- A Search for Scotland by R.F. Mackenzie
Collins, 280 pp, £16.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 00 215185 5
- A Claim of Right for Scotland edited by Owen Dudley Edwards
Polygon, 202 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 7486 6022 4
- The Eclipse of Scottish Culture by Craig Beveridge and Ronald Turnbull
Polygon, 121 pp, £6.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 7486 6000 3
- The Bird Path: Collected Longer Poems by Kenneth White
Mainstream, 239 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 1 85158 245 2
- Travels in the Drifting Dawn by Kenneth White
Mainstream, 160 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 1 85158 240 1
Scottish nationhood never quite dies but hibernates, latent in all those millions of people and thousands of texts, ready to be potentiated by various events, some more accountable or predictable than others: the Union of the Parliaments (1707), the Scottish Renaissance embodied in MacDiarmid and Grassic Gibbon (1922-35), the flow of oil and gas from the bed of the North Sea (1977-?). It may be that our nationalism is on a par with feminism as Dale Spender sees it: for ever having to be painfully rediscovered, rather than evolving continuously from strength to strength, without relapses between those peaks where consciousness, at least, is high. By ‘nationhood’ I mean independent political status, grounded in a place, a history, a language and a consciousness, and recognised and negotiated with as such by other independent states. By ‘nationalism’ I mean the consciousness only, which may or may not reflect the likelihoods latent in the status quo – may or may not flow into a fervent political movement and reach its goal of separation.
At present most of us probably sense some peaking of nationalist activity, as the Communist empires shake – Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are allowed at least to talk about separation from the USSR; as the Slovenes and the Croats fling themselves against the creaking, if not tottering, state machine in Yugoslavia with its Serb majority (weirdly, a Croat nationalist has recently been murdered by a Yugoslav secret agent in Scotland); as Tibetans are shot down by Chinese soldiers yet again; as racial or religious groups achieve governmental control inside the territory of dominant powers (the Karens in Burma, the Eritreans in Ethiopia) while other peoples fight more or less desperately for some form of nationhood – the Kurds against three cruel governments at once (Iran, Iraq, and Turkey), the West Saharans struggling against Morocco for the nationhood of Polisario, the Basques for Euzkadi against Spain, the people of western New Guinea for West Irian against Indonesia ... Now that the UN has become a settled trade union of nation states, it clearly feels committed to present boundaries and intolerant of separatist changes. But the peoples of the world are too motley, their history too vivid, and human beings too inclined to see their utopias in homelands, for the national tendency ever (foreseeably) to die down.
In Britain Thatcher tries to curry favour with voters by Little Englander sniping at European union – which nevertheless moves nearer and nearer in basic economic arrangements. In other countries nationalism is more likely to erupt in terrible extremes of desperation and damage as car bombs destroy the remnants of Lebanon, or Kurds and West Irianians are forcibly settled or resettled by governments bristling with European weaponry. Yet there are likenesses between the pacific and the warlike ends of this spectrum. The chauvinists who rule the Indonesian archipelago from Jakarta, and are trying to wipe out the culture of West Irian by settling it with Javanese, justify themselves on the ground that the West Irianians are ‘nomads’, ‘forest people’, and as such ripe for a drastic drench of civilisation. How like the language of those English and Lowland Scots, after Culloden in 1746, who advocated the transporting of whole clans to the American colonies on the ground that the Gaelic-speaking Catholic Highlanders were ‘wild-men’, ‘mountain savages’, ‘vermin’, ‘enemies to all civil society’, ‘a fury let loose from Hell upon us to disturb these kingdoms’. That is no longer an issue (though I recently heard a red-faced Englishman in a Cumbrian pub arguing that nuclear power-stations ‘should all be put in the Hebrides where there’s nobody to blow up’). But Scottish nationalism, and perhaps even nationhood is now active again, aware of the new offshore resources, less sapped by the chronic bleeding of emigration (the nett annual loss of 44,000 people has been halved), and now boosted by a national version of the Northern protest vote against Conservatism.
In such conditions, each new piece of work ‘from Scotland’ – travel book, manifesto, critique or poem – looks a little different because the ‘Scotland’ it is ‘from’ is that much less of a nostalgic heimat, that much more of an independent society. So R.F. Mackenzie, veteran champion and practitioner of libertarian schooling, travels Scotland towards the end of his life, gauging morale and wondering what system could help young folk to flourish. Kenneth White, a Glaswegian based in Brittany and professor at the Sorbonne, is for ever wondering, as he walks the beaches of Western Europe, which place is home for him. Beveridge and Turnbull, young academics (I presume), undertake what they call a ‘political project’, the challenging of the inferiority complex that blights the Scots’ self-image. And the many collaborators on A Claim of Right for Scotland debate the case for last year’s document of that name: it is reproduced in full and seems to me much the most reasonable and impressive manifesto for Scottish nationhood in my lifetime.
