Arcades – The Turning of the
Few periods of Scottish literature are less well understood than the fifty years between the 1870s and the 1920s. They are regularly presented as the terminus of a long decline of Scottish culture from the significance of the Enlightenment and the achievements of Burns and Scott, or, alternatively, as the pale foreshadowing, in Patrick Geddes’s ‘Scottish Renascence’ of the 1890s and in the Scots poetry of Charles Murray and Violet Jacob, of Hugh MacDiarmid’s 1920s ‘Scottish Renaissance’. They are also recalled as blighted by the early deaths of major writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson (fortyfour in 1894), or potentially significant writers such as George Douglas Brown (thirty-three in 1902) or John MacDougall Hay (thirty-nine in 1919), and by the World War One death of promising writers like Charles Hamilton Sorley (twenty in 1915). Those who were then regarded as the most prominent Scottish writers, like J. M. Barrie, have become so associated with ‘Kailyard’ literature – ‘characterised by the sentimental and nostalgic treatment of parochial Scottish scenes, often centred on the church community’1 – that they are rarely given serious attention. Indeed, in so far as the period has acquired critical focus it is through the confrontation of Kailyard and antiKailyard presentations of Scottish small-town life, the former represented by Barrie’s Auld Licht Idylls (1888), the latter by George Douglas Brown’s House with the Green Shutters (1901). Even the efforts to recuperate women writers, which have enhanced other periods of Scottish writing, have not raised the Findlater sisters from critical neglect, despite Virago’s 1986 republication of Crossriggs (1908). This period is trapped between the decline of native Scottish traditions – the erosion of that ‘democratic intellectualism’ George Davie described as ending in the 1870s – and the dominance of a British imperial ethos in which Scottish culture had only a ceremonial significance.
Yet in this period the infrastructure of Scottish culture was transformed by resurgent cultural nationalism: the Scottish Text Society was founded in 1882 to ‘publish in each year about 400 pages of printed matter […] illustrative of Scottish Language and Literature before the Union’;2 the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1885; the Scottish History Society