'Arts and the Nation' by Alan Riach with Alexander Moffat and John Purser (published by Luath Press)
This is an unusual and quite remarkable book. Its contents all appeared in the Friday edition of a national newspaper between January 2016 and February 2017. Which national newspaper? Well, the book's subtitle does provide a clue: 'A critical re-examination of Scottish Literature, Painting, Music and Culture'. It's hardly a surprise to discover that the newspaper in question was Scotland's own The National
first appeared in November 2014 in the wake of the negative outcome of the Scottish independence referendum held in the previous September. Apparently Glasgow's Herald
was deluged with complaints from readers that the defeat was partly the result of the absence of any newspaper committed to the cause of Scottish independence. So the decision was taken to remedy this situation by setting up The National
In its first few days, circulation reached a heady 50,000. But, no doubt inevitably, that early success could not be sustained. In recent months, The National
has been selling under 10,000 copies. Not in the same league then as the Scottish Sun
or Scottish Daily Mail
– but it's worth remembering that in Scotland, The Guardian
, for example, which is my paper of choice, barely sells 11,000 copies.
What is remarkable about this book then is its origin in the pages of The National
– pages until now which I admit I have never read. I find it impossible to believe that any other British newspaper, quality or tabloid, would have been ready to publish articles of the calibre one reads here on Friday after Friday for more than a year. In other words, I now share the amazed reaction of early readers who wrote 'How fantastic to see an article about William Dunbar in a mass circulation newspaper' or 'To think we have lived to see cultural writing in a Scottish newspaper again – a time of marvels' or 'It is incredible that work like yours can actually be published in a national newspaper'.
Regrettably, in today's National
– Friday 21 February – there is no comparable cultural article, but that in no way detracts from its remarkable decision to carry such articles for over a year.
Alan Riach, a fine contemporary poet and a professor of Scottish literature in Glasgow University, is the moving spirit behind this book. The great majority of articles are his work; he collaborates with Alexander (Sandy) Moffat, painter and art teacher, on pieces concerning Scottish painting, while composer and musicologist John Purser writes on Scottish music and musicians.
In his introduction, Professor Riach tells us that his concern is with 'hearing, seeing and reading meanings – whether in literature, musical compositions or paintings'. And throughout the book his insights are always informed and subtle and often challenging and demanding. He never talks down to his readers – rather he invites them to follow his understanding of all that is distinctive at the heart of Scottish art and its literary culture.
A major feature of the book, and to my mind its most important and valuable one, is its insistence that major figures in Scottish culture have never received the recognition they deserve. The case it makes for such a view is an extremely powerful one. Over and over again I found myself holding up my hand in acknowledgment of my ignorance of the creative achievement of the figure in question. Not a Gaelic speaker himself, early in the book Riach writes beautifully of two 18th-century Gaelic poets: Duncan Ban MacIntyre and Alexander MacDonald. Having described their careers and the two epic poems – Praise of Ben Dorain
and The Birlinn of Clanranald
– they are best remembered for, he goes on to provide extracts of his own translations of both poems, which are strikingly beautiful. Beyond question we should all be familiar with poems of such quality.
On the very next page he hits us with Elizabeth Melville. My hand goes up again even more shamefacedly. Melville turns out to be our first woman poet publishing a book of her own – Ane Godlie Dreame
– in 1603. Again the extracts that Riach provides offers powerful evidence that her work deserves to be remembered alongside that of such established figures as William Dunbar and Robert Henryson.
Henryson and Dunbar used to be known as 'Scottish Chaucerians'. Professor Riach would see this as evidence of how Scottish literature was long seen as no more than a mere offshoot of English literature. Given its original publication in The National
, readers will not be surprised to learn that a central running theme of Arts and the Nation
is that Scottish independence would do much to remedy the neglect and under-valuing of a range of Scottish artists, musicians and writers.
The issue of nationality and nationalism recurs throughout and is largely handled with a high level of sophistication. Professor Riach is too fine a scholar not to recognise that nationalism in particular has often been seen as problematic for artists of every kind. But he succeeds in building a powerful case for its frequent centrality within the wider social, political and cultural context of all works of art.
My reservations as a cultural nationalist but not a political one are few. In the closing sections of the book concerning such topics as the mass media, TV and films, the beating of the nationalist drum becomes a shade too prominent, and the text seems to endorse familiar myths about how Scotland, unlike England, is a truly democratic and anti-imperialist nation. In fact, despite Scotland's own history, 'imperialism' recurs as the worst of all crimes. Then on p.193 are we being asked to agree that in the 1990s, Tony Blair, rather than 'Labour priorities', was 'consolidating Thatcherism as New Labour'.
As I've indicated above, what I most admire about this book is its restoration of the reputations of an extraordinary range of Scottish artists of all kinds who have disappeared from our cultural map. Nowhere is this more true than in John Purser's section on Scotland's music and composers. Hamish MacCunn, composer of Land of the Mountain and the Flood
, was the only name I recognised. Now I know better.
Among those celebrated here is 'Helen Hopekirk: Romantic, Poetic and Tinged with Gaelic Folk Music'. Born in Portobello in 1856, Hopekirk had an amazingly successful worldwide career as pianist, teacher and composer. In 1905 she published a collection of Scottish folk songs in her own arrangements. In an introduction, she describes her memories of Gaelic singing: '… As the song goes on, one is strangely moved by a subtle something – a wild irregularity of rhythm, something ancient, remote, more easily felt than expressed. The quaint Gaelic language, the old world melodies, the quiet and pathos of the way of singing are haunting…'.
Reading these words, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Just a few days prior I had attended a piano recital in St Bride's Church in Glasgow given by a young musician called Sam MacAdam. What was striking was her choice of material – no Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy or anything similar. What she played were her own arrangement of Scottish folk songs found in the early 18th-century Simon Fraser Collection. Fraser, a Gaelic speaker from Inverness-shire and a member of a family with a folk-singing tradition, was one of the early Scots aiming to preserve Scots songs and airs by writing them down.
Hopekirk's words describing Gaelic singing struck me as catching exactly my experience listening to Sam MacAdam's piano arrangements – including the occasional use of her own voice accompanying the piano in a kind of mouth music. A new experience of a traditional art of the Scottish nation.