THE changing fashions and appetites for different kinds of “bestseller” are perennial. In Scotland, if we open the term “literature” to include such works of commercially popular fiction, perhaps the three most famous authors in the second half of the 20th century were Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean and Nigel Tranter.

The fact that the works of Maclean and Tranter have fallen so far from sight, and those of Fleming are kept in print by the strategic financial regenerations of an international film industry, reminds us that anything we have to say about commercially “popular” work has a long time in which to be tested. Yet I think

there are a few lasting curiosities about these authors worth considering.

The poet George MacBeth brought Ian Fleming (1908-64) and Raymond Chandler (1888-1959) together in 1958 for an interview recorded for the BBC. Twenty-five years later, in fragment 13 of his book My Scotland (1973), MacBeth succinctly notes the genealogy of Fleming’s character, linking his author to John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir):

“As in Raeburn’s portrait of The Two Archers, enigmatic, half-intrinsic to the arc suspended between the bow-string and the bent yews, they leap out, smiling, the two faces. Buchan’s. Fleming’s. If one is to drive, surmounting the other, into a frail lead, as horses, racing against the current of blocking air, towards fame, money, it might be Tweedsmuir’s. Neck ahead by the edge of appropriate honours, anchoring the English empire as securely as Kipling. Later it flails, tail fluke in the squirm of dependent vassals, into the beached vortex of Southern Florida, the playfields of Bond, emergent over the shirred eggs and the waffles. Half-Scotsmen, androgynous heroes of mid-cult, they amaze, worry, and flicker, ghostly candles over the vault of fiction. Close behind them in the waxed air, I hear Byron chuckle, the cracked knuckles of the bad Lord.”

Fleming’s Bond is the commercialization of Buchan’s Richard Hannay. Fleming was moving into a market much expanded from the one to which Buchan appealed, and feeding appetites Buchan would have considered vulgar. Although his national identity has not always been acknowledged, James Bond is the most famous character in post-war Scottish fiction. According to his obituary, as published in The Times at the end of You Only Live Twice, “James Bond was born of a Scottish father, Andrew Bond of Glencoe,

and a Swiss mother, Monique Delacroix …”

Fleming’s Scots background is well documented. His grandfather’s and his father’s financial successes chart the movement of the Flemings into English “society” circles, and Ian’s introduction to Eton and Oxford was the result of their aspirations. His experience of Scotland, though, was antipathetic. Fleming’s biographer John Pearson says: “He had a

horror of family gatherings, especially at Christmas, and would do almost anything to avoid

having to go near Scotland – ‘all those wet rhododendrons and people with hair on their cheeks sitting around peat fires wrapped in plaid blankets’.”

DESPITE this, of course, James Bond does have May, his treasured Scottish housekeeper (first introduced in From Russia With Love) and in Chapter nine of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when Irma Bunt (May’s opposite number) asks him if he likes the Alps, Bond (acting the part of Sir Hilary Bray) replies “I love them … Just like Scotland.” But there are no Scottish locations in the Bond adventures as there are in John Buchan’s works.

The villains in the Bond books are usually based on racial stereotypes. Three of the most memorable are red-haired (a traditionally Scottish characteristic since long before Rob Roy): Red Grant, Hugo Drax and Goldfinger. (And Red Grant, like Medina in Buchan’s The Three Hostages, is associated with the idea of Irish independence.) These villains are in a direct line of descent from the criminal masterminds who oppose Richard Hannay and Sherlock Holmes: almost all of them are opponents of the British Empire. There’s no need to elaborate on the importance of repression – or self-suppression – in the formation of “others”: it is characteristic not only of the great fictional hero of Empire and the villains he faces, not to mention Fleming himself.

(Or Buchan. Or Conan Doyle.)

Hugh MacDiarmid’s dedicated quest to uncover the reasons for “Scotland’s self-suppression” surely applies.

Fleming called Bond as a “cardboard booby” and in the BBC archive interview between Fleming and Chandler, described him as “on the whole a rather unattractive man”. Subsequently, critics have seen him as either a template for fantasy or a stooge of Empire. But he is more than merely pathetic. Fleming’s Bond is tragic.

The sexism of the films is certainly there in the fiction but the arc of Bond’s story is not one of happy male superiority. The death of Vesper Lynd, at the end of the first novel, Casino Royale (1953), haunts Bond. Ten years later, at the beginning of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963), he has been revisiting her grave near Royale-les-Eaux, when he meets Tracy, who will become his wife. After Tracy’s death, at the opening of You Only Live Twice (1964), Bond is broken, neurotic. When the villain is revealed as Tracy’s murderer, Blofeld, the success of Bond’s mission dissolves his character’s purpose. The obituary towards the end of the book is well-placed.

