Monday, April 19, 2010


Following a recent poetry event I had a discussion with another poet from the Nith Valley who had spent the reading chewing the cuffs of his shirt because he thought the work being read was "not part of our culture". This followed something flattering (and probably quite untrue) that someone said at Willie's funeral and it got me thinking about whether we have a responsibility or imperative to write as part of a Scottish cultural tradition, or whether we're part of that tradition no matter what we write. I don't mean this in any narrow nationalistic way, in fact I subscribe completely to the view that Scottish poetry is at its most energetic when absorbing or reacting to different and fragmented internal influences in what someone once described as a "potent concentration of hybrid vigour". It's MacDiarmid's Caledonian Antisyzygy, or MacIllvaney's "mongrel nation" but the implication behind it is that influences are absorbed into 'Scottish' poetry and although that changes the dynamics the poetry remains identifiably Scottish. Does it? And will it always? "How many more reiki therapists from the Home Counties will it take to turn North Uist into a cultural wasteland?" a friend from Stornoway jokingly wrote recently.

People writing in Scots and Gaelic do not have this problem, of course, but those who write in English may. Especially those whose poetry is essentially mapping out an internal landscape. I'm reminded of the fact that many of his countymen choked when Dylan Thomas was described as being a 'Welsh' poet. I feel quite sensitive about this because linguistically I am one step away from Scotland's two languages (my mother was a native gaelic speaker and my father's family were miners from Auchinleck and Cumnock)but write in English.

Of course I write a lot about Scotland, its history, and my place in it. Maybe that does.


Forthvalley scribe said...

I'm coming to think that all poems come out of a dialogue with something. If your poetry comes out of a genuine dialogue with Scottish life, landscape and people then yes, you are part of Scottish culture. If it comes out of an ex-pat raj outlook, or a sentimental determination to root English suburbia in a pretty place, well, no.

Rachel Fox said...

It's never simple. Some of those reiki therapists may have Scottish parents or grandparents and feel that they are, in some way, coming home for all anyone else knows. Maybe they might not seem Scottish (or the kind of people you want in 'your' country) but their children might be. You might even like their children.


Titus said...

Two arguments, surely. I can't recall any indication at the said poetry event that it was representative of a certain "culture"; it just happened to be a poetry reading taking place in Scotland. Mainly about some birds who like the wetlands here and are most probably not aware which side of the Solway they plop down on. By poets who were not all Scottish.

As to whether you, with your individual Scottish identity, have any responsibilty or imperative to write as part of a Scottish cultural tradition - well, were I a Scot, I'd find that terribly restrictive and onerous.
But maybe that's because I'm not a Scot. Scot at my shoulder is adding that Gaelic is no part of his cultural tradition, and asking whether there is a coherent Scottish culture?

I can only say I feel no need to write and preserve any Romford vernacular: but everything I write is imbued with the place I grew up in one way or another. Maybe change happens more quickly in the South-East, and the idea of preservation is quite alien to us. My Romford vernacular, preserved so admirably by my second eldest brother (heart-of-Romford dweller all his life) is not the current Romford vernacular.

What shall I do with my two poor mongrel children, who will never mutter a "twa" like one Grandfather or the imaginative expletives of their other. Shall they never write?

I think you do your bit. Any guilt I can't help you with.

Choice of weapons, the glebe, dawn as usual?

Jim Murdoch said...

There is contemporary culture and there is history. For some the two have little or nothing to do with each other; history is a thing to escape from. I was born in Glasgow and have lived my entire life in Scotland. Virtually my entire output has come about through reactions to the Scottish people and yet no one would think of my poetry as particularly Scottish because I rarely mention where my characters are. To my mind to draw attention to their nationality suggests that we’re different to the rest of the world and we’re not. I don’t want someone to say, “I don’t get that poem,” but on realising it was written by a Scot to go, “Ah, that explains it.” But that’s me. Were my chosen topics politics or nature I might think differently.

