Logo: small map of Scotland
Link to Scottish Biography Index








Hugh MacDiarmid Memorial near Langholm
Hugh MacDiarmid Memorial near Langholm

Scottish Literature is central to of Scottish identity and a cornerstone of the culture of a nation proud to have introduced the first universal system of education anywhere in the world since ancient Sparta. Today, Scotland has a vibrant literary scene with an importance out of all proportion to its population. A large number of Scottish authors are currently active, and their output helps drive a thriving publishing industry: all supported by a large readership for Scottish Literature, both within Scotland and among the many Scots living abroad.

Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial, Edinburgh
Robert Louis Stevenson
Memorial, Edinburgh
James Hogg Memorial, Ettrick
James Hogg Memorial, Ettrick
Robert Burns Memorial, Kilmarnock
Robert Burns Memorial, Kilmarnock

So what do we mean by "Scottish Literature"? For our purposes here, it covers all literature produced within the boundaries of what is now Scotland; or written by Scottish authors elsewhere in the world.

To get to the start of the story we need to leap back in time to a point far, far beyond Harry Potter, Inspector Rebus, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, to a Scotland in the AD 500s in which the main written language was Latin, with some fragments remaining of writing in three of the four main languages spoken in the Scotland at the time, Gaelic, Cumbric and Northumbrian Old English. The sum total of what has survived is not great, and apart from some Ogham inscriptions, there is nothing at all left written in the probable fourth spoken language in Scotland at the time, Pictish. There have been claims that some of what has since been categorised as early Welsh or early Irish literature might have been produced in what was at the time the Cumbric or Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland: but this seems unlikely to be provable one way or the other.

Move forward to the year 1000, and the main written languages in use were Latin and a form of literary Gaelic shared with the Irish. Spoken Gaelic never dominated the south east of the country, where a form of Middle English called Early Scots was in common usage. This first turned up in writing in the 1300s but by this time French was supplanting Gaelic as the literary language of choice in Scotland, although still alongside Latin.

The first really enduring works of Scottish literature were John Barbour's Brus from the 1300s and Blind Harry's Wallace from the 1400s. Both were first written in Early Scots. Thereafter Middle Scots came into vogue and the number of publications began to expand through a minor "golden age" of Scottish Literature in the 1500s. This century also saw the introduction of the printing press and, in 1560, the Reformation, which marked a fundamental change in the religious complexion and cultural outlook of the country.

The 1600s saw the gradual Anglicisation of written language, and especially printed Scots, and early writers included Robert Sempill, Elizabeth Melville, Lady Wardlaw and Lady Grizel Baillie. The 1700s saw the development of the Scottish novel, with its first exponent being Tobias Smollett. Perhaps the most influential author of the 1700s was James Macpherson, who in the 1760s published English translations of epic poetry he had discovered from the mists of Gaelic antiquity written by the poet Ossian. The publication of these magnificent poems influenced generations of Scottish authors, and profoundly affected the Scottish sense of identity. On the continent Ossian's poetry led to the development of the Romantic movement in literature, and authors like Goethe were greatly influenced by it. It only gradually emerged that Ossian probably never existed, and that Macpherson probably wrote much or most of the poetry himself: which, of course, does nothing to detract from its literary merit, just its historical interest.

Meanwhile the Scottish Enlightenment was taking place, an incredible flowering of intellectual, scientific and cultural development to rival anything that happened in any other nation at any time in history. In its wake came a number of the giants of Scottish Literature: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg.

Burns found his place as Scotland's national bard, usually writing in Scots. Scott worked assiduously to collect traditional folk songs and also produced historical non-fiction. But it was as the author of a series of historical novels, possibly the first ever written to deserve that classification, that he is best remembered. His work did more than anything else to popularise Scotland, and especially the Trossachs, as an essential stop on the Victorian tourists' perambulations round Europe.

Scottish literature moved into the early modern era via Robert Louis Stevenson, especially with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and his historical fiction, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his character Sherlock Holmes. The emergence at the end of the 1800s of the slightly sentimental "kailyard tradition" has since often been viewed as a retrograde step.

The first half of the 1900s saw the arrival of authors like A.J. Cronin, Eric Linklater, Naomi Mitchison, James Bridie, Robert Garioch, Robert McLellan, Nan Shepherd, William Soutar and Douglas Young, writing in English, plus Sorley MacLean and Hugh MacDiarmid writing their poetry in, respectively, Gaelic and Scots. The stars of the pre war era were probably Neil M. Gunn and Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Since the Second World War a wealth of Scottish authors have produced a remarkably diverse array of work. Names like Alexander Trocchi, Kenneth White and Edwin Morgan appeared on the scene in the 1950s and 1960s, to be followed by Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Irvine Welsh in the 1980s. More recently, Iain Banks, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, A.L. Kennedy and Christopher Brookmyre have all had a significant impact, while J.K. Rowling has become the most commercially successful author in history - and been credited with convincing a generation of boys that reading is cool - with her Harry Potter books.

Top of Page Top of Page