translator of works by Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. His poetry differs markedly from MacDiarmid's in avoiding what Muir would have called faux or synthetic Scots.
Muir's remains a voice like that of the general reader of poetry, and we cannot define it as a cultural curiosity. His is a distinctive poetic voice – hard-edged, crystal clear, stanzaic, richly metaphorical, shaped by myths, timeless and accessible.
Like Robert Frost's famous poem The Road Less Travelled
, Muir's poem The Road
works on a literal and allusive level – 'the great road stretched before them, clear and still / Then from in front one cried Turn back!
', at the start, and 'There was another road you did not see', at the end. This is a voice that still speaks to us, whether we let it work on our imagination or elect to adopt it as a convenient metaphor.
Seamus Heaney describes the work of a more recent Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig. as 'migratory' and 'in a state of restless becoming'. MacCaig's poem Journeys
starts 'travelling's fine' and ends more sardonically: 'there are bad journeys – to a bitter place / I can't get to – yet, I lean towards it, / Tugging to get there, and thank God / I'm clogged with the world, it grips me / I hold it'.
Journeys – in life or in literature are hard work, then, like poetry itself, particularly if you have something important to say – and what is more important than knowing who you are?
The Scottish Journey
is no mere sentimental journey, no Pilgrim's Progress
, no bildungsroman, no traveller's tale, no political tract, no Dunbar's flyting. It is more than – different from – all these. It is a heartfelt cry about what Scotland had become by 1935 and where it might go in the future. We know now, at least in part.
Recession and political rant dogged the 1930s and are not so far away today. Identity politics are the game in town; and people take sides. We believe the fable and not the story, the vision drives us on. Pragmatists trade cliches for cash; politicians promise fair play, dreamers have visions.
Poets such as Edwin Muir have deeper queries – whether we can believe what our hearts tell us, or should we look hard at what we are? If there is that one thing we know we really are, and if we can hold on to it. The runes were not easy to read back in 1935, and no easier now.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is an honorary chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School