8. Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Scottish Nationalism
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105 CHAPTER EIGHT Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Scottish Nationalism Christopher Silver The relationship between Lewis Grassic Gibbon and the nascent, fragmented Scottish nationalism of his day was dismissive, hostile and defined largely by the author’s political, intellectual and geographic distance from it.1 On completing Scottish Scene, or The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn (1934), co-authored with Hugh MacDiarmid, Gibbon predicted that that the volume would be ‘a scream in at least one respect’, writing of the poet MacDiarmid: ‘He is the extreme Nationalist; I characterise the Nationalists as “brosy barbarians”. And so on – God knows what Grieve will say when he sees my sections!’2 Though it has only been deemed worthy of two revivals (c.1940 and 1974), Scottish Scene was first published at a key point in Gibbon’s short career. Prior to introducing his pseudonymous ‘distant cousin’ to the Scottish literary scene, James Leslie Mitchell had been largely absent from Scotland for a decade, undertaking military service in England and the Middle East, before settling in Hertfordshire.3 In further contrast to MacDiarmid, his only foray into Scottish politics that we know of occurred while still a teenager in the form of brief involvement with revolutionary socialists in Aberdeen and Glasgow.4 In a basic sense, the ‘brosy barbarians’ of early Scottish nationalism were Gibbon’s political enemies as expressed through aggressive polemic in his Scottish Scene essays. Gibbon also lampooned nationalism in his fiction. A Scots Quair (1932–34) is notable, particularly after the first novel in the trilogy, Sunset Song, for engaging with contemporary political events, and it is in the last of the three novels, Grey Granite, as part of a polyphonic attempt to portray an authentic Scottish city, that the presence of Scottish nationalism is addressed. The picture is not flattering. A thinly disguised caricature of MacDiarmid, ‘Hugo MacDownall, the chap who wrote in Synthetic Scots’, is standing in a university rectorial election, yet his student supporter 106 christopher silver sees the candidacy as a source of high-jinks rather than political inspiration .5 For Chris, the central protagonist of the Quair, Nationalism was just another plan of the Tories to do down the common folk. Only this time ’twas to be done in kilts and hose, with bagpipes playing and a blether about Wallace, the English to be chased across the Border and the Scots to live on brose and baps.6 With its montage-like technique, Grey Granite presents nationalism as just one distraction amongst a multitude of ideologies espoused by the eccentric inhabitants of the boarding house on which the novel is centered. That the author is equally critical of the competitors – a venal Labour Party, a hypocritical Kirk, a propagandist press, Douglasite economics, and Fabian socialism – can hardly be said to further the case for appropriating A Scots Quair as a nationalist text. Writing several decades after Gibbon’s death, MacDiarmid was vague about his collaborator’s ideological position: ‘He had at first little sympathy with the project of a Scottish Renaissance Movement but he came round. In politics too he gravitated to Communism and became an out-and-out Republican.’7 Here, the term ‘Republican’ suggests that MacDiarmid is seeking to associate the author with his own political development, specifically a project led by the poet in the 1930s to reconcile communism and nationalism, with the ideas of the political agitator John Maclean cast as the missing link.8 Gibbon, as is discussed in Uwe Zagratzki’s chapter in this volume, was essentially a libertarian-communist, though this did not extend to membership of the Communist Party itself.9 However much MacDiarmid might have wished it, there was no cohesive left-wing case for Scottish nationalism presented in this period, though he was to immediately grasp the significance of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks when exposed to Hamish Henderson’s translation in 1949.10 Prior to that, it is difficult to discern how revolutionary socialism would have managed to sit alongside a Scottish nationalist agenda, something that MacDiarmid’s troubled career in the 1930s and 1940s is testament to. Yet Gibbon’s dismissal of nationalism was not absolute. In a letter to Neil M. Gunn written a few months before Gibbon’s death, he attempts to persuade the nationalist Gunn to contribute to the Voice of Scotland series he was editing: ‘I’m not really anti-Nationalist. But I loathe Fascism and all the other dirty things that hide under the name. I doubt...


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