Scottish Short Stories

Anne Enright sees the short story as either a natural form, ‘close to conversation, or an art like poetry, requiring great skill and restraint’.

‘But some poems’, she continues, ‘are huge and some short stories are restless, just about contained. Some stories push at their own edges, trying to escape themselves.’1 Later she admits the collection she’s reviewing fits into a tradition that moves through contemporaries and ‘back to the epic tales of old Ireland, a mode that shifted from the heroic into the mock-heroic in the work of Joyce and Flann O’Brien.’

These suggestions indicate the ways stories are almost always more than the sum of their parts and can carry a collective consciousness that informs us about ourselves. In many ways, they help structure the way we see ourselves and support our national identity.

Scottish short stories come from a tradition where stories were told to entertain and inform. They carried fear, risk, menace and warnings; they established boundaries and ensured continuity, especially informing young women on the dangers of men and young men on the dangers of women. And even though they could be dour and a wee bit thrawn, they were used to enhance what were seen as traditional Scottish values of acceptance and neighbourliness, and while danger was usually on the other side of the hill, they carried life in all its variances with our twin identities of voice and place. 

It’s worth remembering that these social priorities arose in the predominately rural society that existed in Scotland for millennia before cities arrived, and in many cases these priorities prevailed in cities through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

In the aftermath of the Union, Scots had to adjust to changes in their everyday life, and though Scotland retained independent control of its religious, legal and educational institutions, English trends dominated as the country was re-interpreted as North Britain. The eventual suppression of the Jacobite Rebellions in 1746, expanding markets and the burgeoning industrial revolution further threatened the Scots way of life, which resulted in a movement to explore and preserve the things that made Scotland unique. 

For Robert Burns this meant language and, latterly, the preservation of the folk song tradition. Walter Scott took over where Burns left off, gathering songs, and in doing so created the Border ballad myth. Scotland’s great folk song repository has always been Aberdeenshire and Scott uses texts which are identifiably Aberdonian.2

With the displacement of our native population and the social and economic difficulties that followed,3 preserving the native traditions became more important. By the middle of the nineteenth century this movement had gathered ground and though Scottish literature had been diverted into the Kailyard culvert, rather than stultifying research the Burns impersonations that largely dominated publications like the Whistle-Binkie4 anthologies appear to have prompted others to ‘record, preserve and stimulate interest’.5

In 1902 Gavin Greig, a schoolmaster at Whitehill, New Deer, received a grant to prepare a collection of traditional music from the North East of Scotland. He immediately invited the Rev. James Duncan to join him and between them they collected so much material they had to abandon their original idea of publishing a single volume.6 

Following James Duncan’s death, from December 1907 till June 1911 Greig wrote weekly articles for the Buchan Observer. The idea was to stimulate local interest and the 600 song texts he gathered brought the Greig-Duncan collection to more than 3500 songs, the biggest of its kind in Scotland.

Yet in his retiring presidential address to the Buchan Field Club, Greig was aware that, ‘A crisis has come to the history of our folk songs. The attention of the cultured world has been drawn to them […] the wildings are being dressed and decked for good society.’7

Obviously, he wonders how songs will survive in these strange, new conditions, and saw folk song dying in the march of education and the advance of a non-native musical culture.

When Hamish Henderson and the American folklorist Ken Goldstein began collecting in Aberdeenshire in 1951 there were other intrusions to contend with: mass circulation newspapers, cinema, radio and the burgeoning medium of television. Yet the success of their collections led Hamish to the berry fields of Blairgowrie where he described collecting songs in the travelling communities as ‘like holding a tin can under the Niagara Falls.’8 

Greig’s cautioning was much worse than he had anticipated, yet folk song thrived where it had always existed – on the fringes of society.

Travellers did more than carry songs. They told stories as extravagant as a man who changes sex, has children then goes back to his wife.9 This is where you’ll find Jack, the archetypical hero who does more than climb a beanstalk. His exploits, wit and trickery are found in every corner of the English-speaking world. The spoken Scottish versions are alive with rich linguistic skills and see our landscapes differently, bringing a perspective only those who have quite literally inhabited it could know.10

These stories linked contemporary readers with Scotland’s oral tradition and often combined straightforward historical fact with plain storytelling, putting us in touch with our common heritage that reaches beyond more formal records. Their humanity and straightforward storytelling often obscure where one ends and the other begins.

And travellers were profligate in their telling. Like true custodians they enjoy nothing better than to share these stories, as much as they shared the songs.

It’s important to understand that these origins are anything but literary. The stories were memorised and orally transmitted; they kept the past alive and restored it to contemporary audiences. Duncan Williamson maintained these stories, especially those you hear in childhood, remain with you, so that both the story and the teller are never forgotten.

