Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn!
Today is the birthday of celebrated Scottish poet Robert Burns, widely regarded as my country’s national poet as well as a pioneer of the Romantic moment, inspiration to countless social and political icons, icon of nationalism and notorious skirt chaser. While many Scots, and lovers of his work worldwide, will celebrate tonight with the traditional haggis, neeps & tatties, I can’t stomach the stuff so I’m revisiting his work, as well as some other notable figures of Scottish culture from the past few decades and beyond. this is in no way an exhaustible account of every writer, film-maker, musician or creator in the history of Scotland’s culture, and is entirely dictated by my preferences, so think of it as a starting point for those keen to hear more about what my dear land has to offer beyond Outlander, deep fried Mars bars (yes, they do exist) and Ewan McGregor pissing off Piers Morgan.
It’s hard to overstate the sheer cultural impact Irvine Welsh’s book, and the subsequent Danny Boyle adaptation, had on Scotland. The story of a circle of heroin addicts living in Leith casts an incredible shadow over everything that followed in its path. While social realism was not new to fictional portrayals of Scotland, rarely had it been depicted in such a visceral manner. Boyle’s film in particular, which I first saw at an unsuitably young age (thanks, gran), is rollicking good fun while remaining unflinching in exposing the realities of addiction: These characters are likeable and often very witty but they’re not good people, although some are still redeemable. There’s incredible music, hallucinogenic visuals and laugh out loud one-liners, and it all serves to highlight just how empty these people’s lives are. Now, with the sequel’s release only a few days away, it’s safe to say that audiences are eager to see how the lives of Renton, Sick Boy and company have changed.
Jackie Kay is Scotland’s Makar (our version of the Poet Laureate) and as such is better
known for her poetry, but her debut novel is a stunning exploration of the intersections of gender, race, sexuality and nationality. Inspired by the life of Billy Tipton, a jazz musician who, after his death, was revealed to have been assigned female at birth, Trumpet follows Joss Moody, a black-Scottish trumpeter whose gender is exposed by the tabloids, and his wife and child as they deal with the fallout. Scottishness is often defined by its whiteness, both by itself and outside sources. The generally accepted ‘default image’ of a Scot is white (and often red-haired, burly, angry and exceedingly drunk). Trumpet’s power lies in its interrogation of identity and how the power to craft one’s own image lies within our own circumstances as well as those around us. Joss is a black trans-man who is passionately Scottish, and refuses to relinquish that identity. His secureness in himself is contrasted with his adult son – mixed race, adopted, living in England – who feels without a home or sense of self. Using a variety of points of view, Kay dives deep into the ways people create their own lives and how they view those of others. Predictably, Kay’s prose is lyrical but firmly grounded, and acts as an excellent entry point for those looking to explore her work. I would also recommend her collection of poetry, Fiere.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
If you went to the university I did and studied English or Scottish literature, the chances are you’ve read this book. Indeed, it was the first one I ever had to study. James Hogg’s novel was a flop in its time and didn’t get a critical re-evaluation until the late 20th century. The gothic mystery, which explores themes of totalitarianism, religious zealots and the nature of evil, is widely considered to be one of the main influences of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although I actually prefer this one. It explores similar themes of original sin and the origin of evil, but with a more intriguing concept: The eponymous sinner is born into a radical sect of Calvinism, which ordains that only some people are predestined to enter Heaven, meaning their sanctity is guaranteed regardless of how evil a life they live. If that piques your interest, you can download it for free on Project Gutenberg.
The Cutting Room.
Blending the borders between literary and pulp fiction, Louise Welsh’s striking debut novel was a big deal to 13 year old me, who picked up a copy for cheap and greatly enjoyed freaking out an English teacher who spotted the naked figure on the cover. The story follows an auctioneer who, while exploring the belongings of a recently deceased gentleman, finds a collection of snuff pornography that seems to show a woman dying. Think that Nicolas Cage film 8MM but good, and with a gothic inspired portrayal of the city of Glasgow.
The Crow Road.
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
That’s the opening line. I’m not saying anything else. Just go read it.
Before Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor, Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge made another Edinburgh-set drama, this time focusing on three friends in need of a new flatmate. While there are no drugs or dead babies here, we do get a bleakly funny, frequently disturbing and claustrophobic thriller with a case of stolen money, a shoddily dismembered corpse and a paranoid voyeur losing his mind. It’s a tightly constructed, nihilistic, dirty little film that’s a delight to watch, even when you’re doing so through the gaps between your fingers.
Ratcatcher & Morvern Callar.
Lynne Ramsay is one of Scotland’s most talented film-makers, and one of its most underappreciated. She’s only made three feature films and a handful of shorts across her 20 year career – her fourth film is set for release this year – and is seldom discussed in the same way as many of the male directors who followed in her footsteps. Still, she is a crucial talent, one with a poetic visual style and penchant for exploring characters on the fringes of society, willingly or otherwise. Ratcatcher, her debut, follows a young boy in the most deprived area of Glashow as it suffers through a binmen strike, while Morvern Callar is a story of the eponymous protagonist, who reacts to her boyfriend’s suicide in an unconventional manner. While Ramsay’s follow-up film We Need To Talk About Kevin is arguably better known than her earlier work, these films exemplify her vivid use of colour and visual metaphors, often without dialogue. Check out her work before her latest – hopefully – gets a release soon.
Ae Fond Kiss…
Ken Loach is best known for his kitchen sink dramas with a heavy focus on social issues, and while Ae Fond Kiss, easily my favourite film of his, contains many of those elements, it’s first and foremost a romance. Set in Glasgow, the film follows the blossoming relationship between Casim, a Scottish-Pakistani Muslim, and Roisin, an Irish Catholic teacher, and the struggles they experience as faith, family and outside expectations get in the way. It’s rare to see romance so thoughtfully and empathetically explored on film, especially when the central relationship is interracial and defined heavily by their faiths. Loach’s portrait is truly striking and retains his working class social focus. If you’d like a Scottish romance with nary a Highlander in sight, this is for you.
Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off.
Liz Lochhead’s play, on top of having the best title ever, is one of the most fascinating explorations of national identity and the power we put on its figureheads. Mary Queen of Scots didn’t really become a spiritual icon of Scottishness and the nationalist movement until the 20th century, particularly the 1980s when tensions between Scotland and England were at an all time high thanks to the Poll Tax. Lochhead’s portrayal of the Queen is contrasted with that of Queen Elizabeth II, who definitely isn’t supposed to evoke images of Thatcher. The women are the focus of the story, and it’s a fascinating take on the role of gender in power, particularly since history tends to do all that it can to remove the slightest hint of female influence. Lochhead’s work is frequently fascinated by constructions of femininity – her Dracula adaptation is defined heavily by this – and this is her focus at its most potent. The play’s power is evident on the page but if you can see a production of it, I urge you to do so.
And now, the Scottish national anthem.