Margery Palmer McCulloch

Modernism and Nationalism

Don’t put ‘NB’ on your paper: put Scotland and be done with it. Alas, that I should be stabbed in the house of my friends! The name of my native land is not North Britain, whatever may be the name of yours.

RLS, from a letter to SR Crockett, April 1888

listerm04pic1.jpg This first extract of the 170 source documents in Margery Palmer McCulloch’s invaluable edition shows the fierce insistence of RLS on putting Scotland, quite literally, back on the map. What for RLS in 1888 was an aspiration, did begin to be realised in the early years of the twentieth century, at first culturally, and then to some extent in political terms.

Margery Palmer McCulloch must be congratulated for the massive work she has undertaken in bringing together for the first time those writings that informed the Scottish Renaissance and which are indispensable to an understanding of cultural identity and cultural resurgence in the first three decades of the twentieth-century. She must also be praised for the editorial decision to present the extracts with the minimum of commentary, no footnotes, only a few pages of endnotes and a few pages of introductory material. This helpful arrangement leaves the reader unburdened to explore this important collection, and allows the source texts to speak for themselves. Organised in two general sections, ‘Towards a Scottish Literary Renaissance’ and ‘Whither Scotland’, each sub-divides thematically, with extracts being presented chronologically to give ‘a sense of the movement and changing nature of the debates as arguments interact with each other.’

The focus of the first section is mainly literary; the second section is concerned with social, economic, political and wider cultural questions. By way of prolegomena, the first five extracts in section one give a context to the debates on the literary front. Here, writers express their feelings, views, and beliefs on the ‘matter of Scotland’ as well as their aspirations for and attitudes towards Scottish literature: RL Stevenson, MacNeile Dixon, GR Blake, G Gregory Smith of Caledonian Antisyzygy fame, and TS Eliot. Stevenson’s plea is passionate and insistent; MacNeile Dixon is ontological in his approach to the question and tries to establish the quiddity of Scottish poetry; GR Blake offers a lament for the Makars but looks for hope; G Gregory Smith propounds his pioneering arguments; while TS Eliot, patrician and objectionable to his finger-tips, wonders if there was ever such as thing as a ‘Scotch’ literature. (At about the time that Eliot was pontificating about there being no Scottish literature or no literature in Scots, but only some body of literary writing that happened to flourish north of the frontier and which was, at best, subsidiary to the literature of the metropolis, elsewhere, Virginia Woolf, in an essay, recalled ‘that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He also told a woman who applied to him for information that cats do not, as a matter of fact, go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.’ To which must be added TS Eliot’s decree that a country’s corpus of writing does not qualify as a literature! It was Dylan Thomas, I think, who pointed out that ‘TS Eliot’ was an anagram of toilets.)

By far the major participants in the public debates that helped bring about cultural change in Scotland were CM Grieve and Edwin Muir. Grieve was, of course, to augment his contributions by writing in various journals and publications under his nom de guerre, Hugh MacDiarmid. Indeed, Grieve founded and edited three journals to which he contributed a prodigious number of articles himself. Others who played their part included Catherine Carswell, Neil Gunn, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Willa Muir, and Naomi Mitchison. Writing as a very young man in 1936, the scholar and critic David Daiches prophetically warned of the dangers of ignoring the poetry of ‘contemporary dialect poets’ and the potentialities of their work.

While many of the source documents in Modernism and Nationalism first appeared in a number of small magazines that flourished in Scotland in the 1920s and 30s, the contributions from women come mostly, though certainly not exclusively, from correspondence between women friends or from personal journals. Although Margery Palmer McCulloch does devote one section to ‘Women on Women: Gendering the Renaissance’, this single section, because of the current paucity of known source materials, is a depressingly short one. When further source materials relating to women become more available or more accessible, this will yield greater insights into women, art and life in Scotland. This of course is an area that requires further research.

Most noticeable – and revealing – in the early extracts is that none of those writing about writing in Scots seem quite sure what exactly to label the language under discussion. The term ‘Scots’ seems not to have been comfortably established – or generally adopted – until much later in the debate. It is as if this new concept ‘Scots’ is not stable, and that the writers are tentative in their naming and cannot quite put a handle on what it is they are trying to write about. WA Craigie, then Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, writes about the ‘Scottish Tongue’ and ‘Scottish vernacular literature’, our ‘old Lowland tongue’, and even ‘Scottish’, and MacDiarmid as late as 1923 is still using ‘Doric’ and ‘the Doric’ and ‘braid Scots’, though MacNeile Dixon does use the term ‘Scots’ as early as 1910.

As writers became more engaged in the public debates surrounding national identity and culture, related items concerning social issues, economics and politics were added to the agenda for change. In relation to wider European issues of the time, of especial interest are those extracts concerning the rise of German fascism and the road to war. The glib, but innocent, references of the Marxist and proletarian novelist of the 1930s, James Barke to concentration camps, in his correspondence with Neil Gunn, are followed by Catherine Carswell’s description of her efforts to pull off a scheme for a Scottish settlement for a whole community of Austrian Jewish refugees. Wendy Wood’s ‘We Will Fight No More in England’s Wars. Eirich Alba’ first appeared in MacDiarmid’s journal Voice of Scotland; however, what was at stake in Europe was much, much more than John Bull’s foreign and domestic policy and the right of Scotland to seek to be neutral in an impending conflict. In sharp contrast is the Open Letter from Eric Linklater and Willa and Edwin Muir in which they deplore the Munich Pact and recognise that a war with Germany ‘would be morally defensible … for the principles of justice, under which is the world’s only hope for peace with honour.’

Perhaps under-represented in this indispensable source-book are the personal and artistic manifestos of some of Scotland’s visual artists and composers of the period, who, while involved in different spheres of activity, did in the creative expression of their ambitions and aspirations contribute by way of a kind of cross-fertilisation to cultural renewal. Again, the limited availability of working papers and personal or professional correspondence might account for this under-representation, though the contributions that visual artists and composers made to the Scottish Renaissance, in terms of their engagement with European Modernism, were surely not insignificant.

Margery Palmer McCulloch (ed) Modernism and Nationalism: Literature and Society in Scotland, 1918-1939. Source documents for the Scottish Renaissance. The Association for Scottish Literary Studies. 2004. (ISBN 0948877588 £25 HBK; ISBN 0948877596 £12.50 PBK).

© Michael Lister 2005