‘Moths in My Sporran’: From Scottish Journal to Scottish International

Sarah Leith investigates some mid-century satire on the ‘tartan monster’


In September 1952, a new periodical appeared on the Scottish literary scene, aiming to paint a ‘month by month picture of Scotland – our doings, thoughts, humours and aspirations’.[1] This magazine was the devolution-seeking Scottish Journal (1952-3), edited by Hugh MacDiarmid and Compton Mackenzie (amongst others). It emerged as questions of Scottish self-government were becoming more serious, first via the Scottish Covenant campaign in 1949-51 – which gathered up to two million signatures calling for Home Rule – and then by the 1952 Catto Report on Scotland’s share of UK expenditure and revenue, which strengthened calls for administrative devolution and led to a Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs (1952-4). The possibility of even minor constitutional change prompted reassessments of the national self-image, looking backwards to contemplate a different future. In the first number of Scottish Journal, we find Australian John J. Alderson’s speculations about a federated Britain printed alongside Harold Stewart’s intriguingly titled ‘Moths in My Sporran’.[2] While we cannot be exactly sure who Scottish Journal’s Stewart was, it is possible that he may be the Daily Record journalist who authored the novel Bats in the Belfry (1935).[3] Although his identity is uncertain, we do know that he embraced the Scottish Literary Renaissance critique of sentimental visions of Scotland.

Evoking images of decaying tartan and moth-eaten fur, this article is recognisably part of a much broader battle against ‘inauthentic’ images of Scotland and Scottish culture, one that stretched across the twentieth century from the Scottish Literary Renaissance to Tom Nairn’s famous evisceration of the ‘vast tartan monster’ in the Red Paper on Scotland (1975), and far beyond.[4] Literary and political magazines played their role in this critique. It is clearly present in the 1968 launch issue of Scottish International, which promises ‘to look for what is really there [in Scotland], and to call people’s attention to it’.[5] A sobering high-point in this endeavour is Father Anthony Ross’ article ‘Resurrection’ (May 1971). Ross, the University of Edinburgh’s Catholic Chaplain, emphasised ‘the struggle of living here in the fog of romantic nostalgia for a world that never existed, and lies and half-truths about the world that does exist’.[6] For him, Scotland was ‘sick and unwilling to admit it. The Scottish establishment at least will not admit it. The tartan sentimentality, the charades at Holyroodhouse, the legends of Bruce and Wallace, Covenanters, Jacobites, John Knox and Mary Stuart, contribute nothing towards a solution’.[7]

‘It might help’, Ross argued, ‘if we could set aside for a time the image of Scotland presented in the glossy magazines which decorate our station book-stalls’ and consider instead

the distressed girl of sixteen drifting round the city, turned out of a home she had five months ago, pregnant, it was believed by her own brother […] or the defeated woman who longs for the day when another of fourteen children will leave school and she can tell him to go and look after himself […] The list could stretch until this [book] was full, a roll call of those people in Scotland whose tragedy is buried in statistics but who challenge all the conceit with which we brag about our great traditions.[8]

 

Attacking a different set of myths, concerns about the decay and appropriation of Gaelic culture were raised in Scottish International in November 1969. Donald John MacLeod’s ‘The Sellers of Culture: A Look at Interpretations and Some False Interpreters of Gaelic Culture’ blamed Lowland tourist and native ‘interpreter’ alike for the perpetuation of ‘false’ images of the Highlands.[9] MacLeod observed a circular quality to this traffic in myths:

In interpreting their native society to the Gall, the exiled Gaels – both because they wish to popularise and so perpetuate the culture and because they value acceptance by the city middle class – have amended their model to make it as acceptable as possible to the non-Gael. The interpreters on the other side of the fence – those Lowlanders, from comedians to scholars, who feel qualified to comment on Gaelic culture – have contributed an image of their own to which that of the native interpreters has gradually assimilated. This popular stereotype often appears in humorous caricature – the Highlander as a kilted, whisky-sodden, sentimental giant.[10]

‘In fact’, MacLeod noted, and ‘(as many may have already suspected), most Gaels do not wear kilts, sing all the time, compose village-poetry, or speak Gaelic all day long’.[11]

