The Fin-de-Siècle Scottish Revival: Romance, Decadence and Celtic Identity


, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Fin de Siecle

by Michael Shaw, Edinburgh University Press (2019)

Michael Shaw is a Lecturer in Scottish Literature at the University of Stirling.  He has previously written on Home Rule and the Celtic Revival and identity in the writing of William Sharp.  This book is based on his doctoral research on Scotland’s fin-de-siècle cultural revival at the University of Glasgow which he completed in 2015.  It is a ground-breaking piece of scholarship.

In a masterly survey of the cultural scene in fin-de-siècle Scotland, Shaw uncovers concerns with cultural defence and revivalism comparable with those of the Irish Revival in the work of a range of writers, artists and designers, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Violet Jacob, Margaret Macdonald, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Jessie M. King, and John Duncan.  Though contemporary critics recognised and commented in this phenomenon, recognising in it a desire to resist the increasing cultural and intellectual dominance of London and reassert Scotland’s distinctive cultural identity internationally, it has received little examination since.

Shaw’s assessment challenges the assumption widespread in Scottish literary criticism that Scotland developed a cultural revival comparable with that of Ireland only in the 1920s, with the emergence of writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir.  The Scottish literature of the 1890s has been widely associated with anti-national and anti-international insularity and dominated by the small-town parochialism of the Kailyard school.  Shaw shows that many Scottish writers, artists and intellectuals of the period were discontent with what they perceived to be the increasing marginalisation of Scottish identity and responded by making a concerted effort to defend and revive Scottish literature and art.

Shaw identifies Patrick Geddes as a key figure in this national reawakening.  His book begins with Victor Branford’s review of the Spring issue The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal published by Patrick Geddes and Colleagues in 1895.  Branford is explicit that the magazine sought to stimulate a revival of Scottish national art and literature and reanimate Scotland’s European connections in the context of a wider Celtic Renascence.

Elizabeth Sharp wrote that the projects which Geddes promoted from his base in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket were intended ‘to arrest the tremendous centralising power of the metropolis of London’ and to ‘restore to Scotland something of its old pre-eminence in the world of thought’.  Geddes set out his theory of cultural revivalism in an essay entitled ‘The Scottish Renascence’ in the first issue of The Evergreen.  While he laments the neglect of Scottish history and culture and the decline of Scottish literature, he sees signs of cultural awakening in the vigour of the Glasgow School of artists, an emerging literature of locality, a ‘renascent’ Scottish architecture and efforts towards the renewal in Edinburgh’s Old Town.  He equates this Scottish Renascence with a growing interest in Celtic art, literature and tradition.

But Shaw is quick to point out that there was much more to Scottish cultural revivalism in this period than Geddes and his projects.  In Glasgow, Charles Rennie Macintosh was calling for a ‘more national’ architecture and the Glasgow School was exploring Scottish vernacular architecture and Celtic design traditions.   In theatre, Glasgow’s Scottish National Players and the Scottish Repertory Theatre took inspiration from developments in Dublin.  And there was active contact and exchange between Edinburgh and Glasgow, with cultural activists and artists in the two cities drawing inspiration from each other.

As well as asserting the significance of revivalism in the Scotland of the 1890s, Shaw explores the similarities and tensions between the Scottish and Irish revivals. He examines how dissident fin-de-siècle styles, ideas and movements such as arts and crafts, decadent neo-paganism and symbolism influenced its expression.  He also acknowledges the competing understandings of Celtic identity in Scottish and Irish contexts.  Geddes saw Scotland as home to two distinct Celtic traditions: a Fingalian Highland Celtic tradition and an Arthurian Lowland tradition.  At the same time, the authenticity of Edinburgh’s Celtic revival was contested by the authors such as Neil Munro and Andrew Lang, and John Davidson rejected it completely.  The cultural defeatism of William Sharp’s Celtic Twilight writings in the guise of Fiona Macleod was anathema to Irish nationalists.

Shaw points out that although cultural revivalism looked to folklore, mythologies, histories and crafts in its efforts to resist national assimilation and often placed itself in opposition to industrial modernity, it wasn’t necessarily antithetical to modernity.  Several fin-de-siècle revivalists were concerned with reconciling modernity with the continuance of national tradition.

Among the movements Shaw examines in his exploration of Scotland’s fin-de-siècle cultural scene are decadence and symbolism.  Stuart Kelly has argued that in late nineteenth century Presbyterian Scotland, ‘where restraint and gravity became cardinal virtues,’ it was impossible for the excessiveness, indulgence and ‘fecklessness’ of decadence to take root.  Shaw rejects this assessment, offering evidence that Scottish revivalist literature and art were often inspired by the styles and ideas of decadent writers, artists and thinkers across Europe, and often influenced those abroad.

While decadence is usually seen as a manifestation of individuation and therefore inherently ‘anti-national’, Shaw argues that it could comfortably make common cause with national revivalism in opposition to the narratives of stadial progress and improvement congenial to the elites of Europe’s great powers.  In Scotland and Ireland, the space within which cultural nationalism and decadence most clearly intersected was the Celtic Revival.  The Irish writer W.B. Yeats and the Scottish author and critic William Sharp are significant in this context.

As Shaw points out, Celticism in Ireland and Scotland can be seen as a reaction to a cultural identity imposed by writers such as Matthew Arnold, who characterised the Celt, in contrast to the factual, masculine and rational Saxon, as intuitive, fey, feminine and politically ineffectual.  While Arnoldian Celticism could be deployed to accommodate Ireland and Scotland within Union and Empire, its stereotypes were also embraced and appropriated by writers like Yeats and Sharp for the purpose of national revival.

In his first chapter, Shaw explores the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and other Scottish romance revivalists.  He argues that several of Stevenson’s works were proto-Celticist and proto-decadent and that the adventure romance genre provided a useful vehicle for interrogating Victorian social and cultural assumptions and promoting national cohesion.  He points out that although Scottish writers of the Romance Revival such as Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Andrew Lang, J.M. Barrie, Violet Jacob and John Buchan all wrote about Scotland and many formed friendships with each other, there has never been sustained consideration of them as a loose, vibrant group, responding to Scottish and other contexts.Illustration for Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Arnold’s Celtic and Saxon stereotypes had important implications for Scotland because they reinforced the notion of a clear ethnic and cultural division between the Celtic Highlands and Saxon Lowlands.  Shaw argues that a desire to challenge this narrative and the supposed inferiority and backwardness of Celtic culture was an important impulse behind Stevenson’s novels Kidnapped (1886) and Catriona (1893).  He also points out that the scepticism about stadial progress, deep suspicion of mercantile modernity and sympathy with traditional cultures to be found in The Master of Ballantrae (1889) and Stevenson’s South Sea writings align him with the emerging decadent movement.  Stevenson was admired by writers of decadence such as Wilde, Gide and Mallarmé for more than his long hair and velvet jacket.

Colin Kidd has argued that the narrative of a marked Celtic-Saxon ethnic divide inhibited the development of nationalism in nineteenth century Scotland.  Shaw counters that by the fin-de-siècle that narrative was being actively challenged, pointing out that:

“Across murals, paintings, prose writings and poetry in fin-de-siècle Scotland, we find cultural revivalists turning to Scotland’s Celtic pagan inheritance.”

