IN her novels, Janet Paisley (1948-2018) presents Scotland at two different crucial moments in history. First, White Rose Rebel (2007), set during the Jacobite rising of 1745, takes a perspective that immediately stretches our understanding not only of a woman’s position but of a woman’s potential and capabilities. Furthermore, it fluently foregrounds qualities of Scottish identity that contrast fiercely with those of the ascendant authority of the Hanoverian, English, and assertively British power. Then in Warrior Daughter (2009), Paisley takes us back to the ancient Celtic world of Skaaha, the woman who went on to teach the great Celtic hero Cuchulain the arts of war on the Isle of Skye. The novel recounts the ferocious contest between men and women vying for dominance in a pagan Scotland, where human priorities are seen in stark immediacy, undisguised by religious or mediated obfuscations. Violent, sexually explicit and vigorously paced, both her novels are also passionate revaluations of conventional historical priorities.

As she explains in an Author’s Note, to write Warrior Daughter realistically “meant avoiding post-Roman and Christian influence, additions or opinions, though I often used what came next to determine what went before. Archaeology and classical histories provided evidence and information. Anthropology filled the gaps. Britain was tribal, its land called Alba (Scotland) or Albion (England). Since Skaaha lived on the margin between native Picts and Irish Gaels, I gave her lineage from both. Myths and archaeology indicate a settled society of artisans, food producers, warriors and priests, trading with Europe and beyond. Skaaha’s culture is often described as Celtic, its people known for beauty, strength and ferocity. She was a warrior queen who preceded Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes, and the Icenian, Boudicca.”

Reclaiming Skaaha in fiction in this way nudges Boudicca to one side and allows Scotland – Skye and the Western Isles especially – to take their place as the territory of an ancient history and a world of imaginative truths we need to acknowledge. Both novels act in this way, reclaiming history and ways of imagining not only “what went before” but also what we might make of the future.

Her collection of short stories, Not For Glory (2001) is written in a distinctive Scots, the idiom and language of the narrative matching the speech and voices of the characters described. This is a different kind of reclamation, presenting contemporary society with a vivid presence, sympathy and a sense of moral questioning that vitalises the characters and the stories told. It’s also very funny. The setting is a village in central Scotland, where a multitude of characters, at all stages and roles of family life, in various professions and sometimes none that could be easily categorised, come and go. As James Robertson puts it, this is writing that thoroughly refuses to concede Edwin Muir’s assertion that Scots “think in one language and feel in another”: this is writing that both feels and thinks at the same time, where thinking is done with the heart and feeling with the head, and the two are connected viscerally as well as intellectually. The division itself is shown as so false, fabricated and inappropriate, as we see characters in situations of utter despondency and uproarious friendship, and hear them and feel for them, as well as see them.

Paisley’s life and work is commemorated in Janet Paisley: Growing and Dying, edited by Linda Jackson (Glasgow: Seahorse Publications, 2019).

The National:

Frank Kuppner (b.1951) draws as much from surrealism as from Scottish literature, his poetry and prose writing a perfect blend of the keen witnessing of unexpected juxtapositions and the intimate investment of personal experience. Perhaps the most deeply engaging of his works of fiction (what can we call them? – “quasi-novels”?) is A Very Quiet Street (1989), which combines elements of murder-mystery, autobiography, scholarly reconstruction and almost endless wandering through Glasgow streets and the city’s dark history. It begins: “This book, an investigation of some aspects of the Oscar Slater case by someone with an accidental but close interest in the matter, is written in such a free manner that anyone who did not already know the outlines of the story would have extreme difficulty in following it.” Kuppner’s introduction then gives the story’s outlines and the book takes us through the author’s observations of the streets and buildings he inhabits and those where Slater lived decades before. It’s a murder mystery of a kind, a portrait of a part of changing Glasgow, and employs Kuppner’s personal engagement and self-distancing on every page. It is not quite like anything else.

Kuppner’s second “novel of another sort” was called A Concussed History of Scotland (1990) and is also not quite like anything else. Its premise is: “Scotland’s appalling history sits on its back like an incubus. What it needs is a new one.” But Kuppner isn’t writing history: “There is not a single major historical figure in unequivocal sight in this work – although we do glimpse the author from time to time. Instead we have refracted from the broken crystal shards of a sequence of intense personal experiences, dazzling, witty, lyrical moments, episodes and interchanges which defy reductive and neat pigeon-holing.”

