In my ‘readers postbag’ there is a growing band of Crockett readers who think that Professor Riach is simply ignorant. I would never presume to suggest that the Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University is ignorant about Scottish literature, but I am left scunnered by his recent writings on the Kailyard. If not ignorance, then what? I am a great believer in authorial intent and so when I come across an essay/article/diatribe (pick the word you feel fits most appropriately) I assume that the author means what they say and has some knowledge about the subject they are writing about.
Yet Professor Riach spectacularly misses the point in his three Kailyard essays recently published in The National. Not only does he fail to properly define Kailyard (I’ve still to find someone who can actually do this, so that’s not my real ‘beef’) but he uses the arguments which are at best contradictory and at worst plain incomprehensible, in what ends up being little more than perpetuating a ‘myth’ which is no more than name-calling. It was name calling when Millar invented the term in 1895, it was name-calling when MacDiarmid and the modernists took up the call in the 1920s and 30s and when George Blake ‘critiqued’ it in the 1950s, and it’s name-calling today. It shames his position to stoop so low.
I have so much to take issue with that it’s hard to know where to start. This, in itself, I have discovered is a tactic used against the so-called Kailyard (and other things) by self-styled intellectuals. Never focus on the actual, keep moving the goal-posts so fast that there is no one single point that can be refuted – so that by the time one has dealt with one point the perpetrator has skipped away somewhere else and claims that you are being irrelevant. In my opinion it is both poor scholarship and dishonest writing.
Doubtless I may be accused of being ‘Calvinist’ in my approach when I suggest that the fundamentals of essay writing should be to make a coherent, consistent point where all the parts fit the whole. Not simply throwing as much mud at a wall as you think will cover it. But I was trained in how to construct an argument through the discipline of Moral Philosophy, not English (or Scottish) literature. They are clearly very different in approach and I know which I prefer.
That Kailyard detractors refuse to acknowledge the realism of rural working class life should, I suppose be no surprise. It is not their culture. For my part, I did not actually believe the world of The House With the Green Shutters until a couple of years ago. While I have lived in many places in Scotland and beyond, I had never experienced the kind of small-town ignorance/arrogance and mean petty minded spirit until a couple of years ago. (I will not name and shame the place!) And so, perhaps I should not criticise those who do not understand, because they have no lived experience of, rural Scotland from the perspective of the economically less privileged. (I’m trying to avoid ‘classism there).
There is a myth, as powerful as that of the ‘nostalgia’ and ‘idyll’ of rural life, which suggests that the country is only inhabited by the landowners or rich folk. This would presumably be the same ignorance that saw folk turn up from time to time on my doorstep in Galloway to report that they’d seen sheep in the same field as cows, and surely this was a mistake/wrong/dangerous. That they were able to tell sheep from cows (if not cows from bulls) and certainly not tups from ewes from hoggs, should, I suppose, be something to be grateful for. My point – there is a lot of ignorance about the countryside, and especially about the Scottish countryside and the folk who inhabit it. This ignorance is not bliss.
I am well aware that rural Scots are in the minority and that historically Scots moved away from the countryside into an industrialised urban way of life. I am also aware that many of these urban folk can only relate to the countryside in a ‘nostalgic’ way. That is fair enough. What I cannot accept is that they present this as the only view. Their denial of the reality of rural Scotland by suggesting it is either idyllic or nothing more than a nostalgic past does not make it less real for the people living in it. These people are also real.
I can, and have, picked apart Professor Riach’s three articles, piece by piece. I have been criticised for doing so as being ‘unfair’ to him. Spare me that I feel little sympathy for him. He is well able to defend himself, whereas those he condemns, though his recent articles which, while authoritative in style are sadly lacking in either consistency or informed comment, are dead and not able to stand up for themselves.
It is left to those of us who understand and appreciate their work to do it for them. Why? Because to reduce Scottish literature and culture to the simplistic, binary, divisive Kailyard/non-Kailyard is to denigrate our literature, culture and fundamentally our identity. This is something I will not thole. I have no personal axe to grind. It is Professor Riach, not me, who has ‘taken the King’s shilling’. But I feel a responsibility towards Crockett, for what he can teach us all about our cultural identity and sense of place.
S.R. Crockett was a man who, above all, didn’t take kindly to the hypocrisy of hierarchy, who stood against power and privilege and who presented the perspective of the ‘wee voice’. Perhaps that is one reason he was popular with ‘the masses’ in his day. His popularity is certainly one reason he is so maligned by those who held (and if Prof Riach’s writing is anything to go by) who still hold such positions. Which is of course the other reason. Crockett would not have bowed his head or doffed his cap to the likes of Professor Riach simply because he was heid dominie. And nor will I.
