The home page of every edition of the Scottish Review
carries the tagline, 'Scotland's weekly current affairs magazine'. It has been exactly that without any attempt at interpreting what it is to be 'Scottish'. Over the years I have written articles on current affairs in Scotland, Westminster, Catalonia, Spain, New Zealand, South America and, last week, Palestine. I have never once had to step back and consider whether what I was writing was 'Scottish' enough. I am proud to be Scottish and always write from a 'Scottish perspective' in the true sense of the term whatever my subject matter.
I have to confess here to a lifetime addiction to Scottish magazines – whether politics, current affairs, the arts, literature – just about anything. It goes right back to my student days in the Edinburgh of the 1960s. They were not all as open and welcoming as the Scottish Review
. There were always plenty to choose from to match each evolving phase of my outlook on Scotland and Scottish identity.
A clutch of publications openly espoused Scottish independence although not uncritical of the SNP. I remember Catalyst
, the journal linked to the 1320 Group. Then there was Radical Scotland
, the child of the 79 Group, a socialist faction at war with the SNP traditionalist wing.
Another venture was Question
– or 'Q' as it was known. This was an ambitious project to give Scotland its own version of the New Statesman
or The Spectator
. It welcomed a wide range of contributions but was essentially nationalist in outlook. A leading role was played by Michael Grieve of the SNP, journalist son of Hugh MacDiarmid. An assistant editor was Alexander McCall Smith later known for his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency
novels and its cartoons were by McCormick. When it folded with plummeting circulation after less than two years, Neal Ascherson despaired of its fate, writing: 'It's unbelievable that in the most important decade of its recent history, at the moment when the country should be alive with fateful debates, Scotland can't support one serious political review'.
A more nuanced approach to Scottish independence emerged in those publications that saw it as a means to an end. Ray Burnett founded short lived Calgacus
from his home in Wester Ross – a 'vehicle for a revolutionary Scottish Gramscianism'. Tom Nairn and New Left Review
were also examples of this analysis. This rather romanticised view of a progressive Scotland has survived to this day in cruder form on the fringes of contemporary politics. Scotland is just more progressive, radical, socialist, tolerant and outward looking than any other part of the UK and breaking away is a shortcut to achieving ends that will otherwise always be frustrated by reactionary forces down south. That's roughly how it goes.
There were also lots of literary mags for me to get my teeth into. I have long since lost all my back copies of Akros
and Lines Review
(the longest running). The most obvious ideological division among poets was that between the advocates of Scots or Lallans and the considerably larger number who chose to write in English. Some of the fiercest acrimony and rivalry between publications was based on the linguistic question and how it correlated with an overt political stance. Hugh MacDiarmid, Tom Scott, Alexander Scott and Sydney Goodsir Smith were the 'traditionalists' in this respect, highly suspicious of any 'cosmopolitan' divergence.
The younger writers tended to gravitate around Scottish International
, a new journal launched in 1968 with very substantial backing from the Scottish Arts Council, and were much more oriented towards an 'internationalist' outlook. The principal of these was Bob Tait, the managing editor who was supported on the editorial board by Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch. The traditionalists despised the cultural interests of these newbies – especially the Beat poets, William Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi. So the lines were drawn between the nationalist poets and those more hostile to nationalism, both political and cultural, like Robin Fulton, a long-time editor of Lines Review
was one of my favourites. It was regarded by some as a favoured child of the Scottish establishment and in receipt of as much funding as all the other publications put together, feeding the paranoia of their mostly nationalist editors. The truth is it was just seriously good.
My outlook was constantly developing throughout my younger years and I started looking outwards for fresh perspectives to magazines like the New Edinburgh Review
. This was not just more contemporary but also gave greater attention to design and appearance with expensive glossy paper and two tone illustrations. It looked like a Scottish version of London's Time Out
Well, I've probably forgotten quite a few magazines along the way. All I know is that nearly all of them folded due to falling circulation and rising print and distribution costs. The one exception to this was the excellent West Highland Free Press
founded in 1972. It has remained a supporter of radical left-wing politics, the Labour Party and a champion of the Gaelic language and culture. Notable columnists have included the Rev Professor Donald MacLeod and the award-winning novelist Roger Hutchison, former editor of Oz
and Time Out
. The paper's founding editor, Brian Wilson, is still a regular contributor in the Scottish media today.
And so back to the Scottish Review
, Scotland's weekly current affairs magazine, founded by Kenneth Roy back in 1995. Do you remember the romantic comedy drama film Sliding Doors
? The film alternates between two storylines, showing two paths the central character's life could take depending on whether she catches a train. 2008 was perhaps Kenneth Roy's Sliding Doors
moment. He was faced with continuing a quarterly print edition of topical essays, biography, contemporary history and travel with a struggling circulation, or taking the Scottish Review
completely online. He chose the latter and the now weekly publication enjoyed a dramatically enlarged readership with a much sharper edge than the print version.
Of course, all the magazines that had come and gone before this had not had the luxury of slipping through those sliding doors and taking the online route. To paraphrase L P Hartley: 'The past is a foreign country. They have no internet there'. That courageous decision taken in 2008 gave us 15 more years of a weekly Scottish current affairs magazine to enjoy. We owe the late Kenneth Roy a great debt of gratitude for that, and for so much more.
Alastair Osborne is a retired local government officer and Labour Party activist