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date: 22 September 2023

Kailyard schoolfree

(act. c. 1888–c. 1900)

Kailyard schoolfree

(act. c. 1888–c. 1900)
  • Ian Campbell

Kailyard school (act. c. 1888–c. 1900), is the name given to a group of Scottish authors who achieved considerable popularity, particularly during the decade following publication by J. M. Barrie of his story collections Auld Licht Idylls (1888) and A Window in Thrums (1889). The most notable figures identified as ‘kailyard’ writers were Barrie, John Watson (who published as Ian Maclaren), and Samuel Rutherford Crockett. All were very capable authors, mostly in prose, though obviously Barrie is remembered today for Peter Pan. The kailyarders practised the short story form successfully and achieved commercial success on an extraordinary scale. This led to the school's core members being joined, imitated, and succeeded from the mid-1890s by others of lesser ability whose prose, poetry, and drama defined a characteristic form of Scottish literature published in regional newspapers and collections of often risible verse such as D. H. Edwards's Modern Scottish Poets (1880–97). The low quality of much of this subsequent work led in the twentieth century to kailyard being identified less as an event in literary history and more as a literature characterized by the sentimental and nostalgic treatment of Scottish provincial life. As such, kailyard became the antithesis of the forms sought by early to mid-twentieth-century proponents of the Scottish literary renaissance.

In addition to its principal authors, a key figure for the promotion and popularity of the kailyard school was William Robertson Nicoll, editor since 1886 of the influential nonconformist paper the British Weekly. It was Nicoll's encouragement that prompted Barrie to return to a subject—stories of mid-nineteenth-century Scottish life based on childhood memories—on which he had previously published in London newspapers in 1884–5. In 1887 Nicoll commissioned new stories from Barrie that first appeared in the British Weekly (under the pseudonym Gavin Ogilvy) and then in book form as Auld Licht Idylls. This was followed a year later by a second collection, A Window in Thrums, Barrie's fictional account of life in his native Kirriemuir. Versions of some of these stories were also serialized in the British Weekly, though Barrie continued to publish widely beyond this title. Nicoll's influence was more directly felt in the literary career of the Free Church minister John Watson, then ministering to a Presbyterian congregation at Sefton Park, Liverpool. Following a meeting in London, Nicoll encouraged Watson to write up his colourful anecdotes of provincial Scottish life. Under the pseudonym Ian Maclaren, Watson published the first story of what became his 1894 collection, Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush, in Nicoll's paper in November 1893. This was followed by a second series, The Days of Auld Langsyne (1895), after which Maclaren regularly provided material for the journal until his departure to America in 1896. Nicoll subsequently wrote a biography of Maclaren, published a year after the author's death in 1907. Unlike that of Barrie and Maclaren, S. R. Crockett's work was not serialized in the British Weekly, though Nicoll's paper did commend Crockett's story collection The Stickit Minister (1893). Crockett's response acknowledged Nicoll's 'kindness unspeakable to a man unknown and discouraged. You are, sir, of the great company of the encouragers' (Blake, 30).

Notwithstanding the enormous popularity of these and other works, responses were not universally encouraging. The identification of Barrie, Maclaren, and Crockett as ‘kailyard’ authors originated in 1895 with one such review, J. M. Millar's 'The literature of the kailyard', published in E. Henley's New Review. Millar later claimed that the use of kailyard as a label (of which the literal meaning is cabbage patch or, more broadly, kitchen garden) had first been suggested by Henley, though an earlier connection was Maclaren's use of lines from Burns as the epigraph to Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush:

There grows a bonnier brier bush in our kail-yardAnd white are the blossoms on't in our kail-yard.