And, of course, much of that inheritance is shared with Ireland.  Shaw argues that one of the most striking examples of Scottish cultural revivalism is John Duncan’s mural sequence in the common room at Ramsay Garden in Edinburgh.  The Dundonian symbolist John Duncan was one of Patrick Geddes’ close collaborators, curating the art content of the Summer Meetings at University Hall and contributing illustrations to The Evergreen.  The murals were painted by Duncan according to a scheme devised by Geddes.  Taken together, they present an unorthodox narrative of Scottish history, featuring a unique assemblage of mythical and educational heroes, arranged chronologically. The sequence begins with the Celtic pagan warriors Cúchulainn and Fionn, followed by The Taking of Excalibur, featuring King Arthur, Merlin and Morgan Le Fay.  The arrival of Christianity is represented by St. Mungo.  With becoming modesty, Geddes described it as ‘the vastest and most elaborate Celtic illumination in the modern world.’

Riders of the Sidhe

The Riders of the Sidhe (1911), by John Duncan

Shaw argues that Duncan’s Anima Celtica, which appeared in the Spring issue of The Evergreen, asserts a continuity between Celtic mysticism and Jacobitism and the enduring power of the Celtic past to inspire Scottish culture.  Duncan went on to produce a number of significant works inspired by pagan Celtic mythology.  His painting The Riders of the Sidhe (1911) is almost certainly inspired by Yeats’s poem ‘The Hosting of the Sidhe’ (1899).

One of the European cultural revivalist movements on which Shaw focuses is the Young Belgians.  Their central figure was Maurice Maeterlinck, a Fleming who wrote in French.  Maeterlinck became one of the key symbolist writers in fin-de-siècle Europe’, and his efforts were to earn him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911.  His circle, La Jeune Belgique, formed a movement to assert their Belgian identity, which they felt was compromised by increasing cultural homogenisation and the metropolitan pull of Paris. One writer who saw parallels with Scotland’s situation was the critic William Sharp.  Sharp, who was Geddes’ partner in The Evergreen and editor of the Celtic Library series published by Patrick Geddes and Colleagues, was one of the first writers in Britain to review and translate the work of the Young Belgians, promoting them as a model for Scottish cultural revivalists.

Death of Tintagiles

Jessie M. King’s design for Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Death of Tintagiles (American edition)

Scottish artists who took inspiration from Maeterlinck included Jessie M. King, whose illustration of a scene from Pelléas and Mélisande was exhibited in the Scottish Rooms of the Venice Biennale in 1889 and Margaret Macdonald, whose The Seven Princesses (1906) is now displayed in the Vienna Museum of Applied Art.  King also executed cover designs for five Maeterlinck plays published by Gowans and Gray in Glasgow and London between 1903 and 1909.

An influence which proved more generally appealing than the work of the Belgian writers was the art of Japan.  While much has already been written about japonisme in Scotland, Shaw’s focus is on its relationship to the construction of national identity.  Scotland’s Japanese connections developed within the context of the British Empire and its involvement in the modernisation and industrialisation of Japan.  As early as 1866, Japanese students were being sent to Glasgow to study naval architecture.  Japonisme, Shaw suggests, was attractive to Scottish cultural revivalists who were comfortable with industrial modernity but had concerns about a form of modernity which demanded the abandonment of traditional national or ethnic cultures.

Two Scottish artists strongly influenced by Japanese art were the Glasgow Boys E.A. Hornel and George Henry.  Shaw argues that while the subject matter of their The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890), which appears on the cover of his book, is Celtic, the painting makes several references to Japanese culture.  He sees the depiction of the trees against an oddly white background and the moon against a rich blue sky as reminiscent of Japanese prints and points out that gilt gold details are common in oriental art.  Hornel and Henry subsequently visited Japan in 1893, and Hornel contributed the illustration Madame Chrysanthème to the Autumn issue of The Evergreen in 1895.

One of Shaw’s most important conclusions is that the vibrancy, diversity and international engagement of cultural activity in fin-de-siècle Scotland calls into serious question the claims by later figures, notably Hugh MacDiarmid, that the period was defined by parochialism and sentimentality.   He argues that many of the international connections established by Scottish writers and artists in the 1890s anticipated modernist developments and suggests that MacDiarmid’s need to emphasise the innovation and originality of the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920s, for which he owed a direct debt to Geddes, led  him to be unfairly dismissive of the generation previous to his own.  MacDiarmid himself invoked La Jeune Belgique as model from which Scotland could learn.  Shaw argues that the Belgian connection represents a significant strand of continuity between the Scots Renascence of the 1890s and the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920s.

Shaw’s book is a treasure trove of fascinating information about the concerns and international influences which animated the cultural scene in late nineteenth century Scotland.  He amply demonstrates that the Scotland of that period was not the provincialized and insular country it subsequently suited others to claim.

The hardback book is handsomely produced with 13 colour plates.  Given that it is such an important work, it is regrettable that the exigencies of academic publishing have resulted in it being priced at a hefty £80.00, with no cheaper paperback option.  That makes it less accessible to the general reader than its merit demands.  Readers who are quick of the mark may, however, be able to obtain a copy at a lower price in one of the publisher’s periodic flash sales.

This article was published in Bella Caledonia on 3rd April 2020.

The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation


, , , , , ,

Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution

by Scott Hames, Edinburgh University Press (2019)

Scott Hames is Lecturer in Scottish Literature at the University of Stirling.  He has edited two books of essays on modern Scottish literature and national identity and is an occasional contributor to Bella Caledonia.  In The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation he examines the influence of writers and intellectuals in shaping the campaign for constitutional change in Scotland from the 1970s to the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999, exploring the relationship between the ‘dream’ of national empowerment and the ‘grind’ of electoral strategy, and examining critically how the work of authors such as William McIlvanney, A.L. Kennedy, Irvine Welsh and James Kelman relates to the concern with articulating a distinctive and authentic Scottish voice during the period of the Thatcher and Major governments.

Hames highlights the influence of writers and thinkers such as Tom Nairn, Stephen Maxwell, Jack Brand, Neal Ascherson and Christopher Harvie in shaping the initial response to the unsatisfactory outcome of the devolution referendum of 1979, but a distinctive feature of the book is a strong focus on the small magazines which engaged with Scottish political and cultural debates in the pre-internet period, particularly Radical Scotland, Calgacus, Cencrastus and Edinburgh Review.

While Hames is sympathetic to the cause of Scottish self-government, he is at pains to maintain a critical distance from his subject.  He is right to subject the sometimes exaggerated claims of cultural vanguardism to critical scrutiny, but his scepticism often becomes mannered, not to say loaded and laboured.  Scotland’s claims are ‘uncertain’.  Assertions of popular sovereignty are dismissed as ‘nationalist notions’.  Scottish nationalism contrives to be perversely ‘a-cultural’ while retaining a ‘tweedy aura’.   When not being expressed through the ballot box, Scottish national consciousness is only ‘latent’.  Home rule activists are characterised as ‘obsessives’ fretting over ‘nebulous difference’ and nursing ‘national injury’.  Scots is only a ‘semi-separate tongue’.  The Scotland of the 1990s is reduced to being ‘marginal’ and a ‘semi-nation’. Scots appear to have only a ‘half-belief in national belonging’, and Scottish identity is a ‘provisional choice’.  In this narrative, Scotland exhibits a peculiar form of exceptionalism, a unique ambivalence about its authenticity.  One is left wondering how this etiolated, twilight entity, with only a tenuous grip on national consciousness, could have come to possess the distinct ‘intelligentsia’ and ‘densely-networked’ civic realm which Hames identifies as key drivers of the campaign for devolved government.

