Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century Scottish Literature

By Ian Brown; Alan Riach | Go to book overview

Introduction

Ian Brown and Alan Riach

‘Renaissance’ may not be the key word in Scottish culture from the nineteenth until the twenty-first centuries, but it surely recurs. From Patrick Geddes’s heralding a ‘Renascence’ in the 1890s, through the Scottish Literary Renaissance, however defined, in the 1920s, with Hugh MacDiarmid at its centre, through the late twentieth-century cliché of the Scottish theatrical renaissance, the concept of a Scotland, or rather many Scotlands, rediscovering, reshaping, redefining and remaking itself, and themselves, is a constant refrain. And at the end of the century, through democratic referendum, the nation was in another sense reborn, remaking a parliament.

Literature is an essential way in which people in communities convey to themselves and others their concerns and imaginings. In twentieth-century Scotland, perhaps its greatest achievement was to convey a diversity of different Scottish identities to each other. Scotland, in literature, can only be defined as a multi-faceted, complex identity, with many unfrequented areas and unexplored riches. It is described in this way in contrast to a linear, monolithic literature with imperial weight and the trajectory of a colonial empire, unified by a single language. When, in the early 1920s, MacDiarmid suggested that the Scottish literary movement might begin where the Irish movement had left off, he was recognising not only a spirit of artistic and literary awakening in a kindred nation but also a political dynamic setting itself against British imperialism and attempting to redefine its own variety without dependence on the imperial ideal. Only by recognising the diversity of silenced voices within that single identity might Ireland redefine her own potential. Similarly, if the nineteenth-century British empire, which in many ways as recent historians have observed was also a Scottish empire, had conferred the status of exaggerated Scottishness on the iconic images still globally recognised – tartan, kilt, bagpipes, whisky – it had simultaneously silenced the other voices – Gaelic voices, women, the brutalising ethos of industrial exploitation, the historical richness of Scotland’s cultural production over centuries. It would be wrong, nonetheless, to sentimentalise this silencing as a simple victimisation of pristine innocence: some of

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