IN the comments on The National’s website on last week’s essay on my idea of a “Loose Canon” of Scottish literature, Graham Hewitt asked some good questions: “Is there a single Scottish culture or a single Scottish language? Clearly the answer is no in both cases.

“There is English, Scottish English, various forms of Scots from Lallans to Doric and others, and Gaelic, all with their own literatures – including oral – and there’s folk literature. There may be others.

How does all this variety fit into a concept of Scottish literature or a Scottish canon?”

Well, the answer is my argument – diversity, not dividedness. The plurality of all these separate identities, as Graham names and specifies them (and there are plenty more), might seem to make it impossible to see our national culture comprehensively.

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I don’t buy it. Deny yourself your national culture and you devalue the range and interconnected nature of the whole thing. You also diminish our capacity to lay claim to it and pass it on to following generations. And that’s what I’m arguing for, a more encompassing awareness and appreciation of what is – or should be – our national birthright.

Until relatively recently, “American literature” was the provenance of white, mainly male, writers of European descent. Now it would be impossible not to include or at least clearly acknowledge and indicate the work of Native American authors (not always writers), writers of non-European ancestry, black writers and authors whose primary language isn’t always English – or rather American English.

Any history of modern American poetry would be seriously flawed without an account of Amiri Baraka. How recently is it that any sense of “Australian literature” would have left unmentioned writers such as Kevin Gilbert, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Charmaine Papertalk Green?

And yet the Americans so often excel at the marketing. In the early 21st century, the texts most familiar in Scottish schools for generations might include The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye. So why not Kidnapped, Sunset Song, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Cone Gatherers, The White Bird Passes, The Two Drovers, Wandering Willie’s Tale, Thrawn Janet, Clay, Smeddum, Greenden, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Bondagers, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Federer versus Murray (and that’s only a random handful of novels, stories and plays)?

From my experience teaching Scottish literature in New Zealand from 1986 to 2000, and delivering guest lectures on the subject in Australia, Singapore, Samoa, China, India, the United States, France, Romania, Montenegro, Austria, Poland, Ireland, as well as in Scotland, where I was appointed to the established Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow (the only such institutionally-established chair in any of the Scottish universities), I know that a multi-faceted approach to Scotland’s literary and cultural history is or can be effectively supported by the deployment of a canonical “spine”.

You don’t lose the diversity by maintaining a coherence. A spine makes you vertebrate. You can do without one but if you’re flat on the ground you’ll get walked on, for sure. The various approaches, the range of linguistic identities, the variety of geographical and historical locations, as well as the “canonical spine” are helpful just as they are always changing and open to challenge and debate. Their values are reciprocal and dynamic. Maintaining that reciprocity is ultimately empowering.

The spine is within the body of the work. In fact, to push the metaphor, you could say that there’s more than one spine, more than one list of “essential” works. But then, a spine is only a part of the bone structure.

It doesn’t go anywhere on its own. Inside it there’s marrow, surrounding it sinew, muscle, flesh and blood, brain and what animates it all, whatever it’s called, whatever it is that makes the clay grow tall.

Call it the spirit. The spine is strong enough to keep the body upright but the extent of the reach of the mind that the body carries is illimitable. That reach is to touch and learn from, not to grip, exploit and drain out. And it seems to me more useful to allow the whole corpus to have a fulsome presence and be richly clothed.

As the great American poet Walt Whitman puts it, in Song of Myself: “I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious” – why not let a canon be such a song of ourselves? Is a song not also a form of empowerment?

IN the editor’s note to the anthology Poetry 1900-2000: One hundred poets from Wales (2007), a collection of Welsh poetry in English, Meic Stephens said this: “[T]o have a body of English verse which can properly be called Welsh there must be some reference to the land and people, to the past as well as the present – otherwise, we shall produce merely a regional or provincial literature indistinguishable from that produced in parts of England.

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“Like Irish and Scottish poetry, Welsh poetry in English should speak to the world, but it should also be rooted in the Welsh experience and have something to say about the country in which it is written. Even so, there is a healthy range of attitudes towards things Welsh [...]: how poets think of Wales is as pluralistic today as it has always been, and long may it be so.”

Stephens was defending the provenance of Welsh poetry in English to be understood as positively Welsh. If poetry in the Welsh language is understood to be, intrinsically, of Wales, he was acknowledging that some defence was required to make the claim for Welsh poetry in English. How does that circumstance apply in Scotland?

We can begin happily enough with a linguistic inclusiveness that accommodates Gaelic, Scots and English – in all their regional and historical varieties. We can keep the door open to authors writing in Scots or Gaelic in Northern Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere.

But one wonders: could a great Scottish novel be written in Polish? Given that Polish is spoken by a considerable percentage of Scotland’s population, why not? And what would its primary subject have to be before we could describe it as Scottish? For our purposes, the argument could open to include work that has no direct connection to Scotland, either as emerging from it or commenting on it. We might recognise such work as a product of Scotland, arising from the experience of people living here.

It might present aspects of Scotland refracted through different lenses and perspectives, oblique angles of approach, through geographical distance, with no literal or specific commentary in the way of direct political history or long biological ancestry.

To agree on co-ordinate points that allow a canon to be a prompt for further exploration and critical understanding is intrinsically a good thing. It works to resist monolithic, unchanging authority, but at the same time, we surely need to affirm qualities and values that inform, nourish and maintain our own authority. That balance is crucial. Ah, but who is that “our”? Who is “we”?