I have written prose in Scots purely because those were the voices I heard in my head not to make a point. Looking at them objectively I do find that points are made that I perhaps didn’t intend. In the story ‘Zeitgeist’ I use a west of Scotland accent, the accent of a fellow from Kilmarnock as it happens, who is bemoaning the changes in society. The fact that he states his case in a thick, Scottish accent adds pathos to the piece; people don’t talk like him anymore. The language has moved on as has the culture. I say ‘moved on’ but I could have said “been diluted”. It’s not simply Scotland’s culture that’s being diluted, it’s the whole world’s.

There was a time when all we were exposed to was round about us, there was Scottish dancing on the telly, kids played skipping games in the street and the neighbours thought nothing of walking in the backdoor. That world has gone, it’s not coming back and there’s no point whinging about it. That doesn’t mean that being nostalgic is wrong, or being proud of our heritage is wrong. Just because we have a future doesn’t mean we never had a past.

Hugh McMillan said...

elizabeth- you're right, I think. It's sensible what you say.

rachel- I like all children, and mongrels, and where did I suggest there were people I didn't want in the country? I thought I was suggesting the opposite was a desirable thing actually. You're misinterpreting me.

Titus: You're unecessarily combative, as usual, perhaps it's your Romford heritage. I meant macIllvaney's term "mongrel nation" as a desirable and vibrant state, as indeed did he when he invented the term. Scotland has always been a mongrel nation. I was musing on some questions of my own cultural voice, really, but if you want to fight...well the English always have, haven't they?

Jim- a thoughtful response. So you're saying that there is no such thing as a cultural heritage, only contemporary culture and its historical equivalents? You may well be right; It's definitely a logical way of seeing things.

Anonymous said...

A bunch of English ladies talking to each other? Sounds like every Arts Organisation I know.

Titus said...

As if the casually dropped in reiki therapists joke was not combative, disingenuous one!

Anyway, it's in my blood.
And I had a lovely time. You owe me half a scone.

Hugh McMillan said...

I actually owe you more than half a scone. I enjoyed it too, and have enjoyed reading the pamphlets since. The reiki thing was a hangover from the bakehouse a couple of weeks ago actually when the sinsister plan to fill North Uist full of rekei therapists was revealed to me in its awful entirety.

Titus said...

No room for reflexologists?
Mind you, I'd never find the place. If it's not accessible by motorway I'm buggered.

Marion McCready said...

Whether a piece of work is regarded as belonging to our cultural tradition really depends on who's defining Scottish culture / heritage don't you think? I think all Scottish writers constitute our cultural heritage whether they think of themselves as 'Scottish' writers or not.
I certainly wouldn't say that we have a duty to write directly about our cultural background - we can't always choose how or what we write.

Barlinnie said...

Scottish dialect is as important to words as water is to the fish.

I'm all for it.

renaissancewoman said...

I'm one of the 'English Ladies who talked to each other' on Saturday. ( come on 'Anon' name yourself)- What a fine exchange has resulted from a simple poetry reading, but I'm a bit puzzled now. My father was a Cornishman, my mother a white South African, I came to live and work in Scotland when I was 16 (now 62) and have been here ever since. I spent half my childhood as a Naval child in Malta GC. I have two half-Scottish sons, immensely proud of their Scottish backgrounds though one lives and works in Japan, the other part-time in London, part time here.My English husband has lived in and worked in Scotland for over 40 years. All these people, all the places I have lived have made me the person/writer that I am - a working class woman rather than an
English Lady - so out of which culture should I write ?

McGuire said...

Since you don't write in Gaelic or Scot's dialect, you're not a Scottish writer, or not a Scottish writer worth reading?

Naaaaa. That's bullshit. I understand the need to preserve that which is 'of your own culture' but what that means is as open as any door, which isn't closed.

Has anyone written a Pakistani Glaswegian dialect in a story or poem? No doubt. Is it any less Scottish or Glaswegian for it?