As well as promoting the term to describe and connect the three authors, Millar's essay was significant for its identification of kailyard as a literary form marred by what, with reference to Maclaren, he described as a 'diseased craving for the pathetic' (Nash, 41). Critical of Maclaren, and especially of Crockett's Stickit Minister and The Lilac Sunbonnet (1894), Millar acknowledged 'the admirable qualities' of Barrie's work while similarly identifying him, 'for all his genius', as 'the founder of a special and notable department in the “parochial” school of fiction' and thus 'pars magna, if not pars maxima, of the Great Kailyard Movement' (ibid., 12). The term was quickly adopted in reviews of lesser Scottish authors, including Gordon Fraser's The Whaups of Darley (1895)—described in The Academy (18 January 1896) as the 'dregs of the Kailyard'—William Findlay's Ayrshire Idylls of Other Days (1896), and W. G. Tarbet's In Oor Kailyard (1897). In January 1897 a columnist in the Glasgow Evening Times maintained that 'some apology is due by anyone who refers to the Kailyard. Most readers must be weary of the outworn word itself, as they are of the class of writing for which it stands' (ibid., 11). Later that year John Buchan, then a student, proposed 'This house condemns the kailyard school of novelists' as a motion for debate at the Oxford Union.

The principal members of the kailyard school were linked only through their association with Nicoll's British Weekly and were therefore identified as kailyarders by others in reviews and commentaries—Tarbet's In Oor Kailyard is a rare example of the term being appropriated by an author. None the less, shared and recurring characteristics of kailyard literature, across the spectrum of quality, may be identified. The setting will be predominantly rural or in a small town, perhaps a combination. Barrie chose the device of a small-town schoolmaster who spent the winters in a rural school and lodged in the town for the summers. Watson and Crockett chose settings where country people occasionally came into contact with the town, but largely to contrast rural and urban values. Implicit was the communication revolution taking place elsewhere, beyond the realm of the kailyard. Cities certainly are evident (figures in kailyard literature did move there, sometimes prospering, sometimes returning in disgrace to the safer values of their village), and the broader concerns of kirk and education also found their setting in a distant urban environment. But in general the literary features of kailyard were shaped by the narrowness and predictability of its subject matter and geographical focus. Kailyard plots typically dealt with apparently trivial concerns: the seasons, crops, village values, small rivalries, births, marriages, and deaths. No less than the major Victorian novelists were kailyarders willing to incorporate reunions, returning children, serious illness, death, burial, and ruin. To Barrie, Watson, and Crockett, who had known the difficulties of Scottish rural life, there was nothing surprising in the prevalence of these themes.

Education was another major concern, a recurring motif being the possibilities provided by the school system for a clever boy—the ‘lad o pairts’—who might rise through hard work and thrift to the top of his profession. Much mocked today, the tradition (like much of kailyard) is founded on a considerable basis of fact. Though projecting an often untainted picture of a rural idyll, the kailyard also contained a kernel of real experience with which its three leading authors were familiar and in agreement—family loyalty, thrift, hard work, religious tenacity, and a respect for learning. Barrie himself was an example of someone from a very modest home who rose to metropolitan greatness. So too George Douglas Brown who, born into bitter poverty in Ochiltree, Ayrshire, was educated in a school system that recognized his brilliance. Brown achieved high honours at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford before writing The House with the Green Shutters (1901), the most savage fictional satire of kailyard, which he dedicated to the local schoolmaster who had given him the opportunity to leave Ochiltree. To Brown, and other critics, kailyard writers laid themselves open to ridicule by projecting authentic qualities—such as education and self-improvement—as universally applicable, rather than the exceptional achievements of the few.

One of the paradoxes of kailyard therefore was that the elements of truth, much exaggerated, became easy prey to the satirist. The school's most accomplished authors sought to deflect this response. In the first chapter of A Window in Thrums, for example, Barrie explicitly asked readers to eschew 'a contemptuous mood, thinking that the poor are but a stage removed from beasts of burden, as some cruel writers of these days say' (Window in Thrums, ed. Campbell, 1). Aware that readers could find Thrums cloying and unrealistic, Barrie distanced himself from his depiction by explicitly setting readers apart from his characters: 'if we go together into the “room” they will not be visible to you'. Hence Barrie's collection very cleverly gives an entrée into a vanished Scotland without pretending it was still attainable. Not so less gifted followers, who were happy to provide a picture of an unchanging Scotland untouched by progress. This to many was at odds with a country then being reshaped by the railway, industrialization, and rapid depopulation through enforced emigration and financially driven resettlement of Scots in Canada, the United States, Australia, and elsewhere.