Now let us return to the September 1952 edition of Scottish Journal, and the perturbing predicament of Harold Stewart. ‘Moths in My Sporran’ only appeared in three editions of Scottish Journal, but Stewart’s three columns wittily mock the pervasive images of kilts and kailyards that were sold both to visitors and to the Scots themselves. Stewart’s cheeky title implied that authentic Gaelic culture, symbolised by the sporran, and used to (mis)represent both the Highlands and the Lowlands, had been left to fester and rot in a dusty cupboard, while at the same time being abused for financial gain. Scottish Journal was not as radical as Scottish International, but it did have a clear sense of what the Lowlands and the Highlands were not, and it poked fun at those it blamed for commercialising a false and tawdry image of the nation.

The first ‘Moths in My Sporran’ column emphasised both the alleged fakery of popular tartanry, and the uses and abuses of Highland culture. Through his use of satire, Stewart highlighted a worrying Bonnie Prince Charlie problem:

Then there is the traffic in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s lovelocks, based on the historical fact that the Young Pretender, during his brief bid for a throne, went up and down Scotland scattering curls in all directions. Satisfied as we are with the Board of Trade returns which show that some 1,000,000 bushels of the Chevalier’s chevelure are sold to romantic visitors annually, there is a darker side to the business.

For one thing, it deprives the stranger of the pleasure of seeing Scotland’s handsomest dog, the golden Labrador, which vanishes from view at the outset of every tourist season, leaving its hair behind in antique lockets and pathetically shaded sachets of silken ribbon. And while it probably does the shorn bowwows no harm to go to the dog-racing tracks and masquerade as greyhounds for a time, I am against the practice. I invariably back those dogs.[12]

The Young Pretender’s dusty and moth-ravaged ‘locks’ may have been on sale in Edinburgh at festival time. ‘Hail Ceilidh-donia’, the third ‘Moths in My Sporran’ column, satirised the fashion for ceilidh parties held by members of the Scottish Labour movement in the period, including by Hamish Henderson (leader of the modern Scottish folk revival movement) at the Edinburgh People’s Festival, as well as the ceilidhs held by the Bo’ness Rebels from 1948 onwards.[13]

For Stewart, the first People’s Festival Ceilidh (1951), was no better than either J.M. Barrie’s sentimental Kailyard novels or Edwardian song-collector Margery Kennedy-Fraser’s Anglicised folk-song. In ‘Hail Ceilidh-donia’, Stewart began by ‘remembering’ that ‘a thinker firmly on returning home from the Rothesay Mod’ had explained to him that ‘only in the ceilidh does the essential nature of the Gael find full and free expression’.[14] However Stewart’s description of this ceilidh presents his reader with a palpable atmosphere of fakery as he recalls ‘the subtly nostalgic scent of peat-reek in the room. Or maybe the aroma came from the fag-ends smouldering on the carpet. No matter. The atmosphere was just right. There was the singing! […] And poetry!’[15]  It is in his description of the ‘Highland’ dances that Stewart’s wit and frustration reach their peak, as he describes the dancers as enjoying

The rumba (named from the wave-washed Hebridean isle of Rum [sic]), the conga (invented, as the title implies, by Conn of the Hundred Battles), [and] the mamba (traditionally derived from Mambeg), [which] invited our light-springing footsteps to trample the floor in the ancient rhythms[16]

In Stewart’s opinion, the folk revival was not only promoting a false image of Gaelic culture but also actively repressing this culture and spirit. Of course, Hamish Henderson intended the folk revival to unearth and liberate authentic Scottishness, not to traduce it. Perhaps a suspicious Stewart simply had the wrong, unromantic end of the stick: arguably, Henderson and his fellow folk revivalists were just as averse to cultural appropriation and nostalgic peat-reek.

As Scottish Journal’s ‘Moths in My Sporran’ columns show, then, pointed critique of sentimental Scotland and its ‘great traditions’ did not vanish for a time during the mid-twentieth century, and an impulse to expose harsher and more unsettling truths about Scotland exists alongside popular tartanry.


Sarah Leith has just completed a PhD at the University of St Andrews, on repression, counterculture and Scottish national identity, c.1926-c.1967.

