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The Scottish Renaissance was a mainly literary movement of the early to mid 20th century that can be seen as the Scottish version of modernism. It is sometimes referred to as the Scottish literary renaissance, although its influence went beyond literature into music, visual arts, and politics (among other fields). The writers and artists of the Scottish Renaissance displayed a profound interest in both modern philosophy and technology, as well as incorporating folk influences, and a strong concern for the fate of Scotland's declining languages.
It has been seen as a parallel to other movements elsewhere, including the Irish Literary Revival, the Harlem Renaissance (in America), the Bengal Renaissance (in Kolkata, India) and the Jindyworobak Movement (in Australia), which emphasised indigenous folk traditions.
The term "Scottish Renaissance" is most frequently said to have been coined by the French Languedoc poet and scholar Denis Saurat in his article "Le Groupe de la Renaissance Écossaise", which was published in the Revue Anglo-Américaine in April 1924. The term had appeared much earlier, however, in the work of the polymathic Patrick Geddes and in a 1922 book review by Christopher Murray Grieve ("Hugh MacDiarmid") for the Scottish Chapbook that predicted a "Scottish Renascence as swift and irresistible as was the Belgian Revival between 1880 and 1910."
These earlier references make clear the connections between the Scottish Renaissance and the Celtic Twilight and Celtic Revival movements of the late 19th century, which helped reawaken a spirit of cultural nationalism among Scots of the modernist generations. Where these earlier movements had been steeped in a sentimental and nostalgic Celticism, however, the modernist-influenced Renaissance would seek a rebirth of Scottish national culture that would both look back to the medieval "makar" poets William Dunbar and Robert Henrysoun as well as look towards such contemporary influences as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and D. H. Lawrence.
The turn of the 20th century saw the first stirrings of a new era in Scottish arts and letters. As writers such as George Douglas Brown railed against the "Kailyard school" that had come to dominate Scottish letters, producing satiric, realist accounts of Scottish rural life in novels like The House with the Green Shutters (1901), Scots language poets such as Violet Jacob and Marion Angus undertook a quiet revival of regionally inflected poetry in the Lowland vernacular. The aforementioned Patrick Geddes would continue his foundational work in town and regional planning, developing the triad "Place - Work - Folk" as a matrix for new thinking about the relationships between people and their local environments. In the realm of visual arts, John Duncan would refine his Celtic myth inspired Symbolist painting to include an increasing emphasis on collage and the flatness of the image, while his younger colleague John Duncan Fergusson would explore the Impressionist and Fauvist techniques that would lead eventually to the founding of the Scottish Colourists group. In the early 1910s, the young Stanley Cursiter would begin a series of paintings that reflected the contemporary continental movements of Futurism and Vorticism. In architecture and the decorative arts, the towering figures of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Four would give Scotland its very own "school" of modern design and help create the "Glasgow style". Scotland in the early 20th century was experiencing an efflorescence of creative activity, but there was not yet a sense of a particular shared movement or an overt national inflection to all of this artistic effort.
It was not until the literary efforts of Hugh MacDiarmid that the Scottish Renaissance can properly be said to have begun. Starting in 1920, C. M. Grieve (having not yet adopted his nom de plume of Hugh MacDiarmid) began publishing a series of three short anthologies entitled Northern Numbers: Being Representative Selections from Certain Living Scottish Poets (including works by John Buchan, Violet Jacob, Neil Munro, and Grieve himself). These anthologies, which appeared one each year from 1920–22, along with his founding and editing of the Scottish Chapbook review (in the annus mirabilis of Modernism, 1922), established Grieve/MacDiarmid as the father and central figure of the burgeoning Scottish Renaissance movement that he had prophesied.
By about 1925, MacDiarmid had largely abandoned his English language poetry and began to write in a kind of "synthetic Scots" known as Lallans, that was a hybrid of regional Scots dialects and lexicographical artifacts exhumed from Jamieson's Dictionary of the Scottish Language, often grafted onto a Standard English grammatical structure.