This is where and how our literature started and we are fortunate to have even a corner of these beginnings preserved. There are places where you can see similarities to the ways James Hogg directed his readers towards acceptance, as custodians still do today, that they are not sure if the story is true or not, but they gathered it from someone who knew someone to whom it happened or who swore it was true. And, of course, they circulate in much the same way as urban myths.

Alan Riach11 uses Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’ to both guide us and illuminate the relationship between oral and print based cultures. Alan uses what he calls three epic novels to illustrate the relevance of Benjamin’s theory to Scottish literature: A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Lanark by Alasdair Gray, and James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still – highly literate, written novels that self-consciously include, embed and play with the idea of storytelling, emphasising what “stories” are and marking the similarities between the novel, the story and the connections between storytelling and the epic stories, songs and ballads of Scotland and Ireland.

Written in 1940, Benjamin comments that nothing now reaches us without explanation, that almost everything that happens benefits information rather than storytelling. ‘It is,’ he says, ‘half the art of storytelling to keep a story free of explanation.’ 

To hear a storyteller tell or even a writer read a story means the listener or reader shares companionship with the teller or writer, whereas the reader of a novel is more isolated than any other reader: ‘In this solitude of his, the reader of a novel seizes upon his material more jealously … he is ready to make it completely his own, to devour it.’

The storyteller, and, by implication, the short story writer, is present and is literally telling the story. Though, as Riach suggests, the printed book circulates and bears the handprint of the author. This is especially evident in Scottish writing, where the author’s voice, and/or the voices of his or her characters, is often the most dominant feature. 

I have written elsewhere that the short story is a very subversive form:

“Images have to be sharp and characters must arrive fully formed rather than be given time to develop. This precision … (is) imposed by the form. Most of the craft of short story writing is hidden; if you see it, it hasn’t worked, but as with any literary form, the craft and mechanics are on display if one is willing to look.”12

It is difficult to read a collection of Scottish stories without becoming aware of the spoken voice and the power of first-person narration. It is absolutely crucial. It establishes the tone and direction of the story by forming an immediate and firm pact with the reader, appearing in every instance to take him or her into the writer’s confidence. Not surprisingly, it is the first decision a writer takes and one he is often not aware of making, since its influence is often instinctive.

It establishes the mood and, more importantly, the tone of the story; it narrows the focus by trapping the reader into seeing the action through the eyes of the character. It is also a wonderful way of insinuating detail. It is the one device a writer can use that does more than one thing simultaneously: it establishes character, background, place, nationality and class and because the writer has established the reader’s confidence, he or she has established an identity and trust to which the reader responds by accepting what we have to tell, usually without question.

Of course, the first-person narrator is a direct link to the oral tradition, offering more than just a method of sharpening a story’s range and power. A third person narrator cannot make characters say more than the scope of the action permits. On the other hand it is entirely legitimate for first-person characters to give themselves over to reflection, reasoning, political opinion, philosophical meanderings and so on. 

Scottish writers have become especially adept in employing the intimacy of first-person narration in a third-person narrative. Stream of consciousness is common, especially when dealing with the young mind or in establishing the problems of identity. And though further study is obviously needed, this device, as well as first-person narration, has been used by writers as diverse as Margaret Oliphant and Muriel Spark, who use details to build an atmosphere, which they just as tellingly deconstruct, or allow to crumble. It has been employed by male writers such as Grassic Gibbon when writing about women, by writers as distinct as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and generations of children’s, crime and romantic novelists. 

The first-person narrative is the dominant feature of Scottish writing, an essential part of what I would argue is Scotland’s most important literary form and one which other forms, poems, plays and novels, embody in different ways. Scottish poetry can be seen in terms of individuals, but the Scottish storytelling tradition and the role of the voice within that tradition is a seamless source of excellence from our unknown beginnings to Irvine Welsh, and beyond.

I seem to have spent most of my life arguing that we are a nation who need to be educated about ourselves, that it’s perfectly reasonable, indeed understandable for writers to look elsewhere for identity, encouragement, even inspiration and to adapt what they find to their own voice and commitment. We do not need to look far to see the continuing effect American and Irish writing has had on us. And though things have changed fairly recently, there’s a lengthy list of extraneous writers whose work has been a springboard for others who hoped to dive into Scottish literature.

The Writers in Residence scheme, which was sponsored by the Scottish Arts Council and a university, college or local authority, started writers’ groups where people who otherwise had no access to their birth-right and had since school considered themselves excluded from any kind of writing, quickly found a voice.

