CATHERINE Carswell, Nan Shepherd and Willa Muir – these three writers prompt revision of any sense that the Scottish Renaissance spearheaded by Hugh MacDiarmid was a men-only affair. But we need to be discriminating in our understanding of the term, for it was not a unitary or coherent club that members took out subscriptions to join. In fact, the “Scottish Renaissance” might be thought of in at least three different ways.

MacDiarmid first came out with it, drawing on the vision of Patrick Geddes in the 1890s, then attributed it to the French scholar and literary critic Denis Saurat, who called the movement “La Renaissance Ecossaise”. In 1923, MacDiarmid said the Scottish Renaissance was over, it had happened. It had been principally “a propaganda of ideas” and now that the ideas were out, all that remained was to let them ferment and fructify, and see what would happen.

Still, if we were to name a few writers, composers and artists immediately associated with MacDiarmid as the “core” of the Scottish Renaissance we would have to note the writers William Soutar, Edwin Muir, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Neil Gunn, the composer Francis George Scott, and the artists William Johnstone and William Crozier. All men. And we’d date it 1920-30s. But then there are others who were not directly inspired by MacDiarmid’s lead but who were working earlier, at the same time, and later, who might be described as contributing to the enormous outpouring of artistic and creative works energised in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. James Bridie would be an obvious name but there are many others, including Violet Jacob, Marion Angus and Helen Burness Cruickshank. They all had different degrees of contact, friendly or otherwise, with MacDiarmid and his closer associates. So we might describe the Scottish Renaissance as inclusive of a wider range of writers and artists, including the great modernist composer Erik Chisholm.

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Then thirdly, we might identify further waves or a successive series of cultural proliferations, some in a continuity and progression from MacDiarmid’s initial movement, some responding to it critically, some with no direct relation to it but simply taking its achievements for granted (or rejecting them) and moving forward in different ways, revitalising energies in the wake of the Second World War, and on into the 21st century.

A “second wave” might be that generation of poets, pre-eminently men, depicted in Sandy Moffat’s painting Poets’ Pub and a “third wave” might be the writers of prose fiction who became most conspicuous and widely-appreciated in the 1980s, while yet another “wave” might be the poets and playwrights who span the 20th and 21st centuries, pre-eminently women. But of course, women were there all along.

Carswell (1879-1946) was born in Glasgow, read English at the university there, then studied music in Germany. She married in 1904, but it was annulled in a famous court case, because of her husband’s mental illness and she had a long relationship with the artist Maurice Greiffenhagen, head of life drawing at the Glasgow School of Art.

Carswell worked as a professional reviewer for The Glasgow Herald, moved to London in 1912 and married Donald Carswell in 1915. She was a long-standing friend of DH Lawrence, and was sacked from The Glasgow Herald when she reviewed Lawrence’s novel.

The Rainbow (1915) there. Lawrence encouraged her writing and closely supported her work on her own novel Open the Door! (1920). The development of self-determination, independent thought and the understanding of sexuality in the novel’s heroine, Joanna Bannerman, makes Joanna one of the great women characters in modern fiction: vulnerable, tough, bright and strong.

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Like Willa Muir’s Elizabeth Shand in Imagined Corners, the Scottish world is not enough for Joanna, and Italy and Europe must be experienced before she can fully inhabit her own potential. Carswell’s distinction was to see this and balance the cultural richness described in the novel against the individual strength and sensitivity of the heroine. Her second, equally unique novel, The Camomile (1922), is a portrait of a woman who begins as a student of music but turns to writing as her chosen art. Written in oblique, psychologically penetrating, epistolary form, the novel is modernist in both subject and technique.

Her next major work was a biography, Robert Burns (1930), which reads more like a novel than a historical reconstruction and, appearing when it did, caused a furore. Carswell’s presentation of the man was offensive to pious or even idolatrous devotees who held Burns in high reverence. One apparently sent her a bullet in the post, advising her to desist from such defamation of the icon, but the book changed the way Burns was perceived forever.

Further biographies followed: The Savage Pilgrimage, a life of DH Lawrence (1932), and The Tranquil Heart (1937), a life of Boccaccio.

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A posthumous autobiography Lying Awake (1950) was edited by her son and a biography by Jan Pilditch was published in 2007. Carswell was of a slightly older generation than MacDiarmid and kept her distance from the Scottish Renaissance movement he led, but, after initial suspicions were overcome, MacDiarmid and Carswell became good friends and they thought highly of each other’s work.

Two further volumes have appeared which invite reconsideration of her achievement, both edited by Pilditch and published in 2016: Selected Letters covers the period 1900-46; and Catherine Carswell’s War Letters concentrates on 1939-46. Organising the material in this way was a bold editorial decision. It means that you can get an overview of Carswell’s story in one, while the letters of the war years, given most fully in the other, tell a deeper and more nuanced understanding of her experience of that period. Both are rich and complex.

