In 1898, a young mining engineer set sail from England to Cape Town. He had already travelled the length of Britain, having left behind him his father’s Manse in Aberdeenshire. In South Africa, he quickly became the manager of a gold mine, and almost equally quickly found himself swept up in the South African Wars. As a Transvaal Highlander, and wounded in battle, he was nursed by a beautiful young woman who had also made the long journey south, the daughter, grand-daughter and great grand-daughter of rugged Highland gamekeepers. Geographically and socially, they would never have met in Scotland, but in South Africa they met, married, and produced four remarkable daughters. Dearest reader, I am one of the grand-daughters of one of them, and therefore full to the brim with good Scottish blood. My DNA draws me to the uplands, gives me a taste for haggis (although not for some of the recipes in my great-grandmother’s cookery book: see Week 21) and – the infallible sign of true Scottishness, as unfailing as a pea under the mattress for a princess – equips me with a real love of the sound of the pipes. I belong to the Great Scottish Diaspora of the last three centuries or more, and I am therefore the proud and fond cousin of splendid, free-thinking, outspoken and long-headed people on every continent on earth. But I have never lived in Scotland, and so I have to stand idly by while the heart of me talks of packing its bags and leaving.
As well as, indirectly, giving the world – well, me, Scotland has come up with pretty much everything over the years: the Education Act of 1496, for example – yup, that’s right, a little less than four hundred years before Westminster came round to the idea that educating the poppets might make life better for all. Oh, and the Enlightenment, of course, or, to give it its proper title, the Scottish Enlightenment, the rays of which shone into all the corners of the world in time. I think we’d better get reading.
A good place to start is with The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman. The title rather more than hints at the thesis, and it is a case well-made as well as well-written. We can add an excellent study of the first king of the two countries, Alan Stewart’s The Cradle King, and then decide not to follow up the Stuart family tree with banging on about kings over the water and bonnie princes traipsing through the heather. There are two compelling reasons for this resolution of grown-upness and common sense: one, that what happened, happened, and that we have all moved on since James VII and II scuttled off, having given a first-class demonstration of not being a first-class monarch; and, two, that the whole Old-Pretender-Young-Pretender-Flora-MacDonald malarkey is hopelessly, dangerously, romantic. And as you know, the NorthernReader has no truck with Romanticism.
So, having sorted out three hundred and more years of waly waly, we can move on to stocking our shelves with some treasures of Scottish literature. I’m not completely certain that anyone reads Scott any more, which is probably a pity, as his novels have the most splendidly gripping stories to tell. But they are unfashionably long. On the other hand, the BBC sometimes dramatises them for radio with David Tennant in them, a circumstance which makes length a virtue, I’d have said. And if it wasn’t for Scott, Edinburgh would not be the proud possessor of the only railway station in the world to be named after a novel, which, you have to admit, is seriously cool: how very much more interesting Oxford would be, for example, if its station were to be known as Jude. Or even, I suppose, Morse.
Next to Waverley, Ivanhoe and The Bride of Lammermoor I’m going to have Robert Louis Stevenson: and if you happen not to have read any, I am seriously jealous of the treat you have in store. But of course you have. You will have started when small with A Child’s Garden of Verses, full of the just the right sort of poems that slip easily into your mind and stay there. And you’ll have thrilled to Kidnapped and – perhaps best of all, although that is a very hotly-contested field – Treasure Island. But there is a chance that, although you know the story, you have never actually read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Do so.
How about some poetry now? Well, of course we must have Robert Burns, because he did what Chaucer did before him: said To Hell with the idea that poetry has to use some special, insipid, rarified voice as if it had its spine surgically removed at birth, and used the language of the everyday and the voice of the people around him. Burns’ poems are radical political acts that assert the equal rights of words on these islands. Have a listen to the poems being read by Scottish actors, or enjoy a beautiful sung version of Ae Fond Kiss. But don’t run away with the notion that poetry in Scotland begins and ends with Burns. Let’s start with ‘Sir Patrick Spens’: ‘The king sits in Dunfermline town/ Drinking the blude-red wine’ – and don’t tell me that doesn’t make you yearn to know what happens next – and work steadily forward through the centuries, at least until we come to Edwin Muir and ‘The Confirmation’: ‘Yes, yours, my love, is the right human face/ I in my mind had waited for this long’. Scotland, we’ve been together now so very long, in sickness and in health: please don’t go.