[1] ‘The Journal of a Nation’, Scottish Journal (September, 1952): 1-2 (p.1).

[2] John J. Alderson, ‘A Federated British Isles’, Scottish Journal (September 1952): 8-9; Harold Stewart, ‘Moths in My Sporran: Pss! Wanna Nice Feud?’, Scottish Journal (September 1952), p.9.

[3] Many thanks to Dr Paul Malgrati for helping to find a possible identity for Harold Stewart.

[4] Tom Nairn, ‘Old and New Scottish Nationalism’, in The Red Paper on Scotland, ed. by Gordon Brown (Edinburgh, EUSPB: 1975)

[5] Scottish International (January, 1968): cover-p.3 (p.3).

[6] Anthony Ross, ‘Resurrection’, Scottish International (May, 1971): 4-10 (p.6).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p.9.

[9] Donald John MacLeod, ‘The Sellers of Culture: A Look at Interpretations and Some False Interpreters of Gaelic Culture’, Scottish International (November, 1969): 49-52 (p.49).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Stewart, ‘Psss! Wanna Nice Feud?’, p.9.

[13] Harold Stewart, ‘Moths in My Sporran: Hail Ceilidh-donia’, Scottish Journal (November, 1952), p.5.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

Mag Memories: A Can of Worms and Chapman

Joy Hendry looks back on the long, storied and combative history of Chapman, ‘Scotland’s Quality Literary Magazine’


Portrait of Joy Hendry by Alasdair Gray (2002)

The Scottish literary scene in 1970 was a veritable minefield: embattled, embittered by decades, if not centuries of neglect, distortion and misrepresentation and ignorance. Aspiring practitioners or scholars of literature like myself at the time, aged seventeen, could not be blamed for not even being aware of its existence, due to its absence from the curricula in education at every level. In terms of public recognition and funding, it was similarly invisible, deemed unnecessary, or a low priority in bodies like Arts Councils and universities.

Chapman began that year as The Chapman, a tiny, eight-page demi-quarto affair, the central impulse being simply to provide publication for poets (initially) in a scenario where much of quality was being written, for outlets very few. In no time, however, the combativeness of the scene and the struggle for scarce resources led to an editorial desire for controversy and ‘stirring it up’, especially when the founding editors had their application for Scottish Arts Council funding roundly rejected. The rude remarks made about other more fortunate magazines, and ‘established’ literary figures in The Chapman no 6 editorial, still make entertaining reading. (Straight intae the fechtin, almost…)

George Hardie, Hamilton-based poet, was the founder, and he teamed up with local poet Walter Perrie, whom I met in my second term at Edinburgh University, where we were both studying. He looked at my poetry and promised to publish two of my poems in the next issue. Eighteen months later, I found myself joint-editor of a literary magazine, aged only nineteen, though initially editorial policy came primarily from Walter. He wanted to place the magazine in the European and international mainstream, à la Pound, Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, and with a commitment to intellectualism and new ideas. From that lofty perspective, he tended to devalue current writing in Scotland. There was a firm commitment to quality in writing, giving airtime to new voices, including those espousing unfashionable and unpopular ideas, and to ‘speaking out’ about important cultural matters. We both wanted to avoid the destructive in-fighting going on in some of the magazines, and regretted the feuding between dominant personalities of the time. From the first, we sought out areas and authors suffering neglect or marginalisation. It’s hard to believe, now, that Sorley MacLean came into that category, as did Tom Scott and others.

The smaller the duck-pond, the fiercer the fight among the ducks, it seems. From a UK perspective, Scottish literature barely existed, and its individual cultural mores were misunderstood, perhaps wilfully – this despite its astonishing fecundity over centuries. We were young newcomers on the scene, but it became quickly evident that ‘the establishment’ (UK and Scottish) favoured endeavour in English only, and that both Gaelic and Scots suffered as a result. There was a strong and distinct bias against nationalism, which was almost treated with intellectual contempt. (Socialist ideas and postures were more acceptable, especially Internationalist, though Hugh MacDiarmid remained largely beyond the pale in university literature departments into the 1970s.)