These groups often saw publishing members’ work as part of their function. More than thirty years ago I edited an anthology of this work.13 The arts centre who published the book were anxious to do another, especially since many contributors were being published elsewhere. They saw it could take writers from local to wider recognition, but found no support. The recent Labour Government cuts and Thatcher’s war on public spending put paid to such luxuries as grants to publishers and small magazines. 

The latter was especially damaging. Local authorities still sponsored writers’ residencies, but the damage was done with the magazines that existed, leaving an assumption that Scottish short stories were a thing of the past and if any writers existed they could publish their own work.

By any standard it’s amazing how wrong they were, how far we have travelled and how quickly it took us to get here. Less than fifty years ago it was just about impossible for a Scottish writer to have a short story published in a Scottish newspaper or magazine. The Glasgow Herald and the Scotsman published very occasional pieces, but in a post-MacDiarmid world poetry was all and younger writers often struggled to meet the previous generation’s rules. It’s worth remembering this was at a time when Scottish literature was taught in Scottish schools at an individual teacher’s behest.

And again, writers find themselves searching for publication outlets. As with most things, the Internet brought a mild suscitation with the belief that a solution had arrived. It didn’t last and blogs have been abandoned.

Now, as then, writers may have to be a bit more imaginative, not to say sleekit. Almost fifty years ago the wisdom of publishing stories was questioned; everyone knew no one was writing stories, which was why every magazine published poetry. 

Words magazine began by publishing extracts from Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Archie Hind’s Fur Sadie, simply because I was friends with them both and asked for contributions. I had left space for two stories in the second issue and received a single story from Jim Kelman. I filled the other space with one of my own.

I have written an account of Words’ birth and death elsewhere14 but it’s revealing to remember how precarious it was: after two issues only the funder, Kirsty Adam from the Arts in Fife, supported me. The magazine’s existence was justified by having an educational element – we published work by pupils in Fife schools – and this had been remarkably successful, securing a circulation base. Our third issue had prose contributions from Alan Spence, John Herdman, Tom Healy and Tom Leonard, whom I had either asked or they had contacted me offering contributions. It took over a year, but by the fourth issue the story element took care of itself.

What struck me about these early stories that arrived out of the blue, indeed the most obvious point, is their maturity. These are confident voices, opening to a variety of influences beyond the Scottish Renaissance – Beckett is in there, as is Hemingway, Steinbeck and perhaps most obviously James Joyce. The language is English, the language the writers were taught in, and their concerns are both national and individual.

Contributors were paid standard fees, but I received no money, either as an editor or contributor, and Ceri Williams laid out the magazine as part of his regular work with the Arts in Fife. Ceri’s role was vital. We wanted the magazine to look and be different and included work by Fife artists, the occasional Bud Neill cartoon and anything quirky that came along. Ceri liked white space and we tried to give our contributions space to breathe. 

Assessing how much has changed since then is difficult. Words’ impact is probably best seen as an early attempt to break the mould, to try to do something different. Then, as now, was a difficult time for Scottish short story writers. Allowing for our past and given our present situation, then, this might not be the best time to have the sponsored Year of the Stories. The country’s on the turn; in many ways we are finding our feet and finding our voice. Previous generations wanted a decent, more adjusted change, to live in a fairer place. They may have failed, but it seems that’s also what the new generations want. 

But where are their voices? Where are the people who danced in George Square? Have the fat bullies who kicked food around the Square the evening after the Referendum result won? Where are the voices of protest against the status quo? We have plenty descriptions of urban poverty, of intellectual poverty, of poverty induced by crippling want that is often induced by alcohol or drugs. We know what these things are like, but where are the radicals who do more than point these things out and whine about their condition? We still have folk telling us what’s good for us. We need to tell ourselves what’s good for us and to act on it. For all of this and much more the short story is the perfect vehicle.  Scottish stories now take on the world’s confusions stretching from politics of gender through politics of war and landing back home with the politics of domesticity.

Thirty years ago, as a Scottish short story writer working in Scotland I found it difficult to find more than ten stories in a single volume, covering more than two centuries. With nothing but my reading to back me up, I came up with The Devil and The Giro. Canongate’s Stephanie Woolf Murray encouraged the collection and the Canongate Classics editor Rory Watson was especially helpful. Word soon got out and writers made suggestions, often by sending a little something of their own, but in suggesting possible inclusions, Alison Kennedy was especially helpful. All in all it amounted to around two years’ work.

I submitted the stories in batches and was not at all surprised when the publisher drew the drawbridge up at six hundred pages. This meant some stories had to be returned, which also meant I became the editor rather than editor and contributor. 

Stephanie wanted a second volume. We agreed it would concentrate on women’s stories, I submitted a proposal which was verbally accepted but abandoned when the firm was sold.

