I grew up in a small village east of Inverness, where the principal employers were the local army barracks (an 18th century edifice built to prevent a rematch of the ’45) and an American-owned oil rig construction yard. These colonies of varying sorts constantly underlined the way wider forces impinge on the local, from the neverending speech diversity brought to the village by soldiers from across the UK, to the troubling economics of the late eighties that saw the rig yard move from boom to bust with bewildering frequency.
I was lucky in that the teachers at the local secondary school championed Scottish literature and I experienced a wide selection of classic and modern work across the school curriculum. I read Scottish and English literature at the University of Aberdeen and continued there to complete a PhD examining the fractured sense of self and the problem of identity construction in novels by Janice Galloway, James Kelman, A.L. Kennedy and Irvine Welsh.
My early encounters with Scottish literature have, to quite a significant degree, influenced the way in which I conceive of and view my research into various facets of contemporary Scottish writing. Weaned, if you like, on writers such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Neil Gunn, George Mackay Brown and others, I was always vaguely discomfited by the purity of their vision and the certainty of the things they seemed to know. There was something prophetic, but also monolithic, in Brown’s ‘closes opening and shutting like legends,’ or Gibbon’s emphatic declaration: ‘that is The Land out there, under the sleet, churned and pelted there in the dark.’ Their characters and speakers were very definitely historical, it seemed to me, and came from a version of Scotland that barely existed anymore and could not now be located with any certainty. Of course, I’m being unfair: this was precisely the point both men were making, from the disintegration of the farming community of Kinraddie in Sunset Song to the literal, mechanical, hollowing out of the island in Brown’s Greenvoe. Nevertheless, in lamenting what had passed, they could offer no alternative. The rhythms and cycles they insisted were essential constituents of local identity were fractured in a world of technological acceleration.
This idea has informed much of my research to date, which deals with the ways in which globalisation, while opening up possibilities for living and being (if largely through the consumption of commodities), also reduces the possibilities for maintaining community coherence and retaining collective being. In my research I have, for example, compared the zealous commitment to class action embodied in Ewan Tavendale in Gibbon’s Grey Granite with the nihilism and resignation of Irvine Welsh’s working class protagonists. I have also examined the fragmented, tormented, mindsets of A.L. Kennedy’s characters as they seek to account for themselves using whatever material they can, producing an often empty, anachronistic biography.
On the other hand, the profound influence of international culture on the local, particularly popular culture, also has an enriching and fructifying effect in contemporary Scottish writing. In Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar, the antihero’s obsessive and eclectic soundtrack tapes recast her local environment as she experiences it; visual and auditory sensation enact a rich and crucial dialectic in describing her emotional and psychic state. The characters of Irvine Welsh are similarly able to summon lyrics from popular music to describe themselves, account for the conditions in which they live, and insulate them from the rawness of existence; as Welsh has Iggy Pop say in Trainspotting: ‘Scatlin takes drugs in psychic defense.’
The global language of popular culture does not always act as a liberating force, however. This is particularly clear in recent novels by Ewan Morrison, where popular culture acts to inhibit and repress identity and to thwart meaningful communication. In Morrison’s latest novel Distance, Tom, an advertising copywriter, works to promote Scotland and encourage international investment: ‘Scotland, land of opportunity, focused forever on the future.’ The meaninglessness of this mediaspeak is underlined when Tom admits that he has stolen part of the soundbite from ‘a corporate promo for antivirus software.’ As he and his American lover try to communicate, they find themselves increasingly talking in shopsoiled language, cliché and hackneyed phrases: their common currency and cultural common ground is the global kitsch.
Living and teaching in a rural location has had a profound influence on my most recent research, which examines the ecologically aware poetry of John Burnside. Burnside’s sophisticated examination of the relationship between people and place, topography and psychology, has much to say about our present environmental predicament and the difficulty of (re)establishing what Kathleen Jamie has described as ‘our difficult / chthonic anchorage.’ Environmental concerns have increasingly occupied Scottish writers such as Burnside, Jamie and, more recently, Jen Hadfield. Burnside’s work in both poetry and prose interrogates precisely our disconnection from both nature and from one another, seeking to critique ‘the failure of the self-absorbed individual to accept his or her responsibilities in an essentially shared world.’ It is this sense of the shared, that which requires common purpose, which brings me virtually full-circle. It has taken me quite some time to realise the resonance and complexity of a seemingly literal statement: ‘that is The Land out there, under the sleet, churned and pelted there in the dark.’
References & Further Information
Dr David Borthwick teaches at the University of Glasgow’s Crichton campus in Dumfries. The Dumfries Campus offers Liberal Arts degrees that allow students to range widely—Scottish literature to philosophy, Health Studies to Environmental Sustainability—but also to specialise in their chosen subject area. The eclectic mix of staff, together with a burgeoning postgraduate community, allows the constant traffic of cross-disciplinary ideas and interesting research collaborations.