Cartoon by Gerry Mangan from Chapman No. 66 – ‘of sundry bods failing to live up to N MacCaig’s expectations’ (1987)

As Scots, we’ve always been more than keen on vicious feuding, fechtin, flyting of a terrifyingly ferocious kind, and, the duck pond being a small one, this happened big time. Individuals even of ‘the native species’, once secured in a position of power or influence, had a grim proclivity to use that to marginalise any rivals. As editors of Chapman, we were keen to promote precisely those writers whose work was being marginalised, though the magazine itself suffered as a result, its grant being withdrawn in 1977 on grounds of poor literary quality. When we’d just been publishing Tom Scott, Sorley MacLean (and others more favoured too)?  Both Scott and MacLean had powerful enemies, and both had hardly been published or featured on the BBC for years.

By 1975, I had begun to get my bearings in this duckpond, and was exercising more editorial muscle, making the magazine much more centrally Scottish. We published one issue on the wonderful Rainer Maria Rilke, but when I began work on a second, mostly already commissioned, and with a third in view, I stopped dead, thinking: Why are we doing this?– and changed direction, though not entirely abandoning the magazine’s original aims and ideals. I became sole editor and redirected the magazine to prioritising Scotland – not as any backward-looking restoration, but so that the sheer quality and range of Scottish literature in English, Scots and Gaelic achieved better promotion and exposure. Inevitably that involved politics, though with a non-partisan small ‘p’.

A key moment in this process came in 1975, when we visited Sorley MacLean in Braes, on a crazy impulse arising late one evening in Sandy Bell’s, and travelled overnight to Skye, arriving drookitly on his doorstep unannounced – three of us, dishevelled toe-rags, with two dogs – to an immediate welcome. At the time he was writing his long poem, ‘Uamha ’n Oir’, the first two parts of which had already been published in English magazines. Starting off to tout for the third part, I was horrified to find out that Sorley had no expectation that any part of this poem would see publication in Gaelic, given the setup then. I immediately committed to publishing all parts written to that date, three in all, in Gaelic only, which I did (Chapman 15). Earlier that year, because of our collaborations with magazines and writers south of the border, Chapman was able to ensure Sorley’s appearance at the first Cambridge Poetry Festival, where had had made an enormous impact.

The Scottish magazine scene, in parallel, was similarly fractious and war-torn, with some though not all of the main protagonists slugging it out in their pages. Over the course of the twentieth century, some very fine magazines had come and gone: The Voice of Scotland (1938-61), Scottish Art and Letters (1944-50) and others too numerous to list here. In the 1970s, there were nine in hot competition for the limited funding: a long-running magazine in Gaelic (Gairm) since 1952, Lines Review also founded around then, published by Callum Macdonald and edited by a series of hands (1954-98), New Edinburgh Review (various editors, 1969-84), and Akros (Duncan Glen) appeared in 1965, running until 1983. Beginning around the same time as Chapman were Scotia Review (1972-1999, initially Scotia 1970-72), very much nationalist in thrust, edited by David Morrison, Lallans, devoted to Scots language (1973-) and Tocher, from the School of Scottish studies (1971-2009).

We were very much the upstarts, being the youngest editors by quite a long way. There was a Trojan horse at the time, the magazine Scottish International, founded by the Scottish Arts Council itself in 1968, edited for most of its run by Bob Tait, regarded by some as a favoured child of the Scottish establishment and in receipt of as much funding, just about, as the rest of us put together. The scene throbbed with suspicion and distrust. That SI did good and worthwhile work over its duration is beyond doubt, but it was generally felt that its stance was ‘anti-nationalist’ and the sheer disparity in the funding levels seemed deeply unfair. The very good, strongly nationalist magazine Catalyst (1967-74), similar in range of content, had been refused any funding from SAC and it was felt this could only be because of its political stance. Since most of the editors were nationalist, to differing degrees, this left people feeling wary and insecure.

