MY essays on modern Scottish fiction published in The National over the last month or two are no more than introductions to the diversity of material that has been published mainly through the 20th century.

There are many authors I haven’t been able to include because of space. I’ve given more words to older authors simply because it’s worth emphasising the value of writing which might have fallen from our attention because of shifting priorities of publishing, fashion and celebrity, reading habits, appetites and market forces.

What follows in the last essays in the series is a selection of authors whose work I haven’t talked about so far. I can’t do much more here than note names and works, suggest qualities of interest, and signpost good things, but for what it’s worth, these are tried and tested recommendations, many being the chosen preferences of Edwin Morgan, in his little booklet Twentieth-Century Scottish Classics (Glasgow: Book Trust Scotland, 1987). My own criteria are simple: each one of these authors has given me both pleasure and things I have learnt from.

But if we go back to the turn of the 19th into the early 20th century, we could say that this era sees the birth of modern Scotland.

The sisters Jane (1866-1946) and Mary (1865-1963) Findlater, in Crossriggs (1908), describe a late 19th-century small-town romance with Alexandra Hope searching for a valid and valuable life, finally sailing off for Japan with her father, leaving Scotland behind. That’s a bald and bland description but as soon as you start into the novel, curiosities abound. It begins: “Romance, I think, is like the rainbow, always a little away from the place where you stand.

So the old days at Crossriggs may have been no more interesting than the present – perhaps it is only the distance of years that makes the picture so vivid.

Yet surely certain places, certain periods of time are touched with interest independent of the glamour of the past?”

The pre-war village society presented in the book centres on: “Alexandra Hope, and young Van Cassilis, and ‘Old Hopeful’, as we called Alexandra’s father, with his venerable white head, his beaming, benevolent eye, his hopes for the world, and his hopeless want of common sense.”

Others are introduced: “Miss Elizabeth Verity Maitland, too, the terror of us all, and Robert Maitland and his wife. They pass before me now like a troop of ghosts.”

This spectral, fond, ironic ethos is summed up by Paul Binding in his introduction to the 1985 Virago edition: “All human beings possess spiritual awareness and emotional hunger in some measure or other but there is no guarantee whatever of their realisation in this life or any other: in truth, the pointers are to the contrary.” As the social world goes through its changes, the novel returns repeatedly to what Binding calls “passionate descriptions of the countryside, of the effect upon it of the seasons, of the indomitable putting forth of bud and flower. The confrontations of the reality of pain and suffering do not necessarily detract from this near-numinous sense of creation.”

It’s a world that breathes the air of the very first decade of the century, before world wars and their devastations. Victorian feminine helplessness, Alexandra’s secret love for a married man, the morality of Protestantism and the rising sense of possibility coming through the 1890s into the new century with the idea of the “New Woman” and the courage to be called upon, are all vital components.

Edwin Morgan described it as “in essence a late Victorian romance, but a serious and thoughtful one. We know the authors relished Jane Austen, and indeed refer to her in the story, but the book has a distinctive mixture of Scottish moral concern (and the Findlaters were daughters of the manse) within what is called ‘the little Crossriggs world’ of village gentry near Edinburgh and a sharper and more assertive individuality in the central character”.

Alex may yet be unfulfilled as the novel ends but the prospect of Japan and the feeling of encouragement as she watches her homeland disappear is a curious affirmation of the possibilities of the world, and what it might cost to reach them.

The cost of a new world was borne in irreversibly with the First World War. Ian Hay (1876-1952), in The First Hundred Thousand (1915), recounts the experience of recruits in Kitchener’s Army at the start of that war: as Morgan puts it, “drill, kit, food, songs, embarkation for France, dugouts, snipers, zeppelins, grenades, gasmasks, souvenir-mad villagers” are the features giving colour and variety to the homosocial military life.

Hay fought with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and while the book is a novel, its details have the authority of experience. What it lacks completely is the sense of bitter irony familiar in war fiction at least since Catch 22 (1961).

Chapter Eleven begins with a list of the “heavenly host” which “orders our goings and shapes our ends”:

  1. The War Office
  2. The Treasury
  3. The Army Ordnance Office
  4. Our Divisional Office

These are then summarised as three “departments”:

  1. Round Game Department (including Dockets, Indents, and all official correspondence).
  2. Airy Godmother Department.
  3. Practical Joke Department.

Hay’s revision of official categories is comic, but there is an unconscious irony here that would become far more self-conscious and sour by the end of the 20th century.

Having dug a new trench before their front line, the soldiers reflect on what lies ahead for them “the day after tomorrow”: “If this thing goes with a click, as it ought to do,” said Wagstaffe, “it will be the biggest thing that ever happened – bigger even than Charlie Chaplin.”

Blaikie responds: “Yes – if!”. Then there is this: “Whatever we make – history or a bloomer – we’ll do our level best,” replied Blaikie. “At least, I hope A Company will.”

Then suddenly his reserved, undemonstrative Scottish tongue found utterance. “Scotland for Ever!” he cried softly.

The next, final, chapter, goes into the present tense as the first person plural narrator tells us: “We move on again at last, and find ourselves in Central Boyau, getting near the heart of things.” And the novel closes by acknowledging that if the author writes again of “The First Hundred Thousand” they will still bear that designation but no longer be “The Hundred Thousand”. As the novel closes, the casualties are only beginning.

That cry of “Scotland for Ever!” comes from a deeply patriotic Unionism, endorsed and concentrated in the military moment, and yet, it might be argued, its virtue was now seriously beginning to question itself.

Certainly there is a sense of the pathos of possible futility there. Scotland’s survival itself was also at stake in the conflict, and people were beginning to understand more widely and more deeply that what had been defended as the protection of small nations from becoming overwhelmed and occupied by other, more powerful nations, might have some application at home rather different from that endorsed by imperialism.

Contemporary with Ian Hay was John Maclean, calling for a Scottish Socialist Republic. Maclean was perhaps one source of the representation of the Clydeside “reds” in John Buchan’s novel Mr Standfast (1919) but the actual words of Maclean’s speech from the dock of the High Court in Glasgow on May 9, 1918, can themselves be appreciated not only in their historical and political moment but as a lasting masterpiece of literary rhetoric: “I wish no harm no any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech. No human being on the face of the Earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything I can that is for the benefit of mankind.

I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.”

The fact that Maclean’s life and words had such a long and deep influence on the major poets of 20th-century Scotland, including Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean and Hamish Henderson, testifies to the kind of nationalism that was evolving through the war years. MacDiarmid’s poem “The Innumerable Christ”evokes the blood of the martyr sacrifice, as Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus did in 1592, and Maclean’s similar rhetoric brilliantly works as accusation (capitalism is the bloody business) and his own physical sacrifice in the effort to end it. After sentencing, prison wasted his health and he died only five years later at the age of 44.

Edwin Morgan, in his poem “On John Maclean” from the 1970s, quotes the words of the Lenin-appointed Bolshevik consul to Scotland (an excellent new biography has just appeared by Henry Bell): “I am not prepared to let Moscow dictate to Glasgow.”

In his trial for sedition in 1918, in Edinburgh, Maclean himself said this: “I have taken up unconstitutional action at this time because of the abnormal circumstances and because precedent has been given by the British government.

“I am a socialist and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the benefit of all. I am proud of my conduct. I have squared my conduct with my intellect, and if everyone had done so this war would not have taken place.”

Through such an era and words like these, and later, through our understanding of them in literature and the arts, modern Scotland came into being.