Bernice Rubens, Carol Ann Duffy, Culloden, Glencoe, James Kelman, Loch Lomond, Robin Jenkins, Scottish history, Scottish literature, The Booker Prize, The Cheviot the stag and the black black oil, The Glencoe Massacre, the highland clearances
A Journey into Scotland … Part 23
“They don’t teach any Scottish history in English schools. It’s a shocking omission. None of our history. And when was the last time a class read a Scottish book in one of your literature classes? No. As far as education in England is concerned, we don’t exist.”
I was enjoying this conversation. I can’t remember if he was a nurse or if his girlfriend was a nurse. It was the first time on the journey that someone was giving me a Scottish perspective. They lived in Glasgow but regularly came a few miles north into the Trossachs to enrich their souls.
We were in an ancient inn just to the north of Loch Lomond and on the right hand side of the road as you head north. The rooms of the inn were dark and cosy. There was a great deal of oak furniture that would have been old if my father had visited here. (My father’s Scottish philosophy was that “You never pass a petrol station without filling up and you never pass a pub.” so I think there was every chance.)
Using maps and guides I think it must have been The Drover’s Inn at Inverarnan. If it was, it hasn’t been improved, by the developers, since my visit. If it wasn’t the Drover’s then the inn I went to was a good deal nicer.
“I admire what you’re doing but if you are going to find the real Scotland then you are going to have to face a few harsh facts about the English and not all of them are of terrible deeds carried out in the depths of history. It’s still going on today.”
He was passionate about his subject but he wasn’t pinning me to my chair and blaming me personally. This was an engaged seminar but he was in the lecturer’s seat and I was the one who should have been making notes.
“When was the last time you saw a programme on Scottish history on the BBC? They showed those 7:84* plays didn’t they and fair play to them. (He was referring to the screening in 1974 of The Cheviot the Stag and the Black, Black Oil by John McGrath. A play that dealt with Scottish history from Culloden, through the Highland Clearances, to the exploitation of the country for oil. It was a play that had held me riveted as a young teenager with a sense of social justice. He may also have been referring to the 1964 drama Culloden which re-told the events of the last land battle on British soil as a contemporary news report. Both screenings were seen as significant landmarks in television history by historians and academics and both had been seen as proof positive of the leftist leaning bias in the BBC, by people in positions of editorial authority, on newspapers that saw nothing wrong with political bias in the media, just so long as it leant their way.)
“So you saw them did you? Damned good television. Wish I’d seen the Cheviot live. Would have been some night eh?”
He was earnest, enthusiastic and articulate and saw me as a visitor with an open mind and a genuine desire to find out more about the northern part of the country where I lived, and he was convincing me that, not only did I know very little, but that it was a national disgrace that supposedly educated Englishmen knew less about Scotland than they did about America, Australia or India.
“How many Scottish writers have you been studying on your teaching course?”
I had to admit that though we had read half a dozen “grim up north tales” we hadn’t once ventured into Scottish literature. It is something that hasn’t changed. The conversation I was having in this wainscotted bar influenced me to introduce a number of Scottish writers into my own 25 year teaching career, but the curriculum continued to ignore Caledonian claims to literary merit. Liz Lockhead got herself into an occasional examination anthology and Carol Ann Duffy was born in the Gorbals (she moved to England when she was six which makes her marginally more Scottish than I am … I moved to England when I was five.)
It isn’t just at school’s level. Scottish (and Northern Irish and Welsh) literature has been overlooked by judging panels for prestigious prizes. Only one Scottish writer, James Kelman, has ever won the Booker prize and then there were more headlines about why he shouldn’t have won than about the book’s considerable merits. Salman Rushdie publicly declared that it was “the wrong choice”. It is hardly surprising. Scottish writers continue to produce many of the finest books on the contemporary shelves and are continually left out of the annual debate as to whether Martin Amis, Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan should be given another laurel crown. (It’s the same insularity of thinking that gets (the magnificent, but not that magnificent) Judi Dench and Helen Mirren cast in every significant leading role for a mature lady in British films. When Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was put forward, two judges threatened to walk out, and the book was withdrawn from entry. Both judges were English.
Only one Welsh writer has ever won; Bernice Rubens for The Elected Member, and no writer from Northern Ireland has ever been considered worthy.
Only 3.6% of all shortlisted entries have been by Scottish writers. I am a regular reader of books and I’ve read most of the winners of the Booker prize and I’ve read an awful lot of books by Scottish writers and I find this statistic disgraceful. The long list figures are even worse. Only 2.9% of books considered are Scottish. Perhaps the key to this lies with the judges. Well, perhaps it does. Since its inception in 1969 only 3.3% of the judges have been Scottish. The vast majority of judges have been middle class, middle aged English and English writers have won 25 times out of 48.
And we wonder why so many Scottish people want independence?
“You’ll be going into Glencoe. You must read about it before you get there.”
The beer is getting near the bottom of the glass and I could so easily stay and talk to these two for the rest of the night but the evening is closing in and I’ve still a few miles to travel before I sleep. (I don’t remember if the place did accommodation in 1987 but I should have stayed. It isn’t every day you fall into a conversation like this one. This couple had something to teach me and I was keen to learn.)
“John Prebble (actually English) is probably as good as any to give you the background; but I’d read John Buchan’s account if you can get hold of it. He’s (Prebble) also written about the clearances and about Culloden. You’d best visit the battlefield. Probably on your way back south: it’s over on the other coast. You should read Robin Jenkins. The Cone Gatherers is OK but the one I’d say you must read is The Awakening of George Darroch. Now that does have something to say about being Scottish. Oh aye and you mustn’t miss out Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Alasdair Gray. There’s a new fellow called Iain Banks you might want to try. Good book. The Wasp Factory.
He takes my notebook and carefully writes an impressive reading list as well as his address. One day I hope to uncover this book. (Before it became mis-laid I had carefully ticked off each book he’d recommended).I have to refuse the offer of another drink. It was hard. This bar was everything you seek. Good beer, open fires, ancient furniture and superb conversation. I had to get to Crianlarich though; at least I had told myself I had to.
“Just one more thing before you go. Come with me.” He led the way into the hallway of the inn. “See that chest.” He pointed to a rather beautiful, simply made oak chest that was centuries old. “The order for the massacre was passed on to Captain Robert Campbell on that piece of wood. That order came from London. Bear it in mind as you’re passing through Glencoe.”
I have not attempted to verify this last detail. There was a great deal of general truth about what he had been saying to me. Culturally and historically Scotland is ignored by the English. In one recent examination board anthology a Scottish poem appeared under the heading “Poems from Other Cultures”. I suppose we should be grateful that the poem got into the anthology at all.
*7:84 was a theatre company that staged plays from a socialist viewpoint. They got their name from the fact that 7% of the population of Great Britain owned 84% of the wealth.