Scottish literature is literature written in Scotland or by Scottish writers. It includes literature written in English, Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Brythonic, French, Latin and any other language in which a piece of literature was ever written within the boundaries of modern Scotland.

Earliest Scottish literature[edit | edit source]

Earliest literature from within modern Scotland[edit | edit source]


This page from the Book of Aneirin shows the first part of the text from the Gododdin c. 6th century.

The people of northern Britain spoke forms of Celtic languages. Much of the earliest Welsh literature was actually composed in or near the country we now call Scotland, as Brythonic speech (the ancestor of Welsh) was not then confined to Wales and Cornwall. While all modern scholarship indicates that the Picts spoke a Brythonic language (based on surviving placenames, personal names and historical evidence), none of their literature seems to have survived into the modern era.

Some of the earliest literature known to have been composed in Scotland includes:

  • Brythonic (Old Welsh):
  • Gaelic:
    • Elegy for St Columba by Dallan Forgaill, c. 597
    • In Praise of St Columba by Beccan mac Luigdech of Rum, c. 677
  • Latin:
    • Prayer for Protection (attributed to St Mugint), c. mid-6th century
    • Altus Prosator ("The High Creator", attributed to St Columba), c. 597
  • Old English

Medieval Scottish literature[edit | edit source]

Gael was actually what the word Scot meant in English before c. 1500.(Citation needed) Between c. 1200 and c. 1700 the learned Gaelic elite of both Scotland and Ireland shared a literary form of Gaelic. It is possible that more Middle Irish literature was written in medieval Scotland than is often thought, but has not survived because the Gaelic literary establishment of eastern Scotland died out before the 14th century. Some Gaelic texts written in Scotland have survived in Irish sources. Gaelic literature written in Scotland before the 14th century includes the Lebor Bretnach, the product of a flourishing Gaelic literary establishment at the monastery of Abernethy.

The first known text to be composed in the form of northern Middle English spoken in the Lowlands (now called Early Scots) didn't appear until the 14th century. It is clear from John Barbour, and a plethora of other evidence, that the Fenian Cycle flourished in Scotland. There are allusions to Gaelic legendary characters in later Anglo-Scottish literature (oral and written).

Romance literature[edit | edit source]

In the 13th century, French flourished as a literary language, and produced the Roman de Fergus, the earliest piece of non-Celtic vernacular literature to come from Scotland. Moreover, many other stories in the Arthurian Cycle, written in French and preserved only outside Scotland, are thought by some scholars (D.D.R. Owen for instance) to have been written in Scotland.

In addition to French, Latin too was a literary language. Famous examples would be the Inchcolm Antiphoner and the Carmen de morte Sumerledi, a poem which exults triumphantly the victory of the citizens of Glasgow over Somailre mac Gilla Brigte. And of course, the most important medieval work written in Scotland, the Vita Columbae, was also written in Latin.

Late medieval Anglo-Scottish literature[edit | edit source]

The first surviving major text in Early Scots literature is John Barbour's Brus (1375) composed under the patronage of Robert II.[1] Barbour is referred to as the father of Scots poetry in parallel with his contemporary, Chaucer, who independently occupies a similar position vis a vis the English canon. Wyntoun's Kronykil and Blind Harry's Wallace followed Barbour in their use of the "Brus" genre, a blend of historical romance with verse chronicle. Scots versions of popular continental romances were also produced in the period, for example: Launcelot o the Laik and The Buik of Alexander.

Classical, French and Chaucerian literary language was an increasing influence on Scots poetry in the 15th century which saw the use of an increasing range of genres. Much Middle Scots literature was produced by makars, poets with links to the royal Court. At least two of Scotland's kings in the period were themselves makars, James I (who wrote The Kingis Quair) and his descendant James VI. Many of the makars had university education and so were also connected with the Kirk. However, Dunbar's Lament for the Makaris (c.1505) provides evidence of a wider tradition of secular writing outside of Court and Kirk now largely lost.[2]

Gaelic was also still a major language in Scotland and Walter Kennedy, one of the makars associated with the court of James IV, may have written works in the language, although only examples of his poetry in Scots survive. Writers such as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Walter Kennedy, Gavin Douglas and David Lyndsay led a golden age in Scottish literature. The survival of many of their works is due, in part, to a number of mid-16th century manuscript collectors, such as George Bannatyne, who were instrumental in the transmission of works from the Middle Scots period. Many important figures — particularly Henryson — wrote before the advent of the printing in Scotland (c.1508).

Scots prose also developed in the period before printing. One of the earliest surviving original prose works is John Ireland's The Meroure of Wyssdome (1490), although there are earlier fragments of original Scots prose, such as the Auchinleck Chronicle. Some prose translations of French books of chivalry survive from the 1450s. In the 16th century, after the advent of printing, John Bellenden translated Hector Boece's Historia Gentis Scotorum as Chroniklis of Scotland (published 1536) as a commission from of James V. He also translated the first five books of Livy.

