How do you get under a country’s skin? Can a book about books do justice to the complexity of a nation? Where to begin?
I’m a writer and literary critic, and in 2015 I started writing a literary travel guide to Scotland. My hope was that I could tell a story of the country through its literature. I wanted to write about books inspired by Scotland’s landscapes and people; the accounts of earlier travellers; the imagined Scotland of authors, like Shakespeare, who never actually visited; and places which have become pilgrimage sites for literary tourists. The guide covers the whole of the country, drawing out the literary connections of familiar tourist destinations, such as Edinburgh Castle. I also visit locations which are off the beaten track, like Ruthwell, near Dumfries, home of a magnificent medieval cross engraved with one of the oldest ‘texts’ in English literature, sections of a poem called The Dream of the Rood.
I’m interested, as Robert Burns might say, in how others see us, so the impressions of travellers visiting Scotland play a prominent role. Jules Verne, for example, wrote novels based on his journeys to Scotland, as well as Around the World in Eighty Days. Over 2,000 years ago Pytheas, an ancient Greek explorer, wrote about sailing at least as far north as Shetland (apart from quotations in other ancient texts, Pytheas’ book, Concerning the Ocean, is now lost). But in my guide I also explore Scotland’s contemporary scene: the Leith of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, the Stornoway of Kevin MacNeil’s postmodern novel The Stornoway Way, the Edinburgh locations beloved of Harry Potter fans. Scotland’s three modern languages all feature, in varying degrees of translation.
I said that I wanted to tell a story of Scotland rather than the story. A country is too complex to be summarised in a single narrative, with one event following another. And anyway, that’s not how a traveller experiences the places they visit. I agree with the argument made, among others, by Neil Ascherson in his book Stone Voices: that countries and their many landscapes are like palimpsests, those medieval vellum documents where the written surface is erased and overwritten with new words, leaving faint traces of the past visible under the most recent additions. What’s more, I think that countless layers of ideas, images and experiences accumulate on top of each other in our own minds, too. Echoes of the past interfere with the present, and the present interferes with the past.
Let me give an example. When I visit a place like Culloden Moor, my physical impressions – the undramatic view over the land, the smell of mud, the coldness of the puddle I’m standing in, the buzzing of the wasp dangerously near my sandwich – interact with the stories I’ve heard about the brutal aftermath of the battle in 1746, and with the emotional response I want to feel at such an important location in Scottish history. I’ve just looked at artefacts in the visitor centre, and try to imagine them on the battlefield two and a half centuries ago. I pretend there’s eighteenth-century peat smoke coming from the chimney of Leanach Cottage. I remember the muted report of Culloden in Walter Scott’s historical novel Waverley, and the more explicit but also more farcical account in James Hogg’s The Three Perils of Woman. I want to hear the wind whispering the names of dead clansmen, or at least a note or two of a bagpipe lament. All these things are going on in the palimpsest of my mind: all these details overlap with one another, perhaps contradict one another, and certainly colour my experience of a place and my understanding of its past.
In writing about Culloden and other locations in Scotland, from popular locations to places that are less well-known, I’ve tried to do justice to this ‘palimpsestuous’ complexity. My account of Culloden begins with an outline of its historical context, and with Magnus Magnusson’s emotive view that the battle was ‘an ugly and ineradicable blot on the annals of British arms’. I describe the heathery moorland and bog, the memorial cairn, the gravestones commemorating each of the clans that fought. I talk about the haunting silence that many visitors report.
But I then bring in the irreverence of the contemporary novelist Alan Warner, whose The Man Who Walks culminates in an absurd scene at Culloden. The book’s antihero, Macushla, has been beaten up and is crawling over the moor. He sees a kilted figure lying in the grass, and reaches out to touch the man’s foot. It comes away from the body, and Macushla realises he’s beside a plastic mannequin. He’s crawled into the middle of a Hollywood film set, littered with mock-ups of fallen soldiers and horses. Instead of artillery, he’s bombarded with high-power movie lighting. Natural light is overpowered by artificial lamps; fact is clouded by fiction. In Warner’s surreal landscape global media is repackaging history with dummies dressed in tartan. Warner brings a fresh perspective to a place which has been intensely mythologised. He acknowledges the past while irreverently playing with the iconography of the heritage industry. Past and postmodern present bleed into one another.
Culloden is just one of the scores of locations throughout Scotland that I discuss in my guide. I can’t tell the whole story of the country, but by drawing on the extensive body of literature written in and about Scotland I hope to show something of the complexity of its places, and suggest how its history has been mythologised and reinterpreted over the years. Some of the historical novelists I discuss – including Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Violet Jacob, are alive to this process. A great many other writers, past and present, contribute to how Scotland’s story is understood at home and abroad, and to the ever-evolving ways in which Scots think of themselves.
Dr Garry MacKenzie has a PhD in contemporary landscape poetry from the University of St Andrews, and has published numerous articles, book chapters and reviews relating to literature and the environment. He teaches undergraduate and adult education courses in literature and creative writing at the University of St Andrews. His poetry has won awards including a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award and the Wigtown Poetry Competition. His book Scotland: A Literary Guide for Travellers is published by I.B. Tauris.