I don't see what the problem is. By all means, if your inclined to experiment with dialect or slang or Gaelic, do it, but there is no obligation. If the establishment won't have it, don't have them.

Am awa tae git a fish supper.

Hugh McMillan said...

Interesting comments, folks, as the cat's arse said to the fire.

The majority of people including latterly Sorlil and macGuire seem to be saying Scottish writing consists of anyone engaging with their lives in Scotland and writing about it, but maybe the truth is that some people don't care for the label at all.

Vivien- a cosmopolitan background. You seem one of MacIllvaney's mongrels. Do you feel yourself to be a Scottish writer, a writer living in Scotland or do you think the epithet not logical or necessary to apply?

Titus said...

This is brilliant. I'm glad I only took the photos.

renaissancewoman said...

Shug - none and all of them - we go to London once a year on early music business and the place is as exotic to me as it was from my Cornish/Devonshire home when I was a kid - England is a very mongrel place too and much more divided in class and culture still.I was an oddball in England too - a clever kid from the council estate. I do know, exciting as London is, I can't wait to get back home to Scotland which has been home all my adult life.So I guess that makes me a writer who lives and works in Scotland, like all the rest of you.

Hugh McMillan said...

Fair enough. I'd describe myself as a Scottish writer myself, but let's not split mongrel hairs.

Hugh McMillan said...

Or is that hair-splitting?

Anonymous said...

It's not splitting hairs. Reformationwoman's right- she writes in Scotland cos she lives here, she doesn't think she's a 'scottish' writer. if I lived in outer Mongolia and wrote my plaintive ditties about unrequited love in the machars would that make me a mongolian writer? Nuh.

Wigeon said...

A really interesting post thanks Shug with some fascinating responses. That cat's arse must be roasted by now ....if not overly frazzled! I wonder if some of your followers and some of the audience at said event were going by the accents of readers in their utterings? For me, I often curse my folks for their circumstances forcing me go to school south of that bloody border. So my accent seems inappropriate with a great g'father times five buried in the graves of the massed clans at Culloden ....another fallen Jacobite - obviously. Soon as I left school I headed home and uni north of the border but am stuck with the accent ....mostly. The last few years I'm mostly writing about one Dumfriesshire valley - the landscape and its effects on the natural history, social, cultural and economic changes over a period of time - more applicable to Borders history and culture. So I'm a real mongrel thanks to my folks and early education - no choice over that when you're a bairn.
So does the cat have an accent and is it going to get pulled out of the fire or is it too late?!

Best of luck on the 1st May for your next launch Shug. Sorry it's Wigtown Spring Festival for me first thing but I hope your launch goes well and I'll hopefully catch it at another venue.

Hugh McMillan said...

Cheers wig,thanks for your response. you're a better Jacobite than me: we were hedging our bets, as usual. I've enjoyed reading your work. I'm resurrecting my dubious career as a reviewer through Markings and there will be a review of Goosescape in the next issue at the end of May. If you have anything else coming out please tip me the wink.
Midsteeple June 2nd- you're not getting out of the Lost Garden so easily.

Wigeon said...

June 2nd - hmmm a very good pal's next big 0 birthday but hopefully I might be able to come to listen to your new work depending on the plans for celebration of her big day.
Oh the joys of a reviewer - I review for John Muir Trust when something interesting comes up.
Pleased you like the Goosechase poems. Great fun to hear the interpretations of the quartet on the subject of the Solway's wild geese.
I've nothing else in the print pipeline at the mo, although 'Where Clouds Come To Die,' a folio of poetry, prose and pictures following a year in the life on a hill sheep farmer may come to something in print. It won the Sir Patrick Geddes Award this year for best piece of coursework by a student studying at a Scottish Uni that followed the Geddesian principles of 'work, place, folk.' So yes, perhaps it may find a printer when I'm not so phuddled with uni work?!
I hope to catch a 'Lost Garden' somewhere soon! Very best of luck with the launches Shug.