google-site-verification: googlec5b823ce2758e685.html

Neil Gunn Memorial Lecture - 9th November 2012, Dunbeath 

The Writer in a Time of Change: 

Gunn, Walsh and the Process of Independence

Michael Russell MSP

Cabinet Secretary for Education & Lifelong Learning. 

Can I first of all thank the organisers for their long standing invitation to deliver this lecture.  My diary has not permitted it for the past few years  but Christine is very persistent and I knew I had to say yes at some stage.  I am glad to have done so at last and I have spent a very interesting and positive day in Caithness visiting many of those involved in Education and learning much about their excellent work here.

Some of you will know that  my abiding interest outside politics – and my occupation before and between political activity - has been as a writer and commentator , usually on matters cultural.  So I am always happy to think about, talk about and discuss the work of writers and particularly their messages to their readers, direct and indirect. 

Tonight therefore it is not just the honour I have referred to but also a pleasure to consider with you the role of writers in a time of constitutional change and to relate that to the great Neil Gunn who, I surmise, might not be unhappy with the progress that Scotland is now making on her constitutional journey though I suspect he would be very unhappy with the negative nature of some of the current debate . 

Let me however start with a caveat.  Writers are not politicians and when writers become politicians it often ends in tears.  Conor Cruise O'Brian made that point supremely well in an essay on Yeats, whose role as an Irish Senator - a player in the political process - was not his finest or most consistent hour.   

We can look closer to home for that message too.  Robert Burns was a passionate Scot but he needed a job in the Excise and therefore the poet of Scots Wha Hae is also the poet who could write of "Britons strong and Britons true " always being united. 

Writers are always much more than barometers or bell weathers and writing , particularly of fiction, is not simply reportage of the times.  Indeed to take another Scottish example   Robin Jenkins – that  great 20th century Scottish novelist, who wrote regularly for more than half a century and who bears some comparison with Dickens in his social concerns - was without doubt in favour of some degree  of Scottish constitutional progress for all that time (after all it was he who wrote that “ a country that does not take itself seriously does not deserve to be taken seriously by any other country). Yet it is hard to tell in his work exactly where he wants that progress to go, and where it has gone whilst he has been writing.  The contemporary clues are difficult to find.  He is telling stories , not charting a process.

None the less it would be moderately safe to claim that writers who take a particular political stance - as Gunn did - are capable of being examined with the aim of understanding more fully the political process of their times, and to help us understand the political process of ours.

The most recent - and perhaps the best in many generations - example of that lies in James Roberson's magnificent  novel "And the Land Lay Still".  I am very pleased that, as the chair of the Creative Scotland awards in the year that gave James the resource to start the project, I played a small part in enabling it.  James is not a politician but his political sympathies are clear, as is his understanding of the complex nature of the political process within society and in particular the nature of the process of constitutional change - it's roots, it's difficulties and (above all) it's symbiosis with culture.

That symbiosis is a matter of the times as well as the context.  It is matter of lives lived as well as experiences observed.  It is about place and about perspective.  And it is about involvement as well as an author's necessary detachment or distance, even passionate, angry detachment which is a term best used to describe the work of a writer such as James Kelman. 

With those points in mind, this evening I want to look at  both Neil Gunn and his colleague, fellow writer and friend, Maurice Walsh.

This is an audience who will know much more about Gunn than I do and in some cases from personal friendship.  So I would lose miserably in a battle of dates, publications and all.  But perhaps Maurice Walsh will not be as well known so let me outline briefly his story.

Walsh and Gunn are connected by whisky and freedom, if I may mis-use a quote.   To be  precise by the shared experience of being revenue officers at whisky distilleries in the early part of the 20th century and by Gunn’s awakening to the national dimension of politics through Walsh’s Irish nationalism. 

Walsh was born in 1879 near Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland.  His father , a farmer , was interested in books and horses and he passed on to his son a particular love of legends and folk tales.

Walsh entered the Civil Service - that is the British Civil Service - in 1901 and become a Customs and Excise Officer.  He was quickly posted to Scotland where he started to write and got married.  He served as a revenue officer at a number of Scottish distilleries including Dufftown.