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SOMETHING Very Like Murder (1994) followed the method of A Very Quiet Street, extending the provenance from Glasgow to Eastern Europe, looking into family origins, roots and motives. In Life on a Dead Planet (1996), “an unnamed and irresponsible narrator” walks through a city in the twilight, “looking into lit windows and imagining the life within”, picking up strange objects, meeting odd people and imagining their lives, and imagining what the world would be without his presence in it. One short paragraph of speech gives the essential flavour of the book’s tone: “‘You like doubt, don’t you? You sound very keen on it sometimes.’

“‘I had never thought of it that way. I suppose I do. I prefer health to illness too, by a fairly wide margin, and I suppose that, things being as they actually are, doubt is often something very like mental health.’”

In The Beginning There Was Physics (1999) collects short stories, or rather, “brilliantly observed set pieces”, addressing all sorts of odd things, from “life’s little follies to world religions, characters let loose in unnamed cities and the slow termination of the human species”. It is packed with deadpan humour and deadly anecdotes, is even-toned and often very funny.

Kuppner’s fiction presents an urban, maze-like, mysterious, recognisable but confusing Glasgow – and other bits and pieces of the world – all mapped with forensic accuracy but explored in a fog which makes every co-ordinate point not quite reliable, subtly shifting, sometimes dangerous, occasionally reassuring, sometimes strangely dazzling. Can an obscuring thing dazzle? Reading Kuppner, the answer is very peculiarly affirmative.

The National:

Christopher Whyte (b.1961) introduces religious and sexual questions and affirmations almost unique in modern Scottish fiction. He began with a wilful subversion of Catholic assumptions in Euphemia MacFarrigle And The Laughing Virgin (1995). Set in Glasgow, we have three pregnant virgins in a West End convent, rumours about the extraordinary size of an Episcopalian clergyman’s penis, an archbishop beset by a virus that prompts excessive flatulence, a group of respectable middle-class housewives collecting condoms. All these and other phenomena are mysteriously perhaps caused by the eponymous Euphemia. The novel risks outrageous humour not everyone will share – even readers sympathetic to the satiric intent and the indictment of misery brought about by religious and sexual bigotry.

The revisions of expectations of character and location in The Warlock of Strathearn (1997) are less risky as the novel centres on a familiar figure: the shapeshifter, a character who can converse with animals and dead people, heal wounds and impose curses. In an assuring convention, the novel seems to be a translation of an obscure manuscript describing events of the 1640s, but we come to understand the perennial force of prejudice and questions of identity, disposition and choice that can never be fully consigned to history.

Whyte’s most original work perhaps is the compendium of different kinds of fiction centred on various experiences of homosexuality, sometimes reticent, sometimes forceful short stories covering a panorama of interlinked experiences in The Gay Decameron (1998). The premise is in the title: 10 gay men arrive for a dinner party in Edinburgh’s New Town. Each has a different story, one becomes immersed in an Oriental tale which appears and reappears at different places in the book, linking the whole narrative effectively as a novel, and giving permission for each man’s story to be marvellously differentiated.

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HOPE and loss, fear and affirmation, while the AIDS epidemic forms a larger context where the physical threat of disease and a social world of prejudice and misunderstanding exert their terrible pressures: all these contribute to a consistent dramatic tension in the book and give conviction to its conclusion, when two of the men calmly denounce the lack of imagination blinding so many in Scotland as elsewhere to the fact of difference among people. It is, to so many, “as if we were immigrants, and could be deported” and the dream would be a “world without homosexuals” or a “denellified Scotland” – then the questions come: “‘If only they had eyes to see. Who do they think sold them the newspaper they are reading? Did they look at the man who punched their ticket on the train?’”

The fear that, as in Hitler’s Germany, murderous violence could enforce prejudice to the point of an extinction of knowledge or visibility is answered by the affirmation, rejecting that prospect: “‘We’ll never go underground again. We’re here to stay.’”

The National:

Whyte’s fourth novel, The Cloud Machinery (2000) is set in early 18th-century Venice, where a disused theatre is about to be re-opened and put on a programme of operas and comedies. However, everyone involved must deal with the aftereffects of what happened when the theatre closed down, a decade earlier. Magical occurrences and detailed descriptions interweave in a rich evocation of the work of theatrical and musical performance in the 18th century and the relation between objective physicality and life’s inexplicable pleasures and visions. Machinery, in a theatre, might make clouds move. Yet magic, after all, is what cannot be explained.

There is something of that sense of magic at work in different ways in each of these three novelists.