Some of these were in outright war with each other; but almost all felt embattled and suspicious, guarding what little funding they had as best they could. To some extent at least, Walter and I were brought into the fold by SAC Literature Director, Trevor Royle, who became a close friend and, insofar as he could, supporter. Weary of the feuding, Trevor and Walter dreamed up a magazine association (SCAMP – Scottish Association of Magazine Publishers) which brought all the editors together in an attempt to maximise distribution. Before long we became friends and collaborators, organising events, holding regular meetings and employing magazine reps. Sadly, perhaps, the only thing that really worked, distribution-wise, was yours truly trudging round universities, trawling pubs, selling hand to hand. My record in one day was 144, sold at The East Kilbride Mod in 1976. Walter and I tried hard to foster a quasi trade-union mentality amongst editors, with at least some success, and there’s a hangover from that amongst editors working today. An abortive attempt to revive SCAMP was made by Gavin Wallace and myself in the early 2000s, but it didn’t (and couldn’t) work.

In editing Chapman, I didn’t allow feuding or gratuitous nastiness in its pages. While quite prepared to champion one writer to the chagrin, perhaps, of another, I did so for literary reasons and managed, over time, to ensure that both ‘parties’ appeared in its pages. At no time did I allow anybody, or any body, to dictate who or what I should publish, though I was open to ideas from everywhere and learned what I needed to learn from wherever I could.

Thanks to benign and careful manipulation, especially from SAC directors Trevor Royle and Walter Cairns who argued tirelessly for more support for literature, the whole literary scene in Scotland became much more harmonious and well catered-for, with everyone involved – writers, publishers and the rest – feeling that we were working towards common goals to the benefit of Scotland as a whole. Indeed some, myself included, now lament the lack of a good centrally disputatious issue, because things are maybe just a bit too cushy and ‘dumbed down’. I always tried to be even-handed, making literary quality, insofar as my judgement allows, my principle criterion; losing friends from turning down their work and publishing people with whom I was not exactly ‘at one’. I even published work I found personally abhorrent or distasteful in some way, because it had some quality or other I thought important.

From issue to issue, I would look out for some area that needed exploring, or radical change, and often devote an entire issue to discussion of that area of Scottish life; Scots: the Language and Literature (No. 23-4, 1979) looked at the language across the boards and tried to adumbrate what action in each aspect was needed to better its status and condition; Woven by Women (No. 27-8, 1980) was the first ever attempt in Scotland to open Pandora’s Box and look at the contribution of women to culture in the twentieth century. Another important issue was No. 35-6, The State of Scotland: A Predicament for the Scottish Writer? (1983) in which writers aired views about Scottish identity, its pros and cons, from all the political airts and perspectives (that caused a storm). And the Theatre Issue (No. 43-4) provoked a major re-think of the whole theatrical scene, pointing to the absolute necessity of giving more support to ‘the native industry’. The National Theatre we now have grew uninterruptedly, though not without huge difficulty, out of that issue, and both the magazine and I were heavily involved in the process right along the line.

Chapman of course had its critics, and its detractors, some of whom tried to accuse it of unthinking Tartanry, or ‘narrow nationalism’, neither of which charge sticks at all. One of the things I most value in hindsight is serving on the committee, headed by Professor Sir Robert Grieve, which produced A Claim of Right for Scotland (1988), which lead directly to the Scottish Constitutional Convention and the Holyrood Parliament. I find it amusing, and quietly satisfying, to observe writers gradually adopting positions which they had previously criticised the magazine for espousing, for example, realising the potentials of Scots language, which they declared had no future. And many swung away from looking primarily to influences from south of the border or across the Atlantic to realise for themselves the sheer amazing originality, fertility, and creativity that has emerged from Scotland over the centuries. Now, it is no longer deeply un-cool and backward-looking to be Scottish, but something to exploit and enjoy. At no time did I completely ditch the policy to publish international work, but, having realised in those early years just how much had to be done to build a deserving cultural framework here, it simply made no sense to do anything other than consider, as priority, the needs of Scotland and its writers. From about 1995 onwards, as huge progress was made, I felt able increasingly to publish work from all over the world.

And what of being a woman in that very male world (especially up until about 1980)? I think I am the first solo woman editor of a magazine, certainly a literary magazine, in Scotland. It’s been my great fortune to know and work with so many of the mainly male writers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance. I never felt, or was made to feel, in awe of any of them, though one or two gave me rather less regard than I might be due because I am a woman, and at first such a young woman. Without any self-consciousness at all, I approached even Hugh MacDiarmid as someone I could interact with on equal terms. I spent wonderful evenings with Norman MacCaig, Hamish Henderson, Iain Crichton Smith, Tom Scott, Alasdair Gray (who provided our covers for years) and many others; and those I didn’t meet so often were hugely supportive and always happy to write for me: Edwin Morgan, George Mackay Brown and many others. I missed knowing Helen B Cruickshank, which I deeply regret, but became very friendly with Jessie Kesson and Naomi Mitchison, both of whom I published regularly.

