Scottish Renaissance

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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.


A bust of MacDiarmid in South Gyle, Edinburgh.

The term "Scottish Renaissance" was brought into critical prominence 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.[1]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,"[2] involving such figures as Lewis Spence and Marion Angus.[3]

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, or (more locally) R. B. Cunninghame Graham. [4]

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).[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.


Stanley Cursiter Regatta, (1913)

The ideas of a distinctive modern Scottish art were expressed in the inter-war period by figures including Stanley Cursiter (1887–1976), William McCance (1894–1970), William Johnstone (1897–1981) and J. D. Fergusson (1874–1961).[8] Stanley Cursiter was influenced by the Celtic revival, post-impressionism and Futurism, as can be seen in his Rain on Princess Street (1913) and Regatta (1913). He went on to be a major painter of the coastline of this native Orkney, director of the National Gallery of Scotland and proposed the creation of a National Gallery of Modern Art in 1930.[9][10] Fergusson was one of the few British artists who could claim to have played a part in the creation of modernism and probably played a major part in the formulation of MacDiarmid's thought. His interest in machine imagery can be seen in paintings like Damaged Destroyer (1918). He co-operated with MacDiarmid on the journal Scottish Art and Letters and MacDiarmid quoted extensively from his work.[11]

William McCance's early work was in a bold post-impressionist style. After World War I he moved to London with his wife, fellow student Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980), where he joined the same circles as Fergusson, vorticist Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) and nationalist composer Francis George Scott. Under these influences his work became increasingly abstract and influenced by vorticism, as can be seen in Women on an Elevator (1925) and The Engineer and his Wife (1925).[12] William Johnstone (1897–1981) was a cousin of F. G. Scott and met MacDiarmid while a student at Edinburgh. He studied cubism, surrealism and was introduced to new American art by his wife the sculptor Flora Macdonald. He moved towards abstraction, attempting to utilise aspects of landscape, poetry and Celtic art. His most significant work, A Point in Time (1929-38), has been described by art historian Duncan Macmillan as "one of the most important Scottish pictures of the century and one of the most remarkable pictures by any British painter in the period".[13][9][14]

Other artists strongly influenced by modernism included James McIntosh Patrick (1907–98) and Edward Baird (1904–49).[9] Both trained in Glasgow, but spent most of their careers in and around their respective native cities of Dundee and Montrose. Both were influenced by surrealism and the work of Bruegel and focused on landscape, as can be seen in McIntosh Patrick's Traquair House (1938) and more overtly Baird's The Birth of Venus (1934). Before his success in painting, McIntosh Patrick gained a reputation as an etcher. Leading figures in the field in the inter-war period included William Wilson (1905-72) and Ian Fleming (1906-94).[15]


The impact of the renaissance can be seen in music, as in composition like those of Francis George Scott.

Decline and influence[edit]

Scottish Poetry Library, Crichton's Close, Edinburgh. The Scottish Renaissance revived interest in Scottish poetry

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.

The revival in both Scotland's indigenous languages is partly drawn from the renaissance.

Scottish Renaissance Figures[edit]

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.

People generally considered to be post-renaissance but strongly affected by it:


The Scottish Renaissance has been criticized for its rejection of women and femininity – something which might be associated in part with its reaction against the domestic sentimentality of the Kailyard.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ I. Ousby ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1995) p. 839
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ I. Ousby ed., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1995) p. 839
  4. ^ D. Daiches ed., The Penguin Companion to Literature 1 (1971) p. 333
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ D. Daiches ed., The Penguin Companion to Literature 1 (1971) p. 333
  7. ^ D. Daiches ed., The Penguin Companion to Literature 1 (1971) p. 333
  8. ^ D. Macmillan, Scottish Art 1460-1990 (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1990), ISBN 0500203334, p. 348.
  9. ^ a b c M. Gardiner, Modern Scottish Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), ISBN 0-7486-2027-3, p. 173.
  10. ^ M. MacDonald, Scottish Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), ISBN 0500203334, pp. 163-4.
  11. ^ D. Macmillan, Scottish Art 1460-1990 (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1990), ISBN 0500203334, p. 350.
  12. ^ D. Macmillan, Scottish Art 1460-1990 (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1990), ISBN 0500203334, pp. 348-50.
  13. ^ D. Macmillan, Scottish Art 1460-1990 (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1990), ISBN 0500203334, pp. 351-2.
  14. ^ D. Macmillan, "Review: Painters in Parallel: William Johnstone & William Gillies",, 19 January 2012, retrieved 8 May 2012.
  15. ^ M. MacDonald, Scottish Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2000), ISBN 0500203334, pp. 175-6.
  16. ^ Kirsten Sterling, Bella Caledonia (2008) p. 39

Further Reading[edit]

  • D. Glen, Hugh MacDiarmid and the Scottish Renaissance (1964)

External links[edit]