I put Mackenzie’s Search for Scotland first because his sensitive and practical humanity is what would have to count if an independent Scotland were to be worth living in. In this posthumous book his energy is faltering, his observation sometimes rather automatic, as though the effort to create a little space for his innocent and wholesome ideals, mustered so often, against so much hidebound resistance, has sapped him at last. I first heard of him in my own part of the homeland, Aberdeen, where he was head of a comprehensive school called Summerhill – by a happy chance, since Mackenzie believed in the approach of A.S. Neill. The outcome was less than happy. He tried to abolish the strap. Parents rose up in arms at ‘classroom chaos’ and ‘lack of educational progress’. A great many pupils demonstrated in his favour. An enquiry was held: Mackenzie was suspended, and retired before his time. My teacher relatives in Aberdeen used to speak of him obliquely, with crumpled brows, in lowered voices, allowing that he had ‘meant well’, upset because he had ‘gone too far’. He had come to his belief in free and practical schooling – as he tells us in three earlier books digested into State School (1970) – while he was teaching before the war at the Forest School in Hampshire, an endearing place run by the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry. The pupils’ readiness to move up a class was tested by their ability to swim the Avon fully clothed, write a critique of an Arthur Ransome book, climb the Tracker Tree, or spend a night alone in the woods and write about the experience. Classes were voluntary: a young radio buff who had chosen not to learn arithmetic finally begged the music master to teach him long division so that he could work out the relationships between current and resistance. But when Mackenzie carried over these ways to ordinary schools, first at Buckhaven in Fife and then at Aberdeen, parents (some parents) would worry and resist. Pupils studied the Carboniferous forest in whose remnants, the coal measures ‘under the school and under the Forth’, their fathers mined, then decorated the art rooms and the hall with pictures of swarming prehistoric life. A mother came to complain that her son had ‘done no work’ for a fortnight, he had been ‘taking encyclopedias home and reading them to all hours’ instead of doing ‘the kind of work that will help him to be transferred from here to the High School!’
Defeated at last in Aberdeen, but not rancorous, Mackenzie in A Search for Scotland stravaigs the country, scrutinising its regions (and his own methods) for their fitness in helping us to live more fully. His perceptions usually stem directly from his ideas. Dingwall is a ‘circumspect town of over five thousand inhabitants and low, prosperous buildings. The shapely curve of the academy on a site that would have graced a Greek temple suggests that it has the same subliminary foundation, to discourage people from asking unseemly questions.’ This is only a short cast from his radical view of education in State School: ‘Its purpose has been so to indoctrinate the majority that they would give as little trouble as possible to the minority in power.’ This strikes me as true but simple. Of course the best of such a man is not in his conceptualisings but in his records of good things done, his observations of life in action, the hoof-prints of deer in black mud ‘shrunk by drought into crazy paving’ or the quivering of an aspen leaf which ‘makes a curved mark on its neighbour leaf’ – to say nothing of the self-critical honesty which has him worrying in case all this noting of particulars has been pointless, until he concludes that travelling your own land is crucial because it gives random facts a local habitation: ‘A very vague conception like “Scotland” begins to gather definition and take shape ... And once they have got hold of the idea, the travellers begin to feel competent to take a hand in the further shaping of their country.’
Given this project, it is saddening in the end that Mackenzie’s best writing is in the section called ‘Grampian’, which is about his past. Here the terse humour, the work and the home life of Buchan fisherfolk and railwaymen are beautifully detailed, and by no means all smoothed by the amber varnish of an affectionately-remembered seedtime. The root of his radicalism is incarnate in the station clerk who shared a shack with a shunter which they called ‘Utopia’. He read Shaw, Wells and Russell, and stopped saluting the laird (but not the doctor, the minister or the teacher) because he ‘contributed nothing to the community’ and wasn’t very intelligent: ‘There’s naething in him except what he puts in with a spoon.’
