The first Scottish — or rather, Caledonian — literary character is Calgacus, who turns up in Tacitus’s The Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola prior to the battle of Mons Graupius to add a touch of nobility to a doomed barbarian horde. In a ringing speech, Calgacus condemns the greed and slavery that marches with the Roman Empire: ‘they make a desert and they call it peace.’ The stirring words, of course, are entirely Tacitus’s own: he builds up Agricola’s opponent to boost Agricola. He’s not above getting a few digs in about the morals and mores of Roman culture, either. But Calgacus goes on to say, ‘there are no lands beyond us […] who dwell on the uttermost confines of the earth […] there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks […]’.
To a Roman, living at the empire’s heart, Britain — and in particular the wild and woolly mountain’d wilderness on that island’s northern end — is the back of beyond, the very edge of nowhere. To a Caledonian, surely, though, it is home, hearth and heartland, and Rome is the distant dangling appendage. Could an inhabitant of these lands make such a statement? Every spring the geese fly north and west to distant shores, and every autumn they return again. Scotland, washed and warmed by waters streaming up from the Gulf of Mexico, has been welcoming curious and accidental travellers for millennia, from molucca beans and coconuts to turtles and tourists. But when you watch the Atlantic rollers heave in from over the horizon in infinite procession, and see the sun sink down into that oceanic edge, it’s hard not to feel, deep in your bones, that we’re perched on the very lip of eternity. Scotland stands at the centre, and at the ends, of the earth.
We’ve been visiting the Atlantic lands since the Ice Age ended, one way or another, in person or in imagination, from giving Greek hitch-hikers a hurl up to Thule in a boat made of skins, to dancing a dance called America. For most of recorded history the sea has been the world’s highway: while Europeans slogged out a few weary miles on foot, lost within a continent, the liminal people of the Highlands and Islands were far-travelled, and suffered no great anxiety about their position in relation to the rest of humanity. Every day, a herald would blow a trumpet from the battlements of Kisimul Castle on the Hebridean island of Barra, and bellow out to the world:
|‘Hear, O ye people, and listen, O ye nations! The great MacNeill of Barra having finished his meal, the princes of the earth may dine!’
A fine broad and confident outlook.
Across much of Scotland — and in particular in the Highlands — the horizon is a close thing, the hunched back of a hill or mountain a few miles distant at the most. Westwards, though, out across the ocean, only the earth’s own curve can halt the gaze, as it fires up the imagination. Ships have brought us everything from pirates to pan-tiles, and carried away explorers, exploiters and exiles to every part of the world. It’s no surprise that the sea, and voyages across it to distant lands, forms such a strong tradition within Scottish writing.
In this issue Scottish novelist Margaret Elphinstone — no stranger to Atlantic crossings as author of The Sea Road, Hy Brasil and Voyageurs — discusses her discoveries in Waylaid by Islands. Gavin Wallace holds aloft ‘The Coin’ from Sonnets from Scotland by Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s national poet, and another great explorer and far traveller; meanwhile, Claudia Kraszkiewicz reviews two of Morgan’s latest collections, A Book of Lives and Beyond the Sun. Ian Duncan’s Scottish Romanticism, World Literature investigates how Scottish writing both colonised and internationalised other nations’ literary territories. And between them, The Scots Continuum and our Scots word for the season show how the continuing linguistic interplay between English, Scots and Scottish English can open up cultural exploration and expand the boundaries of literature. The Bottle Imp sails forth once more into the seething waters of the world-wide web: we hope you have a pleasant voyage!
The Unreliable Narrator