The Search For Scottish Identity

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On the shelf is a book called Beyond Identity: New Horizons in Modern Scottish Poetry, by Attila Dósa.

Published by the Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature (SCROLL!) it is a polite wee book that consists of interviews with Edwin Morgan, Douglas Dunn, Robert Crawford, John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson, Tom Leonard, Frank Kuppner, WN Herbert, Kate Clanchy, Kenneth White and Aonghas Macneacail.

The reason I keep looking at it is down to the dread word IDENTITY.

Identify Yourself

Identity has been a constant in Scottish letters since MacDiarmid fell on his side euolgising over the herbage in 1926. But in recent years identity has become a subject of keenest interest in Scotland, and this interest is not always unhealthy.

Meaning that if you ain't talking about identity, you are probably not Scottish, because in failing to stress your identity, you may be confused with the ruling elites?

I don't know! But that may well be the narrative of recent times, even though like most narratives it won't stand up to much actual scrutiny, and more likely distracts us from the pressing facts. It may work in academia but it don't really relate to us much, it turns out.

At the same time, it is normal that writers get involved in the discussion of identity because it's the linguistic situation that most informs identity, and anthropologists have known this for a long time.

But in Scotland the discussion doesn't do writers any favours and usually holds them back. In speaking of the Scots language, its possible to even understand English speech as a political imposition. The Scots language, as the introduction of Beyond Identity states, is now seen as 'an impure regional variety of English'.

As with other articles on the question of identity and language, Beyond Identity points to what it classes as cultural Darwinianism, a state of affairs in which the stronger culture thrives.

Poets Have Their Say

What we find then is that almost all of the poets featured in these interviews have chosen to work with English-based publishers. And when they do so, they never forget to make it clear that such decisions come from practical considerations which have nothing to do with national feeling or the lack of it.

This is a decision personal to each writer and you can treat it, and them as you wish. But aside from the implication in their choice to be published in England that there may be no decent Scottish publishing industry to speak of, there is no assertion from any of the writers questioned that they feel the need to do anything about it, other than go to England.

Well - this is an academic book, and so it is certainly going to whiff of these well-thought-out but unrealistic self-told-comfort-tales which pollute the corridors of that unreal world. What I mean by that is that this subject is viewed here in terms of power - an oppressed (The Scots!) and an oppressor (The English!) and once that narrative has been established, as it is early on, the rest of the fun is in justifying it.

Beyond Identity also takes the view that a nation is the product of imagination, a 'comprehensive agreement which has a primary residence in the thoughts and opionions of its citizens.'

This is such a statist view that it blesses the inherence of statism with absolution, denying the possibility that there is any local will in the world for the sort of self-organisation under which writers would thrive more than most.

Identity proves fertile ground for one of the more interesting contributors to the volume, Frank Kuppner. Kuppner in fact expresses a doubt that sums up various national themes at once, including the idea of 'the Scottish writer' and our own joy at identifying him or her.

I'm quite used to seeing this list of Scottish writers that I'm not on. There are after all, much larger blips on the radar. But I think people do tend to see me as slightly foreign and as not really 'Scottish'. I understand it and it's true that I'm not quite wearing the same team strip, you know. Maybe I'm in the away strip. And, indeed, it may even be they don't think I'm worth the trouble. It's true that I don't think that being Scottish is something one should feel one has to work at.

What is great about this is that it demonstrates how useless ambiguity is to discussion of identity. If you cast your mind back to the 2014 Referendum you will recall how such a lack of ambiguity served up a case of straightforward polarity and realise how destructive the talk of identity can be.

Certainly identity is great to blether about, but if you are uncomfortable with it as a subject, then like Kuppner you are simply going to be overlooked, as he is.

Bad luck Frank Kuppner! Question things like that, and guess what, you end up with no identity at all. You're not Scottish! No way! But you're not English either, so there is nothing to be done with you.

In the same breath, W.N. Herbert shows what trouble you can get into if you begin to take these things seriously, and he winds up making some utterly guddlesome comments:

I regard myself as a Scottish writer who works primarily in a Northern European context. Being on the border between England and Scotland means to me that I work in a Northern European rather than a northern English or British framework.

This is excatly the sort of giddy tripe that those who spend their days discussing identity aspire to. I can't hold W.N. Herbert responsible for that, as his statement only attempts to establish itself within the narratives available to him, even if the results are comic.

These and comments like it stand as proof that the subject is likely as moribund as the works which epitomise it, things like Alan Bissett's Vote Britain, and poems like James Robertson's The News Where You Are which rely on crowd-pleasing recognition of our shared oppression to achieve what we are expected to feel is a shared selfhood or status.

Aside from Frank Kuppner, probably the most entertaining interviewee in Beyond Identity is angry ex-pat Kate Clanchy:

I am quite troubled by the ideas of Scottishness and the panic about being Scottish enough. There was an article in the Scottish journal The Dark Horse about Dream State, which is a new anthology of Scottish poetry with some of my poems in it. In the article I was picked out as somebody not being quite Scottish enough to be in it. You know, I'm not Scottish enough because I live in England and my father is English. I think if we were doing this with colour and said this person is not British because they've got a black father, then we would say it is straightforward racism.

Her arguments may not be popular, but Kate Clanchy in Beyond Identity points to a smugness in Scotland that surfaces as paranoia, as in the case of the discussion she read in The Dark Horse.

This isn't only evident in Scottish writers and writing, but as Kate Clanchy found out when trying to apply for a job as a teacher in Scotland, it runs to the very height of the establishment.

It is impossible to broach any discussion of Scottish identity in literature without mentioning Irvine Welsh's 'being Scottish is shite' speech in Transpotting, but the 'being Scottish is shite' speech is actually a fair summation of all the main Scottish-identity arguments since the 1970s. In fact virtually everything that has followed the 'being Scottish is shite' speech has paraphrased it, echoed it, extended it, updated it and made it into books, plays, films and now, combined them with political movements, blogs and events.

What's worse, is that when identity becomes the theme the quality goes down the pan, we've seen a lot of this in recent years, and ity maye be simply because there is nothing new to say.