A feature of late nineteenth-century Scottish writing was the inevitable decline of spoken Scots (and Gaelic) as travel and the growing availability of inexpensive literature extended the use of standard English. Already by the final decades of the century writers like Robert Louis Stevenson and John Buchan were keenly aware of the disappearance of Scots-speaking communities. In The House with the Green Shutters George Douglas Brown contrasted the self-consciously archaic mannerisms of small-town Scots, as frequently portrayed in kailyard literature, with the speech of the cities—a contrast also applied in Lewis Grassic Gibbon's A Scots Quair (1932–4), in which the movement from country to small town to city was accompanied by a shift from an unembarrassed use of Scots to the rapid adoption of English, urged on by radio and Hollywood. Kailyard writers chose not to pay attention to this irreversible transition and this had the effect of linking Scots usage with the past, and all things rural, old-fashioned, and superannuated. The period saw the publication of numerous volumes of poor-quality poetry in Scots (Edwards's Modern Scottish Poets, 1880–97, provides copious examples) in addition to short stories in which characters still spoke Scots and eschewed the wider world. It is small wonder that twentieth-century poets like Hugh MacDiarmid struggled to re-establish Scots as a language for serious debate, that the literary critic Edwin Muir reluctantly considered the game lost, and that English became the requirement for serious writing of general interest.

Those works by Barrie, Watson, and Crockett most closely associated with the kailyard school were published during the 1890s. Thereafter Barrie turned increasingly to drama, Watson achieved note as a lecturer and leader of the English Presbyterian church, and Crockett, though continuing to write, failed to achieve the success of such titles as The Sticket Minister, The Grey Man (1896), and Kit Kennedy (1899). However, kailyard forms did continue to be identified in the work of later writers, among them the Dumfriesshire author Joseph Laing Waugh (1868–1928), best known for his character Robbie Doo and described by MacDiarmid as the 'bottom-line of the Kailyard School of novelists' (Nash, 218), and the Glasgow journalist John Joy Bell (1871–1934), whose Wee Macgreegor stories (from 1902) have been described as 'the last, wild wave of enthusiasm for a product of the Kailyard' (Blake, 83).

The influence of the Scottish literary renaissance ensured that kailyard authors were treated unsympathetically for much of the twentieth century. Only recently has the school as a whole been subject to critical attention, and with it some attempt been made to move beyond the use of ‘kailyard literature’ as a term of mass disparagement, to offer serious critical discussion both of the group's three principal writers and the factors behind its success. Recent scholarship has also prompted changing opinions as to those whose work can be identified by the term: for example the novelist Annie Shepherd Swan—who like Barrie and Maclaren contributed to Nicoll's British Weekly during the 1890s—is now regarded by many as kailyard, whereas more considerable authors, such as Neil Munro, are not. For a time the early nineteenth-century novelist John Galt was regarded as a precursor of kailyard, though more recent criticism credits him with an alert and critical realism and notes his involvement in social change as a widely travelled man of business. Similarly few would now attach the kailyard label to Margaret Oliphant's tales of rural life or to Stevenson or Buchan, and few to George MacDonald's complex and penetrating studies of Scottish character and language.