Some 16 years younger than Walsh, Gunn got to know him as a revenue officer.  They shared both professions and they came to share some politics too for Gunn became interested in the concept of Scottish self government and the cultural imperatives that he believed drove it and were driven by it through the experience of Walsh.  Their friendship took place against the backdrop of the First World War, the 1916 Easter rising, the imposition of the Black & Tans, and the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

When that happened Walsh  transferred to the excise service of the new state and moved to Dublin.  Fighting was still going on there at the time and he left his family in Scotland until it was safe for them to join him in 1923.  His most successful story  The Key Above the Door was written during those months of family separation although it was not published until some years later.

Walsh retired from government service in 1933 but his success as a writer continued. Indeed it was in that year that he first sold a story to the Saturday Evening Post, then a well-known weekly magazine published in the United States.  That story (later to be incorporated in the collection of stories published under the title Green Rushes) was The Quiet Man which was filmed in 1952 , with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara as stars. 

The Quiet Man has only a passing reference to the Irish war of independence but the context is there.  Walsh was a keen and committed Irish nationalist and indeed made one of his main  recurring fictional characters, Hugh Forbes, an active fighter against the Black and Tans in the Irish War of Independence (see Green Rushes, The Small Dark Man and The Prudent Man, the final story in Son of a Tinker).  He was also viewed as a patriotic writer who had contributed to the founding and progress of the new state, so much so that  President Éamon de Valera attended Walsh's funeral mass in 1964. 

I want to examine in more detail the cultural movements that inspired Gunn and the parallels in Ireland but before I do so,  a thought about the Civil Service.  We tend to think of it as being outwith and beyond politics but there was a  strong interaction in the 1920s  and 30s between civil servants and the emerging cultural national movement.

This is most interestingly observed in the inspirational figure of Helen Cruickshank who coordinated many of the key gatherings of the Scottish Literary Renaissance and who was a civil servant based in SAH.  It was Helen who was the driving force behind the successful campaign to get the International PEN Congress to Edinburgh in 1934 working with Edwin & Willa Muir and giving Muir an international platform for distinctive and Scottish focussed  literature and its cause.  

Walsh and Gunn were both members of PEN International in their respective national branches - branches that still exist.  Indeed as a member, I declare an interest in that socially concerned internationally active organisation  

Writers who are members of PEN support a non political body, but one which is very strongly concerned with the role of the writer as a central player in national life, shaping and stimulating national debate and standing up for individual and collective rights.  PEN’s Writers in Prison activity is worldwide, defending those who are persecuted by politicians and regimes which reject freedom of expression.

This role of a writer - an explorer of change, an aspirer for communities and nations and a recorder and reflector on individual and collective progress (or lack of it ) - was at the heart of the Scottish Literary Renaissance.  And at the heart of that renaissance were a whole range of Scottish cultural figures, including Gunn.

It is wrong of course, to refer to that Scottish modernist movement of the 1920’s onwards as only a literary renaissance.  MacDiarmid may have tried to capture it for his art form, but other creators were drawn into an intense period of discovery and creativity.

Although the French poet and critic Saurat referred to it in an article in 1922, the term and the idea of something important happening had already been referred to by the great planner  Patrick Geddes and by MacDiarmid himself.  It had been prefigured by the Celtic revival and would lay the foundations for modern Scottish nationalism - inclusive, radical, and international.   It was the antithesis of the “Kailyard” , often described a genre in which the whole of Scotland was set  in a village where trains arrived and never left and where an old order of discipline and respect was kept in place by the dominie, the minister and the polisman.

Geddes as a planner and thinker, Ferguson and the other colourists, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and many others laid foundations for the movement.  They, and it, had a keen interest in re-evaluating the past and from it learning lessons for a Scottish future.  The combination of this rootedness along with a strong visual sense, an involvement of community (Geddes’ triad “Place - Work - Folk” being central in all art forms ) and a belief that Scotland could only be creative when it was actively seeking to implement  its vision of a “common weel” created a dynamic , lasting force which probably only came to a formal  end fifty years ago at the famous 1962 Scottish Writers Festival in Edinburgh when the aging MacDiarmid called the young Trocchi “cosmopolitan scum”, bringing the ancient Scottish art of “flyting” back into fashion but marking a shift into  the primacy of the personal  as the main motivator of creativity.

One might wonder if a second renaissance, with as its foundation work  “And the Land Lay Still” is upon us now , where the personal and introspective is giving way once more to the national and the visionary.   But more evidence would be needed for that assertion than I have to hand today.

In any case that is a diversion.  In the Scottish Renaissance of the 1920 s and 30s – against a  backdrop of economic decline, emigration and political agitation - all those involved wished to see the emergence of a strong and distinctive literature which would arise from a national awakening that produced a strong and distinct Scottish political identity.  

