The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature

By Berthold Schoene | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Voyages of Intent: Literature and
Cultural Politics in Post-devolution
Scotland

Gavin Wallace

An impartial observer of post-devolution Scotland might be forgiven for concluding that the position of the nation’s literature within the new political establishment is both a prominent and secure one, and that its relationship with the new ‘body politic’ is close. The fundamental contribution Scottish literature has made to national identity was conspicuously celebrated in the Opening Ceremony of the Scottish Parliament on 1 July 1999. The poetry of Robert Burns (1759–96), together with that of Amy Linekar, a young schoolgirl, and Iain Crichton Smith’s ‘The Beginning of a New Song’ (‘Let our three-voiced country / Sing in a new world’ [Gifford and Riach 2004: 245]) featured prominently in the ceremony. The new MSPs peppered their pronouncements with quotations from Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), Sir David Lindsay (c.1490-c.1555) and Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978). Five years later, the long-awaited new Parliament building boasted an exterior inscribed with Scottish aphorisms, past and present, and its propinquity to Malcolm Fraser’s visionary new Scottish Poetry Library building in the Canongate made the country’s legislators – acknowledged and unacknowledged – symbolic neighbours. The centrepiece of a second ceremony in October 2004 to mark the Parliament’s official opening was ‘Open the Doors’, a new poem by Scotland’s greatest living poet, Edwin Morgan, recited by Liz Lochhead. Morgan himself had been appointed the first ‘Scots Makar’ or ‘Poet for Scotland’ – Scotland’s equivalent of the Poet Laureate – by the Scottish Executive in February 2004. In November 2005, the inaugural artist-in-residence at the new Parliament building was James Robertson, one of Scotland’s most successful contemporary writers, and it is from his Voyage of Intent (2005), a series of sonnets and essays he composed out of his experience, that the title of this chapter is taken.

To deduce, however, that a sequence of symbolic gestures is firm evidence of a rapprochement between the country’s literary and political communities would be seriously mistaken. Scotland’s distinguished literary tradition of vociferous dissent and opposition, radicalism, and scourging of the political establishment is as vibrant and sharp as it was in Burns’s time. This was made manifest in the irreverent notes of warning that underlined Morgan’s ‘celebratory’ Parliament-opening poem:

WHAT DO THE PEOPLE WANT of the place?

They want it to be filled with thinking people
as open and adventurous as its architecture.

-17-

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