Duncan Milne, Edinburgh Napier University
The Scottish Literary Renaissance was a movement among key writers in the early twentieth-century to at once revive a submerged Scottish tradition and to ‘make it new’ by inflecting it with the new techniques and awareness of European Modernism. It is perhaps surprising, then, that this movement was begun from a small town on the east coast of Scotland. The Modernist Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid valorised the homogenous, incorporated society of Montrose and other north-east towns like it, as much as he did the language in which they spoke. This favouring of a semi-rural, ‘peripheral’ Scotland as being somehow more authentic was a theme which would be repeated throughout the movement, in the writing of Edwin Muir, Lewis Spence and Violet Jacob.
In contrast, at the same period, there was a developing literature of industrial experience centred on the Clyde, as seen in the fiction of George Blake and the range of vernacular poetry which arose in the shipyards and factories of Glasgow. Here was a competing notion of Scottish modernity, focused on the experience of the urban labouring classes, a demographic hitherto absent from Scotland’s representations of itself.
But in this, where was the capital? The supposed cultural heart of the nation, a city which had been for a time the intellectual heart of Europe? Edinburgh is a conspicuous absence in Scottish Modernism. Aside from MacDiarmid’s estimation of the city as ‘a mad god’s dream’, the closest Edinburgh comes to appearing in the context of the Scottish modernist period is in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Here we have a book which resurrects the Edinburgh of a past in which Edinburgh did not represent itself. In its description we can perhaps see why the capital had no voice in the Scottish renaissance: Brodie’s Edinburgh is contradictory, disunited, alien to itself and still more to the rest of Scotland. Edinburgh at the time of the Scottish Renaissance lay twelve miles to the east of Scotland, unassimilable into a broader narrative of Scottishness.
Photo credit: Angus Sutherland