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Issue 34 - The power of fiction

Scotland Magazine Issue 34
August 2007


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The power of fiction

As you read this, I will be preparing to give a talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I’m in good company this year with Norman Mailer, Germain Greer, ANWilson, Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin. For all of us who earn our living by the pen, or should I say word processor, it provides a splendid opportunity to be seen, heard and, more importantly, read.

What has become increasingly apparent, and wonderfully reassuring into the bargain, is that the written word is not only enduring, but increasing in popularity. There are now annual book festivals taking place in Aberdeen, Dundee, Kelso, Wigtown, and just over the Scottish Border at Sebergh, in Cumberland, all of them attracting top literary figures and capacity audiences. Independent Scottish publishers such as Birlinn and Cannongate are going from strength to strength.

On top of this, Edinburgh, the home of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and, more recently, Muriel Spark, J.K. Rowling and Irvine Welsh, has been nominated the first UNESCO World City of Literature. How about that?

Of course, every nation has successful writers, but Scotland is significantly fortunate in having its regional scribes – Lewis Grassic Gibbon for the Mearns (Aberdeenshire); James “Ossian” Macpherson, Neil Munro, Compton Mackenzie, Seton Gordon and Eric Linklater for the Highlands and Islands; James Hogg, John Buchan and Lavinia Derwent for the Borders, and for Glasgow, Jack House, with more recently James Kelman, Tom Leonard, William Macilvanny and Alasdair Gray.

Several of these luminaries I have had the good fortune to encounter in my lifetime; for example, Sir Compton Mackenzie when he was living in Edinburgh’s Drummond Place; Seton Gordon, whom I visited at Duntulm on the Isle of Skye; Jack House, whom I worked with in my days as an editor in Glasgow, and Lavinia Derwent, whom I interviewed in her flat in Glasgow’s West End. At the age of 13 I sailed on a cruise ship around the Hebrides with Eric Linklater. I watched Alasdair Gray paint murals on the ceiling of the Abbot House in Dunfermline, and was co-host of a Burns Supper when he was guest speaker. Scotland, as those of us who live here know only too well, is a village.

Which simply enhances its stature as a nation of creative writers. And somehow I find this gently reassuring in a world obsessed with transitory celebrity culture. I have not even touched on our poets or playwrights – Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Norman McCaig, George Mackay Brown, Alistair Reid, John McGrath and Liz Lochhead, to name but a handful.

To be a success as a writer, poet or playwright, however, you need to find inspiration in your surroundings, and that is another of Scotland’s strengths. Be it taken from the high mountains and deep lochs of the Highlands, the big skies of the Inner and Outer Hebrides, or the undulating hills of the Lowlands, the creative mind is never at a loss for material. When John Buchan wrote The Thirty Nine Steps he had his hero Richard Hannay escape across the Galloway and Peeblesshire moorland of his childhood; the adventures of David Balfour in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped all take place in locations intimately familiar to its author.

For Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie simply adapted a true incident which took place on the island of Barra during the Second World War.

However, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting worries me. While I fully endorse the message, I live on the fringe of the port of Leith and although I understand that all cities have an underclass, I think he does his birthplace of Leith no favours. When the film of Trainspotting was premiered in New York, some American friends who had revelled in the much hyped and historically distorted Hollywood film Braveheart, not based on a book but set amid spectacular scenery, telephoned to tell me that they were much looking forward to seeing it. I hesitated to inform them that within moments of the opening shots a tourist is attacked in a pub.

Happily, nothing like that has ever happened to me in any of Scotland’s cities, but that is not to say that muggings do not occur.

They are a worldwide city problem and, by the same token, Ian Rankin’s Rebus books also portray a sinister side to Edinburgh, as does Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. What makes those novels different is that the sheer affection which both authors share for their native town shines through regardless. Today Rebus and Robert Louis Stevenson tours are big business.

Towards the end of his life, I asked Compton Mackenzie which of his books had given him the most pleasure to write.

Undoubtedly Whisky Galore, he replied. Why? Because when it was published in 1947, followed two years later by a film, it relaunched the Scotch Whisky Industry worldwide.

Never underestimate the power of fiction.