Wealth of the Nation

Hames acknowledges the salience of Cairns Craig’s work on Scottish culture, specifically referencing his recent book The Wealth of the Nation: Scotland, Culture and Independence which I reviewed a year ago; yet he makes no reference to Craig’s analysis of the changing nature of Scottish nationalism in the period since the Union.  As Craig points out, throughout the nineteenth century, Scots saw the British Empire as an effective vehicle for projecting Scottish identity and influence across a global canvas, not least in the Dominion of Canada.  It was only after this became untenable after the First World War that there emerged a ‘resistant nationalism’ of the sort we are familiar with in other small European nations, and one which was aggressively dismissive of what had gone before.  Craig argues that this ‘nostophobic’ phase, which sometimes became a self-flagellating preoccupation with the perceived inadequacies of Scottish culture, had begun to exhaust itself by the 1970s.  The cultural revival led by writers and artists such as Edwin Morgan, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and Ian Hamilton Finlay after the devolution referendum of 1979 was able to combine respect for Scotland’s indigenous cultural resources with an openness to ideas from elsewhere.  Oddly, Hames doesn’t attempt to engage with any of this, preferring to wear his studied scepticism about the existence and viability of a distinct Scottish cultural identity as a badge of detached academic rigour.

Hames’ relentlessly sceptical stance tends to undermine his own account of the influence of writers and intellectuals in establishing consensus around a post-referendum narrative in the early 1980s.  He writes of the assembly offered in the 1970s dismissively as only ‘half-wanted’ and ‘nobody’s dream’.  But if the feeling that the failure to grasp it was a lost opportunity had not been widely shared, that narrative would have had little traction.

Hames is curiously uncurious about the social, political and cultural networks which took the cause of Scottish self-government forward in the 1980s and 1990s, the people involved and the connections between them.  His analysis of the forces at play during the period remains at the level of airy academic abstractions such as ‘the intelligentsia’, ‘Civic Scotland’ and the ‘elite’.   He argues that ‘the Scottish elite took over a half-constructed, semi-derelict project’ of devolution after 1979, though this elite is not defined or examined in any depth.  While the Constitutional Convention established in 1989 can be seen as an elite project, the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly (CSA) which preceded it, and was up and running the year after the referendum, was by no means an elite organisation.  It grew out of the links which had been established between activists of various parties and none during the referendum campaign.  It was grass-roots and multi-faceted.  It included members of the SNP, the Labour Party and Jim Sillars’ Scottish Labour Party, as well as Liberals, Communists and Greens.  The Scottish Ecology Party, forerunner to today’s Scottish Green Party, had been established just in time to campaign on the ‘Yes’ side in 1979.  Hugh Miller of the Scottish Republican Socialist Party was a key figure in the Edinburgh Branch and nationally.  Activists with widely different political perspectives admired his enthusiasm and commitment and respected his organisational skills.  Pace George Kerevan, in its diversity and activist-driven creativity, the CSA was more closely akin to the local ‘Yes’ groups of the 2014 referendum campaign than John MacCormick’s douce Covenant Movement.

Hames’ focus is on the literature of the period, which is well and good, but in places he appears to expect literature carry the whole burden of Scotland’s claim to a distinctive cultural identity, even although the writers he cites often explicitly deploy a wider frame of reference encompassing music, film, drama and the visual arts.  In his quest for authentic radicalism, he is discomfited to find Radical Scotland 27 (June-July 1987) devoting twice as much space to a positive review of The Proclaimers as to a review of James Kelman’s latest novel; Kelman being in Hames’ view ‘the outstanding political novelist  of 1980s-90s Scotland’ (Hames edited The Edinburgh Companion to James Kelman).   But, of course, Radical Scotland never had any pretensions to being a literary magazine.  Its interest in cultural matters was always more catholic and utilitarian.  Surprisingly, given Hames’ concern with authenticity of voice, he dismisses The Proclaimers rather sniffily as a ‘pop group’!  And it is odd to find a book which consciously focuses so strictly on literature ending with an admonition not to forget that ‘large fraction of Scottish society who have never read (or indeed heard of) the writers consecrated in the Canongate Wall.’

Radical - Scotland - February 1983

Hames suggests that there was little examination of the content of Scottish culture by writers and intellectuals in the period after the 1979 referendum.  In fact, there was rather a lot.   Scottish Journey (1935), Edwin Muir’s bleak assessment of Scottish culture and identity was widely referenced during the period.  A new edition had been published by Mainstream in 1979, with an introductory essay by T.C. Smout.  Barbara and Murray Grigor’s Scotch Myths exhibition (1981) stimulated a series of articles examining aspects of the representation of Scottish identity and culture in The Bulletin of Scottish Politics and Cencrastus, but Hames’ strict focus on literature allows him to confine his acknowledgement of this fact to a footnote, on the ground of lack of space.  The cover of the first issue of the relaunched Radical Scotland published in the spring of 1983 illustrates the quote attributed to Tom Nairn, that ‘Scotland will be free when the last minister is strangled by the last copy of the Sunday Post.’   Here, the new Editorial team were not asserting a tentative or questionable Scottish cultural identity but contesting the nature of Scottish identity and signalling a break with the past.  It is noteworthy that the Kirk and Presbyterianism barely surface in Hames’ survey of the writing of the period, though in his criticism of the work of James Robertson the Disruption of 1843, a singularly Scottish event, does get a mention.

Hames quotes the following passage from Robertson’s novel, And the Land Lay Still (2010):

“There were magazines recording and encouraging this process of self-exploration. They were small-scale, low-budget, sporadic affairs, and their sales were tiny – a few hundred, a very few thousand – but the people running them weren’t doing it for the sales.  They were doing it to address the pervasive sense of wrongness.  And the people who read them – culturally aware, politically active people – were hungry for what they provided.  More than anything, perhaps, the magazines said you are not alone.”

Sadly, we learn less than might have been expected about these people.  Kevin Dunion and Alan Lawson, the successive editors of Radical Scotland are identified, as are Joy Henry, the editor of Chapman, and Peter Kravitz, the editor of Edinburgh Review.  Norman Easton, editor of the predecessor to Radical Scotland, Crann Tára, is not identified, neither is Ray Burnett, Editor of Calgacus, or Ian Dunn, the co-founder of the Scottish Minorities Group who edited two issues of Radical Scotland prior to the relaunch of the magazine in 1983.  With the exception of Cairns Craig, the members of the editorial team at Cencrastus remain anonymous.

Several members of the new editorial team at Radical Scotland had been active in the SNP 79 Group, and involved in the production of its newsletter, 79 Group News.  Following the proscription of the 79 Group by the SNP in the autumn of 1982, they were in need of an alternative vehicle for the promotion of their ideas.  However, Hames is mistaken in his claim that the magazine was taken forward by ‘an entirely new editorial team’.  There was an element of continuity, and that played a part in facilitating the change to the new regime, but it is worth noting that an interesting strand of writing on sexual identities and minorities in Scotland did not survive the transition.  Hames references an excellent essay by Douglas Robertson and James Smyth on the story of Radical Scotland, about which Robertson has first-hand knowledge as a member of the editorial team.  I remain astonished that it was rejected by the journal Scottish Affairs and is still unpublished.