The landmark work in the reign of James IV was Gavin Douglas's Eneados, the first complete translation of a major classical text in an Anglian language, finished in 1513. Its reception however was overshadowed by the Flodden disaster that same year, and the political instability that followed in the kingdom. Another major work, David Lyndsay's Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, later in the century, is a surviving example of a dramatic tradition in the period that has otherwise largely been lost. But the current of Scottish literature remained strong. At the end of the century, James VI another royal patron of literature and music, founded the Castalian Band, a group of makars and musicians in the court, based on the model of the Pléiade in France. The courtier and makar Alexander Montgomerie was a leading member. However this cultural centre was lost after the 1603 Union of the Crowns when James shifted his court to London.

The Scottish ballad tradition can be traced back to the early 17th century. Francis James Child's compilation, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–1898) contains many examples, such as The Elfin Knight (first printed around 1610) and Lord Randal. In this period, Scotland began to see more anglicisation among some social classes, although Lowland Scots was still spoken by the vast majority of the population of the Lowlands. THis was the time when many of the oral ballads from the borders and the North East began to be written down. Literary writers of the period include Robert Sempill (c.1595-1665), Lady Wardlaw and Lady Grizel Baillie.

The Scottish novel developed in the 18th century, with such writers as Tobias Smollett.

The 17th to early 19th Century[edit | edit source]

Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) laid the foundations of a reawakening of interest in older Scottish literature, as well as leading the trend for pastoral poetry. The Habbie stanza was developed as a poetic form.[3]

In 1760, James Macpherson claimed to have found poetry written by Ossian. He published translations which acquired international popularity, being proclaimed as a Celtic equivalent of the Classical epics. Fingal written in 1762 was speedily translated into many European languages, and its deep appreciation of natural beauty and the melancholy tenderness of its treatment of the ancient legend did more than any single work to bring about the Romantic movement in European, and especially in German, literature, influencing Herder and Goethe in his earlier period.[4] It inspired many Scottish writers, including the young Walter Scott, but it eventually became clear that the poems were not direct translations from the Gaelic but flowery adaptations made to suit the aesthetic expectations of his audience as has been demonstrated in Derick S. Thomson, The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's "Ossian".[5]

Among the best known Scottish writers are two who are strongly associated with the Romantic Era, Robert Burns and Walter Scott. Scott's work is not exclusively concerned with Scotland, but his popularity in England and further abroad did much to form the modern stereotype of Scottish culture. Burns is considered Scotland's national bard; his works have only recently been edited to reflect the full breadth of their subject matter, as during the Victorian era he was censored.

Scott was initially rather more inclined to poetry and even collected Scottish ballads, eventually published The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border before launching into a novel-writing career in 1814 with Waverley, often called the first historical novel. Other novels by Scott which contributed to the image of him as a patriot include Rob Roy. He also wrote a History of Scotland. He was the highest earning and most popular author up to that time. As time goes by, Scott's novels have proven that his fame and success was well deserved for the inventiveness of his eloquent writing, his memorable characters and his recreation of lost ages.

James Hogg, a writer encouraged by Walter Scott, made creative use of the Scottish religious background in producing his distinctive The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which can be seen as introducing the "doppelgänger" theme which would be taken up later in the century in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hogg may have borrowed his literary motif from the concept of the "co-choisiche" in Gaelic folk tradition.

The 19th and early 20th century[edit | edit source]

Template:See Also In the latter half of the 19th century the population of Scotland had become increasingly urban and industrialised. However, the appetite amongst readers, first whetted by Walter Scott, for novels about heroic exploits in a mythical untamed Scottish landscape or bygone age of chivalry and heroes-laden but Dark Ages, encouraged yet more novels that did not reflect the realities of life in that period.

A Scottish intellectual tradition, going back at least to the philosopher David Hume can be seen reflected in the Sherlock Holmes books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: although Holmes is now seen as part of quintessential London, the spirit of deduction in these books is arguably more Scottish than English. Doyle himself was Edinburgh-born and his creation of a doctor-character and a scientist-turned-detective with impressive deductive faculties cannot avoid the association in the reader's minds with the Edinburgh of the long tradition of medical studies and a mythical physician who lectured at the medical faculty and whose fame of intelligence and deduction based on the flimisiest evidence preceded him.

Robert Louis Stevenson's most famous works are still popular and feature in many plays and films. The short novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) depicts the dual personality of a kind and intelligent physician who turns into a psychopathic monster after imbibing a drug intended to separate good from evil in a personality. R.L.Stevenson, another son of Edinburgh like Doyle, grew up in an urban environment where urban legends about the dark closets and obscure basements of 18th century buildings, blended with factual profanation of graves and corpse robberies at the city cemeteries, and unorthodox dissections at the university away from the eyes of the authorities, and thus felt impressed as a child and inspired as an adult. Kidnapped is a fast-paced historical novel set in the aftermath of the '45 Jacobite Rising, and Treasure Island is the classic pirate adventure.

