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date: 11 December 2023

Scottish literary renaissancefree

(act. c. 1920–1945)

Scottish literary renaissancefree

(act. c. 1920–1945)
  • Roderick Watson

Scottish literary renaissance (act. c. 1920–1945), was a self-aware Scottish cultural movement, of late nineteenth-century origin, that achieved its greatest coherence in the period between the end of the first and the end of the second world wars. This inter-war generation of writers followed what had been a striking revival of the creative arts in Scotland, most notably in the paintings of the Scottish colourists Francis Cadell, Samuel Peploe, Leslie Hunter, and J. D. Fergusson, all of whom looked to Europe and especially French post-impressionism in their work. Indeed, the first mention of a modern 'Scottish renascence' was made in autumn 1895 by Sir Patrick Geddes, the pioneer of organic communities, civic planning, regionalism, and co-operative nationalism, as part of his publishing venture at his ‘social laboratory’, the Outlook Tower on Edinburgh's Castle Hill. In the second issue of his journal The Evergreen: a Northern Almanac (autumn 1895) Geddes associated his project with 'the Celtic renascence, now incipient alike in Literature and Art, and the revival and development of the old Continental sympathies of Scotland'. His aim was to 'renew local feeling and local colour … [to] express the larger view of Edinburgh as not only a national and Imperial, but a European city—the larger view of Scotland, again as in recent, in mediaeval, most of all in ancient times, one of the European powers of culture—as of course far smaller countries like Norway are today' (Prefatory note, The Evergreen, 2, autumn 1895).

Geddes's understanding of Scotland's cultural identity was coloured by the art of the sisters Margaret Macdonald and Frances Macdonald [see under Macdonald, Margaret] in Glasgow, with their links to the arts and crafts movement and art nouveau, as well as the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the ‘Celtic twilight’ writing of William Sharp as Fiona MacLeod. Though this ‘Celtic’ spirit did not survive the coming of the twentieth century, Geddes's vision of the socio-political value of cultural difference and of an outward-looking and European role for Scotland was to prove very influential in what was to come.

The next mention of a specifically literary renaissance was made by the poet and journalist Christopher Murray Grieve (soon to become Hugh MacDiarmid) in the first number of his new literary journal the Scottish Chapbook in August 1922. Grieve summarized all his hopes for a cultural revival by quoting Giuseppe Giusti, an Italian poet of the Risorgimento, on the front page of every issue: (Il fare un libro è meno che niente se il libro fatto non rifà la gente'to make a book is less than nothing unless the book, when made, makes people anew’'). Grieve recognized that the Celtic element had failed to change things (its penchant for melancholy was deeply passive) but paid tribute to Geddes's ambition and followed his lead by looking to continental Europe, citing the example of Belgium (a country with two native languages to Scotland's three) and predicting that 'the next decade or two will see a Scottish Renascence as swift and irresistible as was the Belgian Revival between 1880 and 1910'. The next decade did indeed witness the tireless efforts of Grieve as he promoted the cause of a separate Scottish cultural and socio-political identity in a succession of articles and journals edited by him, all aiming to follow what he called the 'chapbook programme', which included the following imperatives:

To encourage and publish the work of contemporary Scottish poets and dramatists, whether in English, Gaelic, or Braid Scots.To insist upon truer evaluations of the work of Scottish writers than are usually given in the present over-Anglicised condition of British literary journalism, and, in criticism, elucidate, apply, and develop the distinctively Scottish range of values.To bring Scottish Literature into closer touch with current European tendencies in technique and ideation.

As part of this programme Grieve denounced the nineteenth-century vogue for cosy, canny, 'kailyard' sentimentality in Scottish writing, crying 'Back to Dunbar!' instead and deploring what he took to be the pernicious influence of Robert Burns. Taking his line from Gregory Smith's 1919 study Scottish Literature: Character and Influence, he proposed a version of national identity that was dynamic, contradictory, and suffused with irreverent energy. With a Whitmanesque scope and confidence he went on to cite James Joyce, Dostoyevsky, D. H. Lawrence, and Mallarmé as iconoclastic models, opining that 'the slogan of a Scottish literary revival must be the Nietzschean “Become what you are”' (Theory of Scots letters, Scottish Chapbook, March 1923). If the Scottish literary renaissance was to have affinities with modernism, they would go back to these radical roots, with an emphasis on technical experimentation, psychological intensity, contradiction, and Dionysian energy—all to be rediscovered or reinvented in Scotland's native culture and language. The motto of the Belgian literary revival had been Soyons nous-mêmes, and this had a political meaning for Grieve, who thought of himself as a republican socialist with an increasingly nationalist and separatist political agenda.