While my personal knowledge of the period has led me to be acerbically critical of several aspects of this book, I do believe that it is a valuable piece of work, breaking important new ground in exploring the ‘complex and pervasive intermingling of Scottish literature and politics over the past few decades’ and highlighting the part which small political and cultural magazines played in bringing that about.  Hames is right to warn against a reductive critique of Scottish writing and writers.  He provides valuable insights, such as the suggestion that ‘Loosening the grip of MacDiarmid’s acolytes on ‘Scotland’ as a topic and possibility was arguably the crucial legacy of Scottish International.’  He draws our attention to observations by Scottish writers which remain all too relevant.  Tom Nairn’s comment that English nationality has little political horizon beyond Anglo-Britain and its imperial residues remains true today as we teeter on the edge of Brexit.  James Kelman’s parody of the stand-off between Civic Scotland and the Major Government over devolution, in which ‘the height of their defiance is to carry on waiting until they give us power,’ has an uncomfortable resonance in the political predicament in which Scotland now finds itself.  Hames is correct to conclude that Scottish devolution is not only a set of political structures but a cultural condition, but surely mistaken in suggesting that it is “a condition just short of independence” – as we are currently finding out.

There is much more to explore and much more that can and should be written about the relationship and interactions between culture and politics in the period between the referendums of 1979 and 1997.  Scott Hames has made a welcome start.

A version of this article was published in Bella Caledonia on 30 December 2019.

The Wealth of the Nation: Scotland, Culture and Independence


, , ,

Wealth of the Nation

by Cairns Craig, Edinburgh University Press (2018)

Cairns Craig is a leading scholar in Scottish and modernist literature. He has been Professor of Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen since 2005. Before that, he taught at the University of Edinburgh, serving as Head of the English Literature Department from 1997 to 2003. In the 1980s he was a member of the Advisory Committee and Editorial Board of the literature, arts and cultural affairs magazine Cencrastus. His The Wealth of the Nation: Scotland, Culture and Independence explores how recurrent cultural revival has successfully sustained Scotland as a nation through 300 years of Union. It is an important and ambitious work, and was recently shortlisted for the Saltire Society Literary Awards History Book of the Year.

Craig invokes Adam Smith in seeing the true wealth of the nation as lying in its culture and sees the explanation for Scotland’s survival as lying in the successful accumulation and reinvestment of cultural capital. In examining Scotland’s cultural resilience, he deploys a number of unfamiliar concepts, with which the reader must try to get to grips. The first of these is that Scotland’s sense of itself as a distinctive cultural entity took a ‘xeniteian form during the period of the British Empire, with Scots migrants taking advantage of the opportunities Empire created to take Scotland out across the world, and busily reconstructing the institutions of their homeland throughout the Imperial territories. This influence was strong enough to survive the loss of the American colonies. Scottish thinkers like Adam Smith, Hugh Blair, Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid had a profound influence on the institutions of the emergent United States. The Scots Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and was a key figure in the development of the College of New Jersey which would later become Princeton University.

Scotland’s ‘Imperial nationalism’ continued to project Scotland as an independent cultural entity through the celebration of its writers throughout the Nineteenth Century. Thus, Craig argues:

“In the very period when, according to the standard view, Scottish intellectual life was in decline in Scotland, Scottish ideas were achieving their greatest world-wide influence.”

It is estimated that at their peak the Edinburgh-based journals the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine enjoyed an international readership of over 100,000. In the 1820s, Francis Jeffrey’s Edinburgh Review was selling 4,000 copies per issue in the USA, as much as any USA-based publication in the period.

At home, Walter Scott and the dramatist Daniel Terry were engaged in a theatrical reconstruction of Scottish identity which served the needs of Empire. For George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822:

“Scott and Terry created a political theatre in which a Hanovarian monarch could appear upon the stage of Edinburgh to act the part of a Stuart king.”

Craig distinguishes between two contrasting manifestations of nationalism in Nineteenth Century Europe – resistant and projective nationalism. Scotland’s nationalism was decidedly of the latter variety.

“Scotland had no need of a ‘resistant nationalism’ precisely because it was an imperial nation engaged in projecting its national culture to the world. The historical problem of Scotland’s ‘absent nationalism’ in the nineteenth century is a non-problem because far from lacking a nationalism, Scottish nationalism was vigorously engaged on imposing itself wherever Scots had achieved a determining or a significant role within the territory of the British Empire. Scottish nationalism did not need to assert itself within the British state because the ‘world was its field’, and its aim was to make Scotland the spiritual core of the imperial project.”

Craig argues that the trauma of the First World War fatally undermined Scotland’s xeniteian empire and the assumptions underlying her projective nationalism. While the British Empire soldiered on until after the Second World War, the Age of Empires had ended. The Scottish industries which had served the British Empire were plunged into Depression between the Wars. Core areas of the Empire where Scottish culture had taken root were asserting their own independent national identities. The Scottish Renaissance which Scotland’s writers and artists promoted from the 1920s was resistant in character and whereas Scott’s imperial nationalism had indulged a nostalgia for Scotland’s past, the new nationalism was aggressively dismissive of what had gone before – what Craig describes as ‘nostophobic’. Hugh MacDiarmid’s modernist manifesto demanded the rejection of what had passed for Scottish culture since the Reformation.

Craig argues that nostophobia, a pessimistic pre-occupation with the cramping, provincial inadequacies of Scottish culture, became the dominant intellectual discourse in Scotland in the period following the Second World War, with figures as diverse as Edwin Muir, Allan Massie, Alexander Trocchi and the film-maker Bill Douglas contributing to the construct. Perhaps the Strichen runaway Nora Low should be seen as the pioneer poster-girl of the nostophobes? As Lorna Moon she achieved success in Hollywood as a screenwriter for the early talkies and died in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1930.

By the 1970s, nostophobia had achieved its ultimate distillation and, as Craig points out:

“Far from being the minority opposition in modern Scottish culture, nostophobia was, in fact, the ideology of much of the cultural ‘establishment’.”

In an article in the house magazine of Scottish nostophobia, Bob Tait’s Scottish International, Tom Nairn argued that the Scots, liberated from the debilitating constraints of a failed national culture, were well placed to provide the intellectual vanguard of a new post-nationalist world. It is therefore richly ironic that Scottish International’s What Kind of Scotland? conference in the Spring of 1973, at which John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil was given an enthusiastic standing ovation, can be seen as marking the exhaustion of the nostophobic impulse. I still remember with relish the censoriousness with which the commissars of internationalism greeted the play’s popular appeal.

Meanwhile, through the efforts of American scholars, as well as Duncan Forbes and George Elder Davie, Scotland’s Eighteenth Century thinkers and their Nineteenth Century successors had become the subject of renewed interest. Craig reminds us that the concept of a ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ only gained currency in the 1960s, and that:

“The ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ did not send out its intellectuals to populate the world – rather, Scottish ideas swept around the world and returned to remake Scotland’s past into an Enlightenment.”

Craig uses the term ‘theoxenia to describe the cultural response to the political hopes dashed by the result of the Devolution Referendum of 1979 – a perspective which is able to combine respect for Scotland’s indigenous cultural resources with a receptiveness to the gifts of gods who come as strangers. He sees Edwin Morgan, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and Ian Hamilton Finlay as leading contributors to this latest phase of cultural revival.