This had an electrifying effect on the literary landscape of the time. Other poets, among them Sydney Goodsir Smith and William Soutar, soon followed in MacDiarmid's footsteps and also wrote in Lallans. Although sometimes accused of neglecting the Gaelic side of Scotland's linguistic identity, actually the writers of Scots language poetry inspired poets in the Scottish Gaelic language too, and its more positive effects on that literature are still being felt.
MacDiarmid's influence, however, went much further than this. By networking and bringing writers together he managed to create the sense of a literary movement in Scotland of writers with shared aims. Neil M. Gunn, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Edwin Muir (an Orcadian man of letters not drawn into Lallans writing), Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain) and many others felt the benefit of his influence, and are also generally referred to as being part of the Renaissance.
Although often considered in a literary light, the Scottish Renaissance influenced other branches of the arts. Particular examples can be found in music, with a composer such as Francis George Scott, and also the visual arts, for example Pittendreigh MacGillivray and Wendy Wood.
Decline and influence
Although many of the participants were to live until the 1970s and later, the truly revolutionary aspect of the Scottish Renaissance can be said to have been over by the 1960s, when it became eclipsed by various other movements, often international in nature.
The most famous clash was at the 1962 Edinburgh Writers Festival, where Hugh MacDiarmid denounced Alexander Trocchi, a younger Scottish writer, as "cosmopolitan scum", and Trocchi himself claimed "sodomy" as a basis for his writing. This is often seen as a clash of the generations, although it is rarely reported that the two writers corresponded with each other later, and became friends. Both were controversialists of sorts.
The Scottish Renaissance also had a profound effect on the Scottish independence movement, and the roots of the Scottish National Party may be said to be firmly in it. Arguably, Scottish devolution came about partly because of it, though it was actually delivered by the UK Labour Party which itself has strong Scottish influence dating back to its own founding.
Scottish Renaissance Figures
Other people connected with the Scottish renaissance, not mentioned previously, are listed below.
Note: These figures were not all contemporaries of the first generation of Scottish Renaissance writers and artists who emerged in the 1920s and 1930s. However, most did become involved with the movement in some form through interactions with figures such as Gunn or MacDiarmid, even if at a slightly later date.
- George Blake (novelist)
- Alan Bold (MacDiarmid's biographer and critic)
- James Bridie (playwright)
- Catherine Carswell (novelist, biographer of Robert Burns and D.H. Lawrence)
- A.J. Cronin (doctor, novelist)
- Helen Cruickshank (poet, who provided a focal point for the social scene)
- Robert Garioch (poet)
- George Campbell Hay [Deòrsa Mac Iain Deòrsa] (poet, translator)
- John MacDougall Hay (novelist, journalist, father of George Campbell Hay)
- Jessie Kesson (novelist, playwright)
- Archie Lamont (poet, nationalist pamphleteer)
- William Lamb (artist) (sculptor)
- Maurice Lindsay (poet, critic)
- Eric Linklater (novelist and politician)
- Norman MacCaig (poet)
- William McCance (painter)
- Fionn MacColla [Thomas "Tom" Douglas MacDonald] (novelist, historian)
- Compton MacKenzie (novelist, journalist)
- Robert McLellan (Scots language dramatist)
- F. Marian McNeill (folklorist)
- Naomi Mitchison (novelist, memoirist, activist)
- Edwin Morgan (poet, not to be confused with Edwin Muir)
- Willa Muir (novelist, translator)
- Nan Shepherd (novelist, poet)
- Tom Scott (poet, translator, critic)
- Derick Thomson [Ruaraidh MacThòmais] (poet)
- Douglas Young (poet, translator, essayist)
People generally considered to be post-renaissance but strongly affected by it:
- William Neill (poet)
- James Robertson (novelist and poet)
- Iain Crichton Smith [Iain Mac a'Ghobhainn] (poet, novelist)
- Quoted in McCulloch, Margery Palmer, ed. Modernism and Nationalism: Literature and Society in Scotland 1918-1939. Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2004. 52-53.
- Much of the emphasis in the Northern Numbers anthologies is on Scots language poetry, though MacDiarmid himself would not publish much of his own experimental "synthetic Scots" work until the publication of Sangschaw in 1925.