What it means to be Scottish, through the words of Scottish Women Writers
17th Sep 2014
Tomorrow 18 September 2014, Scotland holds a momentous and hotly contested referendum on whether or not to become an independent country. Maybes aye, maybes naw.
On this subject Scots in both camps have asserted their right to choose. Identity is central to the debate. Much has been said, loudly by celebrities voicing their ‘pennies worth’, or in private whispers of concern or of hope.
Only those resident in Scotland are eligible to vote in this referendum. Whether or not these voters consider their nationality to be ‘Scottish’, all will vote on the future of the country. Nationality is not just a physical state tying you to the land on which you live or were born, but defines how you identify with a space or people you consider to be your own.
Scottish women writers have been vocal throughout the campaign, with both sides of the argument being represented in clear and considered terms. Catching the international headlines was JK Rowling’s open letter to Scotland, published in the Telegraph on 11 June 2014, after her £1million contribution to the Better Together campaign.
She wrote of the pocket of extreme nationalists ‘I suspect, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve lived in Scotland for twenty-one years and plan to remain here for the rest of my life, that they might judge me ‘insufficiently Scottish’ to have a valid view….when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste.’
Scotland is where she calls ‘home’, and is passionate about the future of her country, whatever the outcome of this vote. Nationality, for JK Rowling, and many other women writers, is belonging.
Explored in works which dissect and uncover the complexity of the matter, writers have scratched beneath the surface of ancestry and postcode to explore their elected nationality, Scottish.
Carol Ann Duffy
The work portrays a sense of loss of identity as well as physical place. She has moved from ‘our own country’ and been assimilated into a new community with her ‘tongue shedding its skin like a snake’. Duffy enmeshes language and dialect with sense of nationality. She concludes that:
in the classroom sounding just like the rest. Do I only think
I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space
and the right place? Now, Where do you come from?
strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.’
No longer sure of her origin now that she sounds the same as her southern peers, Duffy must pause, and consider. What made her Scottish in the first place? Is she still now?
Liz Lochhead too analyses the power of dialect with identity. Lochhead, the first woman ‘Scots Makar’, wrote the poem Kidspoem/Bairnsang in exploration of the force of representation through dialect.
Her words beautifully weave from Scots to English and back again as she exposes the limitations of the uniformity of written language in depicting a sense of true self. She concludes that written down her language is taken from her and the identity she affiliates with becomes the enforced conventional of the mainstream.
‘it wis January
and a gey driech day
the first day Ah went to the school….. /
it was January
and a really dismal day
the first day I went to school …../
Oh saying it was one thing
But when it came to writing it
In black and white
The way it had to be said
Was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead.’
Lochhead’s poem struggles with the spoken familial words connecting her to ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ which are now stifled by the accepted written English of ‘school’ and ‘the establishment’.
Lochhead herself is involved with the artist and writers group National Collective which supports Scottish Independence. In this particular poem she finger points at the limitations of the generic written language of the ‘posh, grown-up, male, English and dead’, those traditional patriarchal representatives of the literary canon.
Jacki Kay’s ‘The Adoption Papers’, explores through multiple voices her background, born of a white Scottish mother and black Nigerian father she was adopted by a white couple and raised in Glasgow.
These poems are evocative of the struggle of identity and nationality, and Kay works through the restraints of labelling and the power of self-representation in a fantastic collection of poems. In an interview Kay confessed that the poet Audre Lorde told her “she didn’t have to deny her Scottishness in order to be black. “It’s a strength! You can be both!”’
What it means to be Scottish for these women writers is that the distinctiveness is within, and it is how you present yourself through speech, writing, strength and passion which reveal your sense of nationality.
The works of these Scottish women writers do not mention flags or allegiance, but speak of home and family and voice. They choose how and when to raise their voices and show that it is what you say that counts. This inspiration can be appreciated, wherever you are in the world.
Want to hear more? Look out for emerging and talented Kirsty Logan and her collection of stories in The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales which rivals Angela Carter and tells tales in ‘dreamy, dark language and vivid imagery’. Strong Scottish voices, Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan have written dark, funny and thrilling fictions opening worlds of intrigue in Scotland and beyond.
Becky Lucas is a Scot living in Yorkshire with a Master’s degree in American Literature from the University of Leeds. Sadly the degree doesn’t earn its keep but provides plenty of literary pub quiz fodder. She walks the precarious tightrope of mother and project manager extraordinaire by day and dreamer/book reader/short story writer by twilight. At night she sleeps.
[Image credit: Calum Hutchinson, Wikipedia Commons]