Looking at the collection now, the most obvious feature – apart from those already mentioned, such as the importance of the first-person singular – is that using work from writers’ groups and the oral tradition is the ways writers open their stories. Most early paragraphs, like Eona MacNicol’s ‘The Small Herdsman’, mention place: ‘I found the children rough in Chachanree, even the girls.’ Edward Gaitens’s ‘The Sailing Ship’ suggests it: ‘Mrs Regan yelled at her son: “Get up ye lazy pig! Rise up an look for work an’ don’t shame me before the neebors!”’ James Hogg begins with a shepherd on the lands of Meggat-dale, Robert McLellan has three grocers’ shops in Kirkfieldbank, Alan Spence finds the swing doors of the steamie had windows and Lewis Grassic Gibbon tells us the Galts were thick in the land around Seggett. And the voices fits their locations perfectly.

And, of course, this is where the everyday meets the fantastic, where the Devil is real and culpable or where the inexplicable affects us all. This is where the working class have a voice. 

Every once in a while, the working class are rediscovered. Scottish short story writers were there when Sunset Song appeared in 1932, and again nine years later when Edward Gaitens’s Growing Up and Other Stories threw a factual shadow over No Mean City. These stories are written from the inside with an authenticity that replaces observation with experience, another feature of Scottish short story writing. 

Today Scottish short story writers belong to the world. They take on international concerns such as sexuality, gender identity, climate and so on, but where do they begin? Our problem is what it’s always been: writers are writing but they have nowhere to publish. American and Irish writers have regular magazine outlets, often funded by grants. The Thatcher cuts I mentioned earlier were especially vicious and their legacy remains. We need a magazine culture and sympathetic editors. 

The first issue of The Evergreen15 featured a tender piece by Leila Aboulela on a pregnant woman’s cravings. The fourth and final issue was edited by and entirely featured work by women. But given that the most interesting development in Scottish literature in the last forty years has been in short fiction, where the quality, range and diversity, especially in women’s writing, has been consistently interesting and challenging, and given the paucity of outlets, there should be more. Writers are not hard to find. All they need is encouragement and even the slightest glance suggests that if writers have an outlet, or even, God help us, more than one regular outlet, they will contribute. It seems to be a challenge no funding body will meet, most especially the inheritors of those who used to fund such things. Perhaps there’s a belief that writers will write anyway, but that’s hardly a springboard into a national literary renaissance or a year-long celebration. 


End Notes

  1. Anne Enright, ‘Homesickness by Colin Barrett review – superb stories of changing Ireland’, Guardian, March 10 2022.
  2. Burns’s contributions to George Thomson’s A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs and James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum and Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border were not the only eighteenth-century folk song collections. See, among others, Orpheus Caledonius and collections by Allan Ramsay, David Herd, James Ritson, et al.
  3. See James Hunter, Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter (Birlinn, 2022) and other studies.
  4. The first Whistle-Binkie anthology appeared in Glasgow in 1832 with four subsequent volumes culminating in two collected volumes in 1878 and 1890.
  5. Patrick Shuldham-Shaw, ‘The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Manuscripts’, The New Edinburgh Review (August 1973).
  6. Last Leaves of Traditional Ballad Airs, edited by Alexander Keith, was published by The Buchan Club in 1925. It lists 108 ballads collected by Gavin Greig , which represents about 13 per cent of the collection.
  7. Gavin Greig, ‘Folk Song in Buchan’, reprinted in Folk-song of the North-East (Pennsylvania: Folklore Associates, 1963).
  8. Henderson used this simile several times. This from BBC2, ‘Writing Scotland: Hamish Henderson’.
  9. Betsy Whyte, ‘The Man In The Boat’ in The Devil and the Giro, ed. Carl MacDougall, (Canongate, 1989).
  10. See, for example, Duncan Williamson, Don’t Look Back, Jack!: Scottish Traveller Tales (Canongate, 1990).
  11. Alan Riach, Scottish Literature: An Introduction (Luath Press, 2022).
  12. Carl MacDougall Painting the Forth Bridge, Aurum Press, 2001
  13. Behind The Lines, ed. Carl MacDougall (Third Eye Centre, 1979).
  14. ‘Words 1976–1980’, Scottish Poetry Index, vol 9.
  15. The Evergreen: A New Season In The North (The Word Bank, 2014).
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Carl MacDougall

Carl MacDougall has written novels, collections of short stories, non-fiction, journalism, plays, radio programmes and television series. However he is most at home writing fiction. His work includes three prize-winning novels, four pamphlets and three collections of short stories, two works of non-fiction and he has edited four anthologies, including the bestselling The Devil and the Giro. He has also written and presented two major television series and is probably working on too many things.

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