I would say that most (not all), like MacCaig, Crichton Smith, Hamish Henderson and others, appreciated me more for doing what I had done, because I was a woman. I used the magazine to encourage and support as many women as I reasonably could. However I am certain that both Chapman and I suffered in being unthinkingly passed over for many benefits and ‘official’ opportunities (in respect of status and reputation) due to two factors, one being my gender, and the other that Chapman operated independently from any officially-recognised institution. Being the particular age I am, I luckily ‘caught’ that older generation in a crucial cross-over period from neglect to recognition, but I notice women even ten years younger have a self-confidence which was systematically knocked out of the age-group I was born into. Looking back, I am narked, feeling I could in fact have done quite a lot more. In 1980, it was still possible for an established Scottish male poet to remark, when I probed him during researches for the Woven by Women issue: ‘Scottish women poets? You mean there are any!’ Nobody could ever say that now.

I think there were in fact advantages in my being female in this very male world, simply because I didn’t have to cope with having a ‘male ego’ myself, and could look dispassionately, sometimes even amusedly, at the trouble caused by the inter-tussling of the men, and see it clearly for what it was. Chapman has never been a vehicle for my ego, but a means to get certain things achieved in Scotland. I’m trying, nearing 70 now, finally to pay some attention to my own ego and personal needs – though finding it more difficult than one might expect to switch focus. But I am gratified that both Chapman as a magazine and I as an individual have played a significant role in the journey towards the devolved, thriving and much more robust Scotland we now enjoy.


Joy Hendry is a poet and editor based in Edinburgh. In 2019 she was honoured by the Saltire Society as one of the ‘Outstanding Women of Scotland’. In 2020 she became the inaugural winner of the Scottish Poetry Library’s Outstanding Contribution to Poetry in Scotland Award.

Profile: Question Magazine

A key aim of the network is recovering lost or forgotten magazines. Ben Jackson revisits Question Magazine, ‘the independent political review for Scotland’

On 6 September 1977 Neal Ascherson, at that time political correspondent of the Scotsman, confided to his diary some gloomy observations about the publishing scene in Scotland: ‘As Tom Nairn predicted to me a few days ago, the publication of Q magazine is stopped. The figures are sickening. The circulation was down to about a thousand (max. 1500 a few months ago), and only five out of 2000 libraries in Scotland, and only two universities out of eight subscribed.’ Ascherson was struck by the incongruity of this failure taking place at the very moment that Scottish politics and culture had never seemed more dynamic: ‘It’s unbelievable that in the most important decade of its recent history, at the moment when the country should be alive with fateful debates, Scotland can’t support one serious political review.’[1]

Q magazine – or, to give the publication’s full title, Question – has not subsequently acquired the cult status now enjoyed by publications such as Radical Scotland or Scottish International, nor has it been subject to the same level of academic attention. It was fated to have a shorter lifespan – running from October 1975 to August 1977, a total of 34 issues. Crucially, it did not embody an obvious political or cultural agenda that would enable it to be easily slotted into subsequent historical narratives. Nonetheless, the magazine was an audacious presence in Scottish public life that deserves to be more widely discussed. Q was an attempt to produce a regular magazine of political and cultural commentary in Scotland in the same vein as the New Statesman, the Spectator, or even the Economist. It was not intended to be a small-scale publication circulated among the cognoscenti but rather an influential public forum sold in newsagents while a new Scotland confidently awaited its devolved destiny. The first issue announced the magazine’s mission: ‘Q is an independent political review for Scotland, not tied to any political party. It is the editorial policy of Q that the review is open to interesting contributions, whether they agree with Q’s opinion or not. With the coming of the Assembly there is clearly a great need for a review such as Q.’[2]