If a canon becomes exclusive and absolutely self-enclosed, you’re in trouble. Such things need to be blown apart from time to time. New growth and new readings of the past insist on that. So what I’m advocating is up for that challenge. That’s why I’m calling it a “loose” canon.

This is an idea of understanding what “Scottish literature” might be. The proposition of a canon of Scottish literature ought to help counterbalance centuries of institutional neglect. And it should enable confident self-determination in channels of cultural transmission, both within and furth of Scotland.

The historical trajectory of this “spine” of the subject, its full articulation and its supple interconnectedness, may be emphasised at particular points by regenerative moments of revaluation and revivification of past traditions.

Allan Ramsay in the 18th century and Hugh MacDiarmid in the early 20th century deliberately set out to do this. They re-introduced older traditions of Scottish literature to their contemporaries, regenerating a longer view.

In 1724, Ramsay published The Ever Green, an anthology of Scottish poetry drawing from the Bannatyne Manuscript of the 1500s. He intended to re-awaken interest in older Scots poetry and present it to new generations of readers in the 18th century.

He reproduced William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makars from the early 16th century, which lists writers Dunbar knew who had recently died, each verse ending with the Latin line, “Timor mortis conturbat me” or “The terror of Death confounds me”. Finally, Dunbar foresees his own imminent death: Sen he has all my brethren tane, He will not let me leive alane; On Forss I maun his nixt Prey be, Timor mortis conturbat me.

Sen for the Death Remeid is none, Best is that we for Death dispone; Aftir our Death, that live we may, Timor mortis conturbat me.

But after this, in his new anthology, Ramsay adds a “Postscript”: Suthe I forsie, if Spae-craft had, Frae Hethir-Muirs sall ryse a Lad, Aftir twa Centries pas, sall he Revive our fame and Memorie.

Then sall we flourish Evir Grene; All thanks to carefull Bannatyne, And to the Patron kind and frie, Quha lends the Lad baith them and me.

Far sall we fare, baith Eist and West, Owre ilka Clyme by Scots possest; Then sen our Warks sall nevir die, Timor mortis non turbat me.

The “Patron” was “Mr William Carmichael, Brother to the Earl of Hyndford, who lent AR that curious MSS, collected by Mr George Bannatyne, Anno 1568, from whence these poems are printed.”

IN the early 20th century, MacDiarmid’s dervish energies to galvanise a Scottish Literary Renaissance took their inspiration from Patrick Geddes in the 1890s, publishing his own periodical anthology entitled The Evergreen and declaring the prospect of “Renascence” in Scotland which would engage the cultural and political desire for liberation from 19th-century Anglocentrism and British imperialism.

Geddes’s title was a direct reference to Ramsay, and it was Geddes who chaired and introduced what was perhaps the first public reading MacDiarmid gave, from his first book of poems, Sangschaw, in Edinburgh, in October 1925. MacDiarmid’s ambitions were revolutionary, on a global stage, but at their heart was the simplest and most essential vision of possibility: regeneration, embodied in youth, in actual women and men, in new generations and things still to come.

“Renaissance” is indeed the word: I never set een on a lad or a lass But I wonder gin he or she Wi a word or a deed’ll suddenly dae An impossibility The resurgence of creative work in the 1980s and 1990s in Scotland coincided with a comprehensive revaluation of cultural production in literature, art and music through the same period. The purpose of having this depth of understanding is to provide something essential for “vertebrate” identity – only by such understanding can the subject be compared and valued alongside other literatures.

In education, all literature has an essential value in helping to understand the various attitudes towards experience that people have and have had. Anyone who can should be encouraged to read as widely as possible – authors such as Wole Soyinka, Emily Bronte, Bertolt Brecht, Gustave Flaubert, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Cervantes, Rabelais or Dante.

Take it all in. Don’t ever stop. Read like a gourmand but write like a gourmet. You can learn things from every one of these people. But nobody should undervalue the literature of their own people, written or composed in languages close to their own, and with reference to people, places, things and events that are familiar and local to them.

As the Gaelic scholar Ronald Black once put it: “‘We’re rubbish, let’s pretend to be someone else’ has always been a powerful slogan in Scotland.” Ironically, for a long time, Scottish literature was probably valued more internationally than by Scots in Scotland. This is the situation we’ve been trying to change.

Hugh Kenner, in The Making of the Modernist Canon, in his book Mazes: Essays (1989), usefully complicates the idea: “For a canon is not a list but a narrative of some intricacy, depending on places and times and opportunities. Any list – a mere curriculum – is shorthand for that.”

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In my “narrative of intricacy”, the diversity characteristic of Scottish literature is evident in language (Gaelic, Scots and English), form (poems, plays, fiction), representation of the experiences of women and men, religious and political commitment, regional predilection and choice, epochal significance in the international context (Medieval and Renaissance, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism), momentary intimacies of personal and relational encounter, the range of different cultural sensibilities, and so on.

Therefore, there should be a balance between the representation of experiences specific to Scotland and the literary distinctiveness of their expression, or “transnational” or “universal” literary qualities.

The idea is both in some respects to confirm and in all respects to question the conventions of canon-formation. The intention is to open the prospect of reading Scottish literature in new ways, as well as the old ones. The interconnectedness leads to the coherence and the coherence makes a comprehensive vision possible. But for that to be really accepted universally, you need the virtues of an independent nation.