Reformers and radicals in Scottish literature, by Carl MacDougall
Is there for honest povertyNext: Scotland's languages
That hings his head, an' a' that'
The coward slave, we pass him by
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure, an' a' that
The rank is but the guinea stamp
The man's the gowd for a' that.
From 'A Man's a Man' by Robert Burns
When Burns sent the song to his publisher in January 1795 he said he thought there were two or three pretty good prose thoughts, inverted into rhyme.
'A Man's a Man' reflects what Burns believed. Similar sentiments occur time and again in his poems, songs and letters. The song expresses a political feeling that is native to Scottish writing; it's rather an indirect politics, which stems from the self-respect many Scots feel is their birthright and as such crosses party political boundaries.
The effect on Scottish writing has been absolute. In 'Annals of the Parish' John Galt observes how a small rural community develops into a complex town. The story covers half a century and the action is seen through the eyes of a Presbyterian minister, for whom his parish is the world in microcosm. Galt was the first writer to show the effects of the burgeoning industrial revolution, making him the first political novelist in the English language, and though his reputation has been overshadowed by Scott and Hogg, he is now recognised as one of the great writers of the age.
Throughout the 19th century many writers carried Burns's message to what they saw as a logical, political conclusion, but it took a new century for an assessment of the hatred and exploitation, which for many typified the rise of industrialisation, to spring from an unlikely setting.
George Douglas Brown's 'The House With The Green Shutters' was published in 1901. It traces the fall of a self-made man with vaulting ambitions, and was specifically written as a reaction to the most popular fiction of the time in Scotland - the Kailyard novel. Using the ingredients of a Kailyard novel, Brown reveals the antithesis of couthie, idealized, small town domesticity.
No writer embraces the spirit of the Burns's song more than Hugh MacDiarmid; and from the 1930s onward there was no shortage of writers anxious to reflect the dominant political issues of the time. But it wasn't till the arrival of Edward Gaitens that Scottish working class literature found its true voice. His work has had a profound effect on Glasgow writers in particular and Scottish writing in general, though the influence may not have been obvious.
William McIlvanney's third novel, 'Doherty' is about a man who believes in the values of working class life. It is the story of a tough and uncompromising father, Tam Doherty, who struggles through the present while dreaming of and fighting for a better future.
The disintegration of working communities made their traditional values and certainties redundant. And writers like James Kelman, and later Irvine Welsh, identified a new underclass of people who had become marginalised to the point of invisibility. Kelman's Booker Prize winning novel, 'How Late It Was, How Late,' exposes a character enthused with courage and humanity whose stature rises as his isolation increases. And though their inflections may be different, Ronald Frame and Allan Massie belong to a growing body of contemporary writers whose work embraces the Burns sentiment. It's been our first principle of social justice that has permeated our writing since its publication.
- Carl MacDougall
- Ewan Angus
- Clara Glynn