From 1923 Grieve went on to promote the revival and reassessment of Scottish literature as widely as he could, editing two further (short-lived) periodicals of his own: the weekly Scottish Nation in 1923 and the monthly Northern Review in 1924, while also writing for the Glasgow Herald, the Scots Observer, and the Scots Magazine. Between 1925 and 1927 he contributed dozens of often controversial literary assessments to the Scottish Educational Journal (some of which were collected and published as Contemporary Scottish Studies in 1926) and weekly articles on every kind of national topic to Roland Muirhead's Scottish Secretariat, a clearing house for social, cultural, and political articles about Scotland to be syndicated to local newspapers throughout the country. His own poetry (he was now writing in Scots as Hugh MacDiarmid) was equally influential and this, along with his work as a reviewer, critic, editor, and anthologist, played a major part in the renewal of creative confidence that was to mark the period. A 'literary revival' was announced and other small magazines and periodicals took up the debate, most notably the Pictish Review (1927–8) edited by Stuart Richard (Ruaraidh) Erskine of Mar, whose journals had been championing a Gaelic revival since 1901, and J. H. Whyte's substantial review the Modern Scot (1930–36).

The opening rounds of the Scottish renaissance were mostly given to poetry, much of it in Scots, by writers such as Violet Jacob, Marion Angus, Lewis Spence, and William Soutar. This was not without debate and the argument about the efficacy of choosing to use Scots in a largely Anglophone cultural climate was to rage well into the 1940s, by which time MacDiarmid himself was espousing the case for Gaelic as well, and using English for the epic free verse of his own 'poetry of fact'. In these early years, however, older figures were recruited to the cause, looking to the Scots verses of the sculptor Pittendrigh MacGillivray, Alexander Gray, Neil Munro, and John Buchan, some of whom had originally featured in Grieve's Northern Numbers anthologies, published between 1920 and 1922, in the hope of doing for Scottish writers what the Georgian Poetry series had accomplished in England. By 1923, however, Grieve had abandoned his Georgian ambitions in favour of a more socio-politically active and confrontational stance.

This position bore fruit in April 1924, when the French poet, critic, and philosopher Denis Saurat recognized the movement in a key article on 'Le groupe de “la Renaissance Écossaise”' for the Revue Anglo-Americaine in which he identified 'L'idée centrale qui a groupé plus de cinquante écrivains' as 'l'idée de l'autonomie écossaise'. 'More than fifty writers' was a considerable exaggeration, but Saurat correctly identified a common determination to bring something original to European literature. As a lecturer in French at Glasgow University, Saurat met MacDiarmid through the composer Francis George Scott, who had been the poet's music teacher at Langholm Academy and then his mentor and good friend. Saurat translated some of MacDiarmid's lyrics into French while Scott was much engaged (like MacDiarmid) in combining the old and the new by making beautifully modernist musical settings for lyrics by MacDiarmid, Soutar, Burns, and the early modern poet and courtier William Dunbar. MacDiarmid's first two collections of lyrics more than established his credentials, while his long poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) provided the renaissance movement, in terms of its critical and intellectual impact, with its own version of The Waste Land.

The cultural climate was changing. John Buchan's popular anthology The Northern Muse (1925) revisited the literary tradition, while the critic William Power saw Robert Louis Stevenson as a forerunner of the modern movement and what was being called the 'vernacular revival' in Scots, producing his own account of the Scottish condition in Literature and Oatmeal (1935). The Scottish centre of PEN was founded in 1927, while the Scottish National Dictionary Association was formed in 1929 to produce the definitive account of modern Scots. In the political arena the National Party of Scotland (1928) and the Scottish Party (1932) amalgamated to become the Scottish National Party in 1934, while the more culturally aligned Saltire Society was established in 1936.

