Bad Shepherd

Robert Crawford

  • The Collected Works of James Hogg. Vol. VIII: The ‘Spy’ edited by Gillian Hughes
    Edinburgh, 641 pp, £60.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 07 486136 0

For those brought up to associate Scottishness with silence, exile and cunning, much Scots verse sounds megaphonically noisy. ‘You’ve a good Scots tongue in your heid,’ generations of mothers have told their children, preparing them to meet royalty, headmasters, Sloane Rangers or public transport officials. This lore of speaking out is evident in the poetry of thieving, upstart medieval bagpipers (as ventriloquised by Lowland poets) or, even further back, of the saintly immigrant, Columba, bringing the celestial house down with his apocalyptic organ-blasts of aureate Latin. The percussive, masculinist Scottish muse lets rip through the rat-a-tat of Blind Hary’s Wallace; and in the brassy Reformation of John Knox it blares even in the sophisticated George Buchanan’s over-the-top ‘Elegy for Jean Calvin’. The volume remains high in some of Robert Fergusson’s sophistic-performative street-talk, Burns’s on-off, rip-roaring ‘Tam o’Shanter’, MacDiarmid’s last trump blawing ‘tootle-ootle-oo’, Edwin Morgan’s Loch Ness Monstering ‘Splgraw fok fok splgrafhatchgabrlgabrl fok splfok!’ and Kathleen Jamie’s equally exclamatory concluding line ‘THE QUEEN OF SHEBA!’ The orality of Scottish poetry is of the battlefield and pulpit. It does contain subtleties, even in the brass section, but it’s seldom averse to a yell.

James Hogg could sound polished when he felt like it, but he was thought noisy by the aspiring Edinburgh gentry. They were eager for lessons in belletristic politeness, and knew he could be vulgar and uncouth. He knew they knew it, too. Hogg was a sharp-eared, coorse-tongued spy in their midst. Mud and shite from his Borders sheep-pastures fucked up the carpets of their New Town drawing-rooms. Hogg was homely, but in Edinburgh he didn’t seem at home. That experience, digested and at times compellingly raw, is evident throughout the journal he edited, the Spy, which forms the eighth volume of the research edition of Hogg’s works, produced under the general editorship of Douglas Mack. When complete, Mack’s edition will contain more volumes than the Waverley Novels. Hogg, so vitally displaced, yet so easily able to articulate his native terrain, is finding his true home at last. Even the provenance of this great edition, slashed between Stirling and South Carolina, seems to catch the fruitful, sometimes paradoxical mobility of his position. One of the most memorable passages in the Spy is about a foreign visitor who keeps finding that the citizens of Edinburgh are ‘not at home’.

Home is an endless topic of Scottish writing. The country has its great exiles, wandering Scots such as Stevenson or Spark, but where Shakespeare takes us from Caliban’s tropics to Verona, Burns’s internationalism makes all the world an Ayrshire. ‘Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,/Who never to himself hath said,/This is my own, my native land!’ Scott presented this as an exclamation, not a question. Scotland is Scotland’s greatest theme. Some of Hogg’s poems in the Spy, as Scottish poems like to do, trumpet a rather self-satisfied nationalism. Scottish writers are too fond of gazing at the thistle.

Over the last few centuries, canny Scottish writers have liked to hustle, often embarrassingly. Boswell was self-consciously, sycophantically pushy. How he would have loved the world of London PR. Scott, Stevenson and Barrie, all of whom lived at times when Scottishness was a marketable commodity, had a vital sense of how to exploit and develop international readerships. MacDiarmid was less immediately successful although he was equally keen to manipulate taste. He even set up a book club to promote his own publications. Irvine Welsh, Scotland’s highest profile recent literary exporter, is a master of the trumpet-blast, and scathingly obsessed with the topic of home. He also writes at times like a canny man with an MBA.

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