One of the classics of science fiction (or “speculative fiction”) is A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) by David Lindsay (1878-1945), noted by the American critic Harold Bloom as one of the only 17 Scottish books that make it into his list of major works in the “Canon” of Western Literature. It’s warranted. The novel begins with an interstellar space exploration leaving earth and Scotland far behind but as soon as Muspel, Crystalman and Krag get us to the planet of Tormance, orbiting Arcturus, we’re into a wildly unpredictable, compelling spiritual quest.

It’s as if all the bleak austerities of post-Reformation Scotland, quests and yearnings, frustrations and thwarted desires, are transposed to a world of tropical, hallucinatory colour and shifting forms. Ultimately, however, the rules of human mortality prevail. The search for order and the quest beyond the self are brilliant motivations, driving the narrative forward, and the characters are all highly realised, so in the end, there’s a sense that material reality may be real, but it’s never enough. The world is always in need, and imagination is the most essential weapon in the armoury.

Eighty years on, Matthew Fitt (b.1968), in But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) returns us to earth but in a horrifying future where Scotland has been almost entirely drowned by another great flood and a supervirus is raging. There’s a quest of another kind here, and the novel is entirely written in Scots, which presents readers with a different mix of alienation and intimate infection. You start in bewilderment and unknowing but very quickly get taken up into the urgency of the “rescue mission” at the core of the story. What’s to be rescued? A character, a culture, the language itself.

Between these two stands Ian Macpherson (1905-44), whose first novel, Shepherds’ Calendar (1931), foregrounds love of country and a yearning for education, as, growing through the seasonal regenerations, young John Grant finally sets out to leave his domineering family for university in Aberdeen. The novel is similar in some respects to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song (1932) and his short story, “Clay” but it has its own lonely distinction. This is even more tragically realised in Macpherson’s Wild Harbour (1936). Here is science fiction at its most despairing, a Scotland of war, malignant bacteria, poison gas, bombs exploding far off, coming closer. The couple – Hugh, the narrator, and his lover Terry – want nothing to do with the approaching conflict and take to the hills to avoid the violence. The first sentence reads: “This morning I said to Terry, ‘I thought I heard guns through the night.’” Indeed he has, and they’re getting near. The novel tells of the outbreak of the Second World War three years before it happened, and how feelings of hopelessness and horror spread among the people who care most about the landscape so tenderly evoked in Shepherds’ Calender. As John Burns writes in his introduction to the 1989 Canongate edition, the novel is “imbued with a deep and haunting apprehension of man’s precarious position in the universe”.

Other forms of domestic and universal hope and despair across Scotland’s geographical diversity are found in The Gowk Storm (1933) by N. Brysson Morrison (c.1906-86): three daughters growing up in a manse in the Highlands are set to find love or tragedy. The novel is written with emotional authority in its characterisation and immediacy in its depiction of landscape and weather. And in The Land of the Leal (1939) by James Barke (1905-58), a farming couple, David and Jean Ramsay, move from Galloway to Fife and then Glasgow; fascist and socialist politics battle each other while creatural mortality is measured in the scales of contested politics and seasonal regeneration.

Best known as a playwright, Robert McLellan (1907-85), in Linmill Stories (1990), evocatively describes the characters and terrains of the fruit farms of the Clyde valley, around Lanark, developing his childhood memories. These are stories based on a young boy’s perception of a benevolent world.

These books are fiction but closely based on the life experiences of their authors. More specifically memoirs, similarly charming yet realistic, tough, convincing and beautifully written, are the collections of Finlay J. Macdonald (1925-87), Crowdie and Cream (1982), Crotal and White (1983) and The Corncrake and the Lysander (1985), all set in the Outer Hebrides on the Isle of Harris. A counterpoint to this collection is the Gorbals trilogy by Ralph Glasser (1916-2002), Growing Up in the Gorbals (1986), Gorbals Boy at Oxford (1988) and Gorbals Voices, Siren Songs (1990). These two aspects of Scotland, archipelagic and urban, are complementary and suggest the multi-facetedness of the nation.

And there are many works of fiction that don’t fit into any categories in particular.