By contrast, the other sections are cursory. ‘Glasgow and Galloway’ assigns four hundred words to the whole of Galloway. Reading the bare assertion that it has ‘a character and identity of its own’, I regretted the more what Mackenzie in his prime might have made of the kind of thing I saw in a recent trip. Where ravaged Ayrshire gives way to comely Galloway, we saw a town below some foothills, blotted with dumps and pit bings and shoddy housing estates. The road sign said ‘Dalmellington’. Even from the bypass it was visibly blighted and stagnant. Over the border into Galloway, a publican told us what was wrong. The mines have closed. Open-cast has been contracted to a company from Tyneside, who bus in Geordies every week to dig out the surface coal. The men of Dalmellington have no work. For many of them their idea of a good time is a weekend raising hell over in Belfast, and recruiters for the Ulster Volunteers are active in the pubs.
No doubt dereliction in Scotland feels much like its English counterpart, although the figures show that Scots use the opiates of drink and religion much more heavily to put heart into the heartless situation, and the situation itself is more heartless: it would take nearly 50p per person to raise welfare provision even to the level of England and Wales. But Scotland’s almost unanimous turn away from the present government shows how nationhood moves people to look near home for political remedies. Since 1979, 95 per cent of all jobs lost to the British people have been north of a line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash (including a quarter of a million jobs in Scottish factories, construction and agriculture). ‘The North’ has been the sufferer from the Conservative ‘boom’, but whereas most voters in ‘the North’ have little to turn to beyond the now hesitant Labour movement, in Scotland there are national channels of opposition: the 1979 referendum on a Scottish assembly (a working but not an absolute majority favoured the proposal but it foundered on a 40 per cent requirement backed by Labour); the Scottish National Party (four seats, about one-fifth of voters); and an anti-Government surge so strong that the lack of Conservative MP’s (ten out of 64) has now led to the suspension of the Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs because the minimum number of Government Members can no longer be got. As it says in the measured and unanswerable wording of A Claim of Right (clause 4.6): ‘In the last election, political parties expressing the intention of creating a Scottish Assembly won 57 per cent of the United Kingdom votes cast and 76 per cent of the Scottish votes cast. In spite of which there is currently a prime minister dedicated to preventing the creation of a Scottish assembly and equipped, within the terms of the English constitution, with overwhelming powers to frustrate opposition to her aims.’
A fair inference from acknowledgements and citations would seem to be that the central mind and wellspring of so much unerring phrasing was Jim Ross, former Under-Secretary in charge of Devolution at the Scottish Office from 1975 to 1979. The document as printed here (and the 15 supporting essays) are audibly the voice of a movement, inaugurated and given its polemic shove into the main current of politics by The Red Paper on Scotland in 1975. That dynamic miscellany had on its front cover the upraised arms of workers at the Upper Clyde Shipyard, occupying it against shutdown, and on the back the flat caps of Leith dockers in 1913, striking for a living wage. It brought together solid and passionate studies of economy, politics and culture by social historians as intelligent as John McEwen, John Foster and Ian Carter, writers as good as John McGrath and Tom Nairn, politicians as energetic as Robin Cook and Jim Sillars. To write for it felt like good militant fun (I contributed the piece on ‘The Radical Literary Tradition’) – a fling at the Establishment which Gordon Brown, as a student at Edinburgh, had defied in the most practical way by getting elected as University Rector, then setting up the Special Publications Board which published the Red Paper and has recently evolved into the pioneering publisher Polygon. But we can now see how all that ferment was more than fun as Gordon Brown and Robin Cook move to the forefront of the Shadow Cabinet, Jim Sillars defeats a muscle-bound Labour Party in the Govan by-election, and the Claim of Right makes a case for phased devolution which will be hard for the parties to shake off. Nationalists, however, are as skilled as any at shooting themselves in the foot, or even more vital parts: the SNP walked out of the Scottish Constitutional Convention at its opening meeting. Such is the bloody-minded failure to co-operate which arouses Tom Nairn’s most scornful satire in an essay outstanding in a collection which is lively but repetitive, not informative enough, and too much like an opportunity for the chattering classes: ‘Hope dropped dead on the spot, and a darkly inebriated fin-de-siècle swam suddenly into focus, where loyal “Scots” might still be sending Madame Ecosse [Winnie Ewing] up to Strasbourg and the 1997 batch of Lauderite fundamentalists down to Westminster – all still crystal-balling helplessly about what to do if England keeps saying “No!” to Commonwealth Status and Independence-in-Europe-under-the-Crown into the next Millennium.’
