Am Bratach No. 302
December 2016


by Kevin Crowe

Scotland’s favourite book.

Recently, the BBC held a poll to discover what was Scotland's favourite book. In October, the broadcaster devoted a TV programme to looking at the top ten. Without a doubt, the list demonstrates a diversity of genres and styles, mixing classics with contemporary work.

It ranges from nineteenth century masterpieces like James Hogg's "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner" to the Harry Potter phenomenon, a series that proved important in encouraging reading among children. Ever popular thrillers and crime fiction are represented by three of the finest of the genre: Arthur Conan Doyle ("The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"), John Buchan ("The Thirty-Nine Steps") and Ian Rankin ("Knots and Crosses"). Also included are late twentieth century cult classics "Lanark" by Alasdair Gray, "The Wasp Factory" by Iain Banks and "Trainspotting" by Irvine Welsh. The list is completed by two of the world's greatest twentieth century novels: Muriel Spark's "The Prime of Miss Jean Broadie" and Lewis Grassic Gibbon's "Sunset Song", which was voted number one and was introduced by Nicola Sturgeon as her own personal favourite.

The list demonstrates just how strong Scottish literature is, and I would encourage people to read all ten books, if they haven't already done so.

However It is not representative of Scotland as a whole. Only two women are featured and there are no writers from the burgeoning ethnic minority communities. There is no room for contemporary writers like AL Kennedy and Janice Galloway or classic Scottish women writers like Naomi Mitchison, Nan Shepherd and Willa Muir. None of the books are in Scots or Gaelic. Furthermore, the list comprises mainly writers from the Central Belt, with diversions to the Borders (James Hogg) and Aberdeenshire (Lewis Grassic Gibbon). The Highlands & Islands do not feature at all.

Given the top ten was the result of people's votes, and that most of Scotland's population lives in the Central Belt, the absence of Highlands & Islands literature may not be surprising. However, what is concerning is the paucity of such writers in the longlist of thirty books chosen by an "expert" panel.

In the thirty titles chosen as the best of Scottish literature, there was just one Gaelic title: "An Oidche Mus Do Sheol Sinn" (The Night Before We Sailed) by Angus Peter Campbell. It was also the only title in the list from an island novelist. The only Highland born or based writers on the long list were Jessie Kesson for "The White Bird Passes" and Michel Faber for "Under the Skin". If we are generous, we can include Walter Scott's "Rob Roy" where some of the action takes place in the Highlands.

So no room on the longlist for Inverness born Ali Smith and Orcadian George Mackay Brown, both of whom have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Iain Crichton Smith, who wrote in Gaelic and English, and who created the hilarious character Murdo as well as writing "Consider the Lilies", which some consider to be the greatest novel about the Clearances, was ignored. There was no room for contemporary novelists such as Stornoway's Kevin MacNeil. Many other great Highland and Island novelists were ignored. But perhaps the greatest omission is that of Neil Gunn.

Yet much of Gunn's work is as relevant today as when it was written. For him, as for other writers of what became known as the Scottish Renaissance, the past is important, not for romantic and nostalgic reasons, but as a means to understand the present and help us build a future. It is not just any past Gunn is interested in: it is not the history of kings and queens, of great battles or famous people. In "Highland River" the meaningless history taught in the schoolroom is contrasted with Kenn's own experience of his lived environment. Eventually, the adult Kenn retraces the river of the title to its source, a metaphor for his search for his cultural identity. Before we can move forward we must understand where we come from. And, to use a contemporary phrase, we should celebrate difference.

Gunn rejected "one size fits all" ideologies. The Marxist protagonist in "The Shadow" didn't understand the rural Highland society he encountered: his universalist ideology couldn't make sense of it. This theme is developed in his great dystopian novel "The Green Isle of the Great Deep", where attempts to build the perfect society lead to despotism. Knowledge is not enough: we also need wisdom. Otherwise the intellect and the spirit become separated and the result is the sort of cruelty Gunn witnessed in a world dominated by war, conflict and genocide.

Following Brexit and the increase in public expressions of xenophobia; following the election of a US president who was supported by the Klu Klux Klan, who wants to deport Mexicans and ban Muslims from entering America and who thinks it is okay to sexually abuse women, we are now seeing the rise of the extreme right in mainland Europe, including in France, Netherlands and Austria. We need writers like Neil Gunn as much as ever.

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