Northern Notes

Derek McClure’s Language, Poetry and Nationhood (Tuckwell, pbk £14.99) is an original study of Scots poetry from a linguistic standpoint. He explores the link between its twentieth-century development as a living literary, cultural and political medium capable of multiple forms of expression, and the coeval growth of Scottish Nationalism. Through identifying the language characteristics of individual poets he reveals the great debt owed by many makars – notably Hugh MacDiarmid – to Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language. ‘Scots and Scotland’ and ‘The Scots Language’ present within the historical context a sociolinguistic background informing examinations of individual poets over the last century or so:he considers the auld threip ower the rang o Scots; suid it staun or be dung doun as a sinder leid? (The old argument over the status of Scots:should it be elevated to a separate language or dismissed as a dialect?)

The separate studies include the ‘part-time’ mediaeval revivalists, Pittendrigh Macgillviray and Lewis Spence, whose archaisms and idiosyncracies markedly contrast with the more traditional but modern registers given in the north-east by Angus, Jacob, Cruickshank and Gray during the first part of the century. Hugh MacDiarmid, the one-man manifesto who made the Scottish Renaissance real by making Scots more political than in the days of Burns, revitalised the tradition of Scots poetry which produced such varied voices as Soutar, Young and Smith. More modern makars, too, are examined.

These studies begin in the nineteenth century, with J. Logie Robertson, whose 1878 Poems though rather wooden, nevertheless breathed fresh airs into the Scots poetry, long mired in the poetic kailyard of the Whistle-Binkie ‘school’ which began in 1832. Robertson’s alter ego ‘Hugh Haliburton’ and his Horace in Homespun, was no match for Underwoods voiced by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1887, which showcased most of his Scots verses. That JLR and RLS might jointly spearhead a revival in Scots – a claim made in 1893 – seems unfortunate today in terms of their decidedly different reputations. Both, McClure also notes, contributed laments on the decline of Scots in their first collections – Robertson’s total resignation to the inevitable being in utter contrast to Stevenson’s which, although seeming to accept the disappearance of Scots as ultimately inevitable, is vital in its concern that such a prospect would merely presage the apocalyptic fate awaiting all mankind:if Scots was going down, it wad gang doun fechtin – an tak the hale clanjamfrey wi it!

Arguably the greatest ever poet in Scots, Robert Burns, wrote prose almost exclusively in English. The most formal example of this is found in the exchange of letters which the poet (Sylvander) conducted with Mrs Agnes M’Lehose (Clarinda). Begun after their mutual attraction at a party, the seemingly chaste relationship lasted for over three months from December to March in Edinburgh during the winter of 1787 – 88. This new edition, Ae Fond Kiss:The Love Letters of Robert Burns and Clarinda edited by Donny O’Rourke. (Mercat, pbk, £9.99) the first since that of Clarinda’s grandson, W.C. M’Lehose, in 1843, upon which it is based, takes its title from the beautiful air composed after their separation. Burns said he was ‘ready to hang to himself for a young Edinburgh widow, who has wit and beauty more murderously fatal than than the assassinating stiletto of the Sicilian banditti, or the poisoned arrow of the savage African’, in a letter to Richard Brown. However, before the end of the correspondence he had involved himself again (and finally) with Jean Armour. The technique of seduction, with its advances and retreats and other manouevres employed by Burns in the letters, reminded J.D. Scott of Les Liasions Dangereuses which was published some six years before. This is not to say that Burns necessarily read De Laclos, but rather that it indicates the social mores of their time. My favourite passage, which seems so redolent of the city then, is by Clarinda:’I hope you’ll come afoot, even though you take a chair home. A chair is so uncommon a thing in our neighbourhood, it is apt to raise speculation; but they are all asleep by ten.’ The introduction by Donny O’Rourke is a racy one which puts a present day gloss on how we should view the affair; but I must point out that Creech was the publisher of the ‘Edinburgh Edition’ of Burns’ and that Smellie was the printer!

Burns ploughed a fair furrow through Edina, much of which crops up in Andrew Lownie’s renamed and revised The Literary Companion to Edinburgh (Methuen, pbk, £9.99). The entry on Sylv ‘n’ Clar has a most unfortunate misprint giving ‘Petterow’ instead of Potterrow as the location of the M’Lehose residence – in fact in General’s Entry, at the corner of Bristo Street. There are many additions and revisions in this new edition, although much of the entirely new material seems to rely too much on the rather ephemeral associations of the recent crime works of Jardine, Johnston and Rankin with the fabric of the city. The expanded list of Edinburgh novels has not caught Candia McWilliam for one; and why Bruce Marshall’s George Brown’s Schooldays is here baffles me!

Edinburgh in 1878 is the subject of the all too brief passage by Henry James which is included in The Road North: 300 Years of Classic Scottish Travel Writing edited by June Skinner Sawyers (Inn Pinn, pbk, £10.00), which juxtaposes old favourites and new-found authors in this anthology of Scottish travel writing. Defoe, Southey, Wordsworth and Johnson & Boswell as well as Burt, Pennant and the wonderful Martin Martin are all here, set alongside twentieth century scrievers, such as Muir and Gunn from home, and Toibin and Theroux from abroad. Some of the modern contributions seem a little brief or lightweight, though, compared with their more venerable counterparts. The arrangement leans too much towards the Highlands and Islands; and geographically, the Borders should never be included within the Lowlands – even Burns and Mary Queen of Scots visited here!

Bannockburn was Scotland’s finest hour against the English, not only finally forging the Scots nation but also increasing its confidence to withstand successfully any future attack. The battle is well documented by contemporary chroniclers, and Peter Reese makes good use of them by analysing their strengths and weaknesses in his introduction to Bannockburn:Scotland’s Greatest Ever Battlefield Triumph (Canongate, pbk, £9.99). He also acknowledges the twentieth century authorities on both the life of Robert Bruce and the battle itself in this uncluttered and balanced study – the first, full length one on Bannockburn to appear since W. Mackenzie’s in 1913. Less is more in that Reese provides succinct account of the Wars of Independence prior to 1314, and also a sharp analysis of the aftermath, when much was still to be won. Reese reviews the field, the armies, their commanders and their tactics in response to the ebb and flow in their prolonged encounter:won by Bruce because of his control over the battle site and better utilisation from the outset of lesser resources.

Copyright Neil Macara Brown 2005.


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