Bruce Marshall (1899-1987), in Yellow Tapers For Paris: A Dirge (1943), gives us a portrait of the capital city of a France about to be overrun and occupied by the Nazis, not only facing military defeat and occupation, but already suffering moral desolation and urban ennui. That feeling of self-indulged vulnerability is the object of Marshall’s sorrowful but caustic satire, his scornful yet humane compassion. We meet the main character, Bigou, an accountant in an industrial firm, his desultory wife Marie and sulky daughter Odette, his uninspiring friends and fellow-workers, and the general inclination towards money and pleasure as goals without purpose, in a country given over to despondency and helplessness. It presents a fearful picture of tragic reduction of national aspiration, pointing towards inanition and beyond that, violence. It’s an extraordinary novel, having more in common with Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) by Alfred Döblin or The Sleepwalkers (1932) by Hermann Broch (1886-1951) than with better-known novels set in Scotland. In 1948, for a new edition of the book published in 1949, Marshall wrote: “While I am not prepared to pretend that Yellow Tapers for Paris is as good a novel as I should have liked it to be, I am still convinced that it contains a more accurate picture of life in that city from 1934 till 1940 than my no doubt well-intentioned critics imagined. This conviction has been strengthened by a recent residence of fourteen months in Paris, where I found the same yellow tapers still burning, only slightly lower in their sconces.” The tapers were the candles used in the Catholic Church for funeral and remembrance services.

Marshall himself was long-lived and prolific, saw service in both World Wars and retired to France, dying in his 87th year. He remains a neglected Scottish novelist well deserving reassessment.

Neil Paterson (1915-1995), in his short novel The China Run (1948), tells the story of a Victorian woman who becomes a ship’s captain after the death of her husband, enduring storms around Cape Horn, and taking bizarre cargoes (dead bodies, nitrate, umbrellas) to unfriendly harbours. And Dorothy K. Haynes (1918-1987), collects her astonishing short stories in Thou Shalt Not Suffer a Witch (1949), each one infused with inexplicable, mysterious atmospheres, focusing on such subjects as a Polish woman refugee or the mechanics of medieval punishment. The art world is the context of Creating a Scene (1971) by Elspeth Davie (1918-1995), with the teacher, Foley, and his pupils Joe and Nicola, working on an ill-fated mural at an old swimming-pool about which local people have mixed feelings. And in A Truth Lover (1973), a finely-edged, sympathetic, stylishly self-conscious comedy, by John Herdman (b.1941), a wide-eyed student travels through Paris, Zurich, prison, and a Speyside hotel, slowly coming to realise his potential, and insignificance, in the world. Herdman takes the Candide-like idea further in Pagan’s Pilgrimage (1978).

Christian Miller (1920-2012), in A Childhood in Scotland (1981), recalls her life in an ostensibly aristocratic family home in 1920s Scotland, where her resilient humour has to endure and contest the disciplinary rule of her father and the attempt to maintain the priorities of decayed feudalism. Another vision of “aristocracy” is presented by Elspeth Barker (b.1940), in her weird short novel O Caledonia (1992), taking us into the domestic mysteries of certain members of an upper-class family in the Gothic Highlands. Desires and nightmares are uneasily set against oppressive priorities of reason and righteousness. The opening of Miller’s novel suggests the atmosphere of both these books: “When I was a little girl, the ghosts were more real to me than the people. The people were despotic and changeable, governing my world with a confusing and alarming inconsistency. The ghosts, on the other hand, could be relied on to go about their haunting in a calm and orderly manner.”

A MORE immediately humane sensibility rises in the writing of Bernard MacLaverty (b.1942), not only in his early novels Lamb (1980) and Cal (1983) but perhaps most hauntingly in Grace Notes (1997), where a composer, Catherine Anne McKenna, introduces us to her family conflicts and resolutions in Glasgow and the Hebrides, and also her art and practice in the composing of music, unemphatically demonstrating the counterpoints of art and life, how they help and enhance each other. Midwinter Break (2017) follows a retired couple to Amsterdam, where they are taking a holiday and recollecting their earlier lives in a troubled Ireland. Again, the gentler virtues are set against our human potential for self-destruction, and the tension generated is held taut in personal, but also in political and European-wide contexts.

An even larger canvas is painted by William Boyd (b.1952) in The New Confessions (1987), which takes John James Todd from genteel Edinburgh through the historical panorama of the First World War, and in Any Human Heart (2002), where Logan Mountstuart emerges from the Second World War to New York’s 1960s art industry, and in Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009), where a John Buchan-like premise catapults the symbolically-named Adam Kindred from his comfortable social zone into an existential quest through London’s unreliable fogs of competing powers and strange identities.

Across society’s strata and geographical diversities, Andrew O’Hagan (b.1968), in his first novel, Our Fathers (1999), centres once again on Glasgow. The novel’s focus is the housing in which people live, from the tenement slums to the high rise flats, and what follows after them. Its deeper concern, however, is what the term “living conditions” really means, from one generation to another, as the grandson of one pioneering architect tries to understand and move forward into an architecture of his own. The novel ends with a scribble on a board, a quotation from Hugh MacDiarmid: “‘There are ruined buildings in the world,’ it said, ‘but no ruined stones.’”

It’s a good thought to begin with.