Kingsley Amis suggested that the death of Tracy would turn Bond into the apotheosis of the Byronic hero: a man with a “secret sorrow over a woman, aggravated by self-reproach”. Fleming recognised the appropriateness of the Bond family motto: “The world is not enough.” It certainly suggests the final, cancelled stanza of Byron’s Don Juan:

But oh that I were dead, for while alive,

Would that I ne’er had loved! Oh woman, woman!

All that I write or wrote can ne’er revive

To paint a sole sensation – though quite common –

Of those in which the body seemed to drive

My soul from out me at thy single summon,

Expiring in the hope of a sensation –

It’s wrong to describe him as “an English hero”. Only a Scot could confirm imperial identity so thoroughly, because, in the history of the Scottish nation within the British Empire, loyalty is the key. Bond’s only function is service. His identity depends on his willingness to risk self-sacrifice. His failure, despite the elephantine extensions of the industry he generated, is tragically shaped, from Casino Royale to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and its aftermath, and it is complete.

Fleming’s work points forwards to the even more prolific war, espionage and adventure stories of Alistair MacLean (1922-87): HMS Ulysses (1955), The Guns Of Navarone (1957), South By Java Head (1958), The Satan Bug (1962), Ice Station Zebra (1963), When Eight Bells Toll (1966), Where Eagles Dare (1967), Puppet On A Chain (1969), Breakheart Pass (1974) and further novels continuing well into the 1980s. Of them all, When Eight Bells Toll is set extensively in Scotland and its locations on the Isle of Mull and its main town Tobermory were faithfully used in the film version (1971), starring a young Anthony Hopkins as the James Bond-like secret agent hero.

MacLean himself was a native Gaelic-speaker from a Gaelic-speaking family, born in Glasgow, but growing up near Inverness. He was in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and his first book, HMS Ulysses (written after completing a degree in English at Glasgow University in 1953), was based on his own experiences. During the war, he had seen action in the Atlantic, then in the Mediterranean, and then in the Far East, around Burma, Sumatra and Singapore. These locations inform some of his novels but he wrote of Scotland with most affection, even while increasingly prioritising the commercial imperatives of bestseller fiction.

Each book balances the two necessary components of commercial fiction: novelty and familiarity. Each offers new characters and scenarios on one hand, and reliable structures and plots on the other. It’s a formula that cannot be endlessly repeated and there is no overarching trajectory to the novels as there is with the Bond stories. Densely written, they speak of an era in which reading itself was a different kind of activity from those familiar in the early 21st century or in the 1920s and 30s. Their style itself is now part of history.

This is also true of Nigel Tranter (1909-2000), but a different kind of popularity pertained with him. Tranter was the pre-eminent historical novelist of his time. One reason for this is that his popular novels were, arguably, the main source of historical information for thousands, perhaps millions, of Scots for generations, because Scottish history was not taught in Scottish schools. There was a deep, long-lasting appetite for stories and information about Scottish history, accessible, written with a sense of dramatic urgency. And, as with John Prebble, the drama in Tranter’s writing is in the historical stories themselves, rather than in style or plotting.

HIS best works include his

quasi-fictionalised tales of the lives of Saint Columba, William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, James IV, James V, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, and the Marquis of Montrose. Sometimes these historical figures are seen in different novels from different perspectives, almost as different people, yet the vast panorama of Tranter’s national saga takes them all in, from Druid Sacrifice (1993), set c.518-543 AD, through True Thomas (1981), based on life of King Alexander III and Thomas of Ercildoun or Thomas the Rhymer, set c.1265-1292, to the James kings (I, II, III, IV, V and VI), taking the reader from the Wars of Independence to Mary Queen of Scots and the Union of the Crowns. The Wisest Fool (1974) tells the story of James VI as he became James I of the abruptly United Kingdom, and is set 1603-1611; the Montrose trilogy is set during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms; Honours Even (1995) tells of Cromwell’s bloody invasion of Scotland; and The Patriot (1982) leads up to the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, with Andrew Fetcher of Saltoun as the central character. The MacGregor trilogy (1957-62) describes the first half of the 18th century and there are a number of other novels set in later historical periods, including the 19th-century Clearances.

Tranter was prolific: children’s books, westerns, contemporary adventure novels and many non-fiction books, histories, topographical studies, architectural guides to castles and fortified houses. When he died at the age of 90 at the beginning of the 21st century, he had probably done more to bring the history of Scotland to generations of readers than any other single person.

The virtues of popularity are not to be denied and should never be too swiftly dismissed. In some respects Tranter was attempting a cure for what MacDiarmid called “Scotland’s self-suppression”. That it has taken so long to establish Scottish history and literature in our schools is itself a historical tragedy but that these areas of enquiry are now embedded is progress, and Tranter would have been glad of that.