Matthew Wilson

Written by Matthew Wilson

Matthew Wilson works as an English teacher in a Scottish secondary school. He likes to blog about education, politics, economics and books. He thinks that schools have to change and adapt themselves more to the needs of the pupil so that people can develop the talents they have, in their own way.

Chip on my shoulder about Scottish classics? Probably! – James Hogg and The Three Perils of Man

Perils of man

It was once said about Linford Christie, the sprinter who ran for Great Britain, that he was perfectly balanced with ‘a chip on each shoulder’. I don’t know if I have developed a chip on each shoulder yet, but I am beginning to feel the burden of a chip on one at least.

Since devolution, I’ve been consciously making sure that my reading includes some Scottish literature and some Scottish history. Frankly, it has been a revelation; I can only echo would others have said before me – a village, a town, a city or a country is a far deeper and richer place once you know something about the history and culture of the it. This knowledge combines reality with imagination. It forces you to realise that history is alive and that you have to be alive enough to see it to gain a enriching perspective. Lacking history and culture we  are ‘living hand to mouth’ as Goethe puts it.

Why has it been a revelation? Is it so good? Well, yes! However, it is also because I started from a position of almost total ignorance. Apart from a primary school teacher, who came from England, I was taught no Scottish history and no Scottish literature. None. So, finding out that Scottish history is not some backward side story that partly accompanies and is then twisted with the triumphant progress of Great Britain through the centuries and discovering that Iain Crichton Smith is not Scotland’s contribution to the canon of English Literature comes as relief as much as revelatory experience.

Once my delight has subsided at the happy prospect of an undiscovered country of Scottish novels, plays and poems concentrated on places I know and have possibly visited, peopled with characters and characteristics that I have met, then I must confront a growing, gnawing resentment that can be formulated into a very obvious question – why was I unaware of these books for so long? One answer would have to be that I didn’t care enough to look up Scottish Literature, despite it being there. Fair enough, true. The other answer might be that for some reason, whether it’s a plot by a submissive education department intent on propagating English supremacy (unlikely) or a certain cringe factor about Scottishness (more plausible) or a desire to dissolve the divisions of Scottish society in the solvent waters of a British identity (mind is open on this one), I have never been exposed in a consistent way to Scottish culture and history beyond the embarrassing and superficial manifestations. The real triumph, tragedy and, most of all, power of Scottish culture has been kept(?) from me.

To be proud of a culture that culture must exhibit power. I do not mean power in the terms of dominance, but power in the terms of the strength of its creativity; the depth of its insight; its ability to move and stir emotion. This is the demonstration of power in a culture. Take literature as an example of one of the arts – Shakespeare has power; John Milton has power; Dostoyevsky has power; Kafka has power; Robert Graves has power; James Joyce has power; and so on and so on. The power of these writers is transmitted through the culture, generation by generation, creating a sense of identity and pride. The country that gave the world Joyce and Yeats is not some backwater with a risible, pseudo-Celtic culture. It is a culture with centuries of continuity, change and survival, experiencing the disasters and successes that all cultures experience, yet one that can be presented to each subsequent generation asking to be preserved and modified and added to, and, crucially, kept alive and relevant.

Scottish culture is often missing that power. Until recently, Scottish history did not appear in the curriculum and Scottish Literature was fleetingly taught in schools, if at all. It could be argued that the Scottish culture that we were exposed to was the ‘cringe’ culture of tartan, fiddlers and alcohol-fetish. The authentic, powerful culture we did have was not understood or was missing. And this leads me to James Hogg.

James Hogg should be one of the great heroes of Scottish culture in the same way that Robert Burns is. Yet most of his work is ignored. It’s not surprising; Scott, Stevenson and MacDiarmid are generally unread, and Burns is fetishized but I’m not sure how read he is in a sustained way. Yet in some sense Hogg and John Galt sum-up what is missing in Scotland’s view of itself and perception of others. All the famous writers of Scotland have a reputation yet are difficult for many readers to penetrate. Burns’ and MacDiarmid are demanding in their use of language. Scott has written so many boring books and, added to the ones that were developing nicely then he botched, means he is seldom read. Stevenson has been ghettoised as children’s writer and horror writer and not much else. All have magnificent qualities, yet Stevenson and Burns apart, it’s difficult to see how any could even reach the rarefied reading lists of universities, never mind penetrate the popular consciousness.

In popular consciousness, our culture lacks examples of power that can make it proud. Yet in James Hogg and others there are accessible examples of a poweful particularly Scottish imagination at work.

As mentioned before, Hogg is a hero of Literaure, not just Scottish, but World Literature. He was illiterate at the age of 18, yet still managed to write works that were profound and original. He wrote the first psychological novel that exemplified the impactb ideology can have on a neurotic mind; a hundred years before the Twentieth century provided numerous examples. Unfortunately, this original work was ignored and dismissed until the famous French writer Andre Gide wrote an introduction for it and relaunched it as a European classic.

Yet this did not spark a revival of the rest of his work. The Three Perils of Man is a novel every Scot should read. It is a work that provides the depth and power that a lot of Scottish Literature is missing. It includes the chivalric codes of the 16th century, and their hypocrisy; the peasant earthiness and realism and comedy. However, in some ways it is a work that deserves to be up there with some of the great European works – it has a cast of characters worthy of War and Peace; it has the lightness and comic instinct of Don Quixote and it deals with themes no less momentous than Faust. How many characters not only oppose God, but then the Devil too?

The Three Perils of Man is a specific example of a vast array of Scottish literature that goes beyond the cliches or an ignored canon. It, like many others, provides added weight to a culture that all too often has inspired cringe. If we look at other countries, with their sense of history and culture, their pride in their literature, then Scotland should think seriously about retrieving, recognising and promoting some of its own cultural and historical achievements, not only the isolated famous ones. It might help with my chip, at least.

This entry was posted in English, English Literature, James Hogg, Scottish Literature, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

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