I went to a Scottish University – where of course I studied English Literature! I wanted to study Moral Philosophy and English Literature jointly. I was prevented, on the grounds that it was ‘too hard.’ I accepted this – I was still in my teens, and I had been taught to acquiesce to my elders and betters. In my thirties I embarked upon a PhD in Scottish Literature – with a deal of excitement. I was about to ‘discover’ the Scottish Renaissance. What a disappointment. The ‘flowering’ of Scottish literature appears to be no more than a cover for a particular brand of modernism – largely urban-centric and with a chip on its shoulder the size of Ben Nevis. I abandoned my studies, lacking the strength to take on this argument or the insight to fully dismantle it.
I continued to grapple intellectually with the ‘duality’ at the heart of Scotland – and Scottish literature. I read and I read and I read. And I thought about what I read. Twenty years on, I took an important decision. Instead of going back to finish the PhD with my greater understanding, I determined to use the money to republish Crockett’s work in order to make it available for others. Given the option of fighting a losing battle inside an academic establishment, or taking practical action in the wider sphere, I picked the latter. I do not regret my choice.
When I first started advocating for the work of Crockett in 2014, whenever I brought up the Kailyard question, I was told to ‘get over’ it. I was told that academia had ‘moved on’ from this debate and that I was being irrelevant. Professor Riach doesn’t appear to have received this memo. Indeed anywhere you look you’ll find that Kailyard is still the primary currency used to discuss Scots writing of the late 19th century. I am more than happy to ignore the Kailyard, or to look into it and try to properly define it. But on the loose, ‘name-calling’ definition that still pervades, I am not in the business of trying to defend Kailyard, I am in the business of pointing out that Crockett (and Barrie) are NOT Kailyard writers. I baulk against have to waste so much time proving the negative when instead we should be looking at their substantial positive contribution to our country’s literature and culture.
I never understood the concept of Scotland as ‘divided’ nation until the Independence Referendum. I’m sure it was there, it just wasn’t something I recognised or had truly experienced. I’ve grown up now. I understand. I also understand it is perpetuated not only by those who claim we are all ‘too wee, too poor and too stupid’ (those who set themselves above us in making that claim of course) but by those who claim to be working to make that better nation. The two Scotland’s I have discovered, in literature as in life, are those of darkness and light. On the one hand we have those who privilege and indeed seem to praise all that is bad about Scotland. Their focus is on drugs and murder and stupidity and ignorance and suggest that we are a fractured and needy kind of people.
The others who see the light are most often crushed under the weight of all this for daring to suggest that the values of community, integrity and positivity, of beauty and nature are things not just to ignore, or aspire to, but are an actuality of our identity. There are those whose writing reflects the darkness of a bitter Scots winter and those whose writing rejoices in the ethereal light of the large open Scottish skies.
I can’t believe in the grimness of Scotland I see portrayed by some, not least because it is not my real lived experience. I am not deluded, I am not simply entrenched in the Kailyard, and while in the minority, I am not alone.
As a reader I discovered Crockett first with no label attached to him. Academia started waving ‘Kailyard’ accusations at him. The label in no way made sense to me then and it no more does now. I would hope that other readers might find him in the same context, not have to wade through prejudice dressed up as scholarship to discover his remarkable contribution to Scots literature.
I am more than capable, and happy, to set up a whole host of line by line analyses of those areas of Professor Riach’s many proto-arguments in his essays – but it will be a mammoth task. So for now, let me, by way of example, simply look at a couple.
I find it odd that he should at different times praise Buchan and condemn Crockett for the same thing. Drilling into his argument on Buchan he suggests that his Imperialist attitude is okay because he writes well about the countryside. Earlier he calls Crockett a small-minded conservative unionist. None of these is true by the way. And here is no mention that Crockett writes well about the countryside. Which he does.
It is obvious that Buchan and Crockett’s ‘style’ of writing is entirely different. One would expect this with the passage of time. Leave aside a consideration of the very early Buchan who tried (and failed) to ape Crockett’s style in Sir Quixote of the Moors and John Burnet of Barns, Buchan developed his own, successful style. Yes it is tauter, shorter and more ‘forward’ looking. Buchan was well placed at the seismic change which occurred with the First World War. Crockett died before that war began. That in itself does not make him either nostalgic or backward looking. The fact is, Crockett was writing historical fiction in the nineteenth century style. That doesn’t make him nostalgic. He is certainly not nostalgic in his subject matter when looking back to the Covenanters. He is not sentimental when he deals with the urban or rural poverty of the 19th century either. He may employ sentimentality as a stylistic device. This is not the same thing as being sentimental. J.M.Barrie teaches this lesson most ably in his prose fiction. Sentimental Tommy is a tour de force in the exploration of the meaning of the word and its practical applications and consequences. J.M.Barrie is described by Riach as ‘ambivalent’ when perhaps a better word would be ‘ambiguous.’ Such ambiguity should not be beyond the skill or wit of an academic to understand – and then to explain to a wider audience.