Craig is strongly focused on Scottish literature and philosophy, with nods to art and drama. He engages primarily with the intellectual dimension of Scottish culture. In Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland (1986), another Aberdeen-based academic, William Donaldson, has drawn attention to the important part which newspapers, notably the Dundee-based People’s Journal and the Aberdeen Free Press, played in sustaining popular Scottish culture in the Nineteenth Century. In seeking explanations for the remarkable survival of Scotland as a cultural entity, the roles of the popular press, music hall, pantomime and folk and popular music would repay further examination, bringing figures like William D. Latto, Hamish Henderson, Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Logan, Rikki Fulton, June Imrie, Michael Marra, Elaine C. Smith, Sheena Wellington and Karine Polwart into the frame. A full exploration of the part played by popular media in cultural resilience would also require us to examine broadcasting and the problematic role of the BBC. There is clearly scope for a lot more work in this area.

In a final short chapter, Craig addresses the ambivalence of Scottish politicians towards Scottish culture. The Labour Party and the SNP have both pursued essentially neoliberal culture strategies, seeking to recruit artistic and literary creativity into the service of global capital and enterprise. Craig asserts the value of cultural capital on its own terms as the real basis of a nation’s wealth. In the independence referendum of 2014, it was neither the SNP’s technocratic 649-page white paper nor the worthy and stolid official Yes campaign which pushed support for independence from 30 to 45%, but the explosion of creativity from writers, artists and local activists. The SNP would be smart to learn lessons from that for any future independence campaign. As Craig concludes:

“Financial capital, as was shown in the case of the Royal Bank of Scotland, is no guarantee of sustained independence; cultural capital guarantees a country’s ability to resist dependence, even if, in Scotland’s case, it has not proved – as yet – able to deliver political independence. But without cultural independence a country ceases to exist…”

This review was published in Bella Caledonia on 12 January 2019.

Meanwhile in the House of Lords…


, , , , , , , , ,


The new constitutional structure

Scotland is to be confined in a tower under a provision of a Bill designed to save the Union being considered by the House of Lords.  A further provision will ensure regular haircuts.

The Bill is the initiative of the Constitutional Reform Group, a group of peers and commoner types led by Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 7th Marquess of Salisbury and including Lord Lisvane of Tunbridge Wells and Baron Hain of Robben Island. Warning that “the United Kingdom risks disintegration’ their Lordships assure us that “many who have held positions of power and responsibility in United Kingdom institutions” will fight its demise.  They propose a new constitutional structure which would ensure its continuation in perpetuity.

Emperor Ming

Menzies Campbell

A Liberal amendment to the Bill tabled by Emperor Ming of Pittenweem provides for Scotland to be sent to bed without supper until it learns the error of its ways.

Can Scotland’s Parliament be persuaded to champion Regional Agency?


, , , , , , , ,

Clyde Gateway

New housing in the Clyde Gateway – identified as a flagship area for urban renewal in the Glasgow and the Clyde Valley Structure Plan 2000

When the Scottish Parliament begins Stage 2 of the consideration of the Planning (Scotland) Bill in mid-September, one of the issues for debate will be the future of strategic planning.  The Scottish Government intends that the Bill should remove the statutory requirement to prepare strategic development plans for the four city regions of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee/Perth.  Green MSP Andy Wightman has tabled an amendment to the Bill which would have the effect of retaining that provision.

In its evidence to the Local Government and Communities Committee in March, Clydeplan, the strategic development planning authority for the Glasgow city region, made a robust and persuasive case that the statutory provision for strategic planning at the regional level should be retained.  It pointed out that strategic planning had been central to the regeneration of Glasgow and the Clyde Valley through periods of significant structural change over a period of 70 years.  Strategic development plans for the area had been an effective component of the planning system, guiding local plans and decision-making, demonstrating the value of joint working and the commitment of constituent local authorities and wider stakeholders over an extended timescale.

Clydeplan pointed out that in England a statutory duty to co-operate had not proved to be a sufficiently effective tool for addressing cross-boundary regional issues, while in 2015 the Planning (Wales) Act had introduced strategic development plans for Cardiff, Swansea and the A55 Corridor, based on the model which currently exists in Scotland.  To remove strategic development plans in Scotland would run counter to prevailing best practice in planning internationally, particularly in Europe, where there has been a move towards planning at the scale of integrated functional regions reflecting housing markets, travel-to-work and economic catchment areas as part of the drive to deliver sustainable development.

Like others who gave evidence to the Committee, Clydeplan expressed concern that the Scottish Government’s intention that the role of local authorities in strategic planning should be reduced to assisting with the preparation on the National Planning Framework would lead to an undesirable level of centralisation, undermining the collaborative partnerships which have been working successfully at the regional level up until now.

Clydeplan argued that rather than removing an important mechanism of regional agency, the Scottish Government should be enhancing and building upon existing strategic development plan processes and their established governance and joint-working structures in rolling out a regional partnership model across the country.

In its Stage 1 report on the Bill in May, the Local Government and Communities Committee noted significant concerns about the future of regional spatial planning, which it noted had “a long history in Scotland and has attracted interest and commendation from elsewhere.”  It concluded that it was not clear from the evidence heard that removing the current provisions for strategic development plans would lead to simplification, to streamlining, to cost savings or to more effective planning at a regional scale.  It recommended that the current statutory framework for regional planning should not be repealed unless a more robust mechanism is provided to that currently proposed in the Bill.

In its response to the Local Government and Communities Committee, the Scottish Government doubled down on its determination to remove the statutory underpinning of strategic planning at the regional scale.  Rather than setting out its case for centralising strategic planning at the national level, the Government fell back on the argument that what it proposes is in line with the recommendations of the independent review panel established in 2015, and reiterated its assertion that the change is required to simplify and streamline the system.  Little was offered in terms of the more robust mechanism the Committee was looking for.  The Government simply undertook to amend the Bill at Stage 2 to introduce a clearer duty for local authorities to work together in strategic planning, something which, as Clydeplan has already pointed out, has not worked particularly well in England.

Slamannan Plateau

 The Central Scotland Green Network and the Central Scotland Forest have their origins in the proposals for strategic environmental improvement and reforestation contained in the Clyde Valley Plan (1946) and the Regional Plan for Central and South-East Scotland (1948).

In an article published in Bella Caledonia in March 2017, I outlined the regional planning tradition established under the wartime administration of Tom Johnston and how it had evolved over the subsequent 70 years.  The Scottish Government states that it respects the long history of regional spatial planning in Scotland, but argues that the context has changed dramatically since regional plans emerged in the post-war period and even in the period since the 2006 Act.  It neither explains in what way the context has changed, nor why that change renders strategic development plans obsolete.

As recently as 2014, the Scottish Government accepted the findings of a review of the strategic development plan system by Kevin Murray Associates which concluded that “the system is still bedding in, it is not broken, nor is its potential yet fully optimised.”  It is not clear what has caused it to have such a dramatic change of mind.  A number of developers called for the abolition of strategic planning in their submissions to the independent review panel, but the sector was not unanimous on the matter and there was no broad groundswell of support for the change.