It was certainly true that the pages of Q published contributions from all sides of the political debate in Scotland. But there was also some artifice in this description since the team behind the magazine had a discernible leaning towards the SNP. The founder and editor of the magazine was Peter Chiene, a lawyer and supporter of the SNP. He produced the magazine with a small editorial board: Alfie Donaldson, a law lecturer originally from Northern Ireland but based in Edinburgh; Michael Grieve, the prominent journalist and former Vice-President Publicity of the SNP (and of course son of Christopher Grieve/Hugh MacDiarmid); and, perhaps most intriguing of all, Alexander ‘Sandy’ McCall Smith, at that time a legal academic but later of course the world-famous novelist who authored The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series (McCall Smith officially became Q’s deputy editor later in its run). Michael Spens, the architect and critic (and SNP parliamentary candidate), was also added later to the editorial board.

Q initially appeared monthly, in a compact 24-page format, before moving to a fortnightly publication schedule from October 1976 (No. 13). The fortnightly magazine increased its size to tabloid and reduced the page count to 12. In design terms, Q was an orthodox, even rather dry, publication: print was laid out across several columns with the odd pull quote to break up the text. Initially, there were few images beyond the cover, a cartoon or two, and the occasional photo. The use of images increased markedly when the magazine shifted to its new tabloid format and by the end of its run Q’s design had become much slicker. Editorially, the magazine followed analogous publications edited from London in providing a powerful blend of serious political commentary; in-depth coverage of business and science; and a strong culture section that afforded plenty of space to the high arts and book reviews. Longer features were mixed with regular fixtures such as a diary-style set of short observations on the news, ‘Flyter’; a short editorial column expressing Q’s official view; a letters page; and a crossword. What set Q apart from, say, the New Statesman or Spectator, obviously, was that it viewed the world through a distinctive Scottish lens.

Reading Q now is to be reminded of the vibrancy of Scottish political culture in the 1970s – a time of high hopes and trenchant debates, populated by a cast of fascinating characters, many of whom would continue to play a significant role in Scottish and British public life well into the twenty-first century. Q’s contributors included an eclectic list of luminaries such as Neal Ascherson, Alan Bold, Gordon Brown, Henry Drucker, Owen Dudley Edwards, Duncan Glen, Christopher Harvie, James Hunter, Neil MacCormick, Stephen Maxwell, Edwin Morgan, Tom Nairn, Jim Naughtie, George Reid, Malcolm Rifkind, David Steel, Jim Sillars, Teddy Taylor, Brian Wilson and many others. As this list suggests, a major deficiency of Q was that it printed almost no articles by women and provided only the most meagre coverage of the women’s movement (in this it was representative of the deficiencies of Scotland’s 1970s political culture more generally). As best I can tell (some articles were written anonymously and some writers used initials rather than full first names), only three female authors ever wrote feature-length articles for the magazine: the author Naomi Mitchison (twice); the then director of the Edinburgh Film Festival, Lynda Myles; and Alison Bruce, a researcher at Glasgow University. There was also a strong public and voluntary sector representation among Q authors: many of the pieces in a given issue were written by academics, politicians, and employees of pressure groups and charities, with journalists making a respectable showing as the principal representatives of the private sector.

Despite these limits, the pages of Q provide a fascinating window into a period in which the structure of contemporary Scottish politics was taking shape. Looming over everything was the question of devolution. When would it happen? What would it look like? But hovering behind those questions were the rise of the SNP and the possibility of independence. Q hosted animated debates about each of the four main parties and Jim Sillars’s new Scottish Labour Party (SLP); European integration; the implications of North Sea oil; land-ownership and the Highlands; the Scottish universities and their relationship to devolution; the Scottish cultural scene; Irish nationalism; the rise of nationalism in Quebec; and many other topics. Q also prepared for devolution by investigating the delivery of Scottish public services and the scope for their improvement when a new assembly took charge. Health, education, housing, local government, the legal system, and policing were all treated in depth.