Crockett writes in the Scots romance style, a style vastly under-explored or explained in academic writing on Scottish prose fiction. Let me be clear, as Crockett himself was. He was not writing novels ‘of purpose’. Therefore he should not be judged as failing to achieve something he never set out to achieve. And it is ridiculous to assume that only novels of purpose are valid. To set literature above fiction and create a ‘canon’ is an imperialism of which Buchan would be proud. Much as I enjoy his writing, it shocks me that Buchan should be vaunted as a great Scottish writer while Crockett is consigned to the midden (which is really what the Kailyard symbolises for those who criticise it.)
Let us consider why this might be the case. Does son of a minister versus illegitimate son of a dairymaid give you any clues? Does Celebrity bestseller against Governor General of Canada help?
The only thing worse, in my opinion, than the Scottish cringe, is the hand reaching up to doff the cap or tug the forelock.
While still on the subject of Buchans, Professor Riach mentions Anna Buchan. O.Douglas, to you and me. He claims that she writes so well about domestic matters (in Peebles) whereas Crockett is Kailyard when he writes of domestic matters in Galloway (despite the ironic fact he was living in Peebles while writing some of this work!) It’s the old Borders versus Galloway thing. Isn’t it an example of urban parochialism to designate everywhere south of the Central Belt as ‘the Borders?’ Don’t we all rise up against the English when they similarly categorise ‘Scotland' paying no attention to our diversity of cultures.
Or shall we move on to religion? Professor Riach describes Norman Douglas ( a man I find it hard to bring into the pantheon of Scottish writers) as rejecting Calvinist roots – with the clear suggestion that this is derogatory. It’s a strange choice of word. Perhaps he means Presbyterianism? Either way, this is a big topic to be so easily dismissed. I know little about Norman Douglas, who seems to have been little mor than a tourist in Scotland, but I do know there’s more to religion in Scotland than Calvinism. What about Episcopalianism? The Free Kirk? Cameronianism? Read Crockett and Barrie and you’ll find out more about the in’s and outs of Scottish Presbyterianism - and neither man is an apologist for small-mindedness.
Do they hand out sense of humour bypasses to modern urban Scots these days? Just read Crockett and Barrie and you will see they subject ministers to as much Scots humour as anyone can feasibly do. But they do so from a position of light, not of darkness. Irony is not the same as bitterness. Scots humour is subtle and I suppose easily missed if you are not familiar with it. But where authorial intention is for Scots humour, if the reader misses it that is hardly the writer’s fault.
Perhaps Professor Riach is trying to do too much. Perhaps he doesn’t know what he is trying to do? Perhaps he knows exactly what he is trying to do? I certainly don’t know what to make of his writing. All I know is that he has, purposefully or not, entirely misrepresented some honest Scots writers who have much to show us about our own past and cultural identity. And potentially deprived many readers of many enjoyable reading experiences into the bargain. He has done so from a position of power and privilege. This wee voice would like to suggest there may be a balance, or a need for redress. I have no axe to grind. I welcome a diverse and inclusive community of Scots writers – both dead and living – with the aim of honest representation of lived experience. But I am shamed to think that our academic institutions should provide such a poor example of critical analysis and I am drawn to conclude that poets do not make the best critics of prose. I would simply urge readers to make up their own minds. To set aside the dictates of those who claim authority, and to read, without prejudice, with eyes open, trusting to authorial intent rather than aligning themselves to spurious movements or canons of literature.
As far as Riach's overall argument goes – I’m afraid I see nothing new in it. And nothing that is beyond ignorance or intentional misinterpretation. Why would a man do that to his fellow writers? And why would a Scot do that to his cultural identity? Like I said at the beginning, I'm scunnered.
(Please look around McRenegades for other pieces on this topic. Type the word kailyard in the McRenegades search engine and you'll be spoiled for choice. Or venture forth to the S.R.Crockett or J.M.Barrie sites for more informed content. www.gallowayraiders.co.uk and www.jmbarriesociety.co.uk )
 I will offer a prize for any reader who can tell me the Crockett novel I’m referring to here.