The case which the independent review panel made for the abolition of regional development plans was scant and far from persuasive.  It acknowledged that the city-region remains a critical scale for planning, but argued that the role of planners at the regional level should be confined to the co-ordination of development with infrastructure delivery in accordance with the strategy set out in the Scottish Government’s National Planning Framework.  No rationale was offered for the incorporation of regional strategy into a document with a national focus prepared under the direction of Scottish Ministers.  The centralisation and loss of regional agency involved were simply not addressed.

There is a suspicion that the Scottish Government’s desire to do away with strategic development plans stems from its preference for mediating its relationships with local authorities on development matters through City Region Deals, untrammelled by the discipline of strategy. The process of preparing strategic development plans is subject to statutory requirements in relation to public consultation, environmental assessment and examination.  The process of City Region deal-making is much less transparent and less open to scrutiny.  SNP politicians appear only recently to have become concerned about the opportunities it might afford for pork-barrelling.

A range of civic and professional organisations have expressed concern about the Scottish Government’s intention to remove the statutory requirement to prepare strategic development plans and the Government seems disinclined to provide the robust alternative which the Local Government and Communities Committee is looking for.  It is to be hoped that safeguarding the regional agency which has contributed so positively to Scotland’s development over the last 70 years is a cause which can command a majority in our Parliament.


This article was published in Bella Caledonia on 15 August 2018

Cool Scots and Banal Unionism


, , , , , ,

Margaret Macdonald

Artist and Designer, Margaret Macdonald (1864 – 1933), from Greg Moodie’s ‘Cool Scots’, Luath Press 2018

As another Edinburgh Festival season draws to an end (despite the best efforts of the City of Edinburgh Council’s Marketing Team and the Ross Development Trust), it is worth pausing to take stock of the place of Scottish culture within this gaudy jamboree. For those prepared to push through the serried ranks of stand-up comedians, resist the syrupy blandishments of Gyles Brandreth & Son and look beyond the tacky funfair attractions being offered by pop-up bar barons and public school hucksters, there were some real native gems to be found.

Edinburgh International Festival Director Fergus Linehan is of a different stripe to his predecessor.  The Light on the Shore programme has featured and celebrated the best of contemporary Scottish musical talent and helped to re-establish Leith Theatre as a live music venue.  The Le Vent du Nord and Julie Fowlis concert made a welcome link between Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and Edinburgh’s Festival.  In the first half, Fowlis was supported by a strong line-up of musicians, including Duncan Chisholm and Patsy Reid.  Her poise, vocal accomplishment, facility in several languages and easy rapport with the audience were really impressive.  In the second half, the Quebecois band, Le Vent du Nord, delivered a much more masculine performance.  Indeed, the testosterone levels on-stage were in danger of detracting from their considerable abilities as singers and musicians.  At times, it felt uncomfortably like being trapped in a lift with a team of lumberjacks.

Later in the week, Karine Polwart had an international audience in the palm of her hand with her Scottish Songbook concert.  Since her award-winning stage show and album, Wind Resistance, Polwart has been at the top of her game.  Ably supported by Inge Thomson, her brother Steven and Louis Abbot, she delivered a well-chosen set of Scottish pop favourites from the last fifty years.  Most were from the 1980s and ‘90s, the work of bands and artists such as Deacon Blue, Big Country, the Proclaimers, Gerry Rafferty, Jimmy Somerville and Annie Lennox.  The concert complemented the Rip it up exhibition currently running at the National Museum of Scotland.  At the concert and in an article she wrote for The Guardian, Polwart emphasised the significance of place and drew attention to the post-industrial sensibility of many of the songs originating in the Central Belt of her youth.  Readers who are unlikely to have balked at the concept of ‘Brit-Pop’ commented sniffily that pop music is international and knows no borders.

Meanwhile in Charlotte Square, Neal Ascherson opened the Edinburgh International Book Festival with a spell-binding account of wartime Greenock, the setting of his novel The Death of the Fronsac.  He stressed the cosmopolitanism of the time, with the streets suddenly filled with servicemen in the uniforms of many countries, and notably the Poles.  The subsequent discussion focused on the impact of the Poles on Scottish society.  A member of the audience behind me referred to meeting a man in Poland who had happy memories of the time he had spent in Galashiels.  My grandfather was a grocer in Galashiels.  He was an air raid Observer during the Second World War and regularly played cards with some of the Polish soldiers stationed in the town.  They called my aunt Muriel, who was a teenager at the time, “the gypsy” – and they were right!  Her grandmother (my great-grandmother) was one of the Yetholm gypsies.

Another tour-de-force at the Book Festival was art historian Roger Billcliffe’s perfectly judged and beautifully illustrated presentation on ‘The Four’ – Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald, Frances Macdonald and Herbert MacNair – artists at the centre of the Glasgow Style of the late 19th Century.  Although Billcliffe’s book is titled Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Art of the Four, he was keen to stress that Mackintosh should not be seen as the leader of the group.  MacNair was the first to exhibit and Frances Macdonald often took the initiative, with the others falling in behind.

The provocation by Professors Colin Kidd and Gerard Carruthers drawing on their book Literature and Union was an altogether more idiosyncratic affair.  The danger of the event taking on the character of a meeting of the Better Together Reading Group was acknowledged by Kidd himself.  The two professors are clearly uncomfortable with the fact that the dominant narrative in Scottish literary studies is a nationalist one.  Hugh MacDiarmid (dismissed as essentially a vanity publisher), Neil M. Gunn, Murray Pittock and that dangerous firebrand David Daiches are variously to blame, apparently. Carruthers and Kidd see themselves as bold revisionists out to recapture Scottish literature for the Union.  Kidd has coined the term ‘Banal Unionism’ to describe the “inarticulate acceptance of Union” and on that basis he is keen to claim James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as the great novel of the Union.  For Carruthers, the clinching argument demonstrating Scotland’s essential Britishness is that he used to enjoy watching British war films with his dad.  So did I!  But isn’t it remarkable how heavily British identity relies on referencing the Second World War these days?

Up at the Quaker Meeting House Gavin MacDougall had put together another excellent programme of discussions based on Luath Press’s current catalogue under the ScotlandsFest 2018 banner.  At the event entitled Capturing the Image, the painter Sandy Moffatt and satirical cartoonist Greg Moodie ranged over the revival of Scottish portraiture, the drinking habits of art college staff, graphic techniques, Muriel Spark as a sitter, the banned J.K. Rowling comic strip, the Milne’s Bar poets and the Dundee arts scene.  In this year’s Thomas Muir Memorial Lecture round at the Lighthouse bookshop on West Nicholson Street, Gerda Stevenson drew on Quines, her recent collection of poems celebrating the achievements of Scottish women.  Music composed for the event was provided by Ewen Maclean and Phil Alexander in partnership with acclaimed traditional singer Fiona Hunter, who also appeared with the Grit Orchestra at the Playhouse Theatre.  Back at the Book Festival, James Robertson, Sheena Wellington, Calum Colvin and Gordon Maclean celebrated the life of singer, songwriter and musician, Michael Marra.

The evidence from this Festival season is that Scotland’s cultural scene is as healthy as it has ever been, invigorated by the debate over our constitutional future, confident in the celebration of its diversity and fully engaged with social and political developments at home and abroad.  The prospect of Scotland slipping back into Banal Unionism seems remote.


A version of this article was published in Bella Caledonia on 27 August 2018.



