INTERVIEWED on BBC2’s Newsnight programme on November 29, 2011, I was asked by the broadcaster Gordon Brewer a most egregious question; in what I remember felt like a rather supercilious tone, delivered with a certain expression that could be described, perhaps, as goading, quite gleefully and unpleasantly attempting provocation: “Is there such a thing as Scottish literature?”

Momentarily staggered by the inanity of this, or perhaps slightly stunned by the affrontery of the deliberate spike of insult behind it, I was grateful when the novelist AL Kennedy, who was there with me, leant forward and replied: “Is there such a thing as English literature or Irish literature or American literature?

“You don’t want to claim any literature for a country because it’s international and has to do with the commonality of human experience but Scotland exists, as a cultural entity, as an historical entity ...

“I want somebody to be able to sit in a Scottish school and think, I can succeed, being myself, from my country, using the language that I use, being the person that I am, and that’s very difficult to do if you don’t see images of your country in movies, if you don’t see them on television in a widespread, meaningful and powerful way, if you’re not reading Scottish texts or hearing the Scottish voice as a voice of success.

“And if you don’t understand your history you’re just going to keep on, as everybody says, repeating your mistakes.”

One up to Alison. I don’t think Gordon ever fully recovered after that.

But his question came from a world of institutional neglect, social hypocrisy and educational inadequacy that in Scotland, still needs redress.

On January 25, 2012, a front-page story in The Herald newspaper told readers the Scottish Government had decided Scottish literature would be a required subject in all schools in Scotland.

It must seem strange, or truly extraordinary – in fact, utterly preposterous – that a nation’s literature had been so neglected in that nation’s schools for so long that it was taken for granted that it should be simply an “optional extra” and that its full, guaranteed provision to young people in all schools should have had to be argued for.

Yet the case of Scottish literature is singular.

To be brief: After the Union of Crowns in 1603 and the Union of Parliaments in 1707, after the Jacobite Rising in 1745 and Culloden in 1746, from the late 18th century on, through the rollout of industrialisation, the centralised establishment of English as a subject for study in education, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, coincided with the global expansion of the British Empire.

The central authority of London as economic power and English as the language of authority prized English literature, and later American literature, as most valuable in education.

These are broad generalisations, but they serve to introduce a condition which must be decidedly unusual to readers internationally.

And when you look at it that way, it shows up as truly weird.

For a number of years leading up to the government’s decision, I was involved in various meetings with the Scottish Qualifications Authority, the Association for Scottish Literary Studies and others, and the Scottish Government itself, in the negotiations for the establishment of Scottish literature as a required subject in the school curriculum in Scotland, an entitlement to which everyone growing up in Scotland should, I believed and believe, gainfully be introduced.

Sometimes those negotiations were vexed because of the historical and cultural contexts for the long-standing relationship between Scottish and English literatures and the institutional silencing of Scottish literature in education.

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This is why the point has to be maintained, restated and argued for again and again. It cannot be taken for granted. At least, not yet. Two concerns were raised repeatedly in formal meetings and casual conversations, and they form a Catch 22 problem – to use a proverbial phrase from a once-famous American novel.

The first concern is this: how are teachers to identify what is meant by “Scottish literature”?

One question that came up – asked in all seriousness – was, “How about Macbeth?” Is Shakespeare’s great play not Scottish literature? The question might seem absurd, but the play does ostensibly deal with Scottish history, men and women and aspects of human potential at its worst. By what discrimination do you rule it out?

Its history is wildly off and its purpose as propaganda is part of the story of London theatre and royal patronage, and thus relates directly to the Scottish King James I of the United Kingdom, formerly known as Scotland’s James VI.

But the answer is NO.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is NOT an example of Scottish literature and it is best referred to not by its familiar nickname but rather as “The English Play” since it’s so thoroughly a product of an English politico-national sensibility, or, we might specify, a Warwickshire/London imagination moving fluently in London’s high circles and swimming in the city’s low life too.

So: WHAT IS “Scottish literature”?

If you’ve never studied the subject, how do you know what it is or is not?

I imagine most schoolteachers of English in Scotland have studied “English” literature in undergraduate degrees, and many will have encountered American, Irish and “postcolonial” literatures through their institutional education.

Some will have studied Scottish literature. And many will have read widely in various other literatures, as good readers and good educationalists always do. But many will have no acquaintance with Scottish literature whatsoever.

Until 2012, fine teachers might introduce Scottish literature to schoolchildren with deep knowledge and healthily contagious enthusiasm. Many did.

But the provision in schools was optional. Many other teachers might have no interest in teaching the literature of the country and they were not required to do so.

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They had the freedom to choose not to teach Scottish literature if they didn’t want to, and since many had never studied it, and a prevailing climate of prejudice against it was common if not rife in some places, it would take anyone a lot of extra effort and sheer gumption – smeddum – to get a working knowledge of it good enough to enable them with the requisite expertise.

This made the 2012 government directive an ambiguous thing. It might be welcomed as a wonderful opportunity, correcting a situation of neglect and one might argue intellectual and institutional suppression – or it might be resisted as an imposition from on high, under-resourced and authoritarian.

Try this, for example: “No man or boy within that part of Britain called Scotland, other than such as shall be employed as officers and soldiers shall, on any pretext whatever, wear or put on the plaid, philabeg, or little kilt, trowse, shoulder-belts, or any part whatever of the Highland garb; and that no tartan or party-coloured plaid of stuff shall be used for great coats or upper coats.”