Neil Gunn's first novels Grey Coast (1925) and The Lost Glen (serialized in 1928) offered grim accounts of highland life and Gaelic culture in decline. MacDiarmid hailed a distinctive new voice and Gunn went on to become one of the key novelists of the movement with Highland River (1937), The Silver Darlings (1941), and The Green Isle of the Great Deep (1943). Naomi Mitchison's first novel, The Conquered (1923), used a historical setting in Roman Gaul to criticize imperialism and draw parallels with the British presence in Ireland. With the same agenda she was to write The Bull Calves (1947), based on her own family's history after the Jacobite rebellion. Nan Shepherd wrote subtle Chekhovian development novels based in her native Aberdeenshire (The Quarry Wood, 1928, and The Weatherhouse, 1930), while James Leslie Mitchell, writing as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, crowned an all too short literary career with his Scots Quair trilogy: Sunset Song (1932), Cloud Howe (1933), and Grey Granite (1934). Gibbon died only a year after the final volume was published. Both these authors engaged with spoken Scots, but Grassic Gibbon's innovative use of the cadences of north-east speech—carried into English as the major narrative voice throughout his trilogy—was a stylistic triumph and a technical breakthrough. Wholly committed to the renaissance agenda of making the Scottish tradition and the voice of its people new again, Gunn and Gibbon are the major novelists of the literary revival, although Gibbon's communist sympathies left him wary of MacDiarmid's nationalism. Other significant novelists of the period include Eric Linklater, Tom MacDonald (Fionn Mac Colla), Compton Mackenzie, and Willa Muir, who was a stern critic of the narrowness of provincial Scottish life in her fiction, most especially in Imagined Corners (1931) and in essays such as Mrs Grundy in Scotland (1936).

Next to MacDiarmid the major critic and poet of this period was Willa Muir's husband, Edwin Muir, who published his First Poems in 1925 and collaborated with his wife in translating German authors, most notably Gerhart Hauptmann, Lion Feuchtwanger, and Franz Kafka, into English. Muir drew on his idyllic childhood in Orkney to produce a mythopoeic and timeless verse in a much calmer and more meditative mode than MacDiarmid's confrontational energy. Very different in temperament, the two poets met and became friends. Muir explored the state of the nation in Scottish Journey (1935), but in the following year Scott and Scotland, his critical study of Scottish culture, caused a major breach with MacDiarmid, who felt that Muir's scepticism about the possibility of using Scots in a modern literary context was nothing short of a betrayal.

The classical scholar Douglas Young did not agree, committing himself to the Scottish National Party and to writing his own poetry in Scots with equal vigour. Like Helen Cruickshank he played a vital part in supporting other writers, producing a pamphlet on ‘Plastic Scots’ and the Scottish Literary Tradition (1946), arguing for a standard Scots spelling, and translating two of Aristophanes' plays into Scots: The Puddocks (1958) and The Burdies (1959). In fact the use of Scots as a medium for translating classical and European works was a marked feature of the literary revival, seen again in the work of Tom Scott and Robert Garioch Sutherland.

Questions of language and personal and cultural identity continued to exercise the renaissance writers, and by the 1940s Gaelic writers had joined the debate. Sorley MacLean's education in Edinburgh brought him into touch with MacDiarmid, whose work he admired, and other renaissance writers. The love lyrics MacLean collected in Dain do Eimhir (1943) brought Gaelic poetry into the twentieth century with a vengeance. These poems rendered the poet's conflicting emotional and political commitments (he was a socialist who hated the rise of fascism) in a passionately intense verse that drew on the Gaelic tradition while delivering something entirely new in an utterance akin to European symbolism with the bardic power of W. B. Yeats. The Gaelic poems of George Campbell Hay found similar force in his unhappy experiences of war in the Middle East, and Hay was one of the very few poets of the period to write in English and Scots as well as in Gaelic. The desert war also produced Hamish Henderson's best work in the austere English of Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948). Henderson's socialist sympathies led him to become a major figure in folklife scholarship, working for the School of Scottish Studies (founded in 1951) and becoming a contributor himself to the folksong revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