Septimius Severus in Scotland


, , , ,

Septimius Severus in Scotland

Septimius Severus in Scotland: The Northern Campaigns of the First Hammer of the Scots, by Simon Elliott (2018), Greenhill Books, Barnsley

This book is chiefly of value for the improved account of the campaigns of Septimius Severus in Scotland which Simon Elliott is able to provide by drawing on recent archaeological evidence and his own knowledge of Roman warfare. However, he doesn’t get there until Chapter 7. The rest of the book is filled out with a description of the Roman military machine at the time of Septimius Severus, an account of the earlier life of the Emperor, and details of his aggrandisement of York as an Imperial Capital in advance of the campaigns.

The justification Elliott provides for the anachronistic use of the term ‘Scots’ in the title is half-hearted and unconvincing, leading to the suspicion that it may have been imposed on him by his publisher. In the text, he identifies the tribes which the Severan campaigns were intended to subdue as the Maeatae and the Caledonians.

Simon Elliott is of the ‘It’s Grim Up North’ school of British historians. Northern Britain is described as ‘that dimmest of Roman Border territories’ and ‘a Conradian heart of darkness’. It is even suggested that the blame for the failure of Rome to incorporate Northern Britain into the Empire can be laid at the door of the natives themselves, as they simply lacked ‘an elite sophisticated enough’ to buy into Rome’s imperial project.

Elliott argues, with some evidence, that the campaign of genocide which Septimius Severus sought to unleash in Scotland was sufficiently thorough to remove the threat of attack from the North for 80 years. However, one is left wondering how consistent that idea is with the fact that, following his death, the northern border of the Empire reverted to the line of Hadrian’s Wall. Adam Ardrey, in his book Finding Arthur (2013), suggests that Caracalla deliberately frustrated his ailing father’s genocidal intentions with the aim of concluding a speedy peace with the Maeatae and Caledonians on his death.

Retreat ti ‘The Hertland’?


, , , , ,

Bothy Nichts

On 26th March 2018, Bella Caledonia reported the launch of the North East Scots Language Board, a new organisation dedicated to promoting the Scots language.  The Board is based at the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen, but its executive includes representatives of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeenshire Council and a member of the media.  Its purpose is to champion the Scots spoken in the North-East of Scotland, but not, apparently, to the exclusion of the Scots spoken in other areas.

In the publicity surrounding the launch of the Board, the concept of a Scots ‘Hertland’ has been invoked, on the basis that the greatest concentration of Scots speakers are to be found between the River Tay and Moray Firth.  Bella’s Scots Editor, Alistair Heather, has highlighted similarities to the Gaeltacht in the West.  The comparison is revealing.  This should not be seen as an advance for the Scots language movement, but rather a retreat.  It is the last circling of the wagons around some notional defensible dialect ‘Hertland’ or ‘stronghold’.  However did we get to this sad place?

In December 1921, Christopher Murray Grieve wrote a letter to the Aberdeen Free Press in response to a lecture by Dr. J.M. Bulloch to the Vernacular Circle of the London Robert Burns Club entitled The Delight of the Doric in the Diminutive.  He dismissed it in the following suitably pithy terms:

Dr. Bulloch’s plea for Doric infantilism is not worthy of the critical consideration of nursery governesses.  A critic capable of referring to ‘Mr. John Mitchell’s delightful crack with his grandson’ is capable of anything – and nothing.  Most contemporary grandchildren would take steps to have us examined in lunacy if we afflicted them with such talks in Doric.

Grieve continued his scathing critique of the movement for a Doric revival in the columns of the Aberdeen Free Press and the Dunfermline Press during 1922.  Yet, in the first issue of his The Scottish Chapbook, published in October 1922, we find him introducing us to the work in Scots of the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid.  MacDiarmid is interesting, Grieve believes, because:

“He is, I think, the first Scottish writer to address himself to the question of the extendability (without physical violence) of the Vernacular to embrace the whole range of modern culture – or, in other words, tried to make up the leeway of the language.  It is an exceedingly difficult task and I envy him his enthusiasm.  What he has to do is to adapt an essentially rustic tongue to the very much more complex requirements of our urban civilisation – to give it all the almost illimitable suggestionability it lacks (compared to say English or French).”

Grieve’s initial scepticism about the potential for a revival of the dialects of Scots was based on their limitations as media for the full range of modern cultural expression.  He believed that if Scots was to have a future it needed to move beyond the humble and couthie virtues of the cottar’ fireside, to which he believed it had been confined by the Burns cult.  It was this belief which led him, in the persona of Hugh MacDiarmid, to embark on the creation of ‘Synthetic Scots’.

In 1951, in his essay A Short Introduction to Scottish Literature, Sydney Goodsir Smith wrote:

“When MacDiarmid spoke of ‘Synthetic Scots,’ he merely referred to another aspect of this necessary revolution; that we should forget the whole poverty-stricken ‘dialect’ tradition that Burns and his predecessors had unconsciously been responsible for, and use again all the rich resources of the language as Dunbar and the Makars had used it, as had Burns and Fergusson, Scott, Galt, Stevenson, and George Douglas Brown.  In fact to make a synthesis where for too long there had been “disintegration”.

In 1951, Goodsir Smith was able to reflect with satisfaction that while “in the early days there were only a few adherents to the cause.  Today there are a host of them.”  Sadly, in the decades since, the Scots language movement has regressed intellectually, and now seems intent on geographical retrenchment.  Balking at the creation a standard Scots orthography as being ower dreary a darg, it has, in recent years turned its back on MacDiarmid’s Modernist manifesto, retreating once again into nostalgia-driven dialectism.  Thus, in response to the article on the North-East Scots Language Board, Alistair Heather can write:

Stannart spellin.  This ane’s tricky.  Basically Scots screivers warkin the noo (masel includit) hae spend years pittin thegither an orthography that seems tae them best tae express their thochts in Scots. It can be idiosyncratic. Stannarts dae exist, sic as the fine ane  Gin ye want a stannart tae follae, follae that ane.  But dinnae expect ilka screiver tae ging oot an re-learn hou tae spell owrenicht.

There ye hae it!  Learnin hou ti spell is ower muckle a fash, tho oo expect it o oorsels wi English, French, German or Italian.  In Scotland it’s ti be each til their ain private Pitsligo.

Sae, tak awa Aiberdeen an twal mile roon, an faur are oo?  The Barnyards o Delgaty a wheen afore lowsin time in April 1922, A’m thinkin.  It’ll be a blythe day oo leave the ferm – at lang an last.


St. Cuthbert’s Way – Bordering on the Ridiculous


, , , ,

On Being Ardent

At my first guest house in Melrose, mein host breenged into the dining room while I was enjoying the full Scottish breakfast.  He apologised for not greeting me the night before, explaining that he and his wife had been at a wedding in Edinburgh which had turned out to be really awful.  I acknowledged that funerals were often more enjoyable.  The worst part, he continued, was finding himself seated next to an SNP supporter during the dinner.  “The thing about these SNP people is that they are so ardent.” he confided.

I couldn’t help glancing at the Union Jack cushions on his sofa.

Union Jack Cushions

Wainwright Ale

Wooler was sacked twice by the Scots in the 14th Century, but on this warm Tuesday afternoon in June it showed every sign of having recovered its drowsy composure.  Having just walked 17 miles from Kirk Yetholm over the foothills of the Cheviots, I felt in need of some refreshment.  I repaired to a pub on the High Street.