That – so MacDiarmid and Grassic Gibbon outlined in “Scottish Scene” would have to involve  a ‘re-evaluation of our literary past’ and a concentration on Scottish themes such as Scottish life, landscape, language and history.  MacDiarmid also argued strongly for the creative use of Gaelic and Scots and their regular use in Scottish education.  Gunn of course was also a strong champion of Gaelic. 

They echoed in great part what had already happened in Ireland, in a Literary Revival which took place a generation earlier and which also had its roots  in Celticism.  But they were also seeing the outcomes of that process, which included profound constitutional change.

There were differences of course.  Their process of change had plunged the country into civil war and eventually lead to the foundation of a neutral republic.

And of course the causes of those effects were much wider than cultural and differed too.  Ireland’s economic plight was considerably worse than Scotland’s, its history was very different, its religious, educational and social cleaving from the rest of the UK was far more dramatic, it had a greater cultural homogeneity and the role of language was much stronger.

The connection between direct action and politics was also violently and destructively close  and indeed one of the saving graces of Scotland has been our determined, profound and eternal addiction to democracy, and only democracy, as the means of changing the nation.

But there were similarities that could not but be noticed , then and now, particularly in the Highlands.  19th century famine had given way to land agitation and direct action to resist the worst aspects of landlordism.  Clearance, the drive to the cities and emigration were not just in recent memory they still took place.  Language was of great importance and the decline of traditional industries with little to replace them – and the cultural context they set – was a shared experience too.

So when Gunn was learning from Walsh, he was making some direct comparisons and some indirect ones.  He was looking at and learning about the rise of culture as an expression of a desire for national political change and he was understanding the positive role of nationalism in improving the lot of  the nation and the people and in particular the Highland rural poor.  He could see a rediscovery of tradition and the importance of that tradition as key elements in charting a new course.

Gunn expresses it well in his essay “Why are writers nationalists” published in the “Scots Independent” in 1940 (and it is with great pleasure that I can say I have also written for the Scots Independent, though not nearly as well!)

Commenting on a quote from Edwin Muir’s “The Story and the Fable” he says :

“his tradition means much to a writer because only within it can he express himself most profoundly , can he body forth his unique experience as a living creature in the clearest way”

And he adds in his closing words :

“his country, which contains his tradition, must be a healthy, creative, continuing country.”

The political is clear in that – Gunn wants the “healthy, creative, continuing country” which Scotland has not yet become.   It is , in a curious way, an echo of a remark by another great Scotsman , the best and most inspirational and visionary Secretary of State for Scotland (who was also a writer)  Tom Johnston who said  twelve years later :

“I have become, and increasingly become, uneasy lest we should get our political power without first having, or at least simultaneously having, an adequate economy to administer. What purpose would there be in getting a Scots Parliament in Edinburgh if it has to administer an emigration system, a glorified poor law and a graveyard?

No country of emigration, poverty and early death could be a country that was healthy, creative and continuing.  Creativity is bound up, by Gunn certainly, as being part of the wellbeing of the nation , as important as anything else and perhaps more important than most things.

And Gunn took his lead from Muir in another matter too.  People in such a country had to have ,as Muir put it, “some real practical control of their lives.”  This implied practical and real control of those thing which influenced lives – things as large as government and landlordism .

In Gunn’s 1941 novel  “The Silver Darlings” the themes of tradition and control come together – the need for individuals to be more than machines that eat and sleep and do others bidding.  And in his other novels the individual will, the freedom of choice and the inspiration that comes from the past are all dominant issues.

In summary I suppose then we can say this.  Gunn argued that we should focus on our own land and traditions, influenced in a great part by the Irish experience.  For him these were the true sources of creativity and if we were influenced by them we would inevitably grow in self confidence and self belief.  That would result in the desire to take our own decisions which is the essence of nationalism, then and now. 

For, as the Frist Minister regularly and rightly reminds us, the people who know what is best for Scotland are the people who live in Scotland.

For Neil Gunn this would mean a better literature, a better creativity and a better culture.  And it would not be one of narrow nationalism but, as he put it , one of a nationalism which “creates that which internationalism enjoys (for)  the more varied and multiple your nationalism, the richer and profounder your internationalism’ .  

And he went on to contend that it is only when we are ‘moved by the traditions and music and poetry of our own land that we are in a position to comprehend those of any other land’.  

