Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature

By Ian Brown; Alan Riach | Go to book overview
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The Modern Scottish Literary Renaissance

Roderick Watson

This chapter analyses selected aspects of the modern Scottish literary renaissance in the foundational ‘first generation’ years between 1920 and 1945, looking most especially at key texts that deal with the nature of identity from Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978), Nan Shepherd (1893–1981), Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901–35) and Neil Gunn (1891–1973). The renaissance agenda made much of looking outwards, but arguably the versions of identity offered in these works go so far ‘outwards’ as to leave ‘Scottishness’ behind, and to problematise the conception of identity itself.

This is not to say these authors initiated the outward perspective nor even the Scottish revival of cultural confidence. Its stirrings can be traced back at least as far as Patrick Geddes’s (1854–1932) ‘Celtic renascence, now incipient alike in Literature and Art’ which he announced in 1895 as the best way towards ‘the revival and development of the old Continental sympathies of Scotland’1a line MacDiarmid was later quick to adopt. Nor should we forget the paintings and designs of Charles Rennie Macintosh and Margaret and Frances Macdonald in Glasgow, which had wider links to the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, the Jugendstil of Belgian Victor Horta and the Catalan Modernisme of Antoni Gaudi. In short, a certain ‘renaissance’ was in the air by 1900, its ‘modern’, outward looking and theorised elements already established by visual artists. In these circles, the organicism of ‘Celtic’ art in Scotland was losing its twilight associations, mixing genres and incorporating elements from numerous centres of culture to be re-appraised in what amounted to internationally proto-Modernist terms. The same impulse had the Scottish Colourists looking to French PostImpressionism. J. D. Fergusson (1874–1961) in particular theorised a link between the Fauves’ vividness, Bergsonian movement and his understanding of ‘rhythm’ in art (which he later associated with a Celtic sensibility). This led to his becoming art editor for the avant-garde journal Rhythm in London in 1911. Fergusson associated what he took to be the characteristically dynamic graphic line of Celtic art with the most modern in the Rhythm group’s agenda:


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