That’s from the Disclothing Act of 1746. A first offence meant six months’ imprisonment; second offence, seven years’ deportation.

It took 36 years before it was repealed, in 1782. As with clothes, so with literature, perhaps in more devious, but no less effective, ways.

The second concern, arising from the idea that the teaching of Scottish literature in schools is an authoritarian imposition upon teachers as well as the young folk they teach, was often expressed as the desire to keep the options as open as possible.

Effectively this meant “open” to what was familiar and established but with no responsibility for including any Scottish work. Implicitly this signified an opposition to the very idea of a defined or prescribed canon of “Major Texts” or a “Great Tradition of Scottish Literature”.

If you can say what “Scottish literature” is, you’d better be able to exemplify it clearly.

But if you do that, you’re creating a canon of “Great Works” or “Set Texts” which is an imposition and is more likely to be resented and resisted than welcomed.

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And yet, to exclude the resource and empowerment of a canon might leave your options open to whatever you like but it can also generate self-doubt and a lack of confidence about what is agreed. While on the other hand, to insist upon a canon might be seen as coercive.

And that’s our Catch 22. Answering one question forecloses the other. And the catch works both ways. But there’s another question underlying the Catch: who needs a canon of any literature? Why not go further? Who needs literature? Or further still: Who needs culture?

The conductor Antonio Pappano, on the BBC Radio 3 programme, Music Matters, on May 1, 2021, said this: “The fact of the matter is society is identified by its culture … That’s not by accident. This is something that’s been honed and nurtured over hundreds of years.

“It doesn’t happen just by itself. It needs encouragement, it needs people to stand up for it, people from the top echelon to stand up for it, because it’s our identity. It’s what we are.”

He’s using the word “culture” here in more than one sense. Remember the Gaelic word “dùthchas” which I’ve talked about before in these columns – it indicates the interconnections between land, people, and culture.

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In these interconnections, “culture” is indeed something that “doesn’t happen just by itself” and the health of those living arises from the fluent activity in those interconnections between their locations and their productions. But sometimes that fluency is threatened or blocked, held in bias and thwart, diverted, suppressed or outlawed.

Certain priorities of culture can be imposed and crush others. Certain priorities might be upheld and might even have to be defended. This is where the idea of a canon comes in.

It’s an ambiguity.

In a letter to the editor of The Glasgow Herald (January 7, 1944) on the subject of “Scottish Composers” one of Scotland’s finest composers, John Blackwood McEwan (1868-1948), said this: “I assume the word ‘Scottish’ applied to a composer has a significance which is more than merely geographical and that the musicians who are banded together under this designation have something individual to say and are able to say it in a way [...] peculiar to their race, associations, and outlook.”

In the 21st century, we would not use the word “race” and might say instead, “their loosely grouped-together common background, history, home or sense of belonging, or personal investment and commitment” or some other description.

In order to have meaning, a designation of national identity need not be rigorously exclusive or absolutely foreclosed.

But McEwen’s description is probably too tight to accommodate all the writers listed in what I’d have as my own “loose canon” so we have to revise it.

Scotland is a subject many writers deal with directly, and the anthology Scotlands: Poets and the Nation (2004), which I co-edited with Douglas Gifford, gathers poems which explicitly engage with questions of national identity.

But there are many Scottish writers whose work deals with other things, such as the anarchist novelist and poet John Henry Mackay (1864-1933), who, born in Greenock, grew up in Germany writing in German about gay life and boy hustlers in Berlin, and hardly mentions Scotland at all.

With poems set to music by Max Reger, Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg, he’s worth rediscovering, just for his own intrinsic value and curiosity. And there are others, such as Compton Mackenzie, who write sometimes about Scotland and sometimes not about Scotland at all.

Clearly, there are literary, artistic and cultural values that cannot be constrained to political and religious priorities. Secular priorities of free speech and toleration are reciprocated by works of literature and art.

This is true even of literary and artistic works of political and religious deter-mination. Paradise Lost may have its intentions in politics and religion but its literary quality is what keeps it readable and alive. It still offers challenges and affirmations beyond its historical or religious moment.

So, when does the assertion of canonical value act as progressive resistance, rather than reactionary constriction?

Resistance to the authorities who insist upon a canon is needed when such insistence is limiting, distorting or misguided – as opposed to liberating, defining and indicative of quality. Any counter-proposal introducing different priorities and preferences is effectively another canon.

Canonicity itself is not dissolved or removed. Priorities themselves have their own historical moment.

But the only way to reject any idea of canonicity would be to surrender the power of determining priorities and preferences altogether.

That is, you give your authority to somebody else. This is surrender of power and rejection of responsibility.

You vote Conservative and only read the words of Murdoch’s empire. This has been the defining characteristic of Scotland’s political relation with England since 1707.

It’s been Scotland’s condition for many generations. And it applies just as closely to our culture as it does to our economic and political history.

When our politicians go to London, they usually lose their fire and sell out. Likewise, our artists and writers.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the arts administrators have rarely shown or acted upon good knowledge of Scottish culture and cultural history, and very few in any senior positions have ever been Scottish themselves. God forbid!

And yet, and yet, and yet … That’s not the whole story, and the story isn’t finished.