The quality of the writing was usually high. Tom Nairn contributed several scintillating articles that are essential to understanding his level of practical engagement with Scottish politics in this period (as a member of Sillars’s SLP), as opposed to his more Olympian pronouncements in his contributions to New Left Review.[3] The SNP theorist Stephen Maxwell was also a regular contributor, penning an important review of Nairn’s book, The Break-up of Britain (1977). Maxwell also engaged the Labour MP John Mackintosh in a fascinating exchange that illuminated the emerging fault-line between Labour devolutionists and independence supporters that was in the event delayed by twenty years because of the failure of devolution to launch in the 1970s.[4] Q hosted a lively debate about the politics of the 7:84 theatre company and their seminal play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.[5] Neil MacCormick used Q to challenge the SNP orthodoxy that it would secure a mandate for independence by winning a majority of Scotland’s parliamentary seats. MacCormick argued that a majority of votes rather than seats would be necessary to secure democratic legitimacy for a new Scottish state.[6] This is just a flavour of the range of analysis aired in Q, though it does underline that the magazine’s most influential work tended to be penned by supporters of independence. Some intriguing names and juxtapositions were also to be found among the book reviews, such as David Trimble reviewing Robert Fisk’s book on the recent Ulster Workers’ strike; Ted Cowan reviewing Christopher Harvie’s Scotland and Nationalism; and Donald Campbell reviewing William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw (‘a kind of Glasgow Kojak’).[7] Appropriately, the final issue included a cover feature by Peter Chiene celebrating the 85th birthday of Hugh MacDiarmid. Chiene argued that MacDiarmid’s great achievements in poetry had yet to be matched by Scots in other fields, notably fiction and political theory. But he was optimistic that the rise of the SNP at least indicated that new Scottish political thinking was underway, even if it had yet to attain the heights exemplified by MacDiarmid’s work.[8]

Q was sadly not to play any further role in fostering this novel political thought. Neal Ascherson, for one, felt the loss of the magazine keenly and vented to his diary about the failures he thought it revealed in Scotland’s intellectual infrastructure:

For journalists, Q was quite indispensable, the only place where really free and intellectual argument, as well as many very practical suggestions, took place in print. If Hibernia has a circulation of 20,000 in a smaller country, why could Q not have reached a miserable six or seven? Too ‘Edinburgh’, too identified with the SNP? The real trouble is the extreme weakness and stuntedness of the political intellectual here, and reluctance to commit money and time. Can there only be 1500 people who want to speculate on their country’s future and understand its present, when so many hundreds of thousand vote for a new future?[9]

Ascherson’s lament remains a resonant one for anyone interested in publishing serious analysis about Scotland, even (or perhaps especially) today.


Ben Jackson is Associate Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. He is the author of The Case for Scottish Independence: A History of Nationalist Political Thought in Modern Scotland (CUP, 2020).

[1] Neal Ascherson, ‘Devolution Diary’, Cencrastus, No. 22, 1986, p. 51.

[2] ‘What is Q’, Q, No. 1, October 1975, p. 24.

[3] For example, Tom Nairn, ‘The Radical Approach’, Q, No. 10, July 1976; ‘Scotland the Misfit’, Q, No. 13, 8 October 1976; ‘1931 – A Repeat Performance?’, Q, No. 14, 22 October 1976; ‘Revolutionaries Versus Parliamentarists’, Q, No. 16, 19 November 1976.

[4] Stephen Maxwell, ‘Review: The Break-Up of Britain’, Q, No. 31, 24 June 1977; ‘The Trouble with John P. Mackintosh’, Q, No. 24, 18 March 1977; John Mackintosh, ‘The Trouble with Stephen Maxwell’, Q, No. 26, 15 April 1977.

[5] Ian Bayne, ‘Ideology and 7:84’, Q, No. 3, December 1975; John Forsyth, ‘7:84 Replies’, Q, No. 4, January 1976.

[6] Neil MacCormick, ‘The Mandate Question’, Q, No. 12, September 1976.

[7] David Trimble, review, Q, No. 3, December 1975; Ted Cowan, ‘The Reds and the Blacks’, Q, No. 29, 27 May 1977; Duncan Campbell, ‘MacLaverty and McIlvanney’, Q, No. 29, 27 May 1977 (quote at p. 10).

[8] Peter Chiene, ‘Poets versus Philosophers’, Q, No. 34, 26 August 1977.

[9] Ascherson, ‘Devolution Diary’, p. 51.