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Five Great Scottish Writers

Too often you hear the term ‘British literature,’ as if it’s a single, uncomplicated category. The reality, as any Scottish person will tell you, is that Scotland’s fiction is both different and much, much better than anything ever written south of Gretna Green.

Literature has been a defining part of Scottish identity for centuries, from Robbie Burns’ ode to the haggis—‘chieftain o’er the puddin’ race’—to James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, a novel so defiantly uninterested in the strictures of English taste that it was described by the (English) critic Simon Jenkins as ‘literary vandalism.’

But Scottish writers are by no means limited to exploring Scottishness. In the twentieth century, many of the UK’s most innovative writers have emerged from north of the border. In the fifties and sixties Kelman, together with Alisdair Grey, defined a distinct Glaswegian school of fiction which introduced new forms and marginalised voices to English-language fiction. Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh offered the first and best fictional meditations on UK rave culture, while Ali Smith is that rarest of creatures, a modern modernist.

So if you’re ready for a trip to the North, here are your top five destinations:

How Late It Was How Late

Kelman’s breakthrough novel won the Booker Prize in 1994, but it proved a controversial winner. Even one of the Prize judges called it ‘crap’ and refused to endorse her colleagues’ choice, while the Times journalist Simon Jenkins compared the author to ‘an illiterate savage.’

Their outrage was inspired by the foulmouthed inner monologue of the story’s protagonist, Sammy, who uses the word ‘fuck’ more than four thousand times in the novel. But Kelman never intended How Late It Was, How Late as a provocation. ‘Most of my stories were written from within my own culture,’ he told The Guardian recently, ‘so you use the language as people use it. If you’re writing a story about a man in a pub, why can’t you use the language he speaks?’

Sammy is a drunk and a petty criminal who begins the novel by attacking not one, not two, but an entire patrol of policemen. The fight goes as badly for Sammy as you would expect, and when he regains consciousness he is in prison, and blind. The rest of the novel takes place in Sammy’s inner darkness as he struggles to adjust to his new condition. His head is a frightening, claustrophobic place to be, and the novel’s triumph is to show us the courage that it takes merely to live as Sammy. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see that all the outrage was misplaced. How Late It Was, How Late is a sweary masterpiece.

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Lanark

It took Grey thirty years to finish Lanark, but almost as soon as it was published in 1981 the novel was acclaimed as a major work of twentieth-century literature. Written in four parts, the novel is half a conventional coming-of-age novel and half a surreal allegory for the social and political deprivation Grey saw in his native Glasgow.

Both stories revolve around young men based on the author himself. Duncan Thaw, like Grey, grows up in Glasgow and wins a scholarship to the Glasgow School of Art, where he becomes so obsessed with his artistic vision that his relationships with his family and the women in his life begin to falter. Meanwhile a man who decides to call himself ‘Lanark’, and who may or may not be an alter ego of Duncan, wakes up on a train with no memory of who he is and proceeds to the city of Unthank, where the residents are contracting strange diseases and disappearing.

This is only the beginning of Lanark’s weirdness. But through all the novel’s twists and turns, Grey’s prophetic vision (evidenced by his own illustrations as much as by his dazzling prose) remains fixed on an essential human problem: how to love.

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Day

A.L. (Alison Louise) Kennedy is an acclaimed writer of fiction and non-fiction who also more than dabbles in stand-up comedy. Like all the best comedians, she is unafraid of dark and frightening subject matter, and the ironically-titled Day is her darkest novel of all.

It invites us into the head of Alfie, a bookshop assistant who fought in the Second World War, as the tail gunner on a Lancaster bomber, and may be suffering from PTSD. It’s not the only thing that’s wrong with him. The year is 1949, and Alfie is taking time away from the bookshop to be an extra in a film about British prisoners of war. His experiences on set prompt him to delve into his traumatic memories of the war and his still more traumatic memories of life before the war…

Day asks us to revisit our assumptions about the generation which fought for the Allies. Heroic though many of those soldiers and conscripts were, others committed terrible acts in the heat of battle and were permanently scarred by them. The latter group have not often appeared in fiction, but Alfie is one of them, and he’s unforgettable.  

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Morvern Callar

One day Morvern Callar wakes up to find her boyfriend has committed suicide. ‘He'd cut His throat with the knife. He'd near chopped off His hand with the meat cleaver. He couldn't object so I lit a Silk Cut.’

When she’s finished her cigarette, Morvern goes about her business as usual, drinking, raving and despairing at the emptiness of her home town of Oban, on the Scottish coast—until eventually she thinks of a way she can use her boyfriend’s death to her advantage.

Another Scottish novelist, Irvine Welsh, is credited with introducing the reading public to the nihilism of rave culture in his novel Trainspotting. But Warner’s quieter, more unsettling story deserves equal recognition. The apparently amoral and affectless Morvern is one of the most compelling characters in contemporary fiction.

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The Accidental

The Irish writer Sebastian Barry has called Ali Smith ‘Scotland’s Nobel-laureate in waiting,’ and it’s easy to see why. Her novels and stories—about mothers, childhood, sexual love between women, the weirdness of holiday destinations and much more besides—are always both erudite and absorbing, formally innovative but populated by real characters.

The Accidental follows the well-to-do Smart family from their London home to a ‘substandard’ mock-Tudor holiday house on the Norfolk coast. Their already unsatisfactory getaway is soon interrupted by Amber, who arrives unannounced and uninvited and gets down right away to exposing the secrets of the four Smarts.

Smith’s novel is also a meditation on cinema and the way the medium has taught us to see ourselves. Amber sometimes calls herself ‘Alhambra,’ claims to have been born in the local cinema and relates to cinematic history as if it were her own. When the Smarts return home to London they discover that Amber has changed their lives forever, and we are confronted with the power cinema has to represent our lives to us.

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.