For the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith, born in New Zealand and educated in England, writing in Scots was a conscious creative choice, akin to adopting a creative persona. His language has a highly literary flavour, borrowing from the makars and the eighteenth century, while filling his complex lines with quotations from classical and European languages. His collection The Deevil's Waltz (1947) reflected on a world at war, and the prose of Carotid Cornucopius (1947) reads like a Scots version of Finnegans Wake, while the imagined elegies in the long poem sequence of Under the Eildon Tree (1948) are his masterpiece. The Scots of his contemporary Robert Garioch Sutherland is much closer to everyday colloquial language with a wry and searchingly satirical view of modern life in Edinburgh. Garioch's first work was published as 'The Masque of Edinburgh' in 1933, but many of his poems did not see book publication until the 1960s. Apart from his own fine poetry he undoubtedly expanded the capacities of modern Scots and met Patrick Geddes's hopes for a European connection by translating from the French of Apollinaire, the Latin of George Buchanan, the Greek of Hesiod and Pindar, and the Italian dialect poems of Giuseppe Belli. Through the 1940s William MacLellan (1915–1996) of Glasgow published annual volumes in Scottish Arts and Letters and the Poetry Scotland series of anthologies, while Maurice Lindsay's Modern Scottish Poetry appeared in 1946, summing up the poetic output of the literary revival to date with this 'Anthology of the Scottish Renaissance 1920–1945'.

A second generation or second ‘wave’ of Scottish writers came to prominence in the 1940s, with poets such as Norman MacCaig, Derick Thomson, Alexander Scott, George Bruce, Iain Crichton Smith, and George Mackay Brown. Novelists from this group who were equally determined to engage with questions of place, language, and personal and national identity include Robin Jenkins, Jessie Kesson, George Friel, William McIlvanney, Archie Hind, and—in his early work—Gordon Williams. If there is a third wave then the literary output since 1970 has been exceptionally rich, with work from Edwin Morgan, Alasdair Gray, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Douglas Dunn, John Byrne, Alan Spence, Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, John Burnside, Don Paterson, and a wealth of female writers like Liz Lochhead, Janice Galloway, A. L. Kennedy, Jackie Kay, and Ali Smith. Whether these third wave authors share their predecessors' conscious socio-political and cultural agenda or not (and some deplore it) most of them would still acknowledge a debt—if only as a matter of creative confidence—to those renaissance writers who went before. As a result, it may well be that the Scottish literary renaissance achieved its early aim to make books that made a people, or at least a literary culture, anew.


  • C. Anderson and A. Christianson, eds., Scottish women's fiction, 1920s to 1960s: journeys into being (2000)
  • The letters of Hugh MacDiarmid, ed. A. Bold (1984)
  • A. Bold, MacDiarmid: a critical biography (1988)
  • I. Brown, ed., The Edinburgh history of Scottish literature, 3: Modern transformations: new identities (from 1918) (2007)
  • The history of Scottish literature, 4: Twentieth century, ed. C. Craig (1987)
  • D. Glen, Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish renaissance (1964)
  • M. Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: the life (2006)
  • M. Gardiner, The cultural roots of British devolution (2004)
  • D. Goldie and others, Beyond Scotland: new contexts for twentieth century Scottish literature (2004)
  • N. M. Gunn, Atom of delight (1989)
  • F. Hart and J. B. Pick, Neil M. Gunn: a highland life (1985)
  • S. MacLean, Dàin do Eimhir, ed. C. Whyte (2002)
  • M. P. McCulloch, ed., Modernism and nationalism: literature and society in Scotland, 1918–1939, source documents for the Scottish renaissance (2004)
  • H. MacDiarmid, Selected prose, ed. A. Riach (1992)
  • H. MacDiarmid, The raucle tongue: hitherto uncollected prose, ed. A. Calder and others, 2 vols. (1996–7)
  • P. Butter, introduction, in E. Muir, An autobiography (1993)
  • R. Watson, The literature of Scotland, 2: The twentieth century (2007)
  • C. Whyte, Modern Scottish poetry (2004)
  • D. Young, Chasing an ancient Greek (1950)