The Eclipse of Scottish Culture is far from lively, although it does a small ground-clearing service by showing how a national inferiority complex among historians has led them to propagate a demoralised, sometimes seriously mistaken view of our culture. James Handley, Henry Grey Graham and even T.C. Smout are shown to have assumed a sort of inherent backwardness, a ‘centuries-old sleep in levels of civilisation (housing, farming, politics, behaviour) from which we were awakened by the 1707 Union to a sudden apocalypse of Enlightenment. Beveridge and Turnbull do well to question this. But if it is to be suggested that the Scots were not doing everything badly, then it is up to cultural analysts to show with evidence what we were doing well. Their one point of substance is taken from Ian Whyte’s Agriculture and Society in 17th-century Scotland. Grey Graham alleged that the Scottish fanners never limed the soil before 1730. In fact, ‘the use of lime for improving soil fertility was known, and practised, over substantial areas of Scotland in the first half of the 17th century.’
Calvinism, they imply (against Edwin Muir, Fionn MacColla and many other of our writers), did not entail a snuffing out of joy and beauty. No doubt its effects were as mixed as those of, say, Islam today: but it is a fact that around 1700 in Edinburgh, under a Calvinist religious and moral regime, you were forbidden to look out of our window on a Sunday for fear of ‘beholding vanities abroad’, and in thousands of parishes people who had used bad language or had sex outside marriage were pilloried in front of the congregation in the cutty stool or sinners’ chair. What would Beveridge and Turnbull make of the fact (if they had come across it in their speculative siftings) that Kirk elders were entitled to examine manually any young woman suspected of breast-feeding an illegitimate child? Have they ever opened an 18th or 19th-century book of Presbyterian sermons, and if so did they feel they could breathe in that air of quasi-Biblical abstraction and parrot-like fundamentalism? In their admiration for the ‘moral seriousness’ and ‘passion for theoretical argument’ with which they credit the Calvinist ethos, have they counted the cost of such events as the Evangelical campaigns conducted in the Highlands by the like of Blind Munro, who knew the Bible by heart and organised the burning of a great mound of bagpipes and fiddles in Snizort on Skye? Have they themselves worshipped in a Presbyterian church for several years, and if so what was the effect on their bodily imaginations or whole selves of those bare buff walls and black robes, the leaden plod of the dirge-like hymns, the stunted quatrains of the Paraphrases and Metrical Psalms whose forced rhymes and inversions cramped my young verbal sense like a muzzle on the face of a dog? But their purview is too theoretical to admit such evidence.
At one stage they let slip their belief that ‘philosophical enquiry is the heart of culture,’ which leads them to spend a good deal of space on such well-meaning but owlish moralisers as Macmurray and John Baillie in an effort to fabricate a contemporary Scottish school of thought: but the coherence of their own principles remains obscure. I am taken to task for the cardinal sins of ‘idealism’ and ‘voluntarism’. No text is cited. If they mean my Scottish Literature and the Scottish People (1961), I wonder where it departed from the historical materialism I was seeking to apply? But perhaps they stubbed their toes on the case I made – not an assumption but a case with evidence – that our literary culture was indeed backward during the generations before and just after the Union, and for desperate social reasons. Bookselling and publishing were strictly censored, and in any case literate people, e.g. ministers, were too poor to afford more than twenty shillings’ worth of books. From 1671 to 1711 one printer had a monopoly and produced work so faulty it was almost gibberish. Newspapers were seized and banned, their editors died in prison or were too frightened to publish more than a smattering of home news. Presently there were four printers in Edinburgh as against 75 in London – whose products were often seized by Scottish magistrates as ‘atheistical, erroneous, profane, or vicious’, ‘villainous profane and obscene books and playes printed at London’. By the 1750s ministers and teachers were still giving up creative writing, or leaving the country altogether, because their superiors condemned ‘the profane and unprofitable art of poem-making’. Presently human nature in Scotland, its whole mind and bodily self, revolted magnificently against all that, in the persons especially of Hume and Burns, but this cannot be understood by writers whose ‘passion for theoretical argument’ licenses them to spend so much time among texts with little reference back to experience.