Ladies & Gentlemen

I want to now look at two outcomes of such consideration.  The first is about teaching of Scottish literature and the second is about the role of the artist.   In considering that perhaps I can come full circle and can end up again at my title – the writer in a time of change.

There has been a renewed outbreak of controversy this week about the teaching of Scottish literature and by extension about the teaching of Scotland in any part of the curriculum.

We might have thought that the exclusion of  knowledge of our own country from what children learn had been banished in the past.   

But alas not, or at least not everywhere.

The way in which these topics were treated is well captured by Robin Jenkins – himself a teacher all his life – in that great novel Fergus Lamont , when his hero, John Calderwood, is teaching a history lesson about the Clearances.  He places a child at the door to watch for the Head Master but inevitably he is caught and given a dressing down.

The Head Master says this to him :

“I must warn you.  You are filling these children’s minds with poison.  You are undermining their confidence in legally constituted authority.  It is a mistake to study the history of one’s own country.  It divides us instead of uniting us…why bother with stuff so out of date?”

But quickly there is a response, and from a small girl who lives in the Gantock slums.  

“It isn’t out of date, Mr Maybole” she says.  “People are still being pit oot of their hooses.”

I am happy to accept there may be educational arguments for ensuring that set texts don’t get in the way of real learning.  That is the essence of Curriculum for Excellence and it is why there will be a long list of many choices for what is studied.

But when I am told that the study of Scottish literature will drive out real literature, when I am asked by inquirers if their children will suffer because they have to learn about their own country, when I am in essence told that the action would be tantamount to “filling these children’s minds with poison”, then I think what a strange land  we still live in.

Fortunately those views  are now only held by a tiny minority, and largely spread only by opposition politicians.  As Gunn realised well over half a century ago, it is not only desirable but essential that we learn of our past , of our traditions and of the living culture all around us.   Only by so doing can we hope then to create the type of society in which we all wish to live – that country which is “healthy, creative and continuing” .

And the proponents of that country don’t have to be narrow in any sense.  Indeed the opposite is true.  Those who love our culture and know of it are those who also know other cultures and gain from that too.

So when we encourage young people to read Scottish writers we also encourage them to read English writers and American writers and writers in translation from all over the world.

And African writers.  I am, as some of you may know, just back from a Governmental visit to Malawi and on the plane last Saturday I read again one of Chinua Achabe’s novels – “No Longer at Ease.  It speaks clearly of key issues of cultural and political shift , but even greater is  Nigerian Nobel Prize Winner Wole Soyinka’s play “Death and the King’s Horseman” which remains for me one of the greatest examinations of the force of tradition , belief and custom and how we must learn to live with these forces, rather than be destroyed by their contradictions and imperatives.   

I had the great honour of entertaining Wole Soyinka in the Parliament in Edinburgh some years ago.  As Honorary President of Scottish PEN he had addressed a congress and after a dinner which I hosted we walked  up the Royal Mile and stood and contemplated the wonderful statue of Robert Ferguson which stands outside the Canongate Kirk.   I recited to him the poem by the twentieth century Edinburgh Poet Robert Garioch which goes like this : 

Canongait Kirkyaird in the failing year

is auld and grey, the wee rosiers are bare,

five gulls leam white agin the dirty air:

why are they here?  There's naething for them here.

Why are we here oursels?  We gaither near

the grave.  Fergusons mainly, quite a fair turn-out,

respectfu, ill at ease, we stare

at daith - there's an address - I canna hear.

Aweill, we staund bareheidit in the haar,

murnin a man that gaid back til the pool

twa-hunner year afore our time.  The glaur

that haps his banes glowres back.  Strang, present dool

ruggs at my hairt.  Lichtlie this gin ye daur:

here Robert Burns knelt and kissed the mool.

Tradition meets tradition meets tradition.  A poet from the past remembered by a poet in the present and listened to  by a poet from another continent.  Tradition living in our lives.

Literature, and all the arts, make those links.  They mix worlds, they help us to understand where we have been, are and could be are and they educate as about what has been, is and must be. 

And that process starts from where we stand and spreads outwards to encompass the world.

So as long as I am Education Secretary I will espouse the normality of learning about our own creators , but learning also about many others.   Indeed I don’t believe than any other mix is, in the end, possible.

You cannot, by definition, be internationalist without having some rooting in your nation.  To voyage abroad you have to have a concept called home. 

And to embrace the universal you must know the local.

