Classic recounted: Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey, Mainstream Publishing, new edition, 1996
Commented on by Rory Green
Maggie Chapman reviewed James McEnaney’s A Scottish Journey in Scottish Left Review (Sept/Oct 2019). My eye was drawn to her review as it brought to mind a book of the same name, one briefly referenced but rightly praised by Chapman herself. This other book is Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey from 1935. Muir’s book, not ‘the’ Scottish journey but ‘a’ Scottish journey, is deserving of all those who visit and revisit it’s pages. It remains an important work, reminding us that national unity is never a given, not least in Scotland’s quest for home rule.
Muir understood better than most that no single Scottish experience exists. Different pockets of the country can seem as removed from one another as entirely different worlds might. Muir, torn as a young boy from his pastoral, Edenic Orkney and unhanded into the Glasgow slums, likened this shift to travelling forward in time by a hundred years, or witnessing the fall of mankind before one’s very eyes. Such was the enormous difference between these two places. Industrial life brought to Muir and his family the gravest misfortunes one might predict to befall those living amongst such miserable decay and deprivation. These same circumstances led Muir to socialism, an awakening he readily compared to his religious conversion aged fourteen.
It is Muir the socialist and poet whose observations we read as he navigates Scotland in a borrowed motorcar, one that dances ‘like a high-spirited colt’ when pushed anywhere beyond thirty-five miles-per-hour. Muir convinces us from the outset that he is not looking, as a tourist might, for a Scotland historical or romantic, but rather the Scotland which presents itself ‘to one who is not looking for anything in particular, and is willing to believe what his eyes and ears tell him’.
What then, does Muir see? He sees much about Scotland that he admires, dislikes, and much that can only be of hindrance to anything like progress. He understands and effectively articulates the various contradictions and hypocrisies often found strung together in the identity of a place.
In Edinburgh, this is poignantly characterised by the ugly divide between rich and poor, and the obsessive keeping-up of appearances, despite glaring sanctimony, by the middle-classes. In the Borders, he visits Abbotsford House in Galashiels, once the home of Sir Walter Scott. Scott, along with Burns, whose house is also visited, was a literary figure seen as the embodiment of the kitsch, sentimental ‘Scottishness’ to which Muir and his generation of Scottish writer were so vehemently opposed. For those baptised as the Scottish Renaissance, Scott and Burns represented the idealised Scotland of the tourist; unblemished, quaint, bonnie, and not the Scotland experienced by the majority of its inhabitants. This rather fictitious Scotland contains little remedy for the large-scale unemployment that Muir sees in Glasgow, a city that once housed such misery for him. Nor does the fine imagery of mist-wrapped hills and mirror-like lochs have anything to say about that stage of industrialism, also seen in Glasgow, that stays jammed at human exploitation on its path towards affordable luxury. In the Highlands, a region that really does accommodate the majestic, natural beauty that many mistake for the whole picture, Muir is no less sympathetic towards the ordinary people living there. They are as much thwarted by a crass romanticism belying genuine struggle as the rest of Scotland is.
At his time of visiting, Muir believed the Scottish Highlands to be in a third stage of its decline, something that had begun with the punishment afflicted upon the Highlanders following Culloden. The second phase of decline would, of course, be the Clearances; the forced eviction of thousands and the installation of landlordism where the clan system had previously existed. The third stage, Muir argues, is symbolised by ‘the pictures of slaughtered animals that disfigure the walls of Highland hotels.’ This is the Highlands as a sporting playground, for its wealthy estate owners, many with little connection to Scotland other than the land they have inherited, and for those who come from elsewhere to enjoy this version of wild Scotland. The majority of locals, growing smaller in number, serve one of two purposes; to cook and clean for these visitors, or to slaughter animals for them; their own form of non-Industrial subjugation.
Was the independence effort of the time, the National Party of Scotland, the answer to any of the problems discussed? From Muir, a resounding no. This movement was to the poet an absurd coalition of political beliefs gathered optimistically beneath the banner of self-government. In Muir’s own words, ‘The National Party has nothing behind it but a desire and nothing before it but an ideal.’ Scottish independence, for Muir, would have to mean socialism – one could not be achieved without the other.
Some things have changed, no doubt, since 1935. Nevertheless, Muir teaches us the importance of going and finding out for ourselves, of taking the responsibility as Scots to understand Scotland and all her people. Also, the poet’s remarks about benign, optimistic nationalism not being enough remain entirely pertinent. Belief in Scottish independence must always extend to something other than simple agreement with the basic argument of the party line. For Muir, this means socialism, for others perhaps not.
Regardless, those in favour of independence must understand what home-rule would, and should, mean for all of Scotland. It would be naïve to assume that we are inextricably united, rather than culturally diverse. Instead, we must take the issues affecting each of Scotland’s communities to heart. This requires a concerted effort to fight the kind of ignorance often attributed towards those from whom we are trying break.
Rory Green is a 22-year old youth worker from the Highlands who has recently graduated in Scottish Culture and Heritage from the University of the Highlands and Islands