ONCE you are reminded of the late William McIlvanney, it’s hard not to start missing him, his writing, his coolness.

We had news this week of Ian Rankin being entrusted to work up some of Willie’s literary notes, found in his papers. These are sketches towards an early 1970s prequel for his ground-breaking crime novel, Laidlaw, which Rankin – an avowed McIlvanney devotee – has turned into a fully realised work.

“I would find myself waking up in the middle of the night with a line that felt like a Willie line and I would scribble it down,” says Rankin. As I’ve been sampling McIlvanney’s corpus in the last few days (“Corpus! Just don’t make a corpse of me in the process,” I can imagine him snapping), this seems a particularly appropriate method.

McIlvanney mapped the Scottish unconscious so powerfully that, when you read him now, he seems to stand behind most of our discourse about Scottish identity and progress.

Scott Hames’s recent and mightily impressive study The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution collects a rich range of McIlvanney’s Scotland-defining statements. They pop up everywhere – whether it’s fiction and journalism, media and speeches.

READ MORE: How one Scots writer made friends with giants of the literary world

The first Hames cites was around about the first time I personally encountered Willie, in the early 1990s flurry of constitutional activism. He spoke at the head of the 1992 “Scotland Demands Democracy” Edinburgh march, which came to a halt in the Meadows with 30,000 people.

I moved from backstage to the crowd to hear his words.

“We gather here like refugees in the capital of our own country. We are almost 700 years old and we are still wondering what we want to be when we grow up. Scotland is in an intolerable position. We must never acclimatise to it – never! Scottishness is not some pedigree lineage. This is a mongrel tradition!”

As Neal Ascherson recalls it (and he’s right), at the last line, “the crowd broke into cheers and applause which lasted on and on”. But as Hames also notes, this was McIlvanney updating his judgment on the Scotland which didn’t get devolution over the line in 1979:

“A cowardly lion with mange … who felt the risk of being not confined, who smelt the terrible distances of freedom.”

In short, McIlvanney charts a shift from blaming the “inner character” of Scotland for failing to seize its own power, to blaming the “outer UK state” for imposing limits on our civic ambition. In retrospect, it’s a crucial distinction. It drives indy politics to this day, as an antidote to the cringe mentality of “we canny dae it”.

But as many commentators note, McIlvanney’s fiction has always been gripped by questions of the right to determine your “self” and “identity”, at the exact meeting point of individual and collective.

His 1975 Whitbread Award-winning book Docherty contains this much-quoted scene. The working-class protagonist, Conn, is thumped by his teacher, disciplining him for using Ayrshire Scots in the classroom: “In the pause Conn understands the nature of the choice, tremblingly, compulsively, makes it. ‘Ah fell an’ bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur’. The blow is instant.”

Again, as Scots language activists currently intensify their claims to the mainstream, McIlvanney has planted the flag well in advance.

Yet the delight to be had from McIlvanney’s work is the way his deep philosophical anxieties always run alongside, and often trouble, his desire to write about solidarity, community and class.

His pensive detective Jack Laidlaw is an ideal vehicle for this. In The Papers of Tony Veitch, while contemplating his suspect, Laidlaw pronounces: “Everybody mattered or no-one did … All we have is each other, and if we’re orphans, all we can honourably do is adopt one another, defy the meaninglessness of our lives by mutual concern.”

Or take this from the first novel, Laidlaw. “I can’t stop believing that there are always connections,” Laidlaw says. “The idea that bad things can happen somehow of their own accord, in isolation. Without having roots in the rest of us. I think that’s hypocrisy. I think we’re all accessories.”

AND finally, from Strange Loyalties: “Who shouldn’t feel guilt? In our guilt is our humanity ... The acknowledgement of your own guilt shouldn’t be a means of absolving others. No scapegoats. Everybody shares.” (No wonder Laidlaw’s superior says “he’s not a detective. He’s a shop-steward for neds”).

If Mr Rankin is waking up at night with bon mots to match these apothegms, he will have channelled McIlvanney extremely well. The new book’s title, The Dark Remains, is almost too perfect. What existential depths will the young Laidlaw’s first case take him to?

The other joy in recalling Willie is his unashamed embrace of his role as a public intellectual. Laidlaw the detective may have secreted philosophers like Kierkegaard, Camus and Unamuno in his desk drawer, “like caches of alcohol” – resources that helped him to “inhabit the paradoxes”. But you can be assured that his author was roaming around much more widely than that.

For a brief period in the late 1990s, Willie and I were on recto and verso pages of The Herald on Saturday.

READ MORE: Alan Riach: There are differences between language, speech and the sound of music

He used the format of a pub-symposium – titled The Jury Room – to let his aphoristic mind go where it liked.

Characters such as Tequila Sunset, Matt the Mesomorph, the Greyman, Dave the Rave, the barman Harry Kari, or Gus the Guru engaged McIlvanney’s restless “I”. The topics skipped fluently from the trivial to the cosmic, by way of philosophy and history.

On the other side of the page, I was commissioning postmodern theorists to expound on everything from Marx to marketing, Disney to D’Arcy Thompson, in a headache-inducing riot of typography.

I leave you to imagine which was the more readable and memorable Saturday-morning experience. But it was beautiful to have Willie there. We literally had each other’s back (for as long as our editors could bear us entirely following our noses).

I have only a few memories of him from real life – mostly from that period where “representing” Scotland was the job taken up by artists and writers, in the absence of the elected class of a Scottish parliament. Again, the joy of the recollection comes from McIlvanney’s sensitivity, complexity and thoughtfulness.

I always have a sense-memory of the writer, in these artist-activist moments, looking like he’d been ambushed by ideologues. A mouthy group of us once met him by chance in a bar at Haymarket station. Though he eventually settled, Willie’s involuntary reaction was to scout for the exit door.

His friend the scholar Gerard Carruthers writes that “McIlvanney was a socialist, though mainly in the practical sense. He believed that communal values make us most human, enabling us to shelter one another from inevitable misfortunes – self-inflicted or otherwise”.

And class strongly contended with nation for Willie’s loyalties. Carruthers reports that McIlvanney had eventually voted Yes in 2014, but told the academic he had done so for “strategic reasons”.

A typically sophisticated position for the man to take. My last sustained engagement with his work was 1996’s The Kiln – probably the most European of his novels, a sumptuous coming-of-age story flipping between the 50s and now.

Even here, McIlvanney writes like a prophet of the present: “For in him, the highly developed Scottish propensity for duality of nature divided like an amoeba, into a small riot of confused identities.”

No further comment required.

Roll on the publication of The Dark Remains, sometime in 2021. Even in simulated form, it will be good to have Mr McIlvanney back again.