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SHEPHERD (1893-1981) was a perceptive critic of MacDiarmid’s writings and endorsed his vision of a Scotland in renaissance but pursued her own vision without compromise. Her three finely written, carefully balanced novels, The Quarry Wood (1928), The Weatherhouse (1930) and A Pass in the Grampians (1933), combine the priorities of feminism – her central characters are women, especially young and elderly women – with a rigorous attention to aesthetic precision and the exploration of philosophic ideas about identity and freedom, landscape and spirituality, responsibility and choice. Her fiction – and the meditation on feeling and fact, spirit and matter, in The Living Mountain (1977) – amount to an irreducible achievement, modernist in its calculation and intensity of focus, feminist in its commitment to liberation from the ideology of patriarchy.

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The Quarry Wood is the story of Martha Ironside, from farm croft to university to the point of assertion of total independence from subservience to men. Complementing the strength of the novel’s thesis (which never seems merely programmatic), there is a detailed picture of pre-First World War life at Aberdeen University.

The Weatherhouse is set during the war, but concerns characters, motivation and morality in a small Scottish town, ultimately delivering a sense of the intimacy between the doctrinaire, morally unambiguous world of fact, and the flawed, frail, compromised world of people. The novel deals equally and squarely with each of its main characters, their outward actions and internal motivations, rejecting simple polarities of moral authority and infusing the social context with a measurement of value drawn from landscape, weather, the visual world and a sense of geological depth. Shepherd’s work is made more enjoyably accessible by the publication of a thorough biography, Into the Mountain: A Life of Nan Shepherd (2016) by Charlotte Peacock, and a selection of her writings, Wild Geese (2018), edited by Peacock. If Carswell’s world is characterised by social engagement in the worlds of Glasgow and Europe, Shepherd’s is much more red in her own individual relation to the natural world in the Grampians.

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An early work by Willa Muir (1890-1970), Women: An Enquiry (1925), is a sharply-focused study of the extent to which women were discouraged from fulfilling their potential. It was later developed into Mrs Grundy in Scotland (1936). Her two novels are lastingly impressive: Imagined Corners (1931) and Mrs Ritchie (1933). The first is craftily constructed, even-handedly showing the repressions at work on men as well as women in small-town Scotland. In the town of Calderwick, modelled on Montrose, Elizabeth Shand follows the prompt of her desire and marries Hector, only to discover the inadequacies of her husband, though Muir never simply caricatures nor dismisses him.

Muir realises the pressures that have led to his failings as much as those that have prompted Elizabeth. The complex picture of their social and family context is deftly built and convincing. The book then takes an unexpected turn with the arrival of Elizabeth’s namesake and widowed sister-in-law from Europe, bringing self-confidence and a wide range of experience and knowledge to this oppressive world. It is as if the two Elizabeths are mirrors of each other, and the small-town mind begins to open hungrily towards the possibilities indicated by her well-travelled relation. Finally, they leave together for France. Mrs Ritchie is also set in Calderwick, and seems more extreme and exaggerated as the protagonist, Annie Rattray, develops into a domestic monster, close to the dominating patriarchs in The House with the Green Shutters and Gillespie. Imagined Corners is the more balanced novel, and optimistic in its sense of what women might make of themselves, but the power of Mrs Ritchie should not be underestimated and it can stand comparison with the more famous anti-kailyard novels of George Douglas Brown and MacDougall Hay. The Shands offer the promise of how Scotland might benefit from reconnecting with European culture, while Mrs Ritchie presents, arguably, the fulfilment of a Scotswoman’s potential at its worst.

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Muir’s non-fiction, in her autobiographical and critical accounts Living with Ballads (1965) and Belonging (1968) are also memorable, describing with self-confidence and discrimination her life with Scottish literature, with her husband Edwin, and with other men and women in the cultural milieux they moved in. Belonging includes a revealing portrait of MacDiarmid – Chris Grieve – and his first wife Peggy, when they and the Muirs were living near each other in Montrose in the 1920s. While never merely following MacDiarmid’s “leadership” the achievement of Edwin (who had been one of MacDiarmid’s strongest allies) and even more, the achievement of Muir, is singular, lasting, and not to be undervalued. More than simply offering portraits of individuals in an autobiography, though, Belonging reveals the imposition of gender roles, the pleasures and liabilities of social and personal expectations, in Muir’s story. Aileen Christianson’s critical study, Moving in Circles: Willa Muir’s Writings (2007) is an excellent introduction to her work and a revealing exploration of her life and times.

Carswell, Shepherd and Muir are significant writers by any standard and have their place in any canon of modern literature. Scotland should be glad to give them acclaim.