The introduction of the movement known as the "kailyard tradition" at the end of the 19th century, brought elements of fantasy and folklore back into fashion. J. M. Barrie is one example of this mix of modernity and nostalgia.[6] This tradition has been viewed as a major stumbling block for Scottish literature, focusing, as it did, on an idealised, pastoral picture of Scottish culture, becoming increasingly removed from reality of life in Scotland during that period. This tradition was satirised by the author George Douglas Brown in his novel The House with the Green Shutters. It could be argued that Scottish literature as a whole still suffers from the echoes of this tradition today.

One Scottish author whose work has become popular again is the cleric George MacDonald.

In the early 20th century in Scotland, a renaissance of literature in the Scots language occurred, its most vocal figure being Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmaid formed a type of Synthetic Scots that combined different regional Scots dialects and archaic terms. Other contemporaries were A.J. Cronin, Eric Linklater, Naomi Mitchison, James Bridie, Robert Garioch, Robert McLellan, Nan Shepherd, William Soutar, Douglas Young, and Sidney Goodsir Smith.[7] However, the revival was largely limited to verse and other literature. Sorley MacLean's work in Scottish Gaelic in the 1930s gave new value to modern literature in that language. Edwin Muir advocated, by contrast, concentration on English as a literary language.

The novelists Neil M. Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon emphasised the real linguistic conflict occurring in Scottish life during this period in their novels in particular, The Silver Darlings and A Scots Quair respectively, where we can see the language of the protagonists grows more anglicised progressively as they move to a more industrial lifestyle.

1950s to the present[edit | edit source]

New writers of the postwar years displayed a new outwardness.[8] James Kennaway in the 1950s and 1960s left Scotland to pursue a successful career as a novelist and screenwriter in England and America, developing themes that sometimes relate directly to Scotland (e.g. Tunes of Glory (1956)), but more often combine themes of wider appeal and relevance.[9] Both Alexander Trocchi in the 1950s and Kenneth White in the 1960s left Scotland to live and work in France.

Edwin Morgan became known for translations of works from a wide range of European languages. He was also the first Scots Makar (the officially-appointed national poet,[10] equivalent to a Scottish poet laureate). He was succeeded by Liz Lochhead in 2011.

One notable phenomenon has been Tartan Noir, although the authenticity of the genre has been disputed. [1]

The tradition of fantastical fiction is continued by Alasdair Gray, whose Lanark has become a cult classic since its publication in 1981. The 1980s also brought attention to writers capturing the urban experience and speech patterns - notably James Kelman and Jeff Torrington.

The works of Irvine Welsh, most famously Trainspotting, are written in a distinctly Scottish English. Other commercial writers, Iain Banks and Ian Rankin have also achieved international recognition for their work, and, like Welsh, have had their work adapted for film or television.

Alexander McCall Smith, Alan Warner, and Glasgow-based novelist Suhayl Saadi, whose short story "Extra Time" is in Glaswegian Scots, have made significant literary contributions in the 21st century.

Scottish Gaelic literature is currently experiencing a revival in print, with the publishing of An Leabhar Mòr and the Ur-sgeul series, which encouraged new authors of poetry and fiction.

The Scottish literature canon has in recent years opened up to the idea of including women authors, encouraging a revisiting of Scottish women's work from past and present. Some notable, award-winning female authors of the past two decades are A.L. Kennedy, Janice Galloway, Jackie Kay, Leila Aboulela, and Ali Smith.

In recent years the publishing house Canongate Books has become increasingly successful, publishing Scottish literature from all eras, and encouraging new literature.

Glasgow born poet Carol Ann Duffy was named as Poet Laureate in May 2009. She was the first openly homosexual (and female) poet to accede the position.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  • Bernard Sellin (coord.), Voices from Modern Scotland: Janice Galloway, Alasdair Gray, CRINI (Centre de Recherche sur les Identités Nationales et l'Interculturalité), Nantes, 2007, 143 p., ISBN 2-916424-10-5.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. Duncan, A.A.M. (ed. 1997). The Brus. Canongate. p.3
  2. Grant, Alexander (1984). Independence and Nationhood, Scotland 1306-1469. Edward Arnold, Baltimore. pp.102-3
  3. Buchan, James (2003). Crowded with Genius. Harper Collins. pp. 311. ISBN 0060558881. 
  4. Buchan, James (2003). Crowded with Genius. Harper Collins. pp. 163. ISBN 0060558881. 
  5. Thomson, Derick (1952). The Gaelic Sources of Macpherson's "Ossian". Aberdeen: Oliver & Boyd. 
  6. "Cultural Profile: 19th and early 20th century developments". Visiting Arts. 2007-07-21. Retrieved 2007-10-29. 
  7. "Cultural Profile: The Scottish Renaissance and beyond". Visiting Arts. 2007-07-21. Retrieved 2007-10-29. 
  8. Kravitz, Peter (1999). Introduction to The Picador Book of Contemporary Scottish Fiction. Ted Smart. pp. xxvii. ISBN 0330335502. 
  9. Royle, Trevor (1983). James & Jim: a biography of James Kennaway. Mainstream. pp. 185–195. ISBN 9780906391464. 
  10. The Scottish Government (2004-02-16). "The Scots Makar". Press release. Retrieved 2007-10-28. 

External links[edit | edit source]

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