Renewed critical interest in Barrie, Maclaren, and Crockett for this period has also questioned the school's long-standing, and generally unsympathetic, association with the parochial and the relentlessly provincial. Today kailyard's negative connotations persist and little of the original material is read, with selected titles having only recently returned to print. However, an omnibus dismissal is not only unfair, but conceals real positive value. Kailyard's three main practitioners wrote short stories and longer fiction based on real experience, as real as George Eliot's Warwickshire or even Dickens's London. Barrie and Crockett had learned much from their childhoods in Kirriemuir and Galloway respectively, as did Watson from his ministry in Logiealmond in the mid-1870s. Writing in Nottingham and London, Barrie sensed the commercial opportunity for a realistic fiction that depicted a world under threat from commercial and industrial change. In his portraits of Thrums he recreated that world for a metropolitan audience who greeted it with enthusiasm. Likewise Crockett's Galloway villages and Watson's Perthshire glen, Drumtochty, conveyed a vivid picture of a vanishing world whose values—local, pietistic, distrustful of change, and sympathetic to the common man without suggesting radical social upheaval—appealed strongly. It is hard not to compare the kailyarders' popularity with that of the Scottish and English painters whose depictions of unchanging and bucolic scenes also achieved commercial success at this time.

Recent criticism has also highlighted the extraordinarily wide appeal of kailyard's recreation of a vanished or vanishing Scotland, transformed by the railway, industrial development, and depopulation. Barrie's A Window in Thrums begins with an evocation of a world one generation ago, visible to the omniscient author but (as he relates in the opening chapter) invisible to today's reader. At home, Scots were happy to read about their country's recently vanished past; abroad, many who had left within the last couple of decades (or their families, perhaps born overseas) were eager to read about that Scotland rather than the contemporary upheavals and problems of a country they had not seen for years. Maclaren's Beside the Bonnie Brier Bush, for example, passed through nine editions in 1894 and by 1906 had sold 256,000 copies in Britain and just under 500,000 in the USA. Such popularity owed much to the attention Barrie, Maclaren, and Crockett paid to the importance of strong religious life in communities where the churches—following the division of the Scottish kirk at the Disruption of 1843—were central to village life, its ministers the principal characters, and its values unquestioned. The rigid moral rules of the kailyard made plain that no disruption would upset the stability of this theocentric world: those who tried came to a bad end. It was this, in part, that prompted Nicoll's interest in the kailyard school, and notably in Watson, as a source of Christian values both wholesome and commercially attractive to readers from ‘good homes’.

In contrast serious twentieth-century Scottish writing—concerned with a country undergoing change—charted the kirk's decline, and along with it the certainties projected by kailyard authors. This was not to deny all aspects of the kailyard, but to represent them, more realistically, as values that co-existed with the new cities, poverty, social radicalism, religious doubt, and irreversible language change. And yet, even as this took place, there remained extraordinary instances of the survival of kailyard values in the popular press and in popular entertainment on stage and in print. The world of Hugh MacDiarmid was also that of Harry Lauder. Another aspect of recent critical writing therefore is to look seriously at kailyard's continuing popularity: to ask not merely why a literature so unrepresentative of a country should thrive, but to probe the larger question of what features of Scottish life and society could support a literature often characterized by its difficult relationship to realism.


  • A. Nash, Kailyard and Scottish literature (2007)
  • G. Blake, Barrie and the kailyard school (1951)
  • I. Campbell, Kailyard (1981)
  • E. Anderson, ‘The kailyard revisited’, Nineteenth-century Scottish fiction, ed. I. Campbell (1979)
  • L. Grassic Gibbons, ‘Literary lights’ and ‘The land’, The speak of the Mearns: with selected short stories and essays, ed. I. Campbell (1994)
  • R. Cook, ‘The home-ly kailyard nation: nineteenth-century narratives of the highland and the myth of merrie auld Scotland’, ELH: a Journal of English Literary History, 66/4 (1999), 1053–73
  • I. Campbell, ‘Introduction’, in J. M. Barrie, A window in Thrums (2005) [1st edn 1889]
  • A. Nash, ‘Introduction’, in I. Maclaren, Beside the bonnie brier bush (2009) [1st edn 1894]
  • W. Donaldson, Popular literature in Victorian Scotland (1986)
  • C. Harvie, ‘Behind the bonnie brier bush: the Scottish kailyard revisited’, Proteus (1978)
  • G. Shepherd, ‘The kailyard’, The history of Scottish literature, ed. D. Gifford, 3: The nineteenth century (1988)
  • C. Craig, The modern Scottish novel (1999)