Posted on 13th May 2014

Posted by Sophie

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Radical Voices – the independence referendum and Scottish literature

We think we know what we mean when we talk about British literature – the multiplicity of voices and cultures that make up our country and are reflected, if not always equally, in the literary landscape. But a year from now, that culture might start to look radically different.

On the 18th of September, residents of Scotland will vote for or against Scottish independence. If the vote goes the way the Yes campaign is hoping it will, then the divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK, already prevalent in so much of the cultural debate, will widen even further. By the end of 2016, British literature might not include Scotland at all.

All things considered, I’d better start writing about it whilst I can.

I first moved to Edinburgh in 2001 to study English Literature, and I moved back in March this year because the draw of living in a UNESCO City of Literature whilst also not paying exorbitant London rents proved irresistible. I wasn’t prepared for just how different the literary scene would feel, or how focused on the upcoming referendum it would be.

Although I have a vote and a pretty good idea of which box I’ll tick, as a recent import – and an English one, no less – I find the outcome less interesting than the art and cultural debate that it is creating.

Speaking last year, Fiona Hyslop, Holyrood’s Minister for Culture and External Affairs, made it very clear that the Scottish Government places a value on the arts that goes beyond the economic benefits laid out by Culture Secretary Maria Miller the previous month.  It is generally agreed that Scotland’s cultural scene is at the heart of the Yes campaign movement, taking pride in the rich literary heritage of a country that counts Robert Burns, Arthur Conan Doyle and Irvine Welsh among its writers.

But those writers flourished under a Scotland that was part of Britain – how different would literature post-independence look? Hugh Andrew, Managing Director of Edinburgh-based publishing house Birlinn, has expressed concern that independence would be a death knoll to the Scottish book industry, suggesting that it “represents the worst of all worlds for our writers and culture”.

No matter what the outcome or how central literature is to either side of the campaign, there’s no doubt that the arts are in crisis. Publishing is struggling in Scotland, despite the presence of several excellent small presses such as Cargo and Canongate. Then again, it’s struggling everywhere – would independence allow the considerable investment that publishing needs, and should the arts in Scotland count on that when we don’t even know what currency a hypothetical independent Scotland would use?

From fiction and poetry to non-fiction and theatre, the independence debate is at the heart of Scotland’s literary scene, possibly due to the omnipresence of pro-indy campaigner, author and playwright Alan Bissett, who must have several equally talented clones or Hermione Granger’s time turner to be as creatively prolific and politically active as he is. But if the referendum doesn’t go their way, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for such a political literary scene.

Only time will tell which way the vote will go. One thing is for sure – with the overwhelming number of writers who have come out in support of independence, from Bissett to Liz Lochhead, no matter which way the debate goes at least the arguments will be well-written.




Cailean McBride

21st May 2014 at 17:17

Interesting piece but doesn’t seem to come to any conclusions. I also don’t see how Hugh Andrew’s assertion that independence would be a ‘death knell’ for Scottish publishing can be remotely borne out. In what way? What advantages does the publishing industry here have that it won’t if there’s a Yes vote? None that I can see.

Publishing has lots of challenges to face up to but I can’t really see that independence factors in them at all, with the possible exception of the uncertainty over currency issues and that’s something that affects every business, not just publishing.



3rd June 2014 at 16:29

Thanks for your comment, Cailean – my brief was to be politically neutral, so although I have a pretty strong opinion about the impacts of Scottish independence, the remit of the piece was to set the context rather than come up with the answers. Sites like Bella Caledonia, which you’re probably already aware on, might go into more of the kind of depth you’re looking for.

I think Hugh Alexander’s argument was based along business lines, as a lot of the criticism to independence has been – obviously that’s an important issue, especially in the current economic climate, but I think the impact on the cultural scene is more interesting.

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