The Sinner by Stuart MacGregor

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Of All The Definitive Edinburgh Novels!

The Sinner is a 1973 novel by Stuart MacGregor


The Sinner is written in a style that is both at the same time erudite and childish. It holds a marginally more important place in Scottish letters than it has been previously granted, as it is a useful document of its times, and expresses a raft of aims for Scottish literature, some of which have proved unnecessary, a few of which have come to pass, and many of which have remained unfulfilled.

This latter catgeory of unfulfilled aims for Scottish letters, have remained so largely because of traits in Scottish cultural discourse which have either disintegrated or transferred themselves to party or identity politics.


What is interesting for myself at least concerneing the novel The Sinner is what it says about the state of Scottish writing and culture at the time of its production; and likewise what it hopes for the future.

At the present time (2016-2020) Scotland's future is entirely bound with the notion of independence. If and when this is not the case, the future of Scotland is tied up with and therefore similar to the history of the globe, although there is no discusssion within the literature of Scotland itself today, how the literature is placed.

Therefore in the Sinner there are several simultaneous discussions:

  • First, the characters in The Sinner feel that in particular the Edinburgh International Festival swamps them with international culture at the expense of their own; therefore they feel Scottish culture to be undervalued and they adopt a militant attitude to this
  • Simultaneously there is a tug of war between commercial artistic success in the form of the 'pop-folk' character of Rob Sellars and his agent Len. This is an argument that persisted through the 80s and 90s and has finally been won by the commercvial interests.
  • There is a rumbling avalanche of feelings of liberation in The Sinner, mentally and sexually in the figures of Denis, and to a lesser degree Kate.


Chapter One of The Sinner presents the confused mind of an educated young man, wishing to be a writer. There remain plnety of these in Scotland, and of course and thanks to vastly improved gender awareness and equality, many confused and educated young women now also, who seek the same course, believing it to be a remedy for primarily themselves, and as a bonus, their nation.

This should probably be treated psychologically, and by paid psychologists also, for while prose writing may be therapeutic, prose writers do not pursue novel-writing for therapeutic but for personal ends. In Chapter One of The Sinner therefore, MacGregor adopts a style much influenced by Joyce (whom he tries to 'tame'), and is high on comedy, or at worst essays to locate comedy in the inebriation of the characters. While it's true that funny things do happen when people are drunk, MacGregore does capture this comedy. Otherwise, there are no narcotics evident in The Sinner.

Chapter Two of The Sinner tackles a problem, which in another guise, Scotland still has, that of its identity as it relates to the larger Empire, the globe, and of course, England. Thus in Chapter Two, the characters of The Sinner conceive of a 'fringe' festival to the Edinburgh International Festival, but this would be a festival in which Scots literature in particular will be showcased, both to the world that is visiting Edinburgh, and to the local festival-goers, who spend the month of August enjoying creative works which have been shipped to Edinburgh for the duration.

Note then the following:

  • Irritation on the part of local Scottish artists that the International Festival 'ignores' them;
  • A belief that if only Scottish letters could be profiled in a similar fashion to which the International Festival profiles the arts. it would thrive.

Much of this attitude informed the creation of the group known as The Heretics which Macgregor and Wille Neil founded around 1970. One of the ironies contained within the struggle for a new and International Scottish literature in the novel The Sinner, is that the literature is effectively smuggled into the young artists' festival, sandwiched between folk music.


  • Denis Sellars is the narrator of the novel, but moreso adopts authorial voice, and omniscience from time to time. DEnis is above all aspirant and angry, like Scotland, like any young artist. Like his country, his aspirations stretch far beyond his capabilities, but as a dreamer, he excels.
  • Kate Fraser is described on the jacked of The Sinner as 'the woman who loves him' ('him' being Denis)
  • Nichol Ross is the character held in the book to be a representation of MacGregor's great friend Hamish Henderson.


When Stuart MacGregore left for Jamaica in 1972, to take up a medical post at the University of the West Indies, hamish Henderson wrote a ballad in his honour, the last verse of which runs:

Stuart, atween us braid maun roll
'A waste o' seas' - a vale o' water.
(What signifies a waste o' seas?
A waste o' beer's anither matter.)
But in their cups, in Auld Bell's bar
The Legion o' the Damned will mind ye;
And howp that, noo and then, ye'll toast
The gallus crew ye've left behind ye.


At one stage in The Sinner, the character of Nichol Ross takes the lovers Denis and Kate to the spot on the Royal Mile where Mont

There is throughout The Sinner a sense of hope that somehow the misery of the present will be gloriously fulfilled in a future moment, and that the talents of those involved are

Sex Scenes

The Sinner is heaving with sex scenes, which blend the finest excesses of Joyce with the sensibilities of its own day, the discovery of the contraceptive pill, and an earnest desire to play out and create a new Scottish literature. To this end, it tugs in all directions at once, while managing to concern itself with the possibility of even describing such matters, a common theme.