As the opening poem to the ASLS website proclaims, ‘Forget your Literature, Forge your Soul’. This is very true and its veracity can only be understood by patrons of literature who assimilate its refined aesthetic in the very fabric of their personhood. Just as literary art seeps through to the soul of the patron, so also the aura of iconic authors make a personal connection with the audience. This is true of literature in general and by extension applicable to the Scottish literary scene, which has seen a renaissance of sorts in modern times. For this essay, the term ‘modern’ is applied in its broad sense, covering all the artists and movements witnessed in the Scottish Highlands and Islands during the twentieth century continuing till today. What follows is an evaluation of the relevancy of cultural icons, perceived or otherwise, to the modern writers of the region.
It used to be the case that Scottish literature was not taken seriously by highbrow academics in Oxford and Cambridge. But this is no longer the case, and Scottish literature, especially that which is rendered in English, has gained respectability, readership and critical appreciation. At the centre of this transformation is a reversion to authenticity, whereby, Scottish authors focussed on issues and subjects closer to their hearts as opposed to aping the dominant popular currents in England and North America. But this authenticity was challenging given the social, political and economic conditions that prevailed in the region for much of its history. For example,
“The Highlands and Islands’ rest-and-recreation based economy is predicated upon gross inequality: at one end the Skibo Castle people, at the other a post-professional, underpaid, servitor class, tenuously connected by a politics of quick profit and conspicuous consumption. Not far, in fact, from that of Balzac’s Comedie Humaine in the French Restoration between 1815 and 1830. Fathoming the place requires the detective-work of his Vautrin, but the sleuth can also, like Vautrin, be changed by it.” (Harvie, 2003)
Hence the foray into serious literature was bold as it is the right approach. As the oft quoted maxim states, ‘The more ethnic a work of art is, the more universal is its appeal’. This is precisely what modern writers of the Highlands and Islands appear to have done since the beginning of the twentieth century. In specific, they brought to the fore the influence of cultural icons, indigenous and foreign, and made their persona bear upon the written word. The rewards for this enterprise are for all patrons of good art to be enjoyed. Writers of such renown as Alasdair Gray, Carol Ann Duffy, Irvine Welsh, etc serve as stellar examples of this success. And as interviews and analysis of modern Scottish writers makes clear, their works are informed and inspired by key cultural icons, native or foreign. (Horwich, 2002)