In his Modernist way, Kenneth White, whose poetry is now re-launched by Mainstream, exhibits this same split between the conceptual and the lived. Mainstream are one of several newish firms, with Polygon and Canongate, who are helping Scottish writing to count again on the British scene after a post-war doldrum. Canongate have published Alasdair Gray, most innovative of Scottish novelists, and made available at least an adequate, small bilingual selection of the chief living Gaelic poet, Sorley Maclean. Mainstream have brought into print again, after a long hibernation in the second-hand bookshops, the essays of Scotland’s finest journalist and social observer, Hugh Miller. It would have been a pleasing addition to the national surge if White had been the master-poet and great wandering scholar his fugelpersons make him out to be. But the core of achievement in these two books is so thickly overlaid by pose and attitude and gestures towards hifalutin roles and stances that it is very hard to find. The travel book by itself would keep ‘Pseuds’ Corner’ in material for several years. ‘In the Oued Gabes I touched the breasts of the wind,’ he announces at one point. This is an entire numbered section of a sequence about Tunisia. Typically, the wind itself is scarcely present. What the words focus is the poet’s reflection as he admires himself in the mirror of his own phrases for doing this rare thing and being this rare soul. Extraordinarily lovely girls melt in and out of the White prose, rarely named, rarely saying anything. After love-making under the moon in the Calanques, White and the girl in the red poncho with long black hair ‘move again into our own delirium’ – cut to this highbrow equivalent of the waves pounding on the shore:
The cave in the great mountain is deep. There the whole world breaks. He who knows the jewel of the spirit that flourishes in the Innate, knows the way. Who else knows it, among all the talkers?
If this experience really was valuable to White (and to the woman), why was it not described for its own sake, vividly and specifically, instead of being puffed up by self-aggrandising claims which involve, as usual, the disparaging of others?
If I say that what I’m trying to write here, however clumsily, is a metaphysical text ... the pigs, and I don’t blame them, will snigger. Trampling under their feet this subtle physics of life, they can hardly have the slightest inkling of meta-physics –
of which White, you understand, is a master. At times he shows signs of strain, of yearning for the meaning to come out clear:
Not knowing where you are, who you are, in order to get into the no-who-where, and let the essential images come. Sitting here fingering a piece of purple coral from a beach a few miles away ...
If and when such images come, how do we recognise them? Partly by their distinctive naked sensuous power as they surface in our writing. ‘What we have to look for are the signs of something grasped and held, presented in an ordering of words, and not merely thought of or gestured towards,’ as Leavis remarked in the first lecture I heard him give, in October 1954, when he also said: ‘Without sensuous strength there is no such thing as spiritual strength.’ From time to time White approaches this:
That blue-grey silence among the reeds of the stream – a heron! Wind scouring the sands, and a grey gull struggling to make headway. Little black lochans full of water lilies. Spaced out, and lost in the high open joyance ...
But such authentic presences, existing outside the poet’s ego but able to be refracted through it, scarcely have time to establish themselves before the ‘passion for theoretical argument’ breaks in again in selfconscious asides about what ‘the poem’ aspires to, on the subtlety which ‘exemplary language’ might achieve one of these years if only the poet could break through to it, on the great things achieved by those other geniuses (MacDiarmid, Rimbaud, MacCrimmon the piper, this Ch’an master and that Kakamura scholar) whose names White drps in what reads uncomfortably like a way of acquiring credentials at second hand.
Scot. I like the etymology of that word as ‘wanderer’. Yes, that’s it. The extravagant (extravagans: wandering outside) Scot. Scotus vagans. Wandering, more or less obscurely, in accordance with a fundamental orientation ...
That ‘fundamental’ is too easily said, too calculating. A tradition (here, the travelling scholar) is a cultural resource: if it is bandied about like this, not added to by the telling of new stories and the singing of new songs, then it is no longer nourishing to the people, the nation, but dwindles to a husk, a hollow rattle among footnotes, words about words about words about ... The best pages in The Bird Path seem to me to be the gallimaufry called ‘The Ballad of Kali Road’ – a ‘sociocultural extravaganza for several voices, a tin whistle, a Jew’s harp and a sense of supernihilism’. This modulates in a supple way between the jazzy desperation of MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’, or the lyric from A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle which begins ‘O Scotland is/THE barren fig’, and a sober detailing of Glasgow’s uglier faces. But too much of the volume smacks of a writer’s notebook insufficiently melted down and moulded into new lyric or epic forms, however fine the scholastic trappings. It is foolish to expect too much of nationhood, but perhaps, if the Claim of Right prevails and self-government in one of its forms is achieved, then writers of the more cerebral kind will be less able to resort to ‘Scottishness’ and ‘the Scot’ in order to justify their obsessions with role and stance, and will have to content themselves more purely with their own talents and experiences.