The Polar Twins

The Polar Twins

The Polar Twins

The Polar Twins


In Scottish Literature - character and influence, critic Gregory Smith distinguished the contrasting grip of fact of history and the airier pleasure of literature. These essays show how the two strands separated over the years while remaining interpreters of the past and of human experience.


Edward J. Cowan and Douglas Gifford

When Gregory Smith wrote his pioneering Scottish Literature: Character and Influence (1919), he distinguished ‘two moods’ inherent in the Scottish character and psyche, coining the term ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’ (later taken up by Hugh MacDiarmid and thenceforward grossly overused) to denote what he saw as a fundamental Scottish dualism. On the one hand was a predilection for emphasising ‘actuality’, ‘grip of fact’, ‘sense of detail’ and ‘realism’; on the other, ‘the airier pleasure to be found in the confusion of the senses, in the fun of things thrown topsy-turvy, in the horns of elfland … ‘. Smith did not restrict his observations to creative writing, but implied that these antithetical characteristics informed all of Scottish culture and were to be discerned throughout Scottish history as well as in present everyday life.

There is more in the Scottish antithesis of the real and the fantastic than is to
be explained by the familiar rules of rhetoric. the sudden jostling of contraries
seems to preclude any relationship by literary suggestion. the one invades the
other without warning. They are the ‘polar twins’ of the Scottish Muse.

The essays here adapt Smith’s idea of ‘the polar twins’ to explore the uneasy relationship between Scottish history and Scottish literature throughout the centuries.

At birth the twins were indistinguishable; our earliest historical sources were literary, while the first Scottish poem was historical in content. Tacitus’s Life of Agricola, in Latin, which was written about 98 A. D., described the Roman campaigns in North Britain culminating in the great defeat of the Caledonians at the battle of Mons Graupius. the native leader, Calgacus, famously but fictitiously pronounced that the invaders created a desert and they called it peace. Some five hundred years later a poet named Aneirin composed The Gododdin, in Welsh, to celebrate another glorious defeat, this time at Catraeth where the Men of the North were slaughtered by the . . .

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