What I am about as a politician is not narrowing the focus, but widening it and bringing to my own home the normality of elsewhere.  Just as Scotland’s makars bring self knowledge to us from their worlds and let us know ourselves and our place on the planet ; sometimes for the first time. 

But that is not to say that all those creators share my politics – and that is the second lesson I want to draw from tonight.

Of course I find Neil Gunn politically sympathetic.  He was a nationalist and proudly talked of it.  But others he quotes were not.  Edwin Muir, whom I have mentioned several times, was far less clear about his own  stance.  He was , if anything, a Douglasite, a fan of that strange and now almost forgotten philosophy, Social Credit – an economic system which  surprisingly has not been resuscitated after the banking collapse given its emphasis on a different form of banking and financing.

And though in the Scottish Renaissance there were a large number of nationalists, there were also those who did not share that view and who saw Scottish cultural expression as being a thing apart from the political process.

There are those in our own time who do that too, and who take it further equating concern about cultural self expression with insularity and the “cutting off” of Scotland from the cultural mainstream.

This very week the distinguished writer Ronald Frame fired a broadside on this topic, denouncing the Scottish Government and the SNP and claiming that an obsession with national identity would drive him and his like from the country.  Inter alia he appeared to castigate me for, essentially, having dictated that no child in Scotland should read Dickens.

To that, as to much else I read in the papers, I plead not guilty.  Not only do I read Dickens, I believe others should too.  And I suspect that this contribution might not have been unconnected with the launch of his new novel “Havisham” which centres on the Dickens character of that name.  Writers are not averse to publicity in order to sell books, as I know myself.

But whatever the reason I welcome the contribution.  I think we should debate the implications of this “time of change” and writers should take a role in that.

We should always eschew prejudice or a lack of research – how disappointing for example has been the intervention of that fine historical novelist C J Sansom who clearly has never even met a member of the modern SNP and has not bothered to read still les understand  the party’s impeccable democratic and social democratic history – but we should encourage an exchange of views and an exchange of creativity where these are seriously meant and opinions seriously held. 

And we should go further to encourage the creative artist to create for the times. 

Where, for example, is the great Unionist novel that looks forward to the flowering of new life in that old song?  Where are the arguments for the keeping of Trident on the Clyde, or the continuance of Tory welfare policies that are slicing the meagre benefits paid to the poorest?  For we should hear them in our cultural world , just as much as we should hear the pro independence polemic and warmly welcome the Disney celebration of our scenery.

Perhaps those examples are too pejorative.  Instead I might ask where are the creators who see the benefits of the state we are in and where are they debating with those who do not. 

For me, I believe the Social Union, of which I am a product having been born in England of a Scottish father and an English mother (albeit one brought up in Edinburgh) has also contributed to a type of cultural context – we can be Scottish , rooted in the Scottish tradition, but also influenced and shaped by English literature and informed by the English language as this island’s tongue as well as the world’s lingua franca.

So creators can celebrate  all of that and call it their own, only differentiating by where they stand and where they start from.  And they can see – we can see – the advantages of a new emphasis on our distinctive cultures, in all expressions, and a new underpinning of our cultural diversities which would come from Scottish decision making and financial prioritisation.

We can have the best of all worlds, and see it – for the first time – from our end of the telescope.  That is what independence can bring in the modern world.  

Writers in our time of change need to help their societies understand those options and react to those  possibilities. 

Some creators – Makars – in this time of change are doing just that.  I hope many more will join and reflect the rich diversity and positive nature of this vitally important debate.

But it would not be churlish for me to say that I suspect that the really progressive view will always prevail with creators, as it did with Gunn and Walsh.  And that is, perhaps, because writers know that positive change and constant re-creation is the condition humaine.

Gunn reflects that it much of what he wrote.   And what could be , in this time and place, more progressive – and more contemporary -  than this thought from Neil Gunn, from an article in the Scots Magazine in 1943

“We are beginning to realise that we cannot expect others to do things for us ; and perhaps that is the greater gain because it holds more hope for Scotland’s future”

Once again in our time we are realising just that – it is best to do things ourselves.  And is so realising we find a great hope for Scotland’s future

Writer don’t do things for us – they let us see what we should do ourselves.

They give us hope for our, and our country’s future. 

Writers do not travel for us - they mark out our route  and tell us what the journey might be  like.  

On our constitutional journey Neil Gunn lit the early way.   

Others , I am sure, in our time  are already preparing us  for our arrival.  


© Michael Russell 2014