Literature and World War One
World War One changed Scotland in many profound ways. In May 1914 a Home Rule Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons, mainly as a result of the promptings of the Scottish Home Rule Association and the Young Scots Society, a radical-minded grouping within the ruling Liberal Party who were in favour of free trade, social reform and what they called ‘the unquenchable and indefinable spirit of nationalism’.1 The outbreak of war three months later meant that the Bill was never enacted and the devolution debate would not be reopened until towards the end of the century. But there were other significant changes. War boosted the country’s heavy industries, especially in the west. It encouraged women’s employment: by 1918, 31,500 female workers were employed by Scotland’s munitions industries. In the war’s early months the proportion of men aged eighteen to forty-one enlisting voluntarily was higher than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. To expand Britain’s small Regular Army Lord Kitchener, Secretary for War, called for the creation of a huge ‘New Army’ of volunteers; the response in Scotland, as elsewhere, was enthusiastic.
Despite initial doubts, the volunteer principle worked: by the end of 1915, the British total was 2,466,719 men, more than that achieved after the introduction of conscription in May 1916 and just under half the wartime total of 5.7 million men serving in the army during the war. Of this, 320,589 (13 per cent) were Scots. By the war’s end, the number of Scots in the armed forces was 688,416: 71,707 in the Royal Navy, 584,098 in the Army (Regular, New and Territorial) and 32,611 in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force. Culture too was affected: although it would take time for the effects to be felt, literature in Scotland was transformed by experience of World War One.
At the outbreak of hostilities Scottish literature was largely in the doldrums. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94), Scotland’s greatest writer of the late nineteenth century, was dead, and much poetry being published was either sentimental, historical verse or Celtic Twilight’s mystical vapours. Fiction was generally stuck in the Kailyard, the catch-all phrase used by