Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature

By Ian Brown; Alan Riach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Arcades The 1920s and 1930s

Alan Riach

In the twenty-one years between the First and Second World Wars people in Europe endured either conditions of recovery from war or those leading to a new one, including the Great Depression. These decades saw major developments within that crisis-ridden period that influenced Scottish literature for the rest of the century. Writers, artists, intellectuals returning from the ‘Great War’ to a small nation whose contribution to the British imperial effort had been evidently disproportionate to its population’s size, questioned the cost. Memorials in countless villages and towns throughout the country, to soldiers who fell in that war, are perhaps not memorials to the sacrifice made in the fighting, but rather to those men’s loss from the villages and towns to which they belonged. They assert Scottish identity as much as equivalent memorials in Ireland to men who fell in the struggle against British imperialism. The prevalence of kilts, Celtic crosses and cairns are icons of Scottishness complemented by Sir Robert Lorimer’s extraordinary Scottish National War Memorial (1927) in Edinburgh Castle, itself one of Scottish history’s loci classici. At the end of Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901–35) has Robert Colquhoun say these words: ‘They died for a world that is past, these men, but they did not die for this that we seem to inherit.’ The lives and values of the men we come to know so well and deeply in that novel remain a hard-edged question for future generations. Hugh MacDiarmid’s (1892–1978) first appearance as a by-name was not as poet but as author of a dialogue, ‘Nisbet: An Interlude in Post-War Glasgow’, where the character of Nisbet commemorates one of Grieve’s best friends, killed in the war.

Andrew Crozier’s great painting, Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags (1927), presents a capital city of tenements, prehistoric geology, soaring cliffs and the ancient castle. There are few figures but a populated cityscape: people live here. As the eye runs up and around the canvas to where the castle seems almost to be turning to look back at you, the question it asks is central to the modern movement and reminiscent of Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907): like Picasso’s prostitutes in their African masks, the castle looks

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