“The Wainwright Ale is very popular with walkers.” offered the teenage barmaid helpfully.

“It looks as if it’s off.” I observed skeptically.

“Aye.” she conceded.

“Will it be on again later?” I ventured.

“No.  We’ve run out.” she admitted.

“I’ll have a pint of Kronenberg.” I said glumly.

Wainright Ale


Fenham Hill Crossing

The final approach to Lindisfarne involves crossing the East Coast main line.  I picked up the phone at the crossing and said to the signalman: “There are three of us here at the St. Cuthbert’s Way crossing.  Is it safe for us to cross?”

“I need the name of the crossing.” said the signalman.  “Crivens!” I thought. “It’s the ONLY crossing, but I’ve no idea what it’s called.”  This was becoming a lot more difficult than I had anticipated.

“It’s where the St. Cuthbert’s Way crosses the line.” I said lamely.

“I need the name of the crossing.” repeated the signalman.  “It’s on the notice on the phone.”

Frantically scanning the small print, I spotted a place name and read it to the signalman. “No. That’s where I am.” he said in the tone of someone beginning to lose patience with a half-wit.

Reading on, I came upon the name ‘Fenham Hill’ and tried that.

“That’s it.” he said. “Do you see a train coming?”

Repeating the question to the Swedish couple with me, I was beginning to wonder whether we might have the advantage on him.  They craned their necks in both directions and then shook their heads.

“No.” I said.

“There should be a train coming from the south.” said the signalman, with what sounded like less than absolute conviction.

My companions became animated and started pointing southwards.

“Oh yes. Here it comes!” I conceded.

Fenham Hill

“You can cross once it’s passed.” said the signalman.

On the other side if the tracks, I picked up the phone to report that we had crossed safely. The signalman said that the warning tone he was hearing suggested that I had not returned the other phone to its cradle properly.  I was pretty sure that I had.

“OK.  Is it safe to go back?” I asked testily.

“Aye, go on.” was the laconic reply.

I scuttled hastily back over the tracks to find the other phone nestling comfortably on its cradle.  I gave it a grumpy shoogle to make sure and dashed back across the line.


Strategic Planning and the Importance of Regional Agency


, , , ,

For a small country, Scotland is regionally diverse, and it has a strong tradition of planning at the regional level dating back to the 1940s.  Under Tom Johnston, Scotland’s wartime administration initiated the preparation of three major regional plans covering the most populous parts of the country to guide post-war reconstruction. The regional planning tradition established at that time has persisted through successive reforms of local government under Governments of different political complexions, with a particularly strong strand of continuity in Glasgow and the Clyde Valley.  From the 1970s, and for a period of more than 30 years, the statutory vehicle for strategic planning at the regional level was the structure plan.  Since 2006 it has been the strategic development plan.


The first generation of regional plans

The Scottish Government’s consultation on the future of the planning system, Places, People and Planning proposes that strategic development plans should be removed from the system, with regional planning priorities henceforward set out in the National Planning Framework (NPF).  The current review of the planning system was initiated in 2015 by the then Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice and Communities, Alex Neil.  The initial questions posed by the review reflected the familiar neoliberal narrative of creative and dynamic private enterprise held back by the bureaucracy and inefficiency of the public sector and suspicion remains that it was initially driven by a desire to ease the regulatory burden on volume housebuilders.

The abolition of regional development plans is something a number of major housebuilders have called for, perhaps in the belief that they will get a more
sympathetic ear from Ministers than from local politicians.  There is little evidence from the submissions made to the independent Review Panel that their removal has wider support and no very clear rationale has been offered for it.  The argument deployed by the independent Review Panel points to the need to strengthen delivery mechanisms, not remove regional development plans.

The reason the Scottish Government gives for proposing the removal of strategic development plans is that the effort put into the procedures for preparing them leaves little time to work actively on delivering them.  If that is the concern, then a more obvious solution would be to adopt the approach proposed for local development plans and review them every 10 instead of 5 years.  The main reason that strategic development plans have tended to lose momentum in recent years is that the regional strategies which had been worked out on their first or second iteration remained substantially valid, but the planners who created them have found themselves locked into a statutory process of review when their time would have been better spent on delivery.

The Government’s consultation paper recognises the importance of co-ordinating development and infrastructure at the regional level and proposes that planners should continue to work together at the regional scale to help shape spatial priorities and develop strategies and delivery programmes.  However, it is unsatisfactorily vague about how strategic priorities are to be determined at regional level and how spatial strategies for the regions are to be prepared and agreed.  The consultation paper refers to strategic planners “helping to shape” regional spatial priorities (para. 1.11) and local authorities “helping to develop” regional strategies (para.1.13).  The use of the word “helping” seems to hint that regional priorities and the content of regional strategies might ultimately be decided elsewhere, particularly as they are to be articulated in the National Planning Framework.  Is the Government hinting that regional priorities and strategies are ultimately to be determined by Ministers at national level, with the role of regional planners being no more than delivering on the strategies set out in the NPF?

It needs to be acknowledged that the one-size-fits-all approach of the city region model of strategic planning ushered in by the 2006 Act failed to reflect Scotland’s geographical diversity.  Not all of Scotland’s diverse regions are focused on cities.  The consultation paper’s proposals for partnerships which reflect regional geographies could offer opportunities for Ayrshire, the Highlands and Islands and the South of Scotland in particular.  The opportunity to rationalise boundaries for spatial, transport and land use planning should certainly be taken.  However, if this is not to be another exercise in centralisation, the Government needs to think more carefully about how policy-making capacity and agency are to be retained and strengthened at the regional level.

The National Planning Framework has been a valuable innovation, setting out a long-term vision and identifying developments of national importance.  However, we should be wary of the assumption that we will make it more effective by loading more and more onto it.  There is a danger that charging it with responsibility for setting not just national but also regional priorities could have rather the opposite effect, making the NPF unwieldy and top-heavy, and at risk of collapsing under its own weight.  The fate of the regional tier of government in England should be instructive.  Its association with what was seen as a remote and bureaucratic approach to strategic housing land allocation played an important part in its demise.  A top-heavy and over-bearing NPF would quickly fall out of favour.

Scotland has an important regional dimension which needs to be reflected properly in our planning system and strategic housing land allocation is one of the key functions which needs to be discharged at regional level. Central government lacks the knowledge and capacity to undertake that task successfully and the political tensions which would be created by pursuing that course could seriously undermine delivery.  Disowning the implications strategic decisions on housing taken centrally would prove an attractive way for politicians to gain local popularity.


Tayplan 2011

Instead of centralising strategic capacity at national level, we should be celebrating Scotland’s regional diversity and ensuring that our regions have the agency to play to their strengths.  That the Scottish Government recognises the sense of that is at least implied by the policy initiatives it is pursuing in relation to greater autonomy the island authorities and a new enterprise and skills agency for the South of Scotland.  It needs to apply the same thinking to the reform of the planning system.  In the more populous parts of the country, we need to nurture the role of our cities as the economic and cultural capitals of their respective regions.  We need to make closer links between strategic planning and cities policy, with strategic development plans accorded a key role in the delivery of city deals.  We should be very wary of turning our backs on a tradition of regional agency in strategic planning which has served Scotland well for over seventy years.


A